Few books have received such accolades as this one. His mother should be proud (that's a truly distaff joke if there ever was one).
No, truly - Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land" has received praise from such diverse luminaries as Thomas Friedman and Leon Wieseltier; from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal; from Rick Jacobs (President of the Union of Reform Judaism) to Daniel Gordis (Author and leader of the Conservative Shalem Center in Israel); from The New Republic, The Atlantic and The Economist and The Financial Times of London.
Before getting to why, let's understand Ari Shavit. Although he does give some of his history in the book, it would be good to know a few things about Mr. Shavit. First and perhaps foremost, he sees himself as a patriot and is totally committed to Israel. Second, he is a "progressive" journalist....having written for the left-liberal Koteret Rashit and Haaretz (where he is on the editorial board). Moreover, he has been Chairperson for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. He was born in Rehovot, served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and graduated from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Perhaps most notable also is the ire that Ari Shavit provoked from Nelson Finkelstein, one of Noam Chomsky's fellow anti-Israel colleagues and perennial losing jouster with Alan Dershowitz.
So here is the contradiction. A left-liberal Israeli reporter who pisses off the anti-Israeli Jewish intelligentsia?
What is the magic here? Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land" is really a gritty, tough, and very real love story. The object of desire here, the State of Israel, was conceived of desperate need, birthed in great agony, was raised in a tough and abusive neighborhood, grew up to be stronger and more resilient than anyone could ever have imagined, and became a reluctant parent at too young an age. The magic is that Shavit can and does (from his very liberal perspective) admit to all of what he deems to be Israel's mistakes (the biggest one, born of the triumph of 1967 and the truly frightening 1973, being the occupation of the West Bank) while retaining a deep and unabashed love what he sees that Israel was, and could or might become still.
Shavit's shows us that yes, the 1948 war did indeed displace many of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine - mostly as a necessity of war - and then Israel did a great job for the next twenty-five years of building the Zionist enterprise - conveniently forgetting the Palestinian's reality as they built the state of Israel, absorbed almost a million Jewish refugees from Arab lands, and another million Russian Jews. They build an atomic capacity and then never, not once, used it as an open threat - even when their backs were to the wall in 1973. In parallel, Shavit tells wonderful vignettes - first about loss; Palestinians for their homes, Jews for their families and then about Jewish/Israeli/ Zionist triumph --as in creating a new society, making the desert bloom, defending their new homeland.
Don't think, for a moment, that Shavit questions the need for Israel, for he does not. He asserts the requirement of Israel. What he has done is put forward a case for explicit recognition of the realities of Israel's past in order to shape Israel's future. And, clearly, the future for Israel in Shavit's view is one where it is no longer an occupying force. Shavit sees the occupation of the West Bank as the true tragedy eating away at the fabric of the Israeli State because of how "occupation" forces the state to behave. His stories of what soldiers are asked to do as an occupation force are moving and tragic. His stories of what happened to Jews who fought for their survival, knowing there was absolutely no other place on this planet to go, are moving and tragic.
Do not pick up this book thinking you will get any answers or proscriptions for the future because you will not. Shavit does a masterful job of illustrating the screamingly complex contradictions at work here. Do the Palestinians deserve their own state, yes. Do the Jews deserve to have Israel as a Jewish State, yes. How to get there -- arrrgh! How should Israel ensure a Jewish State and at the same time avoid treating Israeli Arabs as either a fifth column or second-class citizens? Yes, but again, arrgh! How? Shavit sees a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel. He also states that Israel should not take action against Iran without the cooperation, approval, and partnership of the United States. But the United States is an uncertain partner with uncertain resolve on this issue. Arrgh! (As an aside, I saw & listened Shavit present recently to The City Club of Cleveland. He emphatically and persuasively insisted that there is only one country in the world that can lead the Middle East peace process….and that is the United States of America. His admiration for the USA is evident and palpable.)
What "My Promised Land" will do for you is erase all those notions you might have had about how simple it should be to come to a resolution - on a Palestinian State, on how to negotiate with those who advocate for your destruction, for how to stop being an occupying power, for how to ensure Jewish safety, for what to do about Iran, for how to share Jerusalem and on and on. Any and all of us who ever started a sentence with, "All they have to do is......" will understand, after reading Shavit's book, that it will never be as simple as that. Ever. Never. Not possible.
There are no answers but yet there must be answers. "My Promised Land" is a recognition that the future requires that some part of the narratives we tell ourselves (as Jews, as Israelis, as Palestinians, as Arabs, as Muslims) will, individually and collectively, need to change if we are to have a future that is more secure. Understanding is just the first, necessary step and Ari Shavit has done much to advance that understanding.