Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Zionist "What Ifs" in Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land"


I just finished reading Ari Shavit’s poignant book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel and was struck by how many counterfactual observations it contains.  Most of them, significantly enough, are employed to arrive at moral judgments about the past – or to avoid making moral judgments altogether.


Many of his observations serve the purpose of both understanding and critiquing the tragic origins of the Jewish State.  Shavit, for example, states his admiration for the “fire in the belly” of the utopian kibbutzniks that settled the land, “without which…the state of the Jews could not have been founded.”  At the same time, he recognizes that “the fire will blaze out of control…[and] will burn the…Palestinians.”  (47) Later on, he criticizes some of the fighters who killed Palestinian civilians during the conquest of Lydda during the 1948 War of Independence, but adds “I will not damn the bridge commander and the military governor and the training group boys….If need be, I’ll stand by the damned.  Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born.  If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born.   They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people…to live.”  (131)

These observations are an important part of Shavit’s larger argument that Israel was established on a foundation of denial (“of the Palestinian past, the denial of the Palestinian disaster, the denial of the [diaspora and Mizrahi] Jewish past, and the denial of the Jewish catastrophe [the Holocaust].”  Shavit is committed to dismantling this foundation and exposing the reality of denial, but he is honest enough to admit that it was probably necessary for Israel’s creation.

Notably enough, he asserts this point counterfactually, arguing that “without this multilevel denial, “it would have been impossible [for Jews in Israel] to function, to build, to live….If Israel had acknowledged what had happened it would not have survived.  If Israel had been kindly and compassionate, it would have collapsed.  Denial was a life-or-death imperative for the…nation into which I was born.” (162)

(Interestingly, this claim mirrors Hermann Lübbe’s argument about postwar West Germany, which also had to deny the recent past – related to the crimes of the Nazi era – in order to create a functioning postwar state.  The chief example of this was the re-integration of ex-Nazis into the poswar state -- the “great peace with the perpetrators.”_The implication of Lübbe's argument has always been that if postwar Germans had sought to bring ex-Nazis to justice, they would have driven them into active resistance against the state and possibly torpedoed its viability; that is to say, to paraphrase Shavit, "if Germany had faced the truth, it would not have survived").

Shavit makes the same point about Mizrahi Jews who emigrated to Israel.  The European Zionist establishment disrespected their cultural traditions and forced them into an alien living environment that left them ashamed of their heritage.  At the same time, though, “Israel did a favor to those it extracted from the Orient.  The Jews there had no real future in the new Baghdad, the new Beirut, the new Cairo….Had they stayed, they would have been annihilated….To this day, many Oriental Israelis are not aware of what Israel saved them from: a life of misery…in an Arab Middle East that turned ugly.” (290)

All of these points reflect the familiar fact that counterfactual nightmares – imagining history turning out worse -- allow one to assign redemptive meaning to the present. 

This leads Shavit to his very personal counterfactual conclusion about whether his British great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, made the right decision in migrating to Palestine in 1897.  Shavit wonders aloud, “what would have become of me had my great-grandfather not uprooted us from the green shores of Britain and settled us on that desolate shore of Palestine?....I would like to think that I would have been a literature don at Oxford or a producer at the BBC.  I would have a nice house in Hampstead and a thatched-roof cottage in West Dorset.  My life would be much more relaxed and far safer than my Israeli life.  I would have more leisure time for poetry and music.   But would I have had a richer inner life?  Would my life’s experience have been more meaningful?"

Shavit then goes on cite statistics attesting to the declining numbers of the British Jewish community today in asserting: “I know that if my great-grandfather had not removed me from this coast, I myself would probably have been today only half-Jewish.  [My children] Tamara, Michael, and Daniel might not consider themselves Jewish at all….[The] collective we belonged to would be vanishing all around us....That is why Herbert Bentwich’s insane journey from the shores of Kent to the shores of Jaffa was necessary…For we are a people on the move and on the edge….We had to save ourselves by building a Jewish national home.”

Shavit thus arrives at a clearly Zionist conclusion, validating Israel’s creation as an event that, while hardly without problems, represents the best of all possible outcomes. 

Yet even here he ultimately hedges, pointing out that it may still be too early to tell whether the Jews’ arrival in Palestine was good or bad.  “Only the end will properly put the beginning into perspective.  Only when we know what has become of the protagonists will we know whether they were right or wrong, whether they overcome the tragic decree or were overcome by it.” (418)

In so doing, Shavit highlights the fact that we always interpret history’s significance backwards, evaluating the story from the perspective of the conclusion.  Because it is too early to know how Israel’s fate in the Middle East will play out (when has it ever been clear?), Shavit’s counterfactuals may be viewed as provisional in their import.  

From the perspective of today, history could have easily been worse for many Jews, and so Israel’s creation, while tragic, can be validated counterfactually.  Today’s turmoil in the Middle East makes definitive conclusions impossible, however, and so future assessments will depend on the course of future events.  

(This point is confirmed in an earlier post about the Boston Red Sox from this past fall)

1 comment:

  1. Most members of the Yishuv were not "in denial" about the Palestinians.

    They knew that the Palestinians hated them, wanted to kill them or drive them out, and dreaded the creation of a Jewish state. In their franker moments, when not speaking for the (necessarily euphemistic) record, they acknowledged that this was perfectly natural.

    It would have been fairly difficult to live in Mandate Palestine without knowing that the Arabs were hostile to Jewish national aspirations, since riots and attacks on Jews were a common occurrence.

    Most of the leaders of the War of Independence got their start fighting against the Arab Revolt in the 30's.

    They just (very sensibly) didn't give a damn about the Arabs or their desires, except in a tactical sense.

    As Golda Meir said to King Abdullah when he offered to "protect" the Jews if they accepted his rule: "We didn't come here to sit in your parliament."

    Jabotinsky once remarked that of course if he'd been an Arab he'd have hated Zionism and fought against it just as hard as he could.

    The simple fact of the matter was that Jewish and Arab aspirations, interests and desires were in direct conflict: for one side to achieve what it wanted, the other had to be beaten and crushed.

    There was no box marked "other". Why should this be surprising? As Max Weber, the great German sociologist, pointed out, "Violence is the ultimately decisive means of political action."

    And as Ben Gurion remarked at one point, Zionism involved accepting that if a beating was to be handed out, it was better to beat than to be beaten.

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