My Promised Land

by Norman Fischer | March 14, 2014 at 5:01 PM

Blog post March 4, 2014

Read Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, the book about Israel that has been all over the American press in recent months. It’s the first book I know of in English - and widely available here (outside of Benny Green’s early historical works) - that is brutally honest about Israeli history. Unlike Green’s works, this book is passionate and personal. In addition to detailing the various draconian acts the Israeli government has perpetrated since the days (post-1967) when it become clear that Israel was the powerhouse, not the underdog, of the Middle East, Shavit also discusses the various sketchy acts that took place at the time of the founding of the state in 1948. The New Yorker ran a piece about the forced evacuation of the Arab town of Lydda in 1948; and it appears that David Remnick, New Yorker editor, is a friend of Shavit’s and urged him to write the book.

I was a boy when the state of Israel was new, and to me, as to virtually all other American Jews, the founding of the Jewish state was an heroic and thrilling act — a phoenix rising miraculously out of the ashes not only of the Holocaust but of the preceding 2,000 years of Christian and Muslim oppression of Jews. We Disapora Jews were proud to sing Hatikvah while saluting the Israeli flag in our synagogues. The youngest among us saw ourselves as different sorts of Jews, strong and brave and capable of great things, like Sabras — unlike the downtrodden European Jews (our grandparents and parents), who worried a lot, were doggedly observant, and scared.

But hindsight and an honest reading of history shows — as Shavit does —  that the myth was false, that the land was not empty and waiting for the homecoming of the Jews, that it was full of Palestinians who were rudely and often brutally displaced. In other words, there were sins from the start. Whether such sins were, under the circumstances and on balance, justified, and whether Israeli conduct  was more just and humane than that of others in similar circumstances, is beside the point. Unjust and terrible things took place.

Critical as he is, Shavit is a loyal and loving Israeli so he is doing more in this book than indicting his country. In fact Israel is a miracle and a blessing. And it may be that it is and was a necessary miracle for the Jews. Some of the most inspiring parts of My Promised Land offer stories of  early radical socialistic settlements. Heroic zealots working against all odds with superhuman effort to establish utopian communes because they felt there were no other options for survival. Many of these early communities of the 1920’s and 30’s lived side by side with Arab villages, more or less harmoniously. But growing Arab dis-ease with the increasing Jewish population — and then  World War II and the Holocaust — changed that.

Toward the end of the book Shavit details seven intractable problems Israel faces. These include  existential threats from the Islamic and Arab worlds as well as equally harrowing if less directly violent threats from minorities within (like Israeli Palestinians, whose rights, Shavit honestly admits, are far from equal to their Jewish fellow citizens — and Oriental and other ultra-Orthodox Jews, settlers, and so on). All this is well known. But it’s still worse, he argues. The secular Jewish elites that founded the state (and that Shavit assumes are its heart and soul) and have carried it up until the present moment are not only and inevitably becoming a minority of Israel’s population — they are also losing their sense of identity and their moral center. Occupation, pluralism, and wealth are weakening the mission and the vision. Reading this section of the book is grim if you are, like me, a Jew who is concerned for and emotionally attached to Israel. The situation seems as hopeless as I had feared.  

Astonishingly, Shavit’s book ends on an upbeat, almost mystical, note. Israel is somehow - despite everything - poised to leap forward into the promise still to come — and this will surely come to pass.  Shavit doesn’t present any reason for this view other than his belief that too much suffering and tragedy and heartache has gone on for too long for there not to be — by virtue of the energy and goodness of the Jewish people— some way out of this. Somehow, he makes this seem believable — at least it was to me. So I was actually encouraged when I put the book down.

But here is what I want to get to: for Shavit, Israel — and Judaism itself — is all about people like him, secular modern liberal Jews. For him secular modern Jewish culture is essential Judaism. This is why we need Israel, he says. Because the Diaspora is doomed — the very freedom that Jews had always dreamed of in the Diaspora has finally come and it is leading, inevitably, to the disappearance of the Jews through assimilation. He cites many statistics to this effect. Without Israel at the center of a secular Jewish culture there will be no more Jewish culture. There be no more Judaism, as he understands Judaism.

Maybe so. But there’s another possibility that doesn’t appear anywhere in his pages — the possibility that Judaism as a culture (and yes — something Shavit seems not to appreciate — as  a religion that is not essentially conservative, that is worthwhile and not incompatible with modernity) can survive and flourish in the Diaspora. It may be a little blind and self serving of Shavit, like most Israelis, not to see creative possibilities for Judaism anywhere other than in Israel.

But I see in the Jewish worlds that I inhabit, another possibility. Jews are intermarrying at a tremendous rate, yes, but that isn’t necessarily a death-knell for Judaism. Many of the intermarriages that I know (including my own) include a big space for Jewish identity and Jewish religious practice. New forms and a new spirit for Jewish religious practice, to be sure, (like Jewish meditation), but still and unmistakably Jewish — and Jewish in a way that is inclusive, not exclusive.

And this is the point and the root problem — Judaism has been of necessity exclusive. In Israel that exclusivity runs counter to the whole idea of a contemporary pluralistic state. For Shavit the end of exclusivity is the end of Judaism. But this may not be the case.

Yes, an inclusive Judaism wouldn’t be the same Judaism as the Judaism we’ve known. Shavit is right — there is a loss involved. But every loss can also be a gain. An inclusive Judaism may unlock many beauties of our tradition heretofore unseen. Besides, what is the alternative? Being embattled forever, inside and out, is unsustainable. 


Norman Fischer