Israel As You’ve Never Seen It: Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land
Here is what fascinates me about Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel: its unflinching honesty and clear-eyed passion, its adoration of country, and its heartbreaking analysis of that country’s wrongdoings. With all the components of a nail-biting adventure -- intrigue, war, enchantment, love, betrayal, loss, and a galaxy of charismatic characters -- it is, as Leon Wieseltier suggests in The New York Times, the least tendentious book about Israel [he or I] has ever read.
And what a tale Shavit weaves, this internationally respected liberal journalist at Israel’s oldest newspaper, Haaretz. It is a stirring history of the founding of the state: its nobility and promise, its determination to rescue Jews from death and exile, its grand experiment in the melding of liberalism, socialism, and nationalism, its devastating wars and internal revolts, its present-day nuclear and high-tech triumphs. In pursuit of answers to what went wrong, Shavit gives voice to his moral anguish as he witnesses Israel’s betrayal of its ideals, and its essential loneliness on the world stage. One of the most gorgeous and tragic passages is his description of his journey on the road to the West Bank Israeli settlement of Ofra: “The jagged precipices of the mountainous landscape are as stunning as the demographic reality is appalling. Under December’s crystal clear skies, it seems that the entanglement created by the … settlements cannot be undone. Occupation seems irreversible … It is sublime and depressing here, majestic and sad. Perhaps even hopeless.”
There are extraordinary chapters here: The year 1935, when Europe was exploding in pogroms while Jews and Arabs together planted the vast orange groves of Rehovot; the 1948 massacre in and destruction of the Arab village of Lydda, which Shavit rightly calls “[Israel’s] black box … the dark secret of Zionism”; the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, without which the West Bank settlements cannot be understood; Shavit’s own horrific experience in a Gaza detention camp; and what is perhaps his most brilliant and fascinating chapter: the rise and fall of Moroccan-born Aryeh Deri, the founder of SHAS, and the accompanying clash between the shrinking Ashkenazi community, for whom Israel was designed, and the tidal wave of (Sephardic) immigrants from North Africa, necessary to Israel’s survival but still cursed with the bitter stigma of otherness, of not having “bled enough into the river of belonging.”
Written in elegant, elegiac, almost Biblical prose, Shavit’s unfailingly compassionate narrative teems with the oral histories of unforgettable characters and remains respectful of his beloved country’s complexity and moral complication. Shavit insists on affirmation without illusion; he both condemns and extols. In the end, it is Israel’s capacity for denial that is its ultimate tragedy and the source of Shavit’s immense sorrow: “The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth,” he laments. “In no way a normal state, yet besotted with the illusion of normalcy, Israel is a Jewish state in an Arab world, a Western state in an Islamic world, a democracy in a region of tyranny.” A devastating and brilliant book, and a shattering personal reckoning.
At First Sight, 1897
On the night of April 15, 1897, a small, elegant steamer is en route from Egypt’s Port Said to Jaffa. Thirty passengers are on board, twenty-one of them Zionist pilgrims who have come from London via Paris, Marseille, and Alexandria. Leading the pilgrims is the Rt. Honorable Herbert Bentwich, my great-grandfather.
Bentwich is an unusual Zionist. At the end of the nineteenth century, most Zionists are Eastern European; Bentwich is a British subject. Most Zionists are poor; he is a gentleman of independent means. Most Zionists are secular, whereas he is a believer. For most Zionists of this time, Zionism is the only choice, but my great-grandfather chooses Zionism of his own free will. In the early 1890s, Herbert Bentwich makes up his mind that the Jews must settle again in their ancient homeland, Judea.
This pilgrimage is unusual, too. It is the first such journey of upper-middle-class British Jews to the Land of Israel. This is why the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, attributes such importance to these twenty-one travelers. He expects Bentwich and his colleagues to write a comprehensive report about the Land. Herzl is especially interested in the inhabitants of Palestine and the prospects for colonizing it. He expects the report to be presented at the end of the summer to the first Zionist Congress that is to be held in Basel. But my great-grandfather is somewhat less ambitious. His Zionism, which preceded Herzl’s, is essentially romantic. Yet he, too, was carried away by the English translation of Herzl’s prophetic manifesto Der Judenstaat, or The State of the Jews. He personally invited Herzl to appear at his prestigious London club, and he was bowled over by the charisma of the visionary leader. Like Herzl, he believes that Jews must return to Palestine. But as the flat-bottomed steamer Oxus carves the black water of the Mediterranean, Bentwich is still an innocent. My great-grandfather does not wish to take a country and to establish a state; he wishes to face God.
I remain on deck for a moment. I want to understand why the Oxus is making its way across the sea. Who exactly is this ancestor of mine, and why has he come here?
