The Triumph and Tragedy of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land
Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land may well be the most commercially successful, yet also critically acclaimed book by an Israeli writer explaining his country’s complicated history to American readers. It made the New York Times best seller list for several weeks and was praised profusely in most major book review outlets, including a rave by the New Republic’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier on the cover of the Times’ Sunday book review. The review’s editors then selected Shavit’s book as one of the 100 best books of the year. Meanwhile, over at the Grey Lady’s editorial pages, columnist Thomas Friedman chimed in, touting Shavit’s book as a “must-read” and recommended that President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu read it before their next contentious telephone conversation. Shavit also won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of Jewish history and has spoken to overwhelmingly appreciative audiences at Jewish Y’s and synagogues around the country.
Some of this adulation is well deserved. Shavit is the most talented Israeli journalist of his generation. At his home base at Haaretz (often described as Israel’s New York Times) he is a triple threat – a prolific columnist, reporter and member of the paper’s editorial board. Haaretz is even more reflexively left-liberal than the Times. The paper’s editorial pages are frequently graced with political rants by an assortment of post-Zionists, postmodernists and Marxists. In this mélange, Shavit stands out as one of the only adults in the room. Like most of his Haaretz colleagues Shavit started out as an enthusiast for the Oslo accords and the peace process, but then experienced second thoughts. He broke with the Israeli left after becoming convinced by facts on the ground – i.e. the suicide bombers of the second Intifada -- that the Palestinians were not reliable partners for peace or for achieving a compromise, two-state solution.
Shavit writes beautifully in Hebrew and English. Indeed, My Promised Land was composed in English (there is no Hebrew edition) and targeted at the American market, particularly American Jews. Before publication the author told friends that his book was positioned to appeal to hard line supporters of Israel as well as dovish groups, like J Street, more critical of Israeli government policies. Each side, he hoped, would find something in the book that appealed to their own perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
So far, Shavit’s hopes have been realized. Thus, the liberal New Yorker published an edited excerpt from Shavit’s long chapter describing the Israeli army’s brutal expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from the city of Lydda during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. (In his acknowledgements, Shavit credits New Yorker editor, David Remnick, for encouraging him to write the book and for “going over the manuscript.”) “Lydda is the black box of Zionism,” Shavit writes in the New Yorker. “The truth is that Zionism could not bear the Arab city of Lydda.” At almost the same time, the Wall Street Journal published a different excerpt from the book under the title, “In Israel, a Dream Made Real.” In this portion Shavit declares that, “In Israel, the Jewish Renaissance was achieved by the remarkable success of Zionism” and that “one can see the transformation of the Jews in the Zionist century. We had to come here, and once we came, we did wonders.”
Some reviewers of My Promised Land have suggested that Shavit’s ability to balance two seemingly contradictory truths – the “remarkable success of Zionism” and the “black box of Zionism” – is precisely the quality that makes the book so compelling. “Shavit knows how to express solidarity and criticism simultaneously,” writes Leon Wieseltier. “He proposes that Zionism was historically miraculous and he proposes that Zionism was historically culpable.”
Measured by word volume alone, Shavit’s book tilts more towards the glorious side of Zionism’s ledger than to its supposedly darker side. There are four or five extremely moving chapters depicting the Zionist revolution’s “miraculous” accomplishments: reclaiming and cultivating the land, rescuing a people devastated by the shadows of the Holocaust, building a robust entrepreneurial economy and creating an artistic and cultural renaissance. And all of these “wonders” took place even while the people of Israel remained under constant military threat to their national survival.
Shavit devotes only one full chapter to Zionism’s “black box” – an account of what was done to the Arabs of Lydda by Israeli military forces during three days in July, 1948. Yet, contrary to Wieseltier, it makes no sense to balance Shavit’s condemnation of Zionism’s foul deed at Lydda by citing the book’s depiction of the Zionist project’s many admirable accomplishments. The balancing act doesn’t work because Shavit’s Lydda chapter is based on such a gross historical distortion that it overwhelms his testimonial to the positive, miraculous side of Zionism and, in effect, lends support to the Palestinian movement’s own historical narrative – called the Nakba – of an innocent, indigenous nation dispossessed and ethnically cleansed by perfidious European Jewish settlers. Shavit’s perverse interpretation of Lydda not only damages the cause of defending Zionism against its many present day enemies, but it also undermines the possibility of a realistic, compromise peace with the Palestinians.
