The Future of Yesterday: Avraham Burg on Ari Shavit's New Book

The Haaretz writer's very personal book on Zionism is a tale that begins with high hopes and ends under an immense question mark.

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

“My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” by Ari Shavit, Spiegel & Grau / Random House, 464 pages, $28

Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” is the best book written in recent years about the waning Zionist empire. The book draws a touching and painful picture, highly sympathetic and gently critical, of the Zionist narrative. It purports to depict and encompass, in a responsible, nonpartisan manner, the Israeli totality, which is no longer wholly Zionist. For the real-world, Israel hardly resembles the establishmentarian, traditional Zionism of Shavit and his yearnings. This is a story and a book that begin with high hopes, and end under an immense question mark.

Shavit, as a gifted writer, both attentive and opinionated, takes the reader on a personal journey across the length and breadth of Zionist history. At times he swoops past years, events, people and places, and at times he pauses unhurriedly and probes into the depths of understanding and insight.

To allow us to share this long and winding journey of Zionism, from the dreams to the doubts, Shavit, a senior writer and regular columnist for Haaretz, lends the readers … himself. This is a story that’s written mostly in the first-person singular, in the “I” form. Sometimes the “I” is a retroactive viewer, observing and reporting on the writer’s great-grandfather as he disembarks from a boat in Jaffa decades before the birth of the real “I”: the present-day Ari Shavit. This is not a random choice. According to Shavit, Herbert Bentwich was almost a prophet, imagining at the end of the 19th century the horrors of Europe in the century ahead.

Shavit imagines himself as that family prophet: “As I study him from a distance - more than a century of distance - I cannot deny the similarities between us. I am surprised to find how much I identify with my eccentric great-grandfather.” But in contrast to this forebear, who anticipated what lay ahead, most of Ari Shavit’s book is a prophecy about the past, not an anticipation of the future.

He goes on to report in the first person about the events to which he himself was witness, whether as citizen - child, soldier, peace activist, worried father - or as one of Israel’s leading journalists. At its peak, this “I” perceives itself as the alter ego of flawed Israel. He tells one of his interviewees explicitly, “You are experience and I am consciousness. And you need consciousness.”

The Ari Shavit of this book often sees himself as the awareness, perhaps even the conscience, of Israel as it could have been, as he would wish it to be. If this is the secret of the book, it is also the source of its principal weakness: The blind spots in the conscience and awareness of Shavit in the book are also the weakness of the Israel that once was and has changed unrecognizably.

Israel’s ‘black box’

As recounted by Shavit, the Zionist story is a chain within which an internal process of interweaving various links occurs. Shavit’s experiences are not random. He starts with the arrival of the family elder, Herbert Bentwich, one of the most prominent British attorneys of his day, at the port of Jaffa. With him, the author embarks on journeys to the colonies founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, to the Jezreel Valley and its kibbutzim, to the orange groves of Rehovot, through the establishment of the state and the engenderment of the Nakba (or “catastrophe,” as Palestinians describe the establishment of Israel in 1948).

He dwells on the absorption of the huge wave of immigrants, the Six-Day War, the reactor at Dimona, the birth of Shas, the settlements, the failed attempts at peace, all the way to the Rothschild Boulevard protest movement of 2011 and everything in between.

This is a choice both chronological and logical in terms of the unfolding Israeli story, from its genesis to its present-day quandaries. Shavit does not shy away from hazardous materials. For example, his painful and trenchant description of the conquest of Lydda (today’s Lod) in 1948. Much of the book’s fraught content is contained in this chapter. It recounts a massacre, crimes committed by new Israelis against the local Palestinian humanity. And truths that were long hidden from us in what Shavit calls Israel’s “black box.”

But never does he take the extra, necessary step. Like many on the Zionist left, of which he was once a respected member, though now he considers himself more realistic and less dogmatic, he says in effect: It’s enough that I am aware of the wrongs, the crimes and the mistakes; I don’t need to take responsibility for them or do anything about them. Creating an easy equation for himself, he proceeds to solve it without any problems. “And when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”

But what about a bit more courage? Yes, he admits Israel’s responsibility for the refugee problem, and, yes, he does open the windows of Israeli consciousness to the Palestinian narrative. But in the middle of the process, the preacher in him suddenly falls silent. Whereas Shavit generally knows what to do, and is ready with good recommendations for policy and action - on these issues, he stops short of offering some practical political and human measures to solve, whether completely or symbolically, the refugee challenge. Here Shavit doesn’t take the last step of the thousand-kilometer journey. Here he is reluctant. All is written in a type of softness that is generally reserved for the observer. Even his few admonitions sound respectable, restrained, uttered with the national responsibility sensed by one who is aware of the tremendous power of written words.

