“My Promised Land” Revisited

By | Apr 24, 2014

by Melvin Dow

Considering the numerous reviews written from divergent viewpoints, one might reasonably conclude that everything worth saying about Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, has already been said. Nevertheless, I will offer a different critical perspective on Shavit’s treatment of three subjects: Lydda and the events of 1948; the occupation; and Israel’s future.

First, Lydda. Shavit’s summary of these events is blunt and harsh: “Zionism had carried out a massacre in the City of Lydda… Zionism obliterates the City of Lydda.” In making these statements, Shavit is not embracing the vitriolic anti-Israel position of controversial historian Ilan Pappe–just his use of the possessive “My” in the title of the book distinguishes Shavit from Pappe. Further, Shavit says that others did “the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live.” Thus, Shavit simultaneously condemns and justifies the 1948 actions he describes.

While Shavit spends an entire chapter of 36 pages discussing Lydda, surprisingly, he devotes only a few sentences on three pages to Deir Yassin, the 1948 assault on an Arab village by the Irgun, although over the years Deir Yassin has been the subject of much commentary and controversy. Shavit’s summary is succinct and unqualified: In April 1948, he writes, “an Irgun squad positioned itself here and rained machine gun fire on Deir Yassin.”

The 1948 events involving both Lydda and Deir Yassin have been the subjects of numerous books and articles. One has only to Google “Lydda,” “Deir Yassin,” “Efraim Karsh,” “Benny Morris,” “Tom Segev,” “Dan Kurzman,” “Ilan Pappe,” “New historians” or “Post-Zionism” to get a sense of the volume and intensity of the conflicting viewpoints. 

The disputes rage: Did the Lydda Arabs first break an agreement? Had Lydda Arabs first “massacred and mutilated Israeli soldiers”? Did the Palestinians fire first? Did the Palestinians leave their homes under Israeli threat of immediate injury–or did they leave because they were urged to do so by Palestinian leaders or by the invading Arab armies?

A respected body of historical scholarship contends that Shavit’s accounts are totally inaccurate. Allan Gerson in Moment says that Shavit’s account “defies credulity.” Yisrael Medved charges Shavit with “purposefully fudging historical facts.” In Mosaic, Ruth Wisse writes that a “casualty of the book is journalism’s commitment to truth.” In a CAMERA article, Alex Safian characterizes Shavit’s Lydda account as “very deceptive.” He contends that Shavit “keeps from his readers” key facts, and he disputes Shavit’s account, event by event, detail by detail.  In another CAMERA article pointedly entitled “The Triumph of Marketing and the Tragedy of Inaccuracy”, CAMERA cites more critics of Shavit – Sol Stern in “Daily Beast” says Shavit is “mainly wrong.”

Shavit’s writing talents should not cause us to overlook the fact that he did not personally observe the events he purports to describe. He was not an eye-witness. He was not there in 1948.  He was not even born until 1957. Thus, Shavit relies on secondary sources. That, of course, is what historians do, but Shavit himself would acknowledge that he is a journalist and not a trained historian.

With such a significant number of respected critics leveling charges of inaccuracy, deception and distortion, it is startling that Shavit does not so much as acknowledge the existence of the massive body of scholarship and literature that contradicts his accounts. There is not so much as a “by the way” in Shavit’s presentation.

Even assuming, for the sake of discussion, that Shavit’s account is completely accurate (a big assumption)–or, at least, that he believes that to be the case–there is a further question: What are the pros and cons of publishing a statement that Zionism carried out a “massacre” and “obliterated” the City of Lydda? The potential damage of these statements is obvious: They become the justification or pretext for those who seek to delegitimize Israel as well as those who decline to support Israel either financially or politically. Do the beneficial effects of disputing the traditional narrative offset these obviously damaging effects?

Should a wedding guest tell a homely bride that she is ugly–even if she is? Do the benefits of stating the truth justify the pain that is inflicted on the bride on her wedding day? Shammai opted for the blunt truth; Hillel opted for sensitivity to the bride’s feelings. (Ketubot 16b-17a). Shavit apparently would follow Shammai–but the separate challenge to Shavit’s accuracy remains.

In a different context, Shavit states that Israeli “constructive self-criticism has turned into an obsessive deconstructive end of its own”–a charge that might be directed against Shavit himself. How else would one describe Shavit’s chapter on Lydda?

