Ari Shavit

My Promised Land

The only problem with My Promised Land is that you will have to wait a long time before you read another book that is as passionately incisive about the good, the bad and the ugly behind the state of Israel, past and present.

What makes this 400 page plus experience intriguing is the manner in which Ari Shavit sets about his task: he begins at the beginning, the visit of European Zionists – including the author’s grandfather – to Palestine at the close of the nineteenth century, and concludes with an extremely lucid and honest depiction of different phases of the making of contemporary Israel.

Shavit thinks like a journalist and writes like one, so this is no historian’s monotonous account of the evolution of a people from the ashes of the Holocaust, and in the process he demolishes many myths.

I hadn’t fully appreciated that the new state of Israel evolved from in or around 1935, a few years before the Nazi death factories began their slaughter.

Shavit is quite brilliant at unravelling the many strands that make up Israel, and several chapters come to mind for his elucidation of a complex genesis.

The story of the burgeoning nationhood in the chapters Orange Grove 1936 and Masada 1942 are steps toward the painful absorption of the tragedy of Lydda, when Israeli excesses resulted in a ruthless slaughter of Arabs of all sexes and all ages.

Shavit doesn’t pull his punches in his depiction of what mounts to an Israeli version of Lebensraum, which I take to mean acquiring land at the expense of the local polulace. He recalls the Israeli army summoning eight prisoners to dig a mass grave for Arabs massacred in a mosque in Lydda, and then shooting them.

The dichotomy of Israel’s bloody birth is addressed by Shavit in a manner which I think does him a disservice: he stands by the forced exodus of the population of Lydda because ‘if it wasn’t for them (the army), I would not have been born.’ Which is to say I should be grateful to Michael Collins for shooting policemen dead in their beds, because without it Ireland wouldn’t be what it is now, which is nonsense. As Shavit emphasises in other chapters, there is always an alternative to evil. It is also interesting that Shavit very precisely depicts the ethnic clensing at Lydda, without once referring to it as such.

The author grapples with the complexity of Israel, the legacy of uncomfortable truths like Lydda and the early settlements in the occupied territories, with honesty and intelligence. If his conclusions, occasionally, leave me cold, his journalism doesn’t.

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