Shavit is caught on the horns of the Zionist dilemma. Zionism, he asserts, was both a “national liberation movement” and a “colonialist enterprise” that “intended to save the lives of one people by the dispossession of another.” Religious Zionist settlers, he acknowledges, emulate their secular kibbutznik predecessors. But he is tortured by the recognition of this historical truth – and by the double standard it elicits: a kibbutz is a settlement worthy of praise; but a religious Zionist settlement deserves excoriation.
Confronting his Haaretz colleague and Ofra settler Israel Harel, Shavit lacerates his Zionist Other: “A zealot’s fervor blinded you; a collective national-religious fervor made you not see the Arabs all around you. Your tribal psychology and bizarre ideology led you to lead Israel to a dead end.”
Harel is unfazed. Eventually, he believes, “the people of Tel Aviv will understand how hollow their existence is, that without us they have no roots, not depth, and no life… What began in Ofra will make Israel Jewish and Zionist once again.” But Shavit remains haunted that after eighteen centuries of “powerless existence” Jews seized “another people’s land.” One might suggest, however, that Jews returned to their own land and found it occupied by another people.
* * * * *
My Promised Land contains fascinating vignettes that illuminate the diversity – for better and worse – of Israeli society. The excruciating pain of Oriental Jews, wrenched from their own vibrant cultures to be demeaned and degraded in Ashkenazi Israel, ranks among them. So, too, does Shavit’s dismaying profile of pleasure-seeking young Tel Avivians, where “party now” has replaced “Peace Now” in the city of “piercings, tattoos, drugs and sex.”
Shavit also reveals the undiminished fury of his Palestinian-Israeli lawyer friend who never will accept “the Jewish character of the State of Israel.” His interviews with Israeli security officials concerning the Iranian nuclear threat and Israel’s narrowing choices as the Obama surrender unfolds, are chilling. He thoughtfully explores the conundrum of Israel as “a Jewish nation-state founded in the heart of the Arab world.”
Shavit appreciates that Israel offers “the intensity of life on the edge.” He even concedes, in the end, that although “occupation is wrong, futile, and malevolent” – indeed, it is “killing us morally and politically” – it is not “the source of all evil.”
In fact, he writes, Jews “never had it so good.” Like Halkin and Halevi, he recognizes that the paradoxes and dilemmas confronting a modern Jewish state in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people, surrounded by enemies sworn to its annihilation, go with the territory.
Triumph and tragedy, like unity and division, have accompanied Jews throughout their long, unique, and improbable history. Why should the story of Jewish statehood, “the miraculous story that Israel is,” be any different?