Too much of the discourse on Israel is a doubting discourse. I do not mean that it is too critical: Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I mean that the state is too often judged for its viability or its validity, as if some fundamental acceptance of its reality is pending upon the resolution of its many problems with itself and with others. About the severity of those problems there is no question, and some of them broach primary issues of politics and morality; but Israel’s problems are too often combined and promoted into a Problem, which has the effect of emptying the Jewish state of its actuality and consigning it to a historical provisionality, a permanent condition of controversy, from which it can be released only by furnishing various justifications and explanations.

In its early years Israel liked to think of itself as an experiment in the realization of various ideals and hopes, but really all societies, including Arab ones, are, in the matter of justice, experiments; and existence itself must never be regarded as an experiment, as if anybody has the authority to declare that the experiment has failed, and to try and do something about it. Israel is not a proposition, it is a country. Its facticity is one of the great accomplishments of the Jews’ history and one of the great accomplishments of liberalism’s and socialism’s and nationalism’s histories, and it is not complacent or apologetic to say so. The problems are not going away. I cannot say the same about the sense of greatness.

It is one of the achievements of Ari Shavit’s important and powerful book to recover the feeling of Israel’s facticity and to revel in it, to restore the grandeur of the simple fact in full view of the complicated facts. “My Promised Land” startles in many ways, not least in its relative lack of interest in providing its readers with a handy politics. Shavit, a columnist who serves on the editorial board of Haaretz, has an undoctrinaire mind. He comes not to praise or to blame, though along the way he does both, with erudition and with eloquence; he comes instead to observe and to reflect.

This is the least tendentious book about Israel I have ever read. It is a Zionist book unblinkered by Zionism. It is about the entirety of the Israeli experience. Shavit is immersed in all of the history of his country. While some of it offends him, none of it is alien to him. His extraordinary chapter on the charismatic and corrupt Aryeh Deri, and the rise of Sephardic religious politics in Israel, richly illustrates the reach of his understanding.

Nowhere is Shavit a stranger in his own land. The naturalness of his identity, the ease with which he travels among his own people, has the paradoxical effect of freeing him for a genuine confrontation with the contradictions and the crimes he discovers. His straightforward honesty is itself evidence of the “normalization” to which the founders of Zionism aspired for the Jews in their homeland; but it nicely confounds their expectation that normality would bring only contentment. Anxiety, skepticism, fear and horror are also elements of a normal life.

Shavit begins Israel’s story at the beginning: with Zionism and its utopian projects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been a long time since I encountered a secular observer of Israeli society who is still so enchanted by the land and still so moved by the original visions of what could be established on it. “Zionism’s mission,” as Shavit correctly describes it, was to rescue the Jews from destruction in exile; and he has too much dignity to entertain second thoughts about the appetite for life. “The need was real,” he writes. “The vision was impressive — ambitious but not mad. And the persistence was unique: For over a century, Zionism displayed extraordinary determination, imagination and innovation.” There is something almost wicked about such a full-throated love of country in a journalist so sophisticated — and about such a full-throated love of Israel.

But this is not a hollow or mendacious patriotism. There is love in “My Promised Land,” but there is no propaganda. Shavit knows how to express solidarity and criticism simultaneously. He proposes that Zionism was historically miraculous and he proposes that Zionism was historically culpable. “From the beginning, Zionism skated on thin ice”: There was another people living in the same land. “The miracle is based on denial,” he bluntly remarks. “Bulldozers razed Palestinian villages, warrants confiscated Palestinian land, laws revoked Palestinians’ citizenship and annulled their homeland.” Shavit’s narrative of the massacre and expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda by Israeli forces in the war of 1948 is a sickening tour de force, even if it is not, in his view, all one needs to know about the war or the country. “The choice is stark,” he unflinchingly declares: “Either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”


Nathan Thrall

Ari Shavit is a Haaretz columnist admired by liberal Zionists in America, where his book has been the focus of much attention. In April 1897 his great-grandfather Herbert Bentwich sailed for Jaffa, leading a delegation of 21 Zionists who were investigating whether Palestine would make a suitable site for a Jewish national home. Theodor Herzl, whose pamphlet The Jewish State had been published the year before, had never been to Palestine and hoped Bentwich’s group would produce a comprehensive report of its visit for the First Zionist Congress which was to be held in Basel in August that year. Bentwich was well-to-do, Western European and religious. Herzl and most early Zionists were chiefly interested in helping the impoverished and persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe, but Bentwich was more worried about the number of secular and emancipated Jews in Western Europe who were becoming assimilated. A solution to the problems of both groups, he believed, could be found by resurrecting the Land of Israel in Palestine.

At the end of the 18th century, roughly 250,000 people lived in Palestine, including 6500 Jews, nearly all of them Sephardic. By 1897, when Bentwich’s delegation made its visit, the Jewish share of the population had more than tripled, with Ashkenazi Zionist immigration pushing it up towards 8 per cent. Bentwich, Shavit writes, seems not to have noticed the large majority of Gentiles – the Arab stevedores who carried him ashore, the Arab pedlars in the Jaffa market, the Arab guides and servants in his convoy. Looking out from the top of a water tower in central Palestine, he didn’t see the thousands of Muslims and Christians below, or the more than half a million Arabs living in Palestine’s twenty towns and cities and hundreds of villages. He didn’t see them, Shavit tells us, because most lived in hamlets surrounded by vacant territory; because he saw the Land of Israel as stretching far beyond the settlements of Palestine into the deserts of present-day Jordan; and because there wasn’t yet a concept of Palestinian national identity and therefore there were no Palestinians.

