A decade further along, Shavit was a paratrooper posted in Palestinian cities. His “existential fear” for Israel’s future converged with his “moral outrage” over “occupation.” Following military service and philosophy studies at Hebrew University he launched his career in journalism by writing a pamphlet for Peace Now, describing settlements as Israel’s “folly.” A young writer for the left-wing weekly Koteret Rashit during the eighties, in the mid-nineties he moved to the left-wing daily Haaretz, where he has ranked ever since among Israel’s top journalists.
Along the way, Shavit began to ask: “Why was my Israel occupying and oppressing another people?” His mournful lament in My Promised Land (Spiegel & Grau) subtitled “The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is his answer. Predictably, it has aroused considerable interest in American liberal precincts, where Israel is hardly warmly embraced. In the space of eight November days The New York Times ran Thomas Friedman’s suggestion that Shavit’s book be required reading for President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu; a laudatory review in the daily edition; an op-ed by Shavit himself blaming the recent U.S.-Iran confrontation on President George W. Bush and praising President Obama for demanding a settlement freeze in 2009.
The fusillade of praise was capped by a front-page review in the Times Book Review by New Republic columnist Leon Wieseltier, who joined Shavit in condemning “the utter derangement of the settlement policies in territories that Israel has an urgent and prudent interest in evacuating.”
Shavit has a political axe to grind, which is noisiest when he contrasts his moral golden age of kibbutz socialism, embodied in the founding of Ein Harod in 1921, with the “calamity” of Jewish settlements, launched in Samaria with Ofra in 1975. His sharp contrast between kibbutz morality and settlement immorality, converging in Israel’s “triumph and tragedy” after the Six-Day War, provides the central narrative theme of betrayal that pervades My Promised Land.
Shavit is smitten by Ein Harod, built between Degania (the first Zionist kibbutz, founded in 1909) and the Arab city of Jenin, on land purchased from its Egyptian absentee owner. In their “colonization process,” several dozen Jewish pioneers built a “communist colony. A kibbutz.” In Shavit’s judgment, they were “blessed and cursed with convenient blindness. They see the Arabs but they don’t.” After nearly two thousand years of exile, settlement in Palestine was “the Jewish people’s last resort.” Ein Harod was an experiment to determine “whether the Jews can establish a new secular civilization in their ancient homeland,” while realizing “the dreams of Jewish socialism in the Land of Israel.”
For Zionism to prevail, Shavit writes, there must be “a well-organized, disciplined socialist structure.” Without it, Zionism would lack “the sense of moral superiority that is essential for the colonization process to succeed. Without the communal aspect of kibbutz, socialist Zionism will lack legitimacy and will be perceived as an unjust colonialist movement.” Only kibbutz socialism could provide moral justification for Zionism “to take the valley and to take the land.” The young “comrades” settling the land “do not ask themselves how the eighty thousand Jews living in Palestine in 1921 will deal with more than six hundred thousand Arabs” who are already there. Nor, for that matter, does Shavit.
On acreage purchased from the Sarsouk family, the settlers of Ein Harod would “build and transform themselves in a valley inhabited by others.” To be sure, some lingering serfs and local villagers who remained nearby became “friendly neighbors.” But not for long. Following initial outbursts of gunfire from Arabs who did not welcome Jews to their neighborhood, and fires set in kibbutz fields, open hostility erupted with the Arab revolt in 1936. There was no alternative to Zionist military power, and kibbutzim like Ein Harod became the military vanguard in the struggle for Jewish statehood.