Toward the left, 
toward the right

The responsible style is not only external, it’s also an internal essence. From the beginning of the book, Shavit situates himself with almost surgical precision. He describes the Israeli dilemma according to his understanding: on the one hand, the most threatened state in the West, on the other hand, the only occupying state in the West. This dual, connected insight allows him to stake out a critical position both toward the left, which ignores the existential threats, and toward the right, which shrugs off the corruption entailed in the occupation. All are mistaken in what they ignore, whereas Shavit, who sees both sides unembellished, is discerning from every direction. Here is the voiceless voice of the Israeli center.

Shavit’s binary formulation is too limited. These are not Israel’s only problems or even its principal ones. The built-in international and regional isolationism, the self-perceived victimization, the lax commitment to democracy, the inordinate centrality of power as the definer of identity, the aggrandizement of the rabbinate at the expense of sovereignty, the moral rift with the Jewish people and its magnificent culture, the strategy of trauma and similar problems - these are effectively not covered by Shavit’s simple, superficial formula.

It is, therefore, not surprising that all the links in his story join together into something else entirely. Shavit’s high-quality narrative ability covers up his two weaknesses. The first is his reference group, and the second is the world of fears that drives him. Both are authentic and reflect faithfully the limits of the Shavit narrative, the limits of secular Zionism, which was once the central force of the Israeli way of life, but no longer exists.

Most of Shavit’s heroes are well-established, secular, Ashkenazi males, with preference given to those with a personal and ideological background that tilts slightly (not overly so) to the left. Hardly any other voices from Israel’s mosaic of opinions and identity politics are heard in the book. I don’t think that’s due to a mistake by the editor. It’s a far deeper – representative – conception. Many of those who love Shavit’s columns in this newspaper, like many of those who will love this book, actually love the illusion it offers with such consummate skill.

They are in love with the mythological Israel of 1948. The Israel that rose from the ashes, its way lit by the vision of a model society, of unbounded sacrifice and pioneering. But that Israel no longer exists, and probably never did. Israel came into being as a secular, socialist utopia, and in the course of time and circumstances became religiously fundamentalist and flagrantly capitalist. It’s a very different society, perhaps even a different country from Shavit’s artistic depictions.

Here, too, lies the origin of the second weakness: Those missing voices are muffled by the Shavitean and Israeli panoply of fears. He admits this unabashedly: “Throughout the years, my own muted fear never went away.” The city of Pompeii is mentioned twice in the book, once in the introduction and again right at the end. Like a symbolic sandwich that frames and encapsulates the author’s whole psychological thrust.

In the introduction he writes, “The vitality of our daily life is astonishing. And yet there is always the fear that one day daily life will freeze like Pompeii’s.” And, on the book’s last page, “If a Vesuvius-like volcano were to erupt tonight and end our Pompeii, this is what it will petrify: a living people. People that have come from death and were surrounded by death but who nevertheless put up a spectacular spectacle of life. People who danced the dance of life to the very end.”

Indeed. Zionism’s greatest success, as of this moment, has been to build us a home in the mouth of the most eruptive volcano on earth. But it never tried to extinguish the destructive sources of the seething, threatening Middle Eastern lava. Accordingly, this is a book about all the fears and all the hopes and all the failures of the Zionist idea.

It’s a book that only looks back, and in this sense is a story of a nostalgic, yearning parting from the imagined past - not a new vision or a groundbreaking work plan. So much so that Shavit finds it difficult to answer even his own question of questions: “How long can we sustain this lunacy?” It remains a resonating interrogative with no signs of having a convincing answer.

Nevertheless, this is an important book. Above all, because it gives expression to a genuine voice that exists in Israel, despite its frustrations and failures. Furthermore, the book is a sounding board for a generation - those who were born after the establishment of the state - which has received scant expression. Extensive literature exists by those of the founding generation, who come across as mythological giants, whereas the generation of their children is mute.

Shavit, who is one of the more articulate exponents of this bad period in which we find ourselves, did well to publish this book. If only because it won’t be long before there will be no one left who will remember or understand what he’s talking about.

The writer, a former politician, is an author and a senior fellow with the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue.

Jezreel Valley, by Eli Shamir (2002).
Ari ShavitCredit: Sharon Bareket



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