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Northeastern Beats Back BDS

18 Mar

Given that the topic I and two top-notch StandWithUs activists will be covering at next week’s anti-BDS conference in LA is called “Organizing the Community to Fight BDS” (or something along those lines); I wanted to highlight an example from my neighborhood that shows just what an effective ground game looks like.

Last night, the Student Government Association (SGA) at Northeastern University in Boston voted down a divestment resolution proposed by the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, with the final tally including 9 for and 25 against (with fourteen abstentions).

This scale of this victory didn’t come from nothing, but was rather a case study of pro-Israel students doing everything right – especially with regard to following the rules that have led to virtually every success I’ve seen in the fight against BDS over the last 14 years.

To set the stage, SJP actually has a substantial presence at Northeastern which allows them to engage in numerous agitprop campaigns as well as muster the organizational oomph needed to put a divestment resolution in front of student government.  At the same time, their scale has given them the people power needed to make flesh some pretty nasty stuff, including their move last year to stuff eviction notices under fellow student’s doors in a particularly Jewish dorm (a stunt which got their organization temporarily suspended).

When that suspension was reversed (in no small part due to legal threats made by attorneys from the Lawyer’s Guild – a group that primary exists today to serve as consiglieres to the BDS movement), the organization may have deluded itself into thinking the student body was now on their side when they chose to bring a divestment referendum petition to last-night’s SGA meeting.  But while lawyers might be able to make conflict-adverse administrators stand down, they can’t eliminate the (accurate) impression on campus that SJP is a bunch of fanatical jerks.

Set against this mixed bag of SJP strengths and weaknesses were students making up Northeastern’s school’s pro-Israel community, including the campus’ Huskies for Israel organization which helped pull together a Students for a United Northeastern campaign to counter SJP’s divestment push.

Now on this particular campus, the Hillel director is top notch – both in her support for Israel, her political talents, and – most importantly – her trust in students doing the ground-level work of pro-Israel activism on campus.  And given the list of thank you’s in Hillel’s post-victory announcement linked above, those students clearly pulled in expertise as they needed it, while never losing sight of the fact that it was their responsibility to determine what would work and what wouldn’t in their unique campus environment.

I bring this up not just to congratulate everyone involved with this successful struggle (although they deserve all the congratulations you can send them), but to highlight the elements of what constitutes a successful ground game, with some thoughts about the choices we have when one or more of those elements is missing.

For example, I’m familiar with many instances where people wrestling with a BDS-related issue have turned to local Jewish community organizations or (in the case of college campuses) the school’s Hillel, only to find limited support for their efforts.

There are many reasons why this might be so. Most obviously, in many parts of the country Jewish human capital is pretty thin on the ground.  And even when there are community or campus groups, their resources or their skill and appetite for confrontational politics might be limited (as I discovered in Somerville a decade ago when the only synagogue in town decided to sit out the first issue in a hundred years that required Jewish solidarity).

In some instances, there exists bad blood between local activists and mainstream Jewish organizations  (fights over J Street seem to be a source for many of these conflicts – a fight I want to note, but not dwell on in a piece dedicated to “how-to”).  Especially since the point I’m trying to illustrate is what to do when you are not as fortunate as were the kids at Northeastern who had both strong student leadership and a wider Jewish community that had their back.

One choice (the least effective, in my opinion) would be for local activists to try to shame a mainstream Jewish organization into supporting their cause.  The reason this rarely works is that (1) an organization choosing to sit out a conflict probably doesn’t have the resources or wherewithal to make that big a difference anyway; (2) any ally who would prefer not to be by your side is going to sap energy from your efforts; and (3) such shaming tends to create more bad blood, increasing vs. decreasing community tension (especially in the case of a loss, which often leads to finger-pointing).

The second best option when others you hoped would take the lead can’t or won’t do so is for local activists to step into the leadership role themselves.  Time and time again: on campuses, at food-coops, within churches and cities (including Somerville) it was local people, many of whom had never participated in pro-Israel activism in their lives, who rose to the occasion, organized the community, and handed the BDSers their latest humiliating defeat.

The third (and my favorite) alternative, however, is when local activists and mainstream organizations that might be bitterly divided over political issues (J Street, or even the Middle East conflict generally) put aside those differences to work together towards a common goal (the defeat of BDS) with an understanding that such solidarity did not require them to agree on all things, or even continue to work together in coalition after the battle was done.

