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Zionism, Between the Real and the Ideal

December 6, 2013

shavit3It’s in that painful gap between the real and the ideal that life is truly lived. In our marriages, in our relationships with our children and our parents, the chasm between being the people we are and the people we would like to be plays host to life’s most painful – but also most productive – moments. It is when great expectation confronts disappointment, when love is hamstrung by betrayal and yearning, that we learn that real commitment is tested in the crucible of heartache, in the desperate wish that things had been different, or still could be.
Zionism is actually no different. For those of us raised on stories of brave Jews saved from the cauldrons of Europe, defending themselves in the 1940’s against marauding Arabs and then dancing the hora on the streets of Tel Aviv in 1948, being forced to confront the reality of the Jewish state is always a deeply painful process. Most of us know people who, once exposed to Israel’s under-belly, have become Israel’s most relentless, loveless critics. Others assume precisely the opposite position, denying any fault or imperfection – anyone who dares critique the Jewish state must be shown to be wrong, or self-hating, or worse.

Is that really the world we wish to inhabit?

Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel, puts us to that test. There were a couple of chapters during which I literally could read only two or three pages, and then had to put the book down. I paced the living room, made myself a cup of tea, took a deep breath, and forced myself to plow through another two or three pages, before taking yet another break.

I finished My Promised Land exhausted, pained – and deeply grateful. For here is a book by a man whose love for Israel permeates every page. He adores the country and knows it deeply (unlike authors of much less nuanced critiques in recent years, for whom Israel is little more than an “occupation”) and is staying in Israel – “Come what may,” as he says in his last sentence. So Israel’s flaws don’t just trouble Shavit – they torment him. He wrote his book, one suspects, because he wants them to torment us, as well.

My Promised Land is a deft weaving of agony and ecstasy. Just as the narrative becomes almost unbearable, Shavit shifts tone and reminds us of the marvel, the creativity and the decency at the core of Israel’s soul. He does so with the keen eye of the first-rate journalist he is and the supple art of a great novelist. It’s no surprise, therefore, that reviewers as disparate as Leon Wieseltier, Jeffrey Goldberg and Thomas Friedman have heaped praise on the book.Shavit2

But not everyone has. Some, distressed by Shavit’s criticism of their beloved Israel, have sought to prove that Shavit is, well, just wrong.

Perhaps Shavit’s most painful chapter is about the mass killing and exile of Lydda’s Arabs in the War of Independence. When he recently published it in The New Yorker, predictable responses surfaced immediately. There was the “You see … Israel born in sin, and violently murderous to this day.” And there was the “No, Israel is legitimate, precisely because nothing of the sort ever happened.”

One column, written by a very articulate and knowledgeable Israel-advocate, cites a journalist, Dan Kurzman (who, though prolific, was not a trained historian), as basis for claiming that Lydda had “surrendered, went back on its word, massacred and mutilated Israeli soldiers, and then despite all this the residents were allowed to leave unharmed.” Then, the writer then asks, “Why would Shavit and his editors omit the crucial fact that Lydda had surrendered, and had agreed to disarm and live in peace, and that the Israelis had agreed to let them stay?”

A fair question. So I reread parts of an authoritative history of the period, Benny Morris’ masterful 1948. Morris writes (pp. 286 ff.) that IDF records show that 250 civilians were killed, and that Ben-Gurion authorized the expulsion of the town’s 50,000 residents (and then boasted to his Cabinet that they were all gone). Records of the IDF’s Fourth Regiment reported that “Some 30,000 women and children from … Lydda … are suffering from hunger and thirst to a degree that many of them have died.” Does this count as “all the residents being allowed to leave unharmed?” As for the “surrender,” Morris writes that “as for the surrender instrument that implicitly [emphasis added] allowed Ramla’s inhabitants to stay,” Yitzchak Rabin gave an order that “the inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly without attention to age” (page 290).

I’m not an historian and I’ve never researched that period. So I make no claim to knowing precisely what transpired. What does seem incontrovertible, however, is this: since the history of that era is highly contended, intellectual honesty demands that we at least not pretend otherwise. Did Morris (a world-class historian) and Shavit (an equally talented journalist) knowingly create a fictional account? Or is it more likely that my adopted country was (re)born in circumstances that were far more complex – and messy and painful – than the narratives on which many of us were raised?

Do I agree with every assertion in Shavit’s book? I don’t. Would I personally have written a sentence like “Zionism had carried out a massacre in the city of Lydda”? I don’t think that I could.

shavit1But here’s the rub. Precisely because I hope to bequeath to my grandchildren a better Israel than the one I inherited, I need thoughtful observers, careful researchers and Israel-loving writers like Ari Shavit to pen sentences like that. For prose like that stops me in my tracks, makes it hard to breathe. Accounts like these, even sentences like those that make me bristle, force us to recognize, when it’s easiest not to, that despite its just cause, our country – like many others– was created in a crucible of confusion, anger, passion and violence. And they force us all to ask what kind of narrative we’re going to create from here on in.

It’s that painful mix that Shavit believes we can – and must – confront, in order for Israel’s moral core to continue to flourish. Can we love this country only if it is perfect? Or can we model a Zionism in which we both confront the complex and painful parts of our history all while asserting that we have every right – and need – to be here?

Shavit believes we’re capable of taking the intellectually and morally sophisticated high road. He hopes, I sense, that we can bequeath to generations to come an Israel that is profoundly Jewish yet deeply committed to humanity at large, physically secure yet confident enough to be deeply self-reflective. Isn’t that what Jewishness is all about?

Is Shavit justified in his faith in us that we can be that sophisticated? Or has he, perhaps, over-estimated us? For all our sakes, we must hope – and we must ensure – that he hasn’t.

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