Ari Shavit wants to do nothing less than prompt a fresh discourse on Israel, something free and loving, critical and authentic, a conversation that accepts both the miracle and the true consequences of the Jewish state, one that will bring American Jews closer to the real Israel and Israelis closer to their own lost narrative.
Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” arrives with great expectations — winning the inaugural Natan Book Award before it was even finished. It is a sweeping history framed as personal narrative, reflecting two intertwined journeys: the author’s attempt to understand his own family’s Zionistic evolution, and his country’s tortured politics.
“I tried to bring back what I think we’ve lost,” Shavit told me. “We lost our own narrative. It was lost in the details, the daily drama, the partisan politics. I hope to bring back the bigger picture and put it into the context of an unbelievable story.”
We were talking in the Asiate restaurant, atop the Mandarin Hotel on Columbus Circle — with a stunning view of the the southern edge of Central Park — on one of Shavit’s rare trips to New York before his book’s publication.
Shavit, who will turn 57 later this month, is an urbane man with the mellifluous English of an Abba Eban and the manners of a diplomat. He comes by these things honestly. The narrative of “My Promised Land” opens with the Right Honorable Herbert Bentwich, Shavit’s great-grandfather, leading a group of Zionist pilgrims to Palestine from London in 1897. Bentwich’s children, Shavit’s grandparents, settled in the wine-producing colony of Zichron Ya’acov a century ago, tethering Shavit’s family to the Land of, and eventually the State of, Israel.
So Shavit is pure sabra, with an Anglo inflection. He has risen to the top of the intellectual elite in Israel — a senior correspondent for Haaretz since 1995, a leading commentator on Israeli television, so well known among American journalists that an excerpt of his book was first published in The New Yorker.
But for all his outward sophistication, Shavit appears ill at ease with making a fuss about his own work in the way that’s become expected today. He may look as if he belongs at a hushed table on the 35th floor, but I sense that he’d be just as happy with a coffee in a crowded cafe along Dizengoff.
Shavit is unsparing in his presentation of what he argues is the truth behind Israel’s founding stories. The book is composed chronologically and thematically, with a specific historic event, project or person standing in for a significant turning point. Some chapters will make a Jewish reader swell with pride, like when Shavit relates a stirring history of Rehovot, where he was born, drawing a warm painting of peaceful farmland and fragant orange groves.
But he also offers a deeply disturbing chapter on the “dirty, filthy work” of the expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda in 1948 that is unlike anything taught in Hebrew school. Most damning is the brutal intentionality of it all, the realization that for all the heartache caused by the decimation of a Palestinian village, “if it weren’t for what happened in Lydda, Zionism would be done for.”