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.