Surprisingly, there is little new in Shavit’s factual description of the events in Lydda from July 11 to July 13, 1948. All serious historians of the period have acknowledged what happened in the Palestinian Arab city during those three violent days. What Shavit does is to take an old story out of context and give it a moral weight it can’t bear.
Immediately after David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948 the new state was invaded by five Arab armies. The most effective of these military forces was the Jordanian Arab Legion, commanded by British officers. The Legion laid siege to Jerusalem and eventually forced all Jews living in the Old City out at bayonet point. The Jordanians also came close to cutting the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus endangering the heartland of the Jewish State. Lydda, (with a population of over 40,000 Arabs) was just 11 miles east of Tel Aviv on the route to Jerusalem and in the area assigned to the future Palestinian state by the 1947 United Nations partition plan. (The partition proposal was accepted by the Jews, but rejected by the Arabs, which is why Lydda became a key battleground in 1948.) In early July, IDF commanders determined that they must remove the Legion’s threat to Israel’s largest city and try to secure the road to Jerusalem. Military necessity dictated that Lydda and several adjoining villages must be conquered and the Jordanian force in the area pushed eastward away from Tel Aviv.
As Shavit describes the action, an IDF armored column sped through Lydda on the morning of July 11, firing at everything in its way. After a 47 minute battle more than a hundred Arab civilians and nine Israeli soldiers were dead. “By evening,” Shavit writes, “Zionism has taken the city of Lydda.” However, on the next day Jordanian armored cars suddenly returned to the city. Israeli soldiers were fired on again, including by armed Palestinian irregulars. Some of the Israeli forces then began shooting in all directions and throwing hand grenades into homes where they believed the shooting was coming from. The second wave of violence resulted in the deaths of another 200 Lydda residents. “Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda,” Shavit writes.
News of the renewed fighting reached IDF headquarters, where the senior commander, Yigal Allon, asked Ben Gurion what should be done with the Arabs of Lydda. According to Shavit, “Ben Gurion waves his hand: Deport them” Operations officer Yitzchak Rabin then issues the order: “The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without regard to age.” The next day, July 13, 1948, thirty-five thousand Palestinian Arabs are on the road out of Lydda, walking east toward the Jordanian lines with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Shavit’s bare factual account of the fighting in Lydda is consistent with several histories of the first Arab-Israeli war, including Benny Morris’s volume, 1948, widely regarded as the definitive history of the conflict. (Morris is known as the dean of Israel’s “new” or “revisionist” historians, because of his pioneering scholarly work in the 1980’s showing that Israel was far more responsible for creating the Palestinian refugee problem than had previously been acknowledged by the Jewish State’s leaders.) But in his broader, historical interpretation of the events in Lydda and his sweeping moral judgment, Shavit goes far beyond the account by the revisionist Morris.
“Lydda is our black box,” Shavit writes. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be. In retrospect it’s all too clear. When Herbert Bentwich [a 19th century British Zionist leader, who happens to have been Shavit’s great grandfather] saw Lydda from the white tower of Ramleh in April, 1897, he should have seen that if a Jewish state was to exist in Palestine, an Arab Lydda could not exist at its center.”
It’s mindboggling that a book that won a prestigious award for Jewish history can include so many historical untruths in one short paragraph. If it’s the case, as Shavit claims, that “Zionism could not bear Lydda,” one would like to ask the author to explain how Zionism managed to bear the Arab city of Nazereth, where there were no expulsions (the city’s population is now 60,000) or how Zionism bears the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm (population 50,000) in the densely Arab populated area called “the triangle” in the center of Israel.
Shavit claims that the early Zionists were blind to the existence of another people living on the land they coveted for their own state. Thus he argues, somewhat preposterously, that his own great grandfather should have known in 1897 that a future Jewish state would mean the end of Arab Lydda. Shavit’s judgment about moral responsibility for Lydda may suit his narrative of Zionism’s original sin, but it runs counter to the historical record. There is overwhelming evidence (including even in Shavit’s own chapter) that the expulsion order at Lydda was ad hoc and contingent, rather than historically preordained. The decision was made because of the facts on the ground in a war launched by the Arab states and by Palestinian militias with the express intention of annihilating the Jews of Palestine.
