Thursday, May 22, 2014


by Alan Edelstein

"Have you seen it?"  "It's unbelievable!"  "Startling!" "I've never seen  stuff like this."   "You have got to get it!"

This is about all I heard a few months ago from many of my American Jewish friends who are interested in Israel and the Middle East.   One exclamation reflecting astonishment after another, backed up by a unified choir of praise and wonder from pundits and reviewers.

One would have thought that someone discovered that Moses had a sixth book, or perhaps that Sports Illustrated had put out a gold-emblazoned 50-year compilation of the best of the issue everyone anticipates but no one reads.

The only hint that they were talking about something that was not wonderful and miraculous was that the exclamations often also included comments such as "We were terrible."  "How could we have done this?"  "I'm ashamed."

It turns out many of my friends and acquaintances, along with the professional reviewer and pundit classes, were hyperventilating about the recently published My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit, the left-leaning columnist for Haaretz, Israel's well-known left-leaning daily newspaper.

What got them so excited when there have been so many other books about Israel and the region?

All my friends and acquaintances mentioned to me was Shavit's characterizations of how we Zionists wiped out Arab villages, took their lands, and made the Palestinians into the downtrodden, victimized refugees they allegedly are today.

Several of the excited ones specifically mentioned Chapter Five, in which Shavit recounts his version of how and why the Zionists allegedly designed and implemented a plan to throw all Arabs out of the city of Lydda.  It probably didn't hurt that an edited version of Chapter Five was published in the The New Yorker, which is edited by Shavit's good friend, David Remnick.

That, of course, got the chattering classes chattering to the uber-degree, and the book seemed to be touted just about everywhere.  A slam on the Zionists?  Home run.  In The New Yorker?  Grand slam!

Of course I was interested, but I wasn't excited enough to jump over several other books in my book cue.  After all, allegations of Zionist transgressions are not exactly new to us Zionists.

I did finally get to reading My Promised Land in May.  It is an interesting read, often disturbing and challenging, and occasionally uplifting.  It covers a whole lot more of Israel's past and present than 1948 and Lydda.  If it does have one major theme, however, it is that the Zionists committed a terrible sin in 1948, although perhaps one borne of necessity, and that we must acknowledge it and somehow repent.

As one who has read a good many books about Israel, Zionism, and the Middle East, I did not get all that angry or upset about the book.  Nor did I feel that it was the received word, as many American reviewers and many of my American Jewish friends and acquaintances apparently did.

The book is a bit disjointed.  It reads like someone cobbled together from his drawer a bunch of notes taken at different times for possible projects that either were not completed or that were completed without need of all of the material.  Shavit pretty much confirms that to be the case in both the body of the book and in the Source Notes.

The book is often contradictory, sometimes predictable, overly dramatic, sometimes melodramatic, and misleadingly sweeping in some of its conclusions and images.  For example, according to Shavit, Ben-Gurion created a stultifying, rigid, almost oppressive regime that denied individualism in order to build a state and absorb millions of immigrants.  But now Israel is a chaotic, me-first country of individuals with no unifying purpose, no sense of country, and we long for the wonderful unifying, purposeful years of Ben-Gurion.

Shavit has so many Israeli youth spending so much time doing ecstasy in Tel Aviv nightclubs it is hard to imagine how they've managed to invent so many hi-tech devices, fought a couple of wars, and traipsed around the world so often that there are Hebrew-speaking guides in Columbia and hummus in Bangkok.

According to Shavit, we flat-out did not see that Arabs were living in our Promised Land.  Yet, we were determined to push the Arabs that we did not recognize out of our Promised Land.

One of the more irritating things Shavit does is treat Zionism as something with human characteristics.  Zionism did this.  Zionism thought that.  Zionism had to react this way or that way.  It is as irritating as when analysts treat Wall Street as a person.  Wall Street was fearful. Wall Street was angry.

Reading this felt like that grade-school assignment where you had to give an inanimate object human characteristics and write from its point of view.  Mine was in third or fourth grade.  I did a golf ball.  It was fun. No one touted it other than my mother, a very loving mother. Faulkner was the last guy who ever did something like that well.

I read the first 185 pages or so quite calmly.  I disagreed with many of the characterizations of Zionism's alleged transgressions.  Others have differed with many of his facts.  But, having read many accounts of the history of the region, I took Shavit's version as as just one of many to be considered.

But then I read what has to be one of the most ridiculous statements writtenabout the Middle East, and that is a high threshold indeed.  In Chapter Seven, entitled "The Project," about Israel's nuclear bomb project in Dimona, Shavit writes on page 189:

"My second thought is about the Arab villages the engineer destroyed in 1948.  Even if he does not say so, it is clear that a straight line leads from those villages to Dimona.  The expulsion of 1948 necessitated Dimona.  Because of those dead villages it was clear that the Palestinians would always pursue us, that they would always want to flatten our own villages.  And so it was necessary to create a shield between us and them, and the engineer took it upon himself to build that shield.  We would not allow the Palestinian tragedy to jeopardize the monumental enterprise designed to end our own tragedy."

