The topic of Israel and Palestine is, to say the least, divisive. Look up reviews for Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land and you’ll see that some accuse him of being an apologist for the wrongs done by Israel, and others accuse him of being an apologist of the wrongs done to Israel. To me, that’s a sign he’s pretty even-handed.
I’m no expert, but after reading the book, I think I understand a little more about the issues that make Israel so contentious. Shavit begins with his childhood, with his own military service and his work in the peace movement. He works his way back to the very beginnings of Zionism, and then forward through the history of the nation’s founding, its wars, its conflicts, its troubles.
He explains how the early Zionists argued that the Jewish people, in order to remain a cohesive people, needed to have a nation-state. They couldn’t live with the pogroms of eastern Europe, and they couldn’t remain distinct with the assimilation of western Europe. And after all, it seemed only just and necessary that every nation should have a state and that every state should naturally be ruled by and for the nation that dwelled within it. World War II and the Holocaust made that argument a lot more urgent, and so the British carved out a slice of the middle-east and gave it to Israel.
Of course the story doesn’t end there, any more than the European colonization of North America ends with the first Thanksgiving. There were already people living in the area. First they were neighbors, then rivals, then fighters, then refugees. Shavit doesn’t shy away from covering how Israel’s independence day coincides with the Palestinian day of commemoration of the Nakba, (Catastrophe), and why.
Over the course of the book, Shavit interviews historians, politicians, lawyers, refugees, and soldiers. He talks to settlement founders who have built homes in occupied territories to try to expand Israel. He talks to Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, and goes with them to the ruins of Arab homes razed in war.
A comprehensive study of the region would be endless and unreadable, and this book is necessarily incomplete. So I was inevitably disappointed with some of the omissions. Shavit doesn’t include voices from the occupied territories, and his focus is all too often on people he likes and admires rather than on those with whom he disagrees. He laments that ultra-Orthodox families reject military service and jobs and focus on religious study, but doesn’t interview them. He laments that Arab women remain cloistered and do not participate in the formal economy, but doesn’t interview them. He spends a chapter on the settler’s movement, but that chapter is devoted largely to accusing it of ruining the opportunity for peace rather than trying to understand it.
Still, he does a good job of outlining Israel’s history as a nation-state and the major threats facing it, both external (nukes, terrorism, the rising sanctions movement) and internal (social fragmentation, political disarray, economic stratification, the moral stain of occupation and sanctions).
If there were a clear and simple way forward we’d have found it by now. But if you want to understand the problems of the region – and more people really must if there’s any hope for a future peace – this seems like a pretty good place to start.