Most Israelis have never heard of Ari Shavit’s monumental book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, since it has been published only in English. But even when it is out in Hebrew I am not sure how shocking it will become for the typical, cynical Israeli reader. Here the book has rapidly become popular and it is fascinating to observe how American Jewry, mostly Israel lovers, are struggling with its surprising, painful, critical, at times frightening content.
I was invited a few weeks ago to speak about the book to a nice, sophisticated group gathered in a private home for a book club discussion. They asked me what I thought about the book and why, despite the painful, even depressing portrait Shavit paints of Israel, I keep my optimistic attitude about my country’s future.
“Last weekend,” I told them, “was the first one after a while that I didn’t have any major professional commitments, so my wife and I decided to have some fun. After Shabbat we went to the movies, and on Sunday morning we went to West Harlem and for lunch to Times Square. We had a great weekend.”
“Happy to hear that you are enjoying your time in America,” said the book club host with a suspicious voice, “but please, with all due respect, how exactly does it relate to My Promised Land?”
“Great question,” I replied. “Let me elaborate.
“The movie that we saw was 12 Years a Slave, the West Harlem experience was the religious services of an African-American church, and at Times Square we ran into a huge demonstration of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Without planning it, this weekend became a learning experience and an exact symbolic illustration of my analysis about My Promised Land.”
The movie was extremely painful and hard to watch. The dark era of slavery in American history is not something that we talk about much. I am sure that everyone in the theater was as embarrassed and ashamed about it as we were, probably even more. What was encouraging, however, is the fact that in the hall, sitting side by side, eating popcorn and drinking Coke Zero, were Americans of all backgrounds, all ages, and all colors. Together they were facing the hard reality of their past because the nation is now mature enough to do it.
At the church this insight was even clearer. When we arrived at the entrance we immediately were directed to a special section for “tourists.” There, politely, with smiles, but between ropes and barriers, the white visitors were concentrated, mostly tourists from New Zealand, Germany, Israel, or Long Island. At the same time, through the main entrance, all the regular members of the congregation were welcomed into the sanctuary as very important people. The wonderful gospel music and the passionate words of wisdom by the clergy were all uplifting, but from our seats in the back balcony among all the “tourists,” we couldn’t resist recalling the previous night’s movie and feeling we had somehow closed a circle.
The ultra-Orthodox protest in Times Square was surreal: Thousands of American citizens, dressed in old Eastern European outfits, were shouting loudly in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Their complaints were against the sovereign, elected government of the State of Israel. They demanded that this “foreign Zionist government” of the Jewish democratic state allow yeshiva students in Israel to study Torah all their lives without serving in the army or joining the labor force, as all other Israelis are obliged to do.
Standing there, we couldn’t decide whether this was funny or sad, good or bad. However, it brought us to the same conclusion as the previous two experiences of that weekend: Israel is now mature enough to deal with some of our fundamental, bleeding wounds. My Promised Land is doing exactly that. The complex relations between veterans and olim (immigrants), Palestinians and Jews, religion and state, Judaism and democracy, Sephardi and Ashkenazi are just a few of the divides he describes unflinchingly.
Shavit puts a mirror in front of our faces. I suggest that our people, on both sides of the ocean, should look straight at it, accept the fact that mistakes were made, and acknowledge that shaping a nation’s society is a long, painful process. Then we should build on the amazing achievements that we’ve made, and find the right, sensitive way for conciliation in moving forward. I am sure that we will prevail. That is why I remain optimistic.