This is the situation I wrote about at the end of the three-year Somerville divestment saga, a series of campaigns that involved people who usually spend all their waking hours bad-mouthing one another to put aside mutual hostility in order to staple signs onto pieces of wood, stand in front of polling places, hand out literature, and perform other concrete, vital tasks that left no time for political bickering.

Such a project-oriented approach lets people who ultimately care about Israel (even if they have different ways of expressing that care) to do some practical good (kick the BDSers’ butts) by fighting side-by-side.  And you’d be surprised how hard it is to trash someone on your blog a week after you’ve just fought (and won) the good fight alongside them.

Now we are involved with a long war and do not have the people or resources to enter every fight with the army we want, or even to win every battle.  But given that BDS is getting to the middle of its second decade with little more than a handful of meaningless student council resolutions under its belt, I’m guessing that the chemistry described above exists in enough places to be making the difference.

BDS, the Trade Protection Act, and Israel

6 Mar

Given the amount of ink that’s been spilled over toothless student council votes taken place in less than 1% of US college campuses, it’s surprising that the biggest BDS story of the year (if not the last several years) has gotten virtually no coverage.

I’m talking about the Trade Protection Act, a bi-partisan piece of legislation currently working its way through the US House of Representatives, that would make a free trade agreement between the US and Europe contingent on the latter taking no part in anti-free trade activities (i.e., BDS) directed against Israel.

This is the first major expansion of America’s anti-boycott legal regime since legislation punishing US companies participating in the Arab boycott of the Jewish state was signed into law by that Zionist stooge Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

As noted by William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection (one of the few pro-Israel media outlets to cover the story in detail), there may be fewer teeth in this particular proposal than in earlier anti-boycott laws, given that a trade agreement between nations is harder to enforce than a legal regime within a nation.  And since any alleged violation of the new rules would have to travel through complex bureaucracies in the US, Europe and whichever international group would adjudicate between them, I don’t expect this bill – if passed – would lead to many violators facing consequences for participating in BDS activities in a timely fashion.

But, like anti-boycott legislation passed in the 1970s, the Trade Protection Act would be most significant with regard to symbolic and indirect consequences.

Starting with symbolism, remember that for your average BDSer “Sanctions” (states inflicting economic punishment on Israel) is the Holy Grail.  It’s one thing for student governments to pretend that their stacked votes represent campus opinion, or that boycotting hummus made in New Jersey demonstrates the impending triumph of their movement.  But if a national government decides to cross the line from criticism to punishment of the Jewish state, suddenly we’re talking about an event with genuine political significance.

Yet after decades of propaganda designed to convince the US public (and through them, their representatives in government) that Israel is the new Apartheid South Africa, we finally have US sanctions legislation speeding through Congress – legislation which sanctions not Israel but those participating in BDS.

In a country where 3:1 support for Israel over her enemies has been a constant for decades, I don’t expect the boycotters will be able to rally a citizenry hostile to their cause against the new trade rules.  And even during a period when relations between the Executive branch and Israeli leaders are so strained, I can’t imagine a scenario where the President would pull out his rarely used veto pen for this particular issue.  In fact – as we have seen in many previous situations (J Street’s official anti-BDS position comes to mind) – BDS is so loathed across so much of the political spectrum that taking a stand against it is a cheap and easy way to establish one’s pro-Israel bona fides.

On the non-symbolic front, the real power of this legislation is that it gives European governments and companies behind hounded by BDS activists telling them to “do something” (i.e., do what they say) an excuse to say no.

Keep in mind that in the few instances when Europeans took steps in the BDS direction, those steps were chosen to cause minimal local damage (by boycotting goods that meant little to the local economy, for instance, or divesting assets that could be easily replaced by ones not on the BDS blacklist).  In all cases, people making genuine economic decisions (vs. the BDSers who just demand other people do so and deal with the consequences), are looking for risk- and cost-free ways to proceed.  So the power of the new Trade Protection legislation is that it actually adds a cost to boycott and divestment decisions, meaning those who take them will now have to make genuine sacrifices for the privilege of becoming a bullet point Omar Barghouti’s next slide presentation.

