The subtitle of “My promised land” by Ari Shavit is ominous:The triumph and tragedy of Israel. And that's exactly what the book is about. Triumph and tragedy.
Ari Shavit writes for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He is a descendent from an aristocratic English family and that's where he starts to tell his story. In 1887 the Rt. Honorable Herbert Bentwich, Shavits great grandfather, leads a group of Zionist pilgrims to a distant corner of the Ottoman empire: Palestine, as it was then called. They travel the land, take in the sites and do not see the half million locals – Arabs, Druze and Bedouin - who live in twenty towns and cities and numerous villages. What they do see is that there is enough room for a Jewish homeland. And with that vision they return to London.
In seventeen chapters Shavit tells chronologically the story of how Israel came to be, how it soared to incredible heights of inventiveness and bravery, how they reinvented themselves and organized themselves in a new life style, that of the kibbutz. They bought land from distant owners in Alexandria and other places and started businesses. They hired the local population to work for them and brought electricity, running water and roads to their homes. For a long time it seemed everybody was happy with the obvious improvements and successes.
But the happiness wasn't to last. Arabs protested against the loss of their lands, the Jews came down hard. Huge and bloody mistakes were made on both sides.
Chapter by chapter Shavit explains how things came to be; the State of Israel, the wars, peace processes, intifadas, the occupation of the Westbank, the settlements, Iran...
In the final chapters Ari Shavit paints a grim picture of the future. It started with the trauma of the Yom Kippur War in 1972. Shavit explains how the people began to distrust the state, government, leadership. The sense of purpose was gone, hierarchy broke down and the different tribes (religious, rich, poor, orthodox, Arab, workers and entrepreneurs) went their own separate ways. They trusted no one.
This anarchistic approach, however, also released an enormous energy and Israeli capitalism became a roaring success. But while the private sector flourished, the public sector faltered. As a result the wealth of the country flowed into the hands of twenty commercial groups and families that rule Israeli economy, the media and public discourse. What little uninspired and petty government there was could not restrain market forces or deal with powerful minorities of the ultra-orthodox and Arabs.
Shavit recognizes three threats or challenges that are facing Israel in the 21st century: the Islamic states and neighbors that are faltering and becoming increasingly more extremist; the Israeli Arabs who follow closely what is happening to their Muslim brothers; the Palestinians who perceive Israel as a land robber.
Israel always fought its wars with conviction and a tremendous mental strength.Now they need the same conviction and strength to give the so called occupied territories to the Palestinians and establish borders. Shavit recognizes it may be too late, but still...