Ari Shavit’s Promised Land and Ours

Rabbi George's Reflections, The Scroll, March 2014

Pesach will soon be upon us. It celebrates the beginning of our journey to the Promised Land. Now comes Ari Shavit who brilliantly portrays his family’s and countrymen’s journeys to My Promised Land and their triumphs and tragedies there.  We American Jews need a book to teach us about Israel, and we sense it.  Shavit’s  public conversation with the New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, about the book filled Adas Israel Congregation’s sanctuary on January 21st — and many were turned away.  Only on Yom Kippur do so many Jews gather there.

My Promised Land is a brilliantly written personal description —an “epic” one jacket entry calls it— of selected key moments and events in modern Israel’s past and part of its present. His book tells tales told partly through the words of participants and witnesses, including Shavit, who vividly describes his actions and observations in a Gaza prison during the First Intifada, where captured stone throwers were cruelly interrogated to enable the IDF to put an end to the violence. The book is written in English, of which Shavit has a stunning command (perhaps because his grandparents were English), and not translated from Hebrew, as many important books by Israelis are. The book is immensely readable and, like a novel, it draws the reader directly into the author’s world, in this case the perplexing world that is Israel.

 Shavit has selected events that if reported here we understood dimly and has surrounded them with context provided by Shavit’s interviews of those involved or imagined reconstructions of their thinking, by facts not previously known even to informed readers, and by Shavit’s  opinions and forebodings. His sympathetic and extended portrayal of the founding of Shas and the life of its corruption-tarred and frequently inflammatory leader, Aryeh Deri, and of the Sephardi immigrants and their political and cultural revolt against the established Ashkenazi leaders in politics, academia, the army, and Israeli culture is a case in point.  Shavit doesn’t give us the substance of Deri’s crimes or explain what role the revolt still plays in Israeli political life. He does more, for example, with his chapter on “the scene” created by young Israelis, a chapter titillatingly titled   “Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition…” since he sees it as a reaction to the impossible situation youth face. Shavit excels at painting word portraits of the social contexts of Israeli life—including the life of Israeli Arabs to whose voices Shavit gives a sympathetic and worrisome ear.  He applies that same skill to his exploration of the origins and ideologies of the settler movement, with which he disagrees because he rightly sees it as a barrier to a two-state resolution of the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, but that’s hardly news.

My Promised Land has caused a sensation.  It discloses one of the world’s worst- kept secrets.  Shavit admits, indeed he describes Israel’s decision to build a nuclear arsenal in 1966. Only a naïf would imagine that Israel does not need one. Shavit points out what talk show hosts and callers never seem to get around to saying:  Unlike Iran—and not incidentally Pakistan and India—Israel has never bragged about, let alone threatened to use, those weapons.  No one knows whether, if Arab states were to mount a fourth war to “drive the Jews into the sea” and seemed to be winning, Israel would pull the nuclear trigger.  Israel’s leaders hope that fear of Israel’s “nuclear option” might act as a deterrent to another war.  Shavit declares that once Israelis decided to destroy Arab villages during the 1948 War (presumably for political reasons he does not call it the War for Independence), the Dimona reactor became inevitable.  

But the greatest sensation the book has caused was the The New Yorker’s pre-publication of Shavit’s chapter on the 1948 expulsion of the inhabitants of Lydda during the War for Independence.  Shavit attributes the decision to take control of itto Ben Gurion but does not explain its basis. Lydda was a critical strategic road and rail junction. It had to be kept out of hostile hands so the Haganah and other Jews could move about.  Before the War its inhabitants had cordial and mutually beneficial relations with a succession of nearby Jewish communities, some founded expressly to promote amicable relations between Jews and Arabs. Reliable sources tell us that the Jewish fighters and the Lydda elders had  agreed that Lydda would stay out of the war and not be disturbed. 

Shavit attributes the fight that broke out nonetheless to Ben Gurion’s orders to seize the town, but others maintain that the Lyddans broke the agreement when the Jordanian army appeared to be close by and Lyddan youths started firing and killed a number of the Jewish fighters and mutilated them. In response, the Haganah stormed the village, which required house-to-house fighting,  200 Lyddans (many of them civilians) were killed during the fighting, and some Lyddan shooters were captured before resistance ceased. Shavit calls this a massacre; perhaps “tragedy” would have been  better.

The Haganah commander “negotiated” with the Village elders for a day. In the minds of both sides lay knowledge of what victorious Arabs were doing to Jews they captured (including to the inhabitants of twenty-five captured moshavim): kill everyone: men, women, and children. So the hapless Lyddans were persuaded to leave for the “east” on foot.  