At the beginning of the war, the Secretary General of the Arab League, Abdul Rahman Azzam, vowed: “This war will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the crusades.” The leader of the Palestinian armed militias during the 1948 war was the ex- Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Al- Husseini actively collaborated with Hitler in the implementation of the Final Solution. In a meeting in Gaza in 1947 he was reelected Chairman of the Arab Higher Committee, the political body representing the Palestinians, and then made it clear that the objective of the 1948 war would be the annihilation of the Jews of Palestine. Shavit mentions none of this essential historical context when condemning Zionism for the expulsion of the residents of Lydda.
Nor does Shavit take into account any of several well documented counterexamples to the expulsion of the Lydda Arabs. In the mixed city of Haifa, for example, the Jewish mayor Shabtai Levy met with Arab leaders just before the war broke out. He was in tears as he begged them to tell their own people to stay in their homes and promised that no harm would befall them. The Arab leaders told Levy that they had been ordered out—and even threatened—by al-Husseini and must obey. The meeting between Mayor Levy and the Arab notables was graphically described in Palestine Betrayed, a 2010 book on the 1948 events by Israeli historian Ephraim Karsh. As Karsh recounts, a witness present at the meeting was Major General Hugh Stockwell, the British military commander of Haifa and hardly a friend of Zionism. Karsh quotes General Stockwell telling the Arab leaders, “You have made a foolish decision.” Within days of the meeting the Haifa Arabs began streaming out of the city.
You might think that having morally judged Zionism for the crime of Lydda, Shavit would say something similar about the Haifa Arabs who were forced out of their homes by their own Palestinian leaders, as well as acknowledging Mayor Levy, who tried to keep the Arab residents of his city from becoming refugees.
You might also say that it is Shavit who is blind to the reality of Palestinian history and to their own unacknowledged “black box” – the violent rejection, fueled by Islamist beliefs, of any Jewish presence on the land. Shavit says almost nothing about the many Arab massacres of Jews, the expulsions of Jews from the cities of Hebron and Jerusalem, and the fact that not a single Jew was allowed to remain in any area occupied by the Arab armies during the 1948 war.
Another troubling aspect of Shavit’s Lydda chapter is its lack of scholarly citation. The book carries no endnotes at all. Instead Shavit says that the material for the Lydda chapter came from “numerous accounts of the traumatic events recounted to me in the early 1990s by [a number of veterans of the fighting.]” Perhaps Shavit or his New Yorker editor realized that relying on 20 year old oral interviews for his interpretation of Lydda would invite some serious evidentiary questions. So for the New Yorker article Shavit added that he had also used Benny Morris’s 2008 book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. Rather than provide credibility for the Lydda chapter, however, this late citation of Morris raises even more questions about the validity of Shavit’s historical interpretation.
In 1948 and several other books Benny Morris rejected the thesis that the Zionists were either blind to the presence of the Arabs on the land, or that the Arab refugee problem was preordained. Morris does not regard the expulsion of the Lydda Arabs as a metaphor for the Zionist movement’s treatment of the Palestinian Arabs. Contrary to Shavit and other leftist, revisionist historians, Morris asserts in 1948 that the Palestinian calamity was “born of war, not by design.” One more item that is in Morris’s book, but goes unmentioned by Shavit, is that after the expulsion order some Arabs managed to remain in Lydda and over the years more Arabs moved to the city. Today Lydda has a substantial minority of Arab citizens.
In a 2010 letter to the Irish Times, Morris summed up his views on the issue of moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem. It is worth quoting Morris, Shavit’s one scholarly source for his Lydda chapter, at length:
“ In defiance of the will of the international community, as embodied in the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29th, 1947, [the Palestinians] launched hostilities against the Jewish community in Palestine in the hope of aborting the emergence of the Jewish state and perhaps destroying that community. But they lost; and one of the results was the displacement of 700,000 of them from their homes. . . . On the local level, in dozens of localities around Palestine, Arab leaders advised or ordered the evacuation of women and children or whole communities”
“Most of Palestine’s 700,000 “refugees” fled their homes because of the flail of war (and in the expectation that they would shortly return to their homes on the backs of victorious Arab invaders). But it is also true that there were several dozen sites, including Lydda and Ramla, from which Arab communities were expelled by Jewish troops.”