As the twentieth century is about to begin there are more than 11 million Jews in the world, of whom nearly 7 million live in Eastern Europe, 2 million live in Central and Western Europe, and 1.5 million live in North America. Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewry total less than one million.
Only in North America and Western Europe are Jews emancipated. In Russia they are persecuted. In Poland they are discriminated against. In Islamic countries they are a “protected people” living as second-class citizens. Even in the United States, France, and Britain, emancipation is merely a legality. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. In 1897, Christendom is not yet at peace with its ultimate other. Many find it difficult to address Jews as free, proud, and equal.
In the eastern parts of Europe, Jewish distress is acute. A new breed of ethnic-based anti-Semitism is superseding the old religious-based anti-Semitism. Waves of pogroms befall Jewish towns and townships in Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, and Poland. Most shtetl Jews realize that there is no future for the shtetl. Hundreds of thousands sail to Ellis Island. The Jewish Diaspora experiences once again the cataclysmic phenomenon of mass migration.
Worse than the past is what the future holds. In the next half century, a third of all Jews will be murdered. Two-thirds of European Jewry will be wiped out. The worst catastrophe in the history of the Jewish people is about to occur. So as the Oxus approaches the shores of the Holy Land, the need to give Palestine to the Jews feels almost palpable. If the Jews won’t disembark here, they will have no future. This emerging coastline may be their only salvation.
There is another need. In the millennium preceding 1897, Jewish survival was guaranteed by the two great g’s: God and ghetto. What enabled Jews to maintain their identity and their civilization was their closeness to God and their detachment from the surrounding non-Jewish world. Jews had no territory and no kingdom. They had no liberty and no sovereignty. What held them together as a people were religious belief, religious practice, and a powerful religious narrative, as well as the high walls of isolation built around them by gentiles. But in the hundred years prior to 1897, God drifted away and the ghetto walls collapsed. Secularization and emancipation—limited as they were—eroded the old formula of Jewish survival. There was nothing to maintain the Jewish people as a people living among others. Even if Jews were not to be slaughtered by Russian Cossacks or to be persecuted by French anti-Semites, they were faced with collective mortal danger. Their ability to maintain a non-Orthodox Jewish civilization in the Diaspora was now in question.
There was a need for revolution. If it was to survive, the Jewish people had to be transformed from a people of the Diaspora to a people of sovereignty. In this sense the Zionism that emerges in 1897 is a stroke of genius. Its founders, led by Dr. Herzl, are both prophetic and heroic. All in all, the nineteenth century was the golden age of Western Europe’s Jewry. Yet the Herzl Zionists see what is coming. True, they do not know that the twentieth century will conjure up such places as Auschwitz and Treblinka. But in their own way they act in the 1890s in order to preempt the 1940s. They realize they are faced with a radical problem: the coming extinction of the Jews. And they realize that a radical problem calls for a radical solution: the transformation of the Jews, a transformation that can take place only in Palestine, the Jews’ ancient homeland.
Herbert Bentwich does not see things as lucidly as Theodor Herzl does. He doesn’t know that the century about to begin will be the most dramatic in Jewish history. But his intuition tells him that it’s time for radical action. He knows that the distress in Eastern Europe is intolerable and that in the West, assimilation is unavoidable; in the East, Jews are in danger, while in the West, Judaism is in trouble. My great-grandfather understands that the Jewish people desperately need a new place, a new beginning, a new mode of existence. If they are to survive, the Jewish people need the Holy Land.
Bentwich was born in 1856 in the Whitechapel district of London. His father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who made his living as a traveling salesman, peddling jewelry in Birmingham and Cambridge. But the salesman wanted more for his beloved son. He sent Herbert to fine grammar schools where the boy did well. Knowing that all his parents’ hopes were invested in him, the disciplined youngster worked hard to prove himself. In his thirties he was already a successful solicitor living in St. John’s Wood.
Before traveling to Palestine, my great-grandfather was a leading figure in the Anglo-Jewish community. His professional expertise was copyright law. In his social life he was one of the founders of the prominent dining and debating Maccabean Club. In his private life he was married to a beautiful, artistic wife who was raising nine children in their magisterial Avenue Road home. Another two would be born in the coming years.
A self-made man, Herbert Bentwich is rigid and pedantic. His dominant traits are arrogance, determination, self-assurance, self-reliance, and nonconformity. Yet he is very much a romantic, with a soft spot for mysticism. Bentwich is a Victorian. He feels deeply indebted to the British Empire for opening its gates to the immigrant’s son he once was. When Bentwich was two years old, the first Jew was elected to British Parliament. When he was fifteen, the first Jew was admitted to Oxford. When he turned twenty-nine, the first Jew entered the House of Lords. For Bentwich these milestones are wonders. He does not look upon emancipation as a belated fulfillment of a natural right but as an act of grace carried out by Queen Victoria’s Great Britain.