Second, the occupation. Shavit says that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has had and continues to have a corrosive and demoralizing effect on the IDF, especially on IDF soldiers whose duties include interrogating suspects (sometimes young boys) and entering Palestinian homes in attempts to arrest terrorists. Over the years, various Israeli organizations (e.g. Peace Now, B’Tselem and Shovrim Shtikah, among others) and numerous respected individuals, including, for example, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, have advocated the same position. Opponents of occupation pursue a variety of actions. Some argue that ending the occupation will be a panacea for a multitude of problems; some advocate BDS; some simply complain about past mistakes and wring their hands in anguish. Shavit does none of these things.

Shavit does not succumb to the illusion that ending the occupation will bring peace. He correctly recognizes that there are a host of other unresolved issues between Israel and the Palestinians that are not occupation-based: the so-called right of return and the demand for a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, among others. Shavit also recognizes that there is not a Palestinian partner for a peace agreement. In all these respects, Shavit is realistic. Notwithstanding these problems, Shavit’s position is that the occupation should be ended even if such action does not bring peace. While Shavit avoids many of the errors of opponents of occupation, I fault him for two serious deficiencies in his position.

First, he says not a word about the practical nuts and bolts involved in ending the occupation. Considering the problems of moving 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza, how does one deal with moving multiples of that number? How many of the 350,000 settlers on the West Bank or 200,000 in Jerusalem are to be moved–a question not addressed by Shavit. And how? And where to? Moreover, the haredi community’s resistance to moving from the biblical heartland would present conflicts not encountered in moving settlers from Gaza–another problem not addressed by Shavit.

The second major omission in Shavit’s advocacy of ending the occupation is his failure to even mention rockets. Assume that, post-occupation, Hamas rather than Fatah or the Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank. Rockets launched from Gaza have hit Sderot and even Ashkelon–bad enough. But, considering the technological advances in rockets (both in range and accuracy), rockets supplied by Iran to Hamas and launched from the West Bank could hit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Dimona or Ben-Gurion Airport. What airline would then fly to Israel? What then would be the effect on Israel’s economy?

Third, Israel’s future. There is a bipolar quality to Shavit’s discussion of Israel’s future prospects for peace and security or even its existence.

On the negative side, Shavit decries statistics which indicate that children in Jewish schools are 40% ultra-Orthodox, 35% Arab, and only 25% Jewish Zionists; that the Jewish population of Jerusalem has declined to 63%; that in 2020 it is projected that the Palestinian population of Israel will be 50%; that the events of 2006 revealed “an enfeebled national leadership, a barely functional government, a public sector in decay…”; that current Israeli leaders have only “a semblance of the resolve” of earlier leaders.

Recalling his discussion of Lydda and the events of 1948, he says that “peace shall not be… Jews took another people’s land.” As to the ultimate outlook, he says “I wonder how long can we maintain our miraculous survival story. One more generation? Two? Three?”

Offsetting this pessimistic speculation, Shavit writes with a combination of optimism, pride and resolve: “We shall live because we are just and strong and modern…I was born an Israeli and I live as an Israeli and as an Israeli I shall die.…We have a strong economy, a vibrant society, extremely talented individuals with impressive common sense and resilience.”

Israel is a free society which is “creative and passionate and frenzied…a truly free society that is alive and kicking and fascinating.”

Shavit concludes: Israel will be “clinging to this shore and living on this shore. Come what may.”

Shavit’s peremptory “come what may” exemplifies classic Israeli confidence, but there is missing any serious effort to address potential solutions to the demographic, leadership and political challenges which Shavit mentions. Probably such an effort would be beyond both the intended objective and the expertise of this book.

Melvin Dow is a recently retired business lawyer living in Texas.



One thought on ““My Promised Land” Revisited

  1. Carolina says:

    My take on the message from “My Promised Land” book was that we can face squarely the brutality of the 1948 War and subsequent events and still justify the Israeli right to “to live” as Shavit puts it. There has been significant historical research demonstrating that the high stakes independence war was extremely violent. We cannot pretend that every action in any war was heroic and moral.

    I don’t agree with Shavit’s conclusions that basically Israel is a European citadel surrounded by Arab hoards that don’t want it to exist. The best Israel can do is manage with help from the United States and a brilliant defense. He presents himself as a repentant leftist who realizes that his dreams were naive. It’s too bad he gave up and is now trying to proselytize his message of hopelessness.

    Historically, we are a people of the Middle East, not Europe. Arabs are not Nazis, and in fact many are Jews. (The majority of Israeli Jews are not Ashkenazi, after all.) We are fully capable of figuring out how to co-exist with our neighbors. We cannot romanticize the situation, but we do want to set our goals high. Israel can live peacefully in our home in the Middle East. If we fully set our minds to that goal, we will get there.

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