Peace and Pessimism in the Promised Land

Peace and Pessimism in the Promised Land

“Sixty-five years after its founding,” Ari Shavit writes in My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, “Israel has returned to its core questions. . . . Why Israel? What is Israel? Will Israel?” To answer these questions, he goes far beyond the occupation, touching on many issues that get to the core of Israeli identity.

Palestinians flee Lydda during the Israeli offensive, 1948 (Palmach archive; photographer unknown)
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
by Ari Shavit
Spiegel & Grau, 2013, 428 pp.

Ari Shavit, a columnist for the leading Israeli liberal newspaper Haaretz, is considered a center-leftist by many, but some on the left have come to see him as a centrist without the hyphenate. He has shifted from supporting Peace Now (the mass-oriented, left Zionist peace movement) to disputing the idea that a final agreement for a Palestinian state is imminent—a shift he documents in his valuable new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. He now argues that Israel must make unilateral, incremental moves to end the occupation of the West Bank.

Shavit also diverges from writers on the Israeli left who, as he puts it, “deny duality,” or “address occupation and overlook intimidation.” Conversely, he chastises those on the right who refuse to acknowledge the occupation and focus only on the existential fear that most Israeli Jews feel daily. “Only a third approach that internalizes both intimidation and occupation can be realistic and moral and get the Israeli story right,” he argues. That is what he sets out to do in this book. Its success indicates something intriguing: a significant audience for a serious discussion about Israel, rooted in reality and without polemic. Shavit’s book provides an in-depth portrait of contemporary Israeli society in a way that few recent books have—or have even attempted. From the founders’ dilemmas and romantic yearnings for statehood to a contemporary Israel whose politics lunges between crisis and petty intrigue and whose landscape encapsulates the fast-paced, even hedonistic dynamism of Tel Aviv, Shavit tells a tale that gets the reader inside daily reality.

“Sixty-five years after its founding,” he writes, “Israel has returned to its core questions. . . . Why Israel? What is Israel? Will Israel?” To answer these questions, he goes far beyond the occupation, touching on many issues that get to the core of Israeli identity: the conflicts between religious and secular Jews, the divide between Jews of North Africa and those of Eastern European ancestry, the corruption in political and public life, economic inequality, and the connection between Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

Though he is a decade younger than his country, Shavit’s personal narrative illuminates much of the history driving the internal divisions in today’s Israel. The narrative opens with the journey of his great-grandfather, the Rt. Honorable Herbert Bentwich, a leader in the British Jewish community, from London to the Jaffa Port in 1897. Like the millions of other pioneers who would alight from the ports to pre-Israel Palestine, Bentwich was ignorant of the inhabitants already there, the Palestinians, then more of a disparate gathering of Arabs in the city of Jerusalem and in villages spread throughout the territory. With a warm and forthright tone, Shavit attempts to get inside the head of his ancestor, to decipher whether or not he and others like him knew that there were other inhabitants of the land they chose to settle.

There are more than half a million Arabs, Bedouins, and Druze in Palestine in 1897. There are 20 cities and towns, and hundreds of villages. So how can the pedantic Bentwich not notice them? . . . I am not critical or judgmental. . . . The vast majority of the Palestinians of 1897 live in humble villages and hamlets. Their houses are nothing but dirt huts. Bowed by poverty and disease, they are hardly noticeable to a Victorian gentleman. . . . My great-grandfather does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see. He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back. But my great-grandfather cannot turn back. So that he can carry on, my great-grandfather chooses not to see.

The most excruciating and important chapter in the book, recently excerpted in the New Yorker, is on Lydda. With new research and reporting, Shavit brings light to the “black box” of Israel’s creation, examining the 1948 campaign to expel Arabs from Lydda (now Lod). The story is almost never told, exemplifying the myth that many Jews grew up with—that Israel was “a land without people for a people without a land.” Today, Lod is a profoundly dysfunctional city ridden with crime and drugs, especially in its poor Arab neighborhoods.

Confronting both the past and the present of the Arab population inside Israel (the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are of Palestinian, Bedouin, Circassian, or Druze origin and live within the “Green Line,” acknowledged internationally as Israel’s border) is one of the major issues facing the contemporary state. And today, a sea change regarding their treatment is underway. Instead of approaching Arab Israelis as a security risk, the government spends billions of shekels on education and employment in order to raise living standards and better integrate the Arab minority into the workforce. But ultimately, the only way to address underlying historical grievances is to find a solution to the occupation on the other side of the 1949 armistice line.