This characterization is, to be polite, novel. To be frank, it is absurd.

I know of no other journalist or historian who thinks the project was done to shield Israel from pursuing Palestinians.  Every version up until now lays Israel's nuclear ambitions on its leaders' thinking that it needed protection against the threat of the Soviet Union and other Arab nations, primarily Egypt and Iraq.

As mentioned above and as debated incessantly, there are many different versions of what happened in 1948, and many credible versions dispute Shavit's.  I will not here enter into that debate.  What makes the paragraph ludicrous is this:

Shavit spends a good part of the book up this point saying that the Zionists did not recognize that there were Arabs there.  But now we recognize their existence so much that we feel the need to build a nuclear bomb to defend ourselves against people who we failed to note?

One thing is clear:  We certainly did not recognize them as a distinct people called Palestinians.  We thought that we were the Palestinians.  The Arab world, including many of the Arabs living in what became Israel, thought of them as Arabs living in what was a part of southern Syria.

Yet, Shavit writes that we developed the bomb because we knew that "the Palestinians would always pursue us, that they would always want to flatten our own villages."  If we knew that they would "always purse us," that there was no hope, why did we pursue peace?  Why did we debate returning the captured territories after 1967?  Why did we offer land for peace in 2000?  In 2009?  Why bother to cut a deal if we know that they will "always pursue us" regardless of what we might offer?

Shavit writes that "the engineer took it upon himself to build that shield" against the pursuing Palestinians.  Most others, including Shavit elsewhere in the book, credit Shimon Peres with taking it upon himself, at Ben-Gurion's direction, with initiating the Dimona project.

While this is probably the most extreme illustration, Shavit makes other sweeping, questionable, often absurd assertions without context.  Perhaps this is a result of the book being largely a compilation of old notes and used and half-written magazine articles.  Perhaps it is a result of years of  a non-historian writing a column under immense deadline pressure.

As mentioned above, the book covers a lot of ground other than 1948 and Lydda.  Yet, 1948 and Lydda were the only subjects mentioned by those American Jews who expressed such intense interest in the book, and by most American commentators.  They almost seemed giddy with the thought of having more focus on our alleged transgressions, as if this is not ground already well-covered.  It was like a guilt-fest.

Interestingly, though seemingly consumed with Israel's terrible sins, not one American Jew and no commentator I know of even mentioned Shavit's verdicts on the fate of two other large Jewish populations, including their own.  On pages 385 and 386, Shavit  declares British Jewry  dead, and he credibly forecasts the death of American Jewry within the next 50 years.  He gives numbers and cites solid trends.

He concludes:  "Both in my secular English-Jewish family and in my secular American-Jewish family one can see the end of the line.  One can imagine the last of the Jews."

American Jews exclusively focus on, almost revel in, Shavit's highly-disputed version of the Israel's alleged terrible 66 year-old crimes.  But the death of their own community warrants not one peep.  Hyperbole and hyperventilation over Zionism's terrible deeds.  Nothing over the fact their grandchildren will not be Jewish.  Strange indeed.

While that reaction is strange, it has been somewhat amusing to watch the reactions by to some of Shavit's post-publication comments by some American Jews who had fallen in love with someone they thought was with them in their view that Israel is totally at fault for the failure of the peace talks and that the Palestinians should be held to low expectations, if any.

In some public appearances Shavit basically said, yes, Israel did these terrible things, but it is long past time that the Palestinians got over it in the same way other people have and move on. This, of course, did not sit well with many who apparently believe in Israel's eternal failures and seemingly enjoy wallowing in Jewish guilt.

Shavit appeared on Bloomberg's Charlie Rose Show with Rose, David Remnick, and Jeffrey Goldberg.  When he expressed sentiments along these lines, the fidgeting could have produced enough friction to cause sparks.

After Shavit, appearing at an AIPAC lunch in Sacramento, expressed something other than the conventional views that some who had heralded his book expected from him, one Israeli who has lived in America for many years and who cannot find much of anything good to say about Israel, wrote that he had been "cornered" into saying things he surely could not believe.

Just when all of the self-proclaimed "pro-peace" campers were taking Secretary Kerry's cue and devaluing the importance of President Abbas and the Palestinians recognizing Israel as the Jewish State, Shavit wrote a column saying that such recognition is essential to a lasting and meaningful peace.

This, of course, did not go over well with the campers who thought he was one of them come hell or high water, and notwithstanding fact or logic.  Shavit's own publisher took him on and the two engaged in an entertaining and provocative exchange of opinion pieces in Haaretz.