Keep in mind that the most important impact of the original Carter-era anti-boycott legislation was also indirect.  Sure, some companies got hit with fines for signing onto the Arab boycott of Israel (a boycott that required companies to literally sign on – creating a paper trail for US prosecutors).  But these fines cost them a lot less than the difference between their income from Arab League customers and the Israel market they were foregoing.

What really hurt these companies was the PR hit they took when it became public that they were caving into demands to not do business with one Jewish state in order to line their pockets with revenue from many Arab ones.  And once the cost of participating in the boycott included making financial and reputational sacrifices in the huge US (vs. small Israeli) market, US corporations suddenly had an excuse to say “No” to the boycott office in Damascus.

The fact that this legislation would extend the dynamic we have had in place in the US since the ‘70s into Europe has caused some consternation in BDS circles. BDS loudmouth sites like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, for instance, have complained that the new rules could become a “devastating weapon” to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions project.  And while they might not be thinking in the same terms outlined above of how these new rules would impact them (by giving weak-willed Europeans an excuse to turn them away), limited discussion of the Trade Protection Act within BDS circles seems to recognize the threat of such a move to their ever-flailing program.

Again, one has to contrast today’s BDS effort with the fight against South African Apartheid in the 1980s when governments, colleges and universities, churches and other civic institutions understood and agreed about the nature of the Apartheid system, proudly (and publicly) made economic choices (including sacrifices) that punished that racist nation, and were celebrated for doing so.

In contrast, today’s BDS “movement,” after more than a decade and a half of untold efforts, has only managed to unite the powers they have endlessly lobbied (the US government, the nation’s largest academic associations, college Presidents, etc.) against them, while their dream of replicating in the US the situation we saw in France last summer becomes more distant than ever.

Sir Martin Gilbert

6 Feb

A brief moment to pay tribute (and give thanks) to a giant who passed away this week.

Looking over the nine pages of books Sir Martin Gilbert has listed on Amazon, it seems amazing that he was only on this planet for a mere 78 years.

Gilbert came to prominence as the official biographer of Winston Churchill, and a number of his dozens of works cover Britain’s legendary Prime Minister or weave the Churchill story into the author’s other favorite topics: British, World War II, Jewish and Israeli history.

The obits published since news came of Gilbert’s passing highlight the astounding scope and quality of his work, with this short piece providing a telling anecdote regarding his qualities as a scholar and human being (a simple and powerful lesson in an age when debates over academic discourse have devolved to defending the right of professors to spew expletives on Twitter).

Since I’ve read far less of Gilbert’s work than the many people covering his passing, I’d like to simply give personal thanks for one of his slimmest volumes: The Routledge Atlas of the Arab Israeli Conflict (one of many Atlases he created, others covering British, Jewish and World War II history).

While not every picture manages to tell a thousand words, a well-constructed map (with accompanying detailed labels) can explain and illustrate narratives that might take chapters to describe through prose alone.  And when those maps fit together to tell a true story, that story becomes not just convincing but compelling.

I discovered this almost twenty years ago when I began my journey on the road to activism by taking a class at a local adult education organization on modern Judaism.  Word had it that the teacher had issues with the Jewish state (a condition I later learned afflicts a number of Jews in my part of the country), but given that the course was described as offering lessons on bringing Jewish meaning into one’s life, I decided to give it a go (especially given the lack of both meaning and Judaism in my own life at the time).

No sooner had the first class commenced, however, that the teacher’s hostility to modern Israel began creeping into almost every discussion.  And while I tried to grin and bear it (despite having self-identified as someone searching out his Jewish and Zionist identity at the start of the class – which upon reflection probably got me pegged), once discussion moved to Middle East history, it was time to act.

I think it was at the eight minute mark of a description of the 1948 war consisting solely of Jews dumping Arab bodies down wells in Dar Yasin that I put my foot down (not rudely, but firmly) and asked if I could be allowed to fill in a few holes in the history being presented the following week. And given the informal nature of the class (not to mention the general unease of my classmates over who/what to believe) I was given the green light to go forward.

Keep in mind that this all played out during an age previous to our current “Powerpoint uber ales” era, which meant I would have to make an accurate and compelling presentation of Israel’s actual history with words and black-and-white photocopied handouts rather than dancing bullet points, animated timelines and downloaded talking heads.

