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Liberal schizophrenia and moral myopia: On Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’

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Ari Shavit has placed all his hope in Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

In January, the Haaretz columnist and toast of the U.S. media called the leaked details of Kerry’s “framework” agreement for peace a “Zionist victory” since it includes “recognition of a Jewish state in the 1967 borders.” Earlier this month, he decried the “offensive” being waged against Israel’s demands that the Palestinians recognize the country as a “Jewish state.”

So Shavit has gone all in on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultimatum to the Palestinians.  And if you read his new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, you’ll understand why.  Shavit is devoted to liberal Zionism, an ideology that pushes a peace agreement to save Israel’s Jewish character in the face of “demographic threats”–non-Jewish bodies.  He’s so devoted to liberal Zionism that he excuses ethnic cleansing, a war crime, because it enabled the Jewish state.

9780385521703_custom-3ed8cab7d39a91870da51459b60e71aedc5c1d2c-s6-c30I found the book chapter on ethic cleansing, titled “Lydda, 1948,” mostly gut wrenching and honest, with phrases like “Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda” and “cleanse the Galilee.”  The man knows how to write, and write well–historical snapshots that come to life with vivid, thick detail as the author traces the story of Israel through important events like the building of the Dimona nuclear reactor and the 2006 Lebanon War.

The frank descriptions of how Zionist militias expelled the Palestinians of Lydda, never to return again, could easily have come from the work of Ilan Pappe or Walid Khalidi, two of the preeminent scholars of the Nakba.  Shavit’s work on the catastrophe that befell Palestinian society, reprinted in the New Yorker, has brought the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians–the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–into the homes of many Americans.  (It’s telling, though, that Shavit never utters the word “Nakba” in his book.)

But it’s where Shavit goes with the facts he writes about that is troubling, myopic and, frankly, twisted.  Despite vividly recounting the disturbing scenes of columns of thousands of Palestinians fleeing from their homes, and the massacre of Palestinians holed up in a small mosque, he “stands with the damned”–the ethnic cleansers.  Shavit, one of the most prominent liberal Zionist writers in the country, concludes with these lines: “I know that if it wasn’t for them [the militias who cleansed Lydda], the State of Israel would not have been born…They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”

Those words encapsulate the problem with Shavit’s political analysis.  He stares Zionism’s cold, hard truths in the face and ultimately embraces them.  To Shavit, the choice is stark: either ethnically cleanse Palestine or never have a Jewish homeland.

Perhaps that’s true if the Jewish homeland you envision was an ethnically chauvinist one that needed to engineer a Jewish majority.  But it’s that zero sum mentality that offers little hope for the future.  And it also points to a kind of liberal Israeli schizophrenia, the kind often seen in the “shoot and cry” genre of Israeli literature.  Shavit, and others like him, acknowledge what others see as the fundamental problems with Israel, the pinnacle of which is the Nakba.  But they don’t follow those problems to their logical conclusion: there is something rotten with how Israel was founded and is currently constituted.  This schizophrenia, the simultaneous acknowledgement of deep ethical problems with Zionism and the need to justify it, can be found throughout the book.

Yet it is for this very reason that the book has been praised in the quarters of elite American journalism.  The likes of Thomas Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Remnick and Leon Wieseltier have heaped praises on Shavit’s book.  It appeals to their sensibility.  They are liberal Zionist defenders of Israel that have qualms about aspects of Israeli policy–the occupation, first and foremost–but never question the validity of an ethnically exclusive state.  So it makes sense that Wieseltier continues to think there can be a “Jewish and democratic state“; that Friedman writes that Netanyahu’s “Jewish state” demand is not “without reason”; that Remnick can acknowledge Israel’s “ethnocracy” but only tie it to the West Bank settlements, a flawed notion that liberal Zionists like Shavit always invoke.

In praising Shavit’s book, all of these luminaries have acknowledged the Nakba. But they have resolved to never do anything about it today–and there is a today, since the Nakba has never ended.  Shavit writes that the Zionist and Palestinian narrative cannot be reconciled, and that this makes peace hard to forge.  But he ignores that the Nakba’s driving ethos–creating a Jewish demographic majority with as few Arabs as possible–remains a core part of contemporary Israeli policy.  What to do about that driving ethos, which Zionism commands, is not a question for Shavit and other liberal Zionists.  Leave it be, because that’s the only way Israel, and the Jewish people, can survive.

That sensibility emerges prominently in the chapter where he interviews Mohammed Dahla, a Palestinian-Israeli attorney who co-founded Adalah, the Palestinian rights group based in Haifa. (The chapter is largely a reprint of a Haaretz piece he wrote in 2003.)  Shavit allows Dahla to talk bluntly about the contradictions of Shavit’s “Jewish and democratic” state.  “Do you really think you can protect yourself with this contradiction of a Jewish democracy? To insist upon the Jewish character of the State of Israel is to live by the sword,” Dahla tells Shavit.

