‘Greater than ourselves’
Among the things of which I am most proud is how much time you’ve spent in Israel. Each of you has visited multiple times, including summer programs and class trips. Of course, that means you might not be eligible for a free Birthright Israel trip (d’oh!), but that’s a small price to pay for the deep connections you have developed and love you feel for the Jewish state.
I hope you have also developed the foundation you’ll need at college and beyond to maintain that love in the face of what will be some pretty harsh words about the “Zionist enterprise.” You’ll be confronted with allegations about an Israel you may not recognize from your weeks and months there, along with the dehumanization of the people you’ve come to regard as family. I know you have been instructed in “Israel advocacy,” but I often worry that such advocacy portrays a flawless, idealized Israel instead of the complex, politically divided, and deeply human country that it is. If you are going to confront such complexity, and I pray that you do, I would rather you begin the dialogue with a Zionist and expert who loves the country no less than you do.
That’s why I am urging you to read My Promised Land, by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. The book is a survey of key moments in Israel’s history, from the arrival of European pioneers in the 1890s to the very current debate over Iranian nukes. The great-grandson of one of those pioneers, Shavit interviews hundreds of participants in these events, and conveys what makes the founding and flourishing of Israel so miraculous, thrilling, and life-affirming. He portrays, in often stirring prose, the fearless 20-somethings who remade themselves as farmers and soldiers, the Holocaust survivors who overcame their horrific pasts to invent an unimaginable future, and the heroes who harnessed Jewish brainpower to the task of establishing a modern state amid a sea of enemies.
But be forewarned: Shavit also recounts tales of Israel’s founding that you’ll seldom hear on a teen trip or in Hebrew school. He describes the massacres — there is no other word — carried out by Jewish soldiers leading up to and during Israel’s War of Independence. These are some of the most difficult chapters in the book — for the author as well as the reader. Shavit knows that these stories — told to him in the early 1990s by Jewish participants in the events — compromise Israel’s claim to the moral high ground. But he also realizes that if not for such “dirty, filthy work,” the Jewish state would never have been born or survived.
Shavit writes for Ha’aretz and was an early champion of both Peace Now and Israel’s civil rights movement. He sees the settlement movement as a moral and strategic disaster. He worries that Israel’s failure to integrate its Arab citizens is creating a “dangerous situation of lawlessness.” He sympathizes with the activists who took over Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in 2011 and demanded economic justice.
These views may tempt some readers to reject Shavit’s reporting as so much left-wing propaganda. That would be a mistake. He is a harsh critic of his own peace movement, scoring icons like Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin for underestimating the rejectionism of the Palestinians. He is terrified of the prospect of an Iranian bomb and praises Netanyahu for sounding the alarm loud and early.
But Shavit doesn’t need me to vouch for his Zionism. Agree with him or not, he is raising questions that must be answered by Israeli leaders and all who care about the country. He sees seven “concentric circles of threat” closing in on Israel — including the chaos and antagonism of the Islamic world, the growing radicalism of the Palestinians, and the “moral toll” of the occupation. Above all, Shavit worries that Israel’s communal spirit is extinct, and that its leaders lack a coherent vision. “[T]here is no one to speak up for the silent and sane Israeli majority,” he writes. “There is no great idea or even a reasonable political platform to address Israel’s real challenges.”
Much of this sounds dispiriting, and I am afraid it is. Yet even if you prefer to reject Shavit’s pessimism, the book is a valuable portrait of the major social upheavals — from the rise of the Sephardi community, to the arrival of one million Russians, to the high-tech boom of the 2000s —that are essential to understanding contemporary Israel.
But like all calls to arms, there is also a sense of optimism at the heart of My Promised Land. Shavit is calling on his fellow citizens and the Diaspora to reclaim the Zionist future. He is rejecting complacency. And he’ll leave you with a view of contemporary Israel as inspiring as his portrait of the pioneers. I’ll leave you with it as well: “We are the most prosaic and prickly people one can imagine. We cannot stand puritanism or sentimentality. We do not trust high words or lofty concepts. And yet we take part in a phenomenal historical vision. We participate in an event far greater than ourselves.”