Fortunately, my anchor was Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of the Arab Israeli Conflict.  And as much as some of my classmates (as well as the teacher) did not want to believe the story these maps so clearly laid out, their ignorance and craving for a different narrative could not withstand the power of truth so elegantly and eloquently spoken on the pages of Gilbert’s atlas.

Now I wish I could say that this presentation turned everyone in the room into ardent Zionists, but that would be a stretch.  By the time the class ended (after several more sessions that included the ongoing tale of Israel – facilitated again by Sir Martin’s maps) the class had dwindled to half its original size, and most of those who remained (including one I ended up dating) could best be described as confused, rather than convinced.

But given that the teacher was clearly hoping to replace confusion with his own inappropriate and inaccurate storyline, I think it’s fair to call the thwarting of that effort (which included, I learned later, some reflection by the teacher himself over whether his approach to the subject was appropriate) a success.

And suffice to say, I owe it all to Martin Gilbert who educated me to a point where I was able to educate others.

And his work goes on.  For when my eldest son recently watched his favorite history blog (CrashCourse) as its narrator made a foray into Middle East politics, it was clear to him that something was wrong.  And rather than doing going down the Dad/Activist route and telling him what was missing (which would be everything that has ever happened in the Middle East outside of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians), I simply pulled Martin Gilbert’s atlas off the shelf and gave them to him, with the expectation that the stories they tell will help him think for himself.

So as a lover of history, as a Jew, as a Zionist and as a parent, I’d like to stop and say: “Thank you Martin Gilbert.”  For while he probably could have cranked out another dozen books had he lived as long as Churchill, the contributions he made to scholarship, truth, history, the British and Jewish people have already assured his immortality.

All a Twitter

30 Jan

As a follower of various news feeds for subjects related to Israel-related activism, I’ve been curious about the recent spate of stories that derive not from action (such as war, terrorism or elections) or long diatribes or complex arguments, but from people saying stupid things in 140 characters or less.

Exhibit A: Earlier this year, CNN anchor Jim Clancy (one of the network’s most stable Israel dissers) ended a peculiar Twitter spat with critics over the Charlie Hedbo cartoons wit this gem of a tweet:


Translation: I have no genuine critics, just organized pro-Israel propagandists (i.e., “the Hasbara team”) who think they can get the better of me, not realizing that I’m a big, tough journalisto-hombre (see my shirt!) a la Mel Gibson in Year of Living Dangerously

Mr. Clancy nixed his Twitter account and left CNN shortly after this post appeared, possibly over judgment issues related to his juvenile online behavior, possibly due to criticism over his use of the word “cripple,” but decidedly not because of his 30+ year history of unbalanced journalist vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle East.

Exhibit B: Given its prominence as a Jewish institution, and the prevalence of Jews in anti-Israel organizations (including many promoting BDS), it’s not that surprising that Brandeis University has become a hotbed of Israel-related political agitation over the last ten years.

As debates over police brutality charges in Fergusson and NYC became coopted by the “Free Palestine” crowd, this merging of conflicts played out at Brandeis over a set of hugely inappropriate tweets written by a young African American student (which I won’t reproduce, for reasons noted below) that were picked up by a student journalist associated with conservative and pro-Israel causes.  This led to even more tweets, not to mention Facebook postings and blog comments, many of which were dedicated to demonizing and threatening one party to the conflict vs. another.

While it might be tempting to pick sides in this particular battle (for matters of principle, of course), I tended to look at this story through the lens of social media generally, notably how it enables those stupid things we all say (especially in our younger years – things that might still make us wince upon remembrance) to be broadcast around the globe where they get to live on forever in screen grabs of Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines long since deleted.

In each of these cases (and in countless others where people get into hot water over their online commentary), there seems to be an assumption that the quick-and-dirty meta-communication people pump into the Interwebs on a minute-by-minute basis represents a window into the soul (rather than the id).

Personally, I’m not buying it any more than I’m buying the assumption that #Bringbackourgirls trending for 48 hours will involve any girls actually getting brought back, or that #JeSuisCharlie is going to lead to a lot of “Je’s” actually “Suis-ing” Charlie (i.e., putting themselves at risk to stand by principle).

I recall a story (now lost to that Internet ether) that questioned whether the hashtag #BDSFail should be used every time an Israeli company lands a big deal or scores some major investment, vs. just being set aside for actual examples of BDS failure (like their recent AHA debacle).  But if hashtag volume is going to equate to political momentum, how can we compete with the boycotters who spat out a dozen #BDS tweets during the 3-5 minutes it took me to read that #BDSFail-debate story?