“The displacement of the 700,000 Arabs who became “refugees”—and I put the term in inverted commas, as two-thirds of them were displaced from one part of Palestine to another and not from their country (which is the usual definition of a refugee)—was not a “racist crime” . . . but the result of a national conflict and a war, with religious overtones, from the Muslim perspective, launched by the Arabs themselves.”
For the New Yorker’s version of Shavit’s Lydda chapter a new lead paragraph was added that attempts to provide contemporary relevance to Shavit’s account of the events that occurred 65 years ago. Noting recent efforts by the Obama administration to advance negotiations and “achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” the paragraph asks whether this effort might succeed where others have failed. “It’s possible that the answer can be found in the history of Lydda,” Shavit writes. “Anyone striving for Middle East peace must acknowledge the tragedy of Lydda and comprehend its implications.”
In reality, Shavit’s interpretation of the Lydda expulsions and the attention his book is receiving is likely to make it harder – not easier – to achieve peace. It’s surprising that someone as sophisticated about the pathologies of the Palestinian movement as Shavit is doesn’t see this clearly. The metaphor of Zionism’s “black box” plays directly into the false Palestinian narrative of the Nakba, which is now the single most important obstacle to achieving a realistic, compromise peace.
The Arabic word Nakba connotes a historical catastrophe inflicted on an innocent and blameless people, in this case the Palestinians, by an overpowering outside force (international Zionism). Thus on May 16, 2011, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mahmoud Abbas in which he declared that “shortly after” the U.N. General Assembly voted to partition the “Palestinian homeland, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.”
The Nakba is the heart of the Palestinians’ backward-looking national narrative. Every year, on the anniversary of Israel’s independence, more and more Palestinians (including Arab citizens of Israel) commemorate the Nakba with pageants and protests (sometimes violent) that express longing for a lost paradise. Every year, the legend grows of the evil deeds committed by the Zionists in 1948, crimes routinely equated with the Holocaust.
Echoing the Nakba narrative is an international leftist coalition that celebrates the Palestinians as the last victims of Western racism and colonialism. The only just compensation for the Nakba, say the Palestinians and their allies, is to give the refugees of Lydda and other Palestinian cities the “right of return” to their former homes in Israel.
Palestinian leaders know that there can be no serious negotiations for peace unless they explicitly renounce the right of return, which is really another way of calling for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. Shavit too understands this, and must know that his interpretation of the 1948 expulsion from Lydda will be used as an argument for the Palestinian right of return, as well as to question Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.
In the concluding paragraph of the Lydda chapter Shavit writes that he recently went up to the highest point in the area and looked down on Lydda as it is today. This started him thinking again about the tragedy that occurred six decades earlier. “Fory-five years after Zionism came into the Lydda valley in the name of the Kishinev pogrom, Zionism instigated a human catastrophe in the Lydda valley,” Shavit writes. And now he imagines that he sees the awful column of Lydda’s refugees still marching: “So many years have passed, and yet the column is still marching east. For columns like the column of Lydda never stop marching.”
Contrary to many of Shavit’s reviewers, there is nothing courageous about this kind of writing that is plainly wrong on the facts and relies on a false historical interpretation to enforce its moral logic. The refugees of Lydda may still be marching in Shavit’s vivid but distorted imagination, but in reality they and their descendants – now totaling 5-7 million souls – have been locked up for the past 65 years in miserable refugee camps. It is not because of Zionism that they are still there. Rather it’s their own leaders and the Arab regimes who want them to remain locked up.
This is a worse crime than the Lydda expulsions. It constitutes the only refugee problem in the world that the international community and the UN have refused to solve by integration of the refugees in their host countries. And yet there is a certain perverse logic to this policy, since it allows Palestinian leaders to continue feeding the refugees a daily diet of Jew hatred, along with the illusion that someday they will be returning in triumph to their homes in Lydda and other Israeli cities. Meanwhile the 1.5 million Arab citizens of Israel are the only Arabs in the region living in a free and democratic society and enjoy the highest standard of living among the Arabs of the Middle East.
Unfortunately, Ari Shavit’s “black box” of Lydda does not contain any of these hard truths. It is a gift box to Mahmoud Abbas and to haters of Israel, worldwide. And that is the so far unacknowledged “tragedy” of Shavit’s book.