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In Israel, Shavit is critical of both the left and the right. It’s a nuanced approach that may not translate well for that segment of the American audience that prefers to view Israel as either heroic miracle or oppressive colonizer. But I appreciated the challenge, even if it made me uncomfortable at times. I found that the dialectic he introduces in the beginning of “My Promised Land,” and in references throughout is an insightful way of understanding the pitfalls of viewing Israel from only one perspective.
“For as long as I remember,” he writes, “I remember fear. Existential fear.” Wars, terrorism, vicious threats from countries in Israel’s tough neighborhood. But he also writes, “For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation.” His experience in the Israel Defense Forces shaped his politics, turning him into a self-described and active peacenik.
Finally came the synthesis. “Only a few years ago did it suddenly dawn on me that my existential fear regarding my nation’s future and my moral outrage regarding my nation’s occupation are not unconnected…. Intimidation and occupation have become the two pillars of our condition.”
Both ends of the political spectrum ignore or downplay this duality. “We have to see both the miracle and the tragedy,” he told me as we picked at our plates and he sipped a glass of white wine. “My plea to the left is to look at the human story, which is remarkable, with all the sins and problems. To the other side, I say: ‘You love Israel in such a dogmatic, fanatical way that you can’t really love it. You’re making something artificial.’”
Shavit wants the reader to accompany him on his journey as he sorts through these two opposing forces. He writes in the present tense, even when relating history a century old. This can feel forced, jarring, especially as he moves back and forth in time. But I sense that he wants the reader to feel events unfolding firsthand, closely and immediately. And sometimes — thanks to the vividness of his writing — we do.
The story begins when Herbert Bentwich embarks on his unlikely pilgrimage. It continues through the heroic founding of kibbutz Ein Harod, on to Rehovot and Lydda, then goes to the building of the nuclear reactor at Dimona, the birth of the settlements, the promise of peace, the swelling political power of Aryeh Deri and the rise of what Shavit calls “Oriental Jews,” and finally reaches the present.
This is where his analysis becomes deeply troubling. Shavit begins discussing the past decade or so by asking, “What went wrong?” As futile and malevolent as the occupation is, he writes, “it is not the source of all evil.”
Instead, he sees the disintegration of the Israeli republic, brought upon by the utter failure of political and civic leadership and by the unwillingness or the inability of the nation’s elite to display the single-minded drive and discipline, the self-sacrifice and communitarian spirit, that characterized Israel in her first 50 years.
“We are not really sure who we are,” he writes at one point.
The same could be said of American Jewry, which is going through its own anxious introspection at the moment, and Shavit says there is a “total analogy” between the two narratives. The first half of the 20th century was “the worst ever” for the Jewish people; the second half — punctuated by Israeli sovereignty and the blossoming of the American Diaspora — was a time of extraordinary success. “Parallel miracles,” Shavit calls them.
“And now both are challenged in a serious way,” he said as the coffee arrived. “I would not persuade one American Jew to make aliyah. We in Israel need a strong American Jewish community. Israel’s success is about state building. The amazing success of American Jewry is about community building. American Jewry depends on our existence, and vice versa.”
Jane Eisner is the editor-in-chief of the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @Jane_Eisner