Perhaps I’m just an old fogey who doesn’t understand or respect the power of social media to establish (and ultimately control) discourse.  But as a blogger, I obviously embrace the power these new tools of communication give us to leap over former gate-keepers of information to reach audiences and build communities hungry for citizen journalism and analysis.

Sure, a big chunk of that citizen journalism consists of unedited crapola, and much analysis found online is designed to spread hatred or pump up lies.  But that just increases the responsibility of individuals to exercise sound judgment over what information to seek out and believe.  And, unlike online journalism which – good or bad – at least requires the better part of an hour to knock out, tweets let you unburden yourself in a second – leading to the aforementioned id-based communication or intentional hashtag stuffing designed to push nonsense into more people’s faces.

All this bellyaching might just represent the sour grapes of someone who has never managed to sustain a social-media-based self-promotion campaign for more than a couple of weeks (which reminds me, I need to tweet about the last half dozen blog posts I’ve written over the last few months).  But I don’t think I’m the only person who is skeptical (and a bit nervous) when trending hashtags are used by mainstream news sources and political leaders as a stand-in for the pulse of popular opinion.

Personally, I actually use (and like) Twitter – as a newsfeed or human-driven search engine, one that must take its place alongside other information filters (including my own brain).  And if you ever need to follow an obscure event (like the BDS vote at a student senate or food coop) on a minute-by-minute basis, there is no substitute.

But as these thirty-second communication tools become proxies for what we are thinking, or bricks in the wall of confirmation bias too many of us are building around ourselves, it might be time to reflect on how tools originally designed to help us make friends should not be used to destroy lives.

My Promised Land – 2

25 Jan

As the first half of this review hinted, the title of Ari Shavit’s 2014 best-seller My Promised Land telegraphs the narrator, identifying the ultimate source for the thoughts spoken in the heads of the many characters of a book best described as a hybrid of history, novel and personal-internal memoir.

I also noted last time that looking at Israel’s history through the lens of multiple historic characters – interpreted through the author’s use of a novelist’s devices – has its advantages.  As one commenter pointed out, James Michener’s The Source does something similar (although that book is clearly identified as a work of historic fiction).  Leon Uris’ Exodus, also blended real and made-up characters and few books have had more of an impact on American attitudes towards Israel (held by Jews and non-Jews alike) than has Uris’ tale.

But unlike The Source and Exodus, My Promised Land is presented as a work of non-fiction.  And even if the blurring of genre lines gives the author the opportunity to reveal interesting things going on in his own head, this artistic license does not free him from responsibility with regard to stories presented as fact.

When those stories touch on known events (like the development of Israel’s “secret” nuclear program or the politics that led to the Oslo Accords), then the personal reflections the author writes into his characters can be illuminating.  I already mentioned the power of this technique in the context of my favorite chapter of the book (The Project – having to do with Dimona and Israel’s nuclear deterrent).  And even if I long ago stopped giving those who brought us Oslo points for good intentions (given everything their efforts unleashed since then), it is valuable to hear from Shavit (a member of this peace camp) how this group judges itself.

It’s when My Promised Land provides new historic “revelations,” however, the blurring of lines between fiction and factual history becomes more problematical (and troubling).

I previously mentioned the chapter that has gotten the author into the most hot water (Lydda, 1948).  In one sense, there’s nothing surprising that a story involving the expulsion of Arabs from their homes during Israel’s’ War of Independence the War would provoke controversy under any circumstances.  And I’m not going to get into a debate over what happened at the “Big Mosque” vs. the “Small Mosque” or where Jordanian Legionaries were located when events at Lydda unfolded.

But if you read Shavit’s description of those events, and then follow it up with this rebuttal presented by Middle East historian Martin Kramer, it’s safe to say that – at minimum – what happened at Lydda in 1948 is up for serious debate.  And even if such a debate is likely to never end, it’s more than likely that what ultimately took place back then will sound more like a military story (full of conflicted strategy and tactics, plans that ran aground when they confronted the reality of the battlefield, confusion and brutality on all sides) than a morality play.

