I will start by saying that I have not yet bought or read Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Israel”. But it is clearly the book of the year for those interested in Israel, and it is high on my list of to-be-reads. (There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books written about Israel and the Jewish experience each year; it is interesting how one or two of them takes off and attracts the interest of so many. I remember a few years ago when it was Amos Oz’ wonderful memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”. Haven’t read it yet? Read it.)
Last night, I heard Shavit speak in conversation with New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier. While the event was held at Adas Israel, it was sponsored by the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center as part of its 2014 series of programs about Israel entitled “Embracing Democracy”. The program, originally scheduled for the DCJCC (where the largest space seats something under 300) was moved to Adas when it became clear that more seating was necessary. How many people attended? Can’t tell you for sure, but I would guess in the range of 1,000. That is an extraordinary number (especially in 10 degree weather with recently fallen snow on the ground and parking in short supply).
It has been said that “My Promised Land” is a love story about Israel. But not a love story where the author praises everything he sees, but rather one where he is highly critical of much that goes on in the Jewish State, but finds even more that is praiseworthy. The theme, as I understand it, might be said to be that Israelis should not let the problems of the country interfere with the love, but should work to lessen the problems. I am told it is an optimistic book. It is also a book which should inform readers who have already formed their opinions about Israel, whatever it is, because it is a book that shows that the Israeli situation is very complicated, much more complicated than those of us who like to think in terms of black or white, good or mad, would readily admit.
Of course this is dangerous ground. There are those (as we all know) who either believe that Israel can do no wrong (or at least not participate in any major wrongs) or, if they believe that the country can make mistakes, believe that these should never be admitted in public. There are others who look at certain of Israel’s problems, mostly concerning the occupation of the territory captured in the 1967 War or the position of Arabs in the state, and who believe that these issues taint the country beyond redemption; they ignore all the positives, and are certainly not shy about publicizing how they feel.
You know, when you write this sort of a book, that you will be a target – a target of the Israel lovers, and a target of their counterparts, the Israel bashers. I am sure that Shavit is coming in for all sorts of criticism of this nature, although I have not tried to follow the criticism, but what is so interesting is how many people are not criticizing him, but are commending him for his bravery in writing about the country as we have, learning from his descriptions, and perhaps moderating their positions.
As I understood his remarks last night, Shavit (a fourth generation Israeli/Palestinian) believes that there are two miracles (the term not necessarily used in the religious sense) connected with Israel. First, the fact that the Israelis have done so well in so many ways – economically, scientifically, religiously, culturally, artistically, you name it – every way but politically. Second that the Israelis took a dead spoken language, Hebrew, and revived it into the spoken (and literary) language of a nation, thus tying modern Israelis, religious or not, with their ancestors of millenia ago. I assume a third would be that they have accomplished this in such a hostile (and now chaotic) neighborhood.
He also talks about the problems – the occupation of the territories being one, the lack of political leadership being another, the memories of atrocities committed 1948 during the War for Independence being a third. He does not try to excuse any of this, he does not try to whitewash the treatment of some of the Arabs of the land during the fight for independence (as so many do), but he says that you can not let them dominate your feelings for the country. To the extent they refer to existing situations, you move forward to correct things. To the extent they refer to historical events, you accept what has happened, you learn from it, and you move on; you recognize that wars result in casualties, in what you might consider atrocities, and that they have occurred with the birth of every country in the world. Were some Arabs forced out of the land in 1948? Yes but what happened to the Native Americans in the United States? Etc. Etc. You accept the history and you move on.
As he discussed his book, I found myself agreeing with virtually everything he said, but interestingly, in answering audience questions, when he went outside the book, I found myself disagreeing with him. This actually surprised me quite a bit.
For example, although he considers himself a “dove”, he thinks he is a “hawkish dove”, at least on the subject of Iran. He believes that Iran does pose an existential threat to Israel that must be taken seriously, not only by Israel but by the entire West, and he thinks that the West has waiting much too long to get serious, and is very concerned that the existing negotiations will be used by Iran to its advantage; whether there will be military action, he does not predict, but he seems to believe that if Iran achieves nuclear capability, it will set off a chain reaction in other Middle Eastern countries (presumably primarily Saudi Arabia) which will change the volatility of the already dangerous Middle East. He says he has been reporting about the dangers of a nuclear Iran for years.
Similarly, in the position that the Israelis have been taking that one of the conditions of peace with the Palestinians is that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state, he knows that many left leaning parties believe this to be unnecessary. He feels that this is not a small point, and is a position that should be maintained (and that he thinks might be successfully negotiated). I myself don’t understand this. I view this as an internal Israeli question – not something to require specifically of others.
He did not overly criticize the positions of Benjamin Netanyahu, but it is clear that he does not consider him a great leader. In fact, he says that Israel, with so many intelligent people so expert in so many fields, has no great political leaders. He says that it is not only a question of who the prime minister is. It is a question of political leadership generally – Shavit thinks that of the seven ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet, for example, only 2 (not identified) are remotely qualified to occupy their position. He thinks that in 1948, when Israel’s population was one tenth what it is today, there were more capable political leaders than there are now. It was not all Ben Gurion, he says – Ben Gurion had 1000 people he could rely on who were competent.
I can’t say much more until I read the book. That will probably be pretty soon.