He warns Shavit that “we are not like you. We are not strangers or wanderers or emigrants…No one can uproot us. No one can separate us from the land. Not even you.” What does Shavit have to say in response?  Not much of anything.  “He is as Israeli as any Israeli I know. He is one of the sharpest friends I have. We share a city, a state, a homeland. We hold common values and beliefs. And yet there is a terrible schism between us. What will become of us, Mohammed?” Shavit writes.

He’s wrong about “common values and beliefs.”  Somehow, Shavit deludes himself into thinking that they are both liberal democrats, albeit with different ethnicities.  But the whole chapter showed how wide a gulf there is between them.  Dahla wants a liberal democratic state with equal rights for all.  Shavit does not and resists that call. At first glance, it is mind boggling that he hasn’t internalized that after writing a whole chapter exposing the gulf.  But then again, this is liberal Zionism: a doomed ideology wrestling with the contradictions between liberalism and Zionism, not ever realizing there is no way to reconcile the two.

The other chapter that exposes Shavit’s impoverished politics is his work on Israel’s settlement project.  He is harsh in his condemnation of what he calls a “futile, anachronistic colonialist project.”  But then he offers up these lines in a conversation with Pinchas Wallerstein, a leader of the settlement of Ofra:  “You endangered everything…You contradicted Zionist logic and undermined Zionist interests.”  Similarly, Shavit writes that Ofra was built against the will of the “Jewish democratic state,” and that the settlements “have placed Israel’s neck in a noose.”  The logic of these words is that the settlers had agency that went against what Israel proper wanted.  It is the settlers that have caused the problems for everybody else.

This is a familiar trap embedded in liberal Zionist DNA.  If the settlements are bad, and Israel is good, all we must do is erase the settlements, pull back, and everything will be fine.  What this ignores is that expansion is part of Zionism’s raison d’etre, and that the colonial project in the West Bank was a continuation of the colonial project of Tel Aviv. And the most important fact it ignores is that the settlements are a project of the Israeli state. It is the state that funds the settlements and provides them with infrastructure. Even Shavit acknowledges this in his discussion of Ofra.  He notes that Ofra, while created clandestinely, was helped along by Defense Minister Shimon Peres, and that the Israeli army looked the other way even if the initial settlement of Ofra was launched without their approval.  The gulf between the facts and Shavit’s analysis is, again, stark.

Where does Shavit’s telling of the Israeli state’s history leave us?  Nowhere good.  He concludes by fretting about the “circles” that are enclosing Israel: the Arab circle, the Islamic circle, the Palestinian circle.  The Arab and Islamic circles are in chaos right now, and the Palestinians are largely impotent.  This won’t be the case forever.

Shavit is a scribe piping forth the views of the liberal, Ashkenazi Israeli elite. But those views are a recipe for continued conflict.  He’s right that the Palestinian and Zionist narratives are diametrically opposed.  So be it.  But the “Jewish democracy” he is bent on supporting continues on by imposing the Nakba today, as we speak.  The way forward is to end ethnocracy, to end Jewish privilege between the river and the sea.  Shavit will resist that, it seems, to his last breath.  So long as Israel does the same, blood will roil the holy land.

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What this ignores is that expansion is part of Zionism’s raison d’etre, and that the colonial project in the West Bank was a continuation of the colonial project of Tel Aviv. Just to refute this point Shavit doesn’t ignore this point. He discusses it at length that what a revolutionary liberation movement can do a state cannot do. He makes a distinction between liberation and colonialism that the acts may be the same but the… Read more »

Terrific review, Alex – says clearly and concisely most of what Norman Finkelstein takes 83 pages to say in “Old Wine, Broken Bottle,” his new booklet devoted entirely to dissecting Shavit’s contradictions. (Not that that’s not also worth reading, for those who have the time.) As for the honesty about Lydda, I see it as a fallback position for the Zionists – they know the old BS about the Palestinians leaving at the behest of… Read more »

Great review: makes clear and explicit the problem of Zionism for any Zionists with pre-1900’s moral/ethical perceptions. But the original Zionists and many of today’s Zionists have bought that the fate of the Jews depends on doing “what it takes” to survive in Israel as a Jewish majority state, and they have been cruel in the extreme in determining what “what it takes” means. They had choices which they rejected. Most clearly, these days, they… Read more »

>> Shavit is … so devoted to liberal Zionism that he excuses ethnic cleansing, a war crime, because it enabled the Jewish state. … “I know that if it wasn’t for them [the militias who cleansed Lydda], the State of Israel would not have been born…They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.” “Liberal Zionist” R.W.: “I cannot consistently say that ‘ethnic cleansing is never… Read more »

”We hold common values and beliefs. And yet there is a terrible schism between us. What will become of us, Mohammed?” Shavit writes””

(sigh)…No, they don’t hold ‘common values and beliefs’ with most people of the world.
And trying to enforce Jewish ‘self determination’ as Jewish ‘exceptionalism’ on others is what dooms them.
Blind as bats.