Yet Shavit presents the story not just as fact, but as Israel’s “black box” – not a black box as in a great unknown, but as in an airplane flight recorder – the device which, if found and decoded, will provide the uncompromised and true data needed to explain a tragedy.  But given that every detail Shavit provides about what went on in Lydda in 1948 is – at best – questionable, what are we to make of the author’s seeming insistence that readers should treat his story as the black-box data needed to understand the 1948 War, if not Israel’s history in its entirety?

An easy answer would be to simply condemn Shavit as a “Nakbahist” – someone who joins Israel’s enemies in wanting to translate the country’s founding into nothing more than a catastrophe for Palestinians expelled from their homes and ignore everything else that’s happened in the region before, during and since.  But Shavit (unlike some) does not shy away from telling stories about the brutality visited upon the Jews of the region, nor pretend that legitimate peace offers extended by Israel since ’48 don’t exist.

True, his tales of Arab terror can seem clinical and detached from living, breathing Arabs, as opposed to the named, flesh-and-blood Jews who pull triggers in Lydda.  But getting back to my original thesis about the nature of My Promised Land, why is it so important for the author to believe, accept and communicate one particular (and highly contentious) interpretation of events vs. some other?

Shavit gives no hint that he is in possession of heretofore unknown facts or documents that have revealed to him new truths.  Which means he has chosen the “facts” in his Lydda story for the same reason he chooses to believe his grandfather “did not see” the Arabs as he made his way through the Holy land in 1897: to demonstrate that the Tragedy part of his subtitle (“The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”) is of Israel’s own making.

And why might this be so important to the author?

Well given the liberty Shavit takes with his characters’ internal dialog, allow me a moment to speculate on what might be going on in his head for a moment.

For there are two possible reasons why Israel has been the focus of so much hatred and war over the last century.  The first possibility is that the country is guilty of some hideous crime which might not justify the years and decades of attacks upon it, but would at least explain them.  Alternatively, the war against the Jewish state might have nothing to do with what Israel has done, but rather represents the return of dark forces (the law of the jungle, the ascension of the ruthless, and – yes – anti-Semitism) that most civilized people had hoped disappeared after the last century’s World Wars I, II and III (otherwise known as the Cold War).

For the civilized person (which Shavit clearly is), the notion that we might be living through World War IV – which includes a new war of hatred directed against the Jewish people – is too much to bear.  And so we end up looking not at Gaza (where religious fanatics join forces with tyrants across the region to perpetuate ever-escalating conflict) or Europe (where Jews are once again becoming an endangered species), but at Lydda in 1948 (or at least the author’s contentious account of it) and offered absolution if we just allow ourselves to peek into this “black box” and accept judgement.

Ruth Wisse, who prophesized on the ever-escalating need to blame Israel and the Jews for the war waged against them, wrote a review of My Promised Land far less generous than the one you are reading now.

The reason I’ve been less harsh than Wisse is that I sympathize with those struggling with the deep personal conflict that underlies every chapter of My Promised Land.  There is, after all, a reason why the book proved so popular with American Jewish audiences.  For even if the country (outside of a Jewish Voice for Peace square dance) is not filled with unquestioning Nakbahists, there are many (including many people I know and love) who prefer the morality play of Lydda, 1948 to the messier reality of what goes on in war.

And if the Jews are somehow responsible for the war that has waged every day since ‘48, then perhaps it is in our power to do something to end it.  The alternative (that dark days have not only returned, but never went away) requires us to both understand the genuine Jewish condition circa 2015 and accept that the law of the jungle has not been banished from the human condition just because many of us living in anomalous comfort and security wish that it has.

My Promised Land – 1

22 Jan

At a certain point last year, I became convinced that a new book had been added to the Tenakh, a book that seemed to have become required reading at every temple I visited (my own dedicated three reading-group sessions to the work – all of which I missed, which led to this review).

In case you haven’t deduced yet from the title of this piece, I’m talking about My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, the 2014 best seller by Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit which tells the tale of Israel’s past and present through stories of various participants in the birth and continued life of the Jewish state.

If that structure sounds familiar, that’s because another book that came out around the same time, Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi, took a similar approach to presenting history through storytelling.  And while Dreamers is generally acknowledged to be the superior of the two, Shavit’s My Promised Land seems to have struck a chord with American audiences, especially mainstream Jewish ones, as the book garnered rave New York Times reviews, was excerpted in the New Yorker, and found its way onto those aforementioned reading group lists in synagogues and Jewish community groups around the country.

