Monday, 3 March 2014

An unparalleled view of a darkly divided Israel in My Promised Land

From The Week of February 24, 2014

As much as we are individuals, endowed with our own wills, our own freedoms and our own futures, our lives are profoundly shaped by our ancestors and the lands into which they delivered us. We may rebel against them as a means of establishing our own identities, but the traditions, the habits, the pursuits that they considered important bed down in us until, eventually, we recognize their value and incorporate them into our own worldview. For the fortunate, these inherited values are confined to trivialities like what sporting teams we favor and what kind of manners we hold dear, but for those cultures who have suffered grievously at the hands of others, these values are fundamental to who they are, a series of unbroken vows made to those who died so that others may live. Rarely has this life-defining notion been so exquisitely captured than in Ari Shavit's sociopolitical history of Israel.

A meager strip of coastal and desert land hugging the Mediterranean sea, Israel has been for 60 years, a beacon of democracy and innovation in the Middle East. A fraction of the size of most of its neighboring nations, with whom it is on uneasy terms, it has, since its creation in 1948, consistently and stubbornly fended off annexation, defeating militaristic threats to its sovereignty with superior technology and tactics. Throughout, it has provided a proud and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people who, after the fall of Judea to the Romans in the 1st century, had been forced to nomadically roam through Asia and Europe, spending 1,900 years persisting in lands peopled by those who welcomed them and abhorred them. This disenfranchised journey came to an end in the Second World War when the Nazis' genocidal hatred made it clear that the Jewish people would never be safe living under foreign suns.

However, as much as Israel is an astonishing success, as much as its economic and industrial revolutions have shaped it into a land to be envied and a power to be feared, this triumph has come at a terrible cost to the Palestinian people who occupied this land prior to 1948. Muted and marginalized, their lands stolen and their region transformed, the Palestinians have been forced to watch while their homeland has been developed into a paean to the West: its institutions, its culture and its excesses. This transformation has fuelled resentments, grudges that have hardened with time and ill deeds, into malignancy that eats away at the heart of the Israeli miracle, burdening this new nation with the curse of its problematic founding.

A remarkable, first-hand journey through the 60 years of Israeli history, My Promised Land is a frank, confrontational and profoundly personal accounting of life in the world's first Jewish country in nearly 2,000 years. Mr. Shavit, a journalist for one of Israel's most prominent newspapers, collects the family histories of several of Israel's key luminaries, including that of his own father, and uses them to characterize the political and cultural forces that shape Israeli existence. In this, his work calls to mind George Packer's The Unwinding, an outstanding work of non-fiction with which My Promised Land is more than capable of keeping up. For it is an aggressive, unflinching and honest examination of the actions and the trends that have brought Israel to its present-day crisis with the Arab world.

Of its many virtues, My Promised Land provides the reader with a profound understanding of Zionism, that potent skein of Jewish belief that both founded their nation and seeded its future troubles. The author personalizes the crimes against the Jewish people, elevating them from textbook abstractions into living and breathing atrocities for which there had to be some kind of permanent solution. That became Israel, a land come refuge from tyranny and genocide, a land raised up by Jewish ingenuity and determination into modernity. Here, the indefatigable Jewish spirit is represented with such potence, as the reader watches deserts turned into orange groves, turned into industry, turned into commercial and residential developments, that one is left aglow with a wealth of respect and amazement for these dogged people who, armed with nothing, made a paradise out of sand.

Mr. Shavit could have left it at admiration. He could have penned his paean to Israel's founders and left well enough alone. Instead, in his harsh criticisms of Israel's handling of the displaced Palestinians, he exposes an intellectual honesty that lends his work moral heft. It is not an easy matter to lionize and criticize the same people, but the author manages this with a mixture of fire and class that captures the spirit of heated debate without descending into cynicism and ideology. This caustic fire he reserves for the subsequent generations which he clearly feels have betrayed the spirit of the Founders by squandering their gifts, their efforts, their sacrifices, in a land of hedonistic play and political backbiting. In this, he sounds like all social and political commentators of a certain age, men and women who so celebrate the past that the present seems a pale shadow.

From the Founders to the Ultra-orthodox fundamentalists, from Labor to the hard Right, from the orange groves to Startup Nation, My Promised Land is a sweeping, lively depiction of Israeli life that marvels at its successes and mourns its moral failings. It does not have answers. It does not even have proscriptions. It has only hope, hope that the divisive figures in power today do not ruin the glory of what great men and women devoted themselves to create. He sees a country deeply divided, a country that is increasingly religious and increasingly blind to its own turpitude, but he also remembers that all of this was once, not so long ago, hills and dust. Some measure of that spirit surely lives on today.

A dark and beautiful journey... (4/5 Stars)

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