My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel – Ari Shavit

image In each of the places I’ve called home, I’ve studied the history of Israel. Detail and focal points varied considerably through each of those forays into the convoluted, delicate, and fascinating history of the country I’m proud to have had as a home, and I reentered that mental state at the encouragement of my father, who recommended Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit’s most recent book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit is well known–and sometimes disliked–by many for his critical eye of the matzav, the situation, in the Middle East. In my opinion, his perspective is a crucial one, and this book does an excellent job of remaining relatively even keeled in despite of the fragility of the topic, which grows ever more tense and fragile as the years go by. It’s an unbelievably difficult subject to discuss, and I will inevitably offend someone with this post, though my aim is simply to add my opinion to the literal millions of varying opinions out there. This post is a mechanism through which I can work out my own feelings–or at least begin to–and maybe, just maybe, start an interesting and constructive dialogue with anyone who wants to have a reasoned, vitriol-free exploration of the nuances of the matzav.

In My Promised Land, Shavit does not back away from the horrifying history of persecution the Jews suffered in Europe, nor does he let up when describing the ruthlessness with which the early quasi-military forces of Jews decimated villages of the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. It’s a tough read, and I needed to take regular breaks just to process my feelings as I tried to relate to the people who lived through the scarring experiences that would have robbed me of sleep or rest for the remainder of my life, had I been made to endure them. I feel more connected to my heritage than I have in years because the subject matter of this book rubbed my mind raw, and left me totally vulnerable. The writing itself is like Israel; compelling and beautiful, thorny, rocky, and evocative. It delves into the individual stories of people from both sides of the conflict, from different generations, who persevered through unimaginable hardship, then had to harden themselves further in order to survive grueling and unforgiving physical, economical, and spiritual conditions.

The book explores the orange groves, kibbutzim, and cities of Israel. It follows the path of destitution left in the wake of the six-day-war, and the shocking might and vitality of the Jews who, less than 10 years earlier, fell victim to one of the worst acts of genocide in human history. It dives into the minds of drug-addled youths in the 90s and 00s, searching for ecstasy during their weekends out of military uniform. It travels through Israel’s historic and groundbreaking nuclear program, which effectively placed the fledgeling nation on the national playing board faster than anyone could have thought possible. It pauses to watch the unfolding chaos of Lydda, and leaves the taste of ashes on your tongue. It compels you with tales of children left orphaned who scraped together a life in a new world when everything they’d known was burned, or worse. It tells the story of refugees, displacement, and prison guards watching in horror, unable to intervene when they can hear the screams of the tortured. It is awesome, it is beautiful, it is horrifying, and it is vital.

This is the most frank look I’ve taken at Israel’s complex history, and it was an illuminating experience. My father always reminds me to never paint with a broad brush, and I find more and more that I turn to that phrase when it comes to describing the conflagration that plagues Israel and the Palestinian population, and robs too many men and women of their sanity, and far too many children of a promising future. I’ve been known to offer a simplified and (rather ironically) basic view of the conflict: that it is a problem primarily of fundamentalism, which needs to be addressed by the Israelis and Palestinians prior to them ever meeting at the table to discuss meaningful options for peace. Extremist Muslim groups kidnap, torture, destroy, and bombard, while orthodox Jews develop and occupy territories they have no business or right being in, and both sides claim a divine imperative. In the book, Shavit interviews many individuals on both sides of the conflict, and uses their stories and responses to paint a fairly complete picture. Settlers, activists, scientists, politicians, soldiers, and survivors are all represented at some point, and if there was no direct interview, there was an artful approach to the telling of their stories. It warrants a reread, I think.

I’ve already gotten far off course for what I wanted to do with this “review,” but the book’s impact on me was such that I’m still reeling from it, despite having finished it in April. The conflict is manifold and grows more complex with each passing year, and lately it seems like hope is all but lost. I try to hold out though, because in my experiences living in and visiting Israel, I know that the raw vitality of the land and its denizens (which Shavit describes in beautiful detail) will pull through. A unified, rational voice will cry out as the tipping point of extremism is reached, and compel the masses to teach their children compassion instead of cruelty, curiosity instead of fear, and love in the place of hate. It’s almost too cliche, but there’s a song that is sung often in Israel and in the States–and, laughably, in the movie World War Z, which brings the zombies over the barrier wall, but I digress–whose words are simple and unadorned.

אוד יבוא שלום עלינו
אוד יבוא שלום עלינו
אוד יבוא שלום עלינו
ואל כולם
סלאאם
עלינו ואל כל העולם
סלאאם, שלום

Again peace will come upon us
Again peace will come upon us
Again peace will come upon us
and on everyone
Salaam
On us, and on all the world
Salaam. Shalom.

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