In his physical appearance Bentwich resembles the Prince of Wales. He has steely blue eyes, a full, well-trimmed beard, a strong jaw. His manner is also that of a nobleman. Although poor at birth, Herbert Bentwich vigorously embraced the values and customs of the empire that ruled the seas. Like a true gentleman he loves travel, poetry, and theater. He knows his Shakespeare and he is at home in the Lake District. Yet he does not compromise his Judaism. With his wife, Susan, he nurtures a family home that is all Anglo-Jewish harmony: morning prayers and chamber music, Tennyson and Maimonides, Shabbat rituals and an Oxbridge education. Bentwich believes that just as imperial Britain has a mission in this world, so do the Jewish people. He feels it is the duty of the emancipated Jews of the West to look after the persecuted Jews of the East. My great-grandfather is absolutely certain that just as the British Empire saved him, it will save his brethren. His loyalty to the Crown and his loyalty to the Jewish vocation are intertwined. They push him toward Palestine. They lead him to head this unique Anglo-Jewish delegation traveling to the shores of the Holy Land.
Had I met Herbert Bentwich, I probably wouldn’t have liked him. If I were his son, I am sure I would have rebelled against him. His world—royalist, religious, patriarchal, and imperial—is eras away from my world. But as I study him from a distance—more than a century of distance—I cannot deny the similarities between us. I am surprised to find how much I identify with my eccentric great-grandfather.
So I ask again: Why is he here? Why does he find himself on this steamer? He is in no personal danger. His life in London is prosperous, fulfilling. Why sail all the way to Jaffa?
One answer is romanticism. In 1897, Palestine is not yet British, but it is on the British horizon. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the yearning for Zion is as English as it is Jewish. George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda has paved the way; Laurence Oliphant has taken it further. The fascination with Zion is now at the heart of the English Romanticism of the colonial era. For my great-grandfather, a romantic, a Jew, and a Victorian gentleman, the temptation is irresistible. The yearning for Zion has become an integral part of his constitution. It defines his identity.
The second answer is more important and more relevant. Herbert Bentwich is way ahead of his time. The journey he took from Whitechapel to St. John’s Wood in the late nineteenth century is analogous to the journey taken by many Jews from the Lower East Side to the Upper West Side in the twentieth century. As 1900 approaches, my great-grandfather is faced with the challenge that will face American Jewry in the twenty-first century: how to maintain a Jewish identity in an open world, how to preserve a Judaism not shielded by the walls of a ghetto, how to prevent the dispersion of the Jews into the liberty and prosperity of the modern West.
Yes, Herbert Bentwich takes the trip from Charing Cross to Jaffa because he is committed to ending Jewish misery in the East, but his main reason for taking this journey is his understanding of the futility of Jewish life in the West. Because he was blessed with a privileged life, he already sees the challenge that will follow the challenge of anti-Semitism. He sees the calamity that will follow the Holocaust. He realizes that his own world of Anglo-Jewish harmony is a world in eclipse. That’s why he crosses the Mediterranean.
He arrives on April 16 at the mouth of the ancient port of Jaffa. I watch him as he awakens at 5:00 a.m. in his first-class compartment. I watch him as he walks up the stairs to the Oxus’s wooden deck in a light suit and a cork hat. I watch him as he looks from the deck. The sun is about to rise over the archways and turrets of Jaffa. And the land my great-grandfather sees is just as he hoped it would appear: illuminated by the gentle dawn and shrouded by the frail light of promise.
Do I want him to disembark? I don’t yet know.
I have an obsession with all things British. Like Bentwich, I love Land’s End and Snowdown and the Lake District. I love the English cottage and the English pub and the English countryside. I love the breakfast ritual and the tea ritual and Devon’s clotted cream. I am mesmerized by the Hebrides and the Scottish Highlands and the soft green hills of Dorset. I admire the deep certainty of English identity. I am drawn to the quiet of an island that has not been conquered for eight hundred years, to the continuity of its way of life. To the civilized manner in which it conducts its affairs.
If Herbert Bentwich disembarks, he will bid farewell to all that. He will uproot himself and his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren from the deep English green in order to settle us all—for generations—in the wild Middle East. Isn’t it foolish to do so? Isn’t it mad?
