Just last week, Yale welcomed Israeli journalist Ari Shavit to campus for a series of discussions and lectures as part of a tour sponsored by Hillel International. Since the recent publication of his book, My Promised Land, Shavit has received a huge amount of attention in this country for his work, winning the National Jewish Book Award and reaching the New York Times Bestseller List. But it is a book that has proved controversial among Americans. (It has yet to be published in Hebrew.) On the one hand, The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier has celebrated the book for its ability to “restore the grandeur [of Israel’s facticity] in full view of the complicated facts.” On the other, Norman G. Finkelstein has accused Shavit of “hypocrisy and stupidity overlaid by a tinsel patina of arrogance and pomposity.” Finkelstein goes on to call Shavit “a know-nothing know-it-all who, if ever there were a contest for world’s biggest schmuck, would come in second.” What Wieseltier sees as a “lack of interest in providing its readers with a handy politics,” Finkelstein characterized as an excuse for ethnic cleansing—in short, propaganda.

What is it about this book that is both captivating and disgusting? The fundamental ambiguity of My Promised Land starts with the project itself: it is not supposed to be a history, but rather a telling of “the Israel story,” a kind of genealogy of the state of Israel in all of its greatness and evil, its necessity and impossibility, its righteousness and its hypocrisy. Shavit describes his work as a personal journey to come to terms with the history of his country; he writes that he is not a judge, but a mere observer. From the outset, he writes of his love for his country but also of his outrage, his pride in the accomplishments of Zionism (Wieseltier’s “facticity”) alongside his disappointment in what it is becoming.

Yet to many critics, and presumably to Mr. Finkelstein, Israeli patriotism is a morally loaded proposition. It is one thing to see Zionism as the culmination of the project of European Jewish emancipation, and Israel as Zionism’s greatest achievement. It is something different, however, to examine the foundation of the state of Israel from the perspective of what happened on the ground in Palestine to make the founding of a new state possible. A critic sees Israel as a state founded because of imperialism, and one which is now upholding it. To outsiders, particularly those who were not alive to witness the founding and early success of Israel, the existence of the country is deeply connected to the displacement of the Palestinian people. As Shavit describes it, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one of many aspects of Israeli history. It is not what defines Israel.

Shavit treats the conflict in all of its irony in one of the most moving chapters of the book, “On Gaza Beach.” This chapter rings most true as the writing not of a journalist, but rather of a person struggling to reconcile a beautiful, very personal ideal with the ugly reality of a Gaza detention center. The parallels to Nazi concentration camps are explicit: “The watchtowers constructed in Europe in the 1940s were all made of heavy German and Polish wood, whereas the towers in the Gaza Beach facility are of flimsy Israeli metal produced up in the Galilee.”  He plays around with this analogy—one of the more painful, and probably inappropriate, but important analogies in the current dialogue on Israeli dominance in the region— and arrives at the conclusion that the persistence of this analogy must be the result of some truth, for “the lack of similarity is not strong enough to silence once and for all the evil echoes.”

But where a critic sees evil, Shavit sees tragedy. Shavit’s conclusion is roundabout: “We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us.” That is, the tragedy of Israel is mutually created by both Israelis and Palestinians; it is a cycle which is never-ending and, implicitly, there is nothing anyone can do it about it. “We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome. Every few years, the mode of violence changes. The tragedy ends one chapter and begins another, but the tragedy never ends.” While this resignation is a natural reaction to a seemingly intractable situation, does it lend itself to a neutral portrayal of the situation? Isn’t latching onto the moral ambiguity of the situation and choosing a passive approach to the problem ultimately more favorable to the status quo?

What is more troubling is that Shavit presents this moral ambiguity, and even blindness, as somehow particularly Israeli. He reasons, “Only when we know what has become of the protagonists will we know whether they were right or wrong, whether they overcame the tragic decree or were overcome by it.” This idea, which is very much at the core of My Promised Land, is a dangerous idea because it is a difficult one. The reader must remember that he is referring to Israel and the Zionist project, and not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though these ideas are almost synonymous in some of our minds. Shavit suggests that this profoundly ambiguous and complicated problem can somehow be excused if for no other reason than because “the Jewish state does not resemble any other nation.” This is Israeli exceptionalism in its clearest and most harmful form.

This teleological reasoning—the idea that there is some end that will be reached, that can be reached, and only from there shall we judge—is precisely the issue. This minimizes the importance of action in the present—and the responsibility of the people involved.History will take its course, he says; the camera will keep rolling, come what may. Shavit almost seems as if he is excusing himself and his country for acting first and reflecting later.  But this notion of history as something greater than the sum of its human parts is incompatible with progressivism.

This is where My Promised Land leaves a critical reader: with an apology for inaction, with a hand-waving explanation for the denial of guilt that relies more on romanticism than reason. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about Israeli history and even more about Shavit and his personal understanding of his homeland. But it is this moral ambiguity that is the most interesting and troubling, albeit unintended, aspect of this book.

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