Art Shavit Still Believes in a 'Promised Land'

In Ambitious New Book, Author Seeks Fresh Discourse on Israel

Both Sides Now: Ari Shavit is unsparing in his presentation of what he argues is the truth behind Israel’s founding stories.
Sharon Bareket
Both Sides Now: Ari Shavit is unsparing in his presentation of what he argues is the truth behind Israel’s founding stories.

By Jane Eisner

Published November 18, 2013, issue of November 29, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.