But it’s not that simple. The British Isles are not really ours. We are only passersby, for the road we travel is much longer and far more tormented. The English green provided us with only an elegant and temporary refuge, a respite along the way. The demography tells a clear story: In the second half of the twentieth century, which Herbert Bentwich will not live to see, the Anglo-Jewish community will shrink by a third. Between 1950 and 2000 the number of Jews in the British Isles will drop from over 400,000 to less than 300,000. Jewish schools and synagogues will close. The communities of such cities as Brighton and Bournemouth will dwindle. The rate of intermarriage will increase to well over 50 percent. Young non-Orthodox Jews will wonder why they should be Jewish. What’s the point?
A similar process will take place in other Western European countries. The non-Orthodox Jewish communities of Denmark, Holland, and Belgium will almost disappear. After playing a crucial role in the shaping of modern Europe for more than two hundred years—think of Mendelssohn, Marx, Freud, Mahler, Kafka, Einstein—Jews will gradually leave center stage. The golden era of European Jewry will be over. The very existence of a viable, vital, and creative European Jewry will be questioned. What was shall not be again.
Fifty years later, this same malaise will hit even the powerful and prosperous American Jewish community. The ratio of Jews to non-Jews in American society will shrink dramatically. Intermarriage will be rampant. The old Jewish establishment will fossilize, and fewer non-Orthodox Jews will be affiliated or active in Jewish life. American Jewry will still be far more vibrant than Europe’s. But looking across the ocean at their European and British cousins, American Jews will be able to see what the twenty-first century holds, and it is not a pretty sight.
So should my great-grandfather disembark? If he doesn’t, my personal life in England will be rich and rewarding. I won’t have to do military services. I’ll face no immediate danger and no gnawing moral dilemmas. Weekends will be spent at the family’s thatched-roof cottage in Dorset, summers in the Scottish Highlands.
Yet if my great-grandfather does not disembark, chances are that my children will be only half Jewish. Perhaps they will not be Jewish at all. Britain will muffle our Jewish identity. In the green meadows of Old England, and in the thick woods of New England, secular Jewish civilization might evaporate. On both coasts of the Atlantic, the non-Orthodox Jewish people might gradually disappear.
So smooth is the Mediterranean as the Bentwich delegation disembarks that it appears to be a lake. Arab stevedores ferry the Oxus passengers ashore in rough wooden boats. The Jaffa port proves to be less traumatic than expected. But in the city of Jaffa it is market day. Some of the European travelers are shocked by the hanging animal carcasses, the smelly fish, the rotting vegetables. They notice the infected eyes of the village women, the scrawny children. And the hustling, the noise, the filth. The sixteen gentlemen, four ladies, and one maid make their way to the downtown hotel, and the elegant Thomas Cook carriages arrive promptly. As soon as they are out of the chaos of Arab Jaffa, the Europeans are in good spirits once again. They smell the sweet scent of the April orange groves and are uplifted by the sight of the blazing red and timid purple fields of wildflowers.
The twenty-one travelers are greeted by my other great-grandfather, Dr. Hillel Yoffe, who makes a positive impression on them. In the six years since he, too, disembarked at the Jaffa port, carried ashore by the very same Arab stevedores, he has accomplished a great deal. His medical work—trying to eradicate malaria—is now well known. His public work—as chairman of the Zionist Committee in Palestine—is outstanding. Like the British pilgrims, he is committed to the idea that the privileged Jews of the West must assist the impoverished Jews of the East. It’s not only a matter of saving them from benighted Cossacks but a moral duty to introduce them to science and the Enlightenment. In the harsh conditions of this remote Ottoman province, Dr. Yoffe is the champion of progress. His mission is to heal both his patients and his people.
Led by Dr. Yoffe, the Bentwich convoy reaches the French agricultural school of Mikveh Yisrael. The students are away for the Passover holiday, but the teachers and staff are impressive. Mikveh Yisrael is an oasis of progress. Its fine staff trains the young Jews of Palestine to toil the land in modern ways; its mission is to produce the agronomists and vine growers of the next century. The French-style agriculture it teaches will eventually spread throughout Palestine and make its deserts bloom. The visitors are ecstatic. They feel they are watching the seeds of the future sprouting. And it is indeed the very future they want to see.
From the Mikveh Yisrael school they travel to the colony of Rishon LeZion. Baron Edmond de Rothschild is the colony’s sponsor and benefactor. The local governor, representing the baron, hosts the esteemed pilgrims in his colonial home. The Brits take to the Frenchman. They are relieved to find such architecture and such a household and such fine food in this backwater. Yet what delights the European travelers most is the formidable, advanced winery established by the baron at the center of the fifteen-year-old colony. They are amazed at the notion of turning Palestine into the Provence of the Orient. They can hardly believe the sight of the red-roofed colonial houses, the deep-green vineyards, or the heady smell of the first Hebrew wine in the Jewish homeland after eighteen hundred years.