Shavit further aggravated and perplexed many of his newly-found fans when he wrote a column relating Abbas' decades-long history in negotiations and declaring that he would never make a peace deal with Israel.

For those who had fallen in love with Chapter Five on Lydda and Shavit as Mr. Our Guy, this had to be the final blow.  They had to be thinking, "Who is with this guy?  He was supposed to be one of ours."  Nothing sadder than unrequited love.

Shavit has expressed surprise and disappointment that almost the entirety of the discussion about his book has been on Lydda and Israel's alleged treatment of the Palestinians in 1948, and that much of what he writes about has not been put into the context of the time and circumstances.

One can only say that the man is either incredibly naïve or unbelievably cynical and insincere.  No one with any experience in and insight into the debates surrounding Israel in the Western world would have expected anything different.

To Shavit's credit, he is trying to think creatively and to come up with new ideas for finding peace with the Palestinians.  He is scornful of the old "peace camp" that continues to stick with ideas that have not worked and that have lost the faith of much of the Israeli public, a public that is skeptical but that is willing to compromise for true peace.

In a recent column Shavit declared that the "old peace" as embodied in an agreement resolving all major issues is impossible at this time.  He proposes a "new peace" of gradual steps which, given the situation, puts most of the burden and the risks on Israel.

Shavit's proposal ignores the fact that the P.A. previously rejected anything but a final status deal. Still, given the stalemate and apparent hopelessness of the current approach, Shavit's effort to find a path to reconciliation and peace should be applauded.

In considering his book and his subsequent comments and columns, one concludes that Shavit is a smart, creative, guilt-ridden, conflicted, frustrated historian.  It makes for an interesting person and an interesting book.

It doesn't make for a book or a person whose rendition of history should be taken as gospel, or for a book that should be welcomed as if it was Moses' sixth volume or the 50th anniversary edition of the cherished annual Sports Illustrated issue.

 (Originally published in The Times of Israel)


  1. Thank you, Alan, for the enlightening review of Shavit's book. I have been reading Shavit for many years and I consider him to be one of the more capable analysts and columnists around. Having said that, I must admit that I admire his writing for his sharp analysis and effective style more than for his knowledge and academic expertise. Obviously he is a very talented journalist but not necessarily a significant source as a historian.
    Ari Shavit also disappoints me; especially when he bothers - in order to please the publisher of "Haaretz"? – to lay on Israel a greater load of responsibility for failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians than Israel deserves. These implantations sometimes seem artificial and in conflict with the gist of the column. If so, I believe this reveals a flow in his ethics and integrity.
    In general, it seems that Shavit is joining a host of exporters of political, informational and ideological ammunition against Israel. As the "warfare of ideas" expends the demand for this kind of ammunition is growing. If "selling" it to Israel offenders seems to serve entities such as "Haaretz" and figures such as Amos Oz, Shimon Peres and others – Ari Shavit may construe – it shouldn't hurt Shavit either.

  2. I was disgusted with AIPAC for embracing this toad -- and making him its keynote speaker.

  3. Both my wife and I read the book, and we attended a talk by Shavit at our synagogue with Leon Wieseltier (who was more interested in speaking about himself than Shavit or the book!)

    In short, although I only saw the movie, I felt like the girl in the excorcist: my head took numerous 360’s while reading Shavit’s book! In one chapter, Israel/Zionism was the saviour of the Jewish people and to be cherished; then we butchered, then we were inventive, then we oppressed, then we had some fun, then we oppressed (at least ignored) some more, but then, at last, it’s the only place the Jewish people can survive, and Diaspora Jewry is headed toward the sands of history.

    My head is still spinning.


  4. Actually liked your column more than Shavit's book

  5. It's good that you pointed out his contradictions. However, when I attended Hebrew School from 1958-62, one of my teachers was a former fighter whose version of events closely matches that of Shavit on at least some villages that were forcibly seized with no thought of returning them later. He had been told that after the war there would be reparations. Ha. Of course, some villages elsewhere went vacant because Arab leaders urged them to get out. But that's a different story.

  6. Could not agree more with Alan's take on this book. I, too, was disappointed with the author's failure to reveal how much of the responsibility for today's ongoing crisis lies with the Palestinians. He pays so little attention to the failure of the Arab states to accept the UN deal; he fails to go into much needed detail about their responsibility for the wars that have broken out between Israel and its "neighbors." And while sympathizing with the Palestinians who were forced from their homes -- and/or fled because they were promised the property of the Jews when the Arab states swept the Jews into the sea -- he fails to accord virtually any attention to the fact that so many Jews living in Egypt and elsewhere were forced to leave their homes with "no gold, silver or any other valuables" much as they were expelled from Spain in 1492. He presents too much of a one-sided story that is very sad because he is a talented writer.