While Halevi’s book focused on a set of characters from a particular point in time (the men depicted in this iconic photo of the liberation of Jerusalem), Shavit’s characters extend much further back, starting with the author’s own great-grandfather who first visited the Holy Land in 1897 when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and Zionism was still an idea just gaining traction in Europe.

More than another dozen stories follow, including the tale of the zealous youth who made up the early kibbutz movement, a farmer who managed to keep his orange grove growing as  winds of war gathered in the 1930s, up through the soldiers and politicians, settlers and activists, hippies and hackers making up contemporary Israeli life.

Because of the controversy surrounding an important chapter of Shavit’s book (the one titled Lydda, 1948), I decided to read that part last so as to avoid having it color my opinion of the book overall.  This helped me better experience My Promised Land as others had, especially those who celebrated Shavit’s ability to make history come alive with a work that many describe as “reading like a novel.”

When applied to non-fiction, this phrase is usually meant as a compliment, implying that the author has managed to incorporate real-life characters into engaging narratives – something that definitely sums up two the key virtues of My Promised Land – excitement and readability.  But like all attempts to fit the complexities of history into satisfying storylines, leveraging the tools of fiction to bring to life challenging real-world situations carries with it both risks and responsibilities.

This issue hit me almost immediately in the first story of the book, the one chronicling the author’s great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, who visited pre-state Palestine at the end of the century (the 19th century that is) as part of a combined fact-finding mission and pilgrimage.

At various points in the chapter, Shavit refers to photos of his ancestor, so perhaps he also had access to journals Bentwich kept on his journey, which could explain the author’s confident description of what his great-grandfather was thinking about during this important moment of his life. But Shavit goes much further than this, describing what Bentwich (and other characters in his book) were NOT thinking about at important points in the narrative.  And, as far as I know, the only people who can claim to understand (rather than just guess at) what others didn’t consider are novelists in full control of their character’s internal lives.

For instance, Shavit repeatedly tells us that his great-grandfather “does not see” the Arabs in the Holy Land (people the author characterizes as indigenous peasants and serfs) during a pilgrimage suffused with living monuments to the Jewish past and hopes for a Jewish national future.  But couldn’t another writer (me perhaps) decide that what Bentwich did not ponder was how the co-religionists of the Muslim empire that then ruled the area were as impoverished as everyone else?

No doubt such an attempt to put words into the brain of a man who died decades ago would be dismissed as mere speculation (perhaps politically motivated speculation since it would be put to the purpose of characterizing Arabs of the region as imperialist invaders).  But why should the speculations of Bentwich’s great-grandson (which are equally politically charged) be treated any differently?

While it would be easy to treat this and other examples of omniscient narration as agenda-driven, I think it is safe to say that – like a novel – My Promised Land does traffic in important and honest internal dialog: that of the author.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Take, for example, my favorite chapter in the book: The Project, 1967, in which Shavit uses a sit down/drinking session with Israeli engineer Avner Cohen, who helped Israel build the Dimona nuclear plant, as the launch pad for reflection on the development of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

Like other characters making up Shavit’s narratives, the taciturn Cohen provides a number of blanks the author needs to fill in.  And, in this case, those spaces are filled by Shavit’s marvel at both the ambition of Dimona and the paradox of a nuclear Israel.

For every other time in human history when one nation outgunned all of its enemies, it put that military advantage to political use, by directly controlling its neighbors or using the threat of overwhelming force to dominate or influence them.  And most military breakthroughs (like the bomb) lead to dramatic changes in military doctrine, such as the de-emphasis on conventional forces that took place in the US military during its brief monopoly over atomic weapons.

But Israel not only does not use its local nuclear monopoly for political advantage, it doesn’t even admit to having it.  And even as the nation’s political leaders (Left and Right) prefer to keep Israel’s nuclear status ambiguous, those same leaders prefer to pretend it does not exist when it comes to a national military strategy designed to win wars through conventional force alone.

What other nation behaves in such a way?  And why should Israel be an exception to almost every rule of power politics?  These are questions and paradoxes that fill Shavit’s mind (and thus his characters’ minds), which makes his working his thoughts out publically particularly illuminating.

Unfortunately, such a personal approach to history runs into a minefield when he tells that aforementioned tale of Lydda, 1948 – a story I will get to next time.