Shavit omitted the Arab massacres from his book and does not describe the military situation. Rather, his position is that once Jews came to the area, the Lydda’s destruction became inevitable.  Viewing the tragedy from an even broader lens, Shavit has pointed out in interviews that literally millions had been made refugees  before, during, and immediately after World War II, including the Germans in what had been East Prussia and in Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia where they had lived for many generations, and in 1947 when two and a half million Moslems were driven out of India to Pakistan when the dispute between the Hindus and Moslems was resolved in 1947 by a massive population exchange. More to the point, though both sides agreed upon an armistice in 1949, the Jews rightly saw the War for Independence (Shavit calls it the 1948 War) as a struggle for survival. It was cruel.

As the book winds its way to the end (there is no “conclusion”), Shavit brilliantly enumerates the profound problems Israel now faces. He decries the lack of a shared national vision among the Jews in the Land. He is sickened by the incompetence of its government and the corruption that is rife among political leaders and high officials in its civil service. He is distressed by the grudges that groups of Israeli society bear toward one another: Sephardim vs. Ashkenazim; non-rich against the rich; orthodox vs. secular; settlers vs. peaceniks.  Incompetent governments find responding to serious threats and complex problems excruciatingly difficult.  Together these make for a nearly unpalatable stew.

Paradoxically, Shavit loves Israel. He speaks for many of us when he shares his admiration for the extraordinary realism, energy, creativity, and kindness (beneath the oft-noted crusty exterior) of its people.  He treasures the idealism of some of Israel’s early pioneers. He loves the land, as do all of us who have had the good fortune to see and respond to its amazing beauty and magnificence—now gradually being swallowed up by feverish urban and suburban development fed by a combination of need and greed. [1]  Because he is a lover of Israel, Shavit’s recognizes both the urgent need to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians and the grave risks that ending the occupation will entail given the Palestinian and Muslim hatred of Israel.

That’s why I think this book is so important. It describes Israel but does not hide its warts.  Indeed, if anything, Shavit may go too far.  Through allusion and “foreshadowing” he persuades the reader that the violent clash between Zionism and the Arabs living in the Land was inevitable, despite the noble Jewish idealists who sought to establish ties between the two peoples and to share the prosperity the energetic Westerners brought.  No one can rewrite history or argue with the facts that emerged, but I kept asking myself whether had there been no Arafat, no Haj Amin Al Husseini, no Jabotinsky, no Arab invasion and no mandatory policy of keeping the Jewish-Arab pot boiling, and no refusal of the surrounding states and the UN to resettle the refugees and to subsidize them and their descendants indefinitely, perhaps history might have written a different story. 

I said at the outset that we American Jews need Shavit’s book.  Like most of you who read this Reflection, and like Rabbi David Schuck, who spoke on Yom Kippur Day at our son Jeremy’s Conservative synagogue in Pelham, N.Y., I am profoundly troubled by the Israel divide within American Jewry.[2] That divide is so deep that when we seek to discuss Israel some of us become furiously angry and viciously attack one another. It’s all too easy to preach “civility,” but Rabbi Schuck says that civility requires that we recognize the two conflicting voices within us. One, which he called the Passover voice, comes from the commandment to “remember that you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” meaning don’t be brutal. [3]    The other, “the Purim voice,” commands us to remember “the tribe of Amalek which attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert. The message of that commandment is “don’t be naïve.”  We must recognize that both of these voices are authentically Jewish and to embody one without the other would be “a distortion of Jewish history and values.”

The Palestinian/Arab threat is real and anxiety-provoking.  And so is the mortal threat to our values that the occupation and the failure to accord Palestinian Israelis full and equal rights represent. As we talk to one another about Israel, we American Jews ought remember the famous dictum (BT Eruvin 13b) attributed to a bat kol (a heavenly voice) that came down after a three-year controversy between the disciples of Hillel and Shammai.  “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim—these and these are the words of the living God” the bat kol announced.   I think reading My Promised Land should help us heed that teaching because not only is that Shavit’s conviction, but the experiences he relates provide some of the facts we must have to speak realistically and morally to one another about Israel—and to deal with our impatience when its government and its people do not follow the paths we think are so clear. Israel’s history, the cultures and beliefs of the populations that comprise it, and above all, the perils it faces are not ours. We ought, therefore, deal with our conflicts over it with humility.  Speaking for myself, I share Shavit’s love of Israel, warts and all.  I am not an Israeli, but I too, am of[4] the stock of Abraham—as are the Palestinians.

Hag Purim v’ Hag Sameach Pesach.








[1] Although seldom noted, I think a hunger for the beauty and magnificence of the Land partly explains the attraction of areas beyond the green line for some settlers.


[2]  Many commentators call our division left vs. right.  These labels, coined during the French Revolution, seem to me ill-suited to this situation.


[3]  Rabbi Schuck attributed a portion of his drash to Yossi Klein Ha Levi, “Pesach Jews vs. Purim Jews: The Agony of Our Dilemma,”


[4] See Isaiah 11:1