Shavit humanizes the major historical campaigns for peace with well-crafted reporting on key players, along with a short history of the dispute between the Zionist movement and Palestinians. He rightly says that “the real, mainstream Zionist peace movement was born only after the wars of 1967 and 1973”—as was the ideological and fervid movement to further colonize the West Bank and, until 2005, Gaza. Shavit interviews and profiles leaders of the peace camp like former Meretz leader and education minister Yossi Sarid and former justice minister Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo Accords. In all of these interviews, Shavit searches for explanations for why the peace camp failed. He tells Sarid that the doves were “always against. . . . There was not enough love, not enough compassion. And there was too much judgment.” He castigates Sarid at length for not considering the deep animosity that Palestinians felt (and still feel, according to Shavit) toward Israel as a result of the state’s creation:

You were blind to the chilling consequences of Zionism and the partial dispossession of another people that is at the core of the Zionist enterprise. You also failed to realize the gravity of the religious conflict and identity clash between the Western Jewish democratic Israel and the Arab world. You didn’t take into consideration the fact that given our history and our geography, peace is hardly likely.

Yet when he argues with Sarid, he is arguing with himself. “The peace story is also my story.” When Shavit was active in Peace Now in high school and as a student at Hebrew University, the peace for which he yearned was “bogged down by a systematic denial of the brutal reality we live in.” He later came to the conclusion that the Zionist left made a mistake to promise peace, rather than just to end the occupation. It “ignored Arab aspirations and political culture,” ignored the millions of Palestinian refugees wanting to return to their homes, and treated the yearning for peace with almost messianic fervor.

He tests this theory out with the best minds of the Peace Now movement: Ze’ev Sternhell, Menachem Brinker, and Avishai Margalit. Each of these men, professors from Hebrew University, are winners of the Israel Prize, Israel’s leading academic honor. (I should say here that I am friends with Brinker and Margalit, as well as Shavit, and a leader in Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. affiliate of Peace Now.)

For the peace camp, Shavit writes, the occupation was everything, the ultimate evil. “But for many Palestinians there are other matters that are far more several and visceral than occupation, like the homes they lost in 1948.” The problem is not simply the occupation, he argues, but Israel itself. He doesn’t believe that Palestinians have internalized Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign Jewish state. I differ with him on this: I don’t believe that the myths that people hold—both Jews and Palestinians—are an impediment to peace. People can maintain their myths and their yearnings for lifetimes and yet still sign treaties, which can be challenged if they are broken.

Shavit argues that until Palestinians come to grips with the reality of Israel, the only thing for Israel to do is to unilaterally disengage from the territories and thereby come to peace with the complexity of its own foundations. But this could instead allow the unreality between Israelis and Palestinians to grow rather than to diminish, as happened after the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. The Israeli government later decided that the only way to contest the violence coming across the border was warfare.

For both Israelis and Palestinians today, the impetus for peace comes not from political or social movement leaders so much as from a group that was not as instrumental in the Oslo Process: a business class that expects and requires a normalized political state both for Israel and a future Palestine. The mistakes of the peace movement are real, but pessimism may diminish as new constituencies for peace emerge—when morality and self-righteousness, even well deserved, take a back seat to pragmatism. Leaders must emerge on both sides who are willing to openly promote peace over pessimism, a way forward over the status quo.

Margalit, a moral philosopher, is quoted in Shavit’s book describing the trajectory of Israeli settlement as “almost irreversible.” But in an email this past August, he told me: “It is all reversible. I don’t believe in geographic determinism.” Still, he wrote,

What I do believe is that there is a lack of political will to reach a two state solution. . . . There are not enough people who want it enough on both sides, but definitely on the Israeli side. Most Israelis are quite happy with the things as they are now. There are enough people who may live with the two state solution grudgingly perhaps, but no one with real power wants it or want to do anything about it. I don’t see in the foreseeable future the forces who can bring about the two state solution. The only hope I have is that we are not good in predicting anything; especially the future.

It isn’t that Margalit was misquoted—Shavit is much too good of a journalist for that. But the pessimism that has captured so much of the left can sometimes be wedged open when pushed. And push we must: the internal issues faced by Israel—including the lasting repercussions of the expulsion of Arabs in towns like Lydda—will only be resolved with a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that ensures both the existence of two states and the better integration of Israel into the region.

Jo-Ann Mort, a member of Dissent’s editorial board, is the co-author (with Gary Brenner) of Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel? (Cornell University Press).