Bentwich’s blindness was tragic, Shavit laments, but it was necessary to save the Jews. In April 1903, 49 Jews were murdered in a pogrom in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova. More than a million Jews fled Eastern Europe over the next decade, the majority of them to America. Most of the 35,000 who immigrated to Palestine were secular and idealistic. They believed Palestine could accommodate Arabs and Jews. They lived in communual agrarian settlements, and transformed the pale, effete Jew of the ghetto into the tanned, masculine pioneer of the socialist kibbutz.

By 1935, Jews made up more than a quarter of Palestine’s population and in dozens of places Palestinian tenant farmers had been evicted to make way for Jewish orange groves and agricultural settlements. But the arrival of Jewish capital, technology and medicine, Shavit writes, didn’t just benefit the Jews. He cites a 1936 article by the leader of Rehovot’s orange growers: ‘Never did a colonial project bring so much blessing as the blessing brought upon the country and its inhabitants by our project.’



FELIPE SAHAGÚN | 24/10/2014 

Este es el relato de la ocupación de Cisjordania, Jerusalén, los Altos del Golán, la Franja de Gaza y la península del Sinaí por Israel desde su arrasadora victoria sobre las fuerzas combinadas de sus vecinos Egipto, Siria y Jordania en la guerra de los Seis Días en 1967”. Así arranca el autoexiliado israelí Ahron Bregman (1957), profesor del King’s College de Londres, su investigación sobre las consecuencias de aquella “victoria maldita”, traducción exacta del título original (Cursed Victory) que refleja mucho mejor el contenido de esta excelente obra que el descafeinado título español.

Como han demostrado otros autores, entre ellos Michael B. Oren en su Guerra de los Seis Días (2002), sin lo sucedido a comienzos de junio del 67 es imposible entender casi nada de lo ocurrido en Oriente Próximo desde entonces: el Septiembre Negro jordano de 1970, la guerra del Yom Kippur de 1973, la llegada del Likud al poder en Israel, Camp David I y la paz fría egipcio-israelí (1977-1979), la guerra del Líbano en 1982, la expansión de asentamientos judíos en los territorios ocupados desde el primer día, el polvorín de Jerusalén con explosiones cíclicas y tensión permanente, la primera intifada (1987-1992), los acuerdos de Oslo desde el 93, el fallido Camp David II (2000), la segunda intifada y el desmantelamiento de los asentamientos de Gaza y de cuatro de Cisjordania entre 2005 y 2006.

En el libro se describen los tres pilares de la ocupación: el uso de la fuerza militar para subyugar a los ocupados, las leyes y reglamentos expedidos para controlar la vida en los territorios y lo que el autor denomina “la creación de realidades físicas sobre el terreno”, que incluye la expropiación de tierras, la destrucción de pueblos, la construcción de asentamientos y bases militares, el establecimiento de zonas de seguridad y el control del agua y de otros recursos naturales.
Desde un profundo conocimiento del escenario (sirvió seis años en el ejército israelí y emigró para no ser llamado de nuevo a filas en la primera intifada), un dominio indiscutible de la bibliografía sobre el conflicto, acceso privilegiado a cartas e informes de los servicios secretos israelíes nunca antes publicados y decenas de entrevistas personales durante los últimos veinte años, Bregman confirma con pruebas sólidas que Israel nunca ha apostado seriamente por la posibilidad de un estado palestino independiente y que ha tratado de quedarse con los territorios conquistados sin responsabilizarse de la población que los habita. Al contrario: ha cometido, según el autor, toda clase de crímenes para deshacerse de la población.

Divide su relato de la ocupación en cuatro partes de unos diez años cada una, en las que se va multiplicando el número de incidentes violentos: 350 hasta 1975, más de 700 del 76 al 82, unos 3.000 del 82 al 86, más de 40.000 en los primeros seis meses de la primera intifada… Según Bregman, en los primeros 40 años de ocupación han muerto por culpa del conflicto 6.187 palestinos y 2.178 israelíes. Estas cifras se quedan muy cortas si añadimos los muertos en las intervenciones militares de Israel en Gaza desde 2006.

El autor cierra su narración histórica en 2007, inusual en un libro publicado en 2014, dejando fuera el pulso con Hamas en Gaza, la repercusión de la primavera árabe, la desintegración de Siria, el enfrentamiento entre suníes y chiíes en Oriente Medio, y la fuerza creciente del Estado Islámico en Irak y Siria. Por supuesto que el análisis de todo ello da para varios libros, pero ser optimista respecto a la opción de dos estados en la antigua Palestina tras describir con brillatez y precisión medio siglo de acciones contrarias a esa meta resulta poco creíble. ¿Es un fracaso histórico de Israel la ocupación, como afirma Bregman en su conclusión final, cuando, violando el derecho internacional de forma reiterada, mantiene el apoyo de sus principales valedores occidentales, sigue reforzando esa ocupación? Si estamos, como documenta sobradamente, ante una historia de “ocasiones perdidas” de Israel, los palestinos han perdido tantas o más oportunidades y han pagado un precio infinitamente más elevado.

Es encomiable el esfuerzo del autor, que se concentra sobre todo en los ocupantes, para dar voz y rostro humano también a los ocupados, y lo consigue de forma sobresaliente con los perfiles de líderes como Alon, Dayan, Arafat, Beguin o Sharon, y los numerosos testimonios destilados en los catorce capítulos de la obra.


Reseña en Política Exterior