Zionism, Between the Real and the Ideal

shavit3It’s in that painful gap between the real and the ideal that life is truly lived. In our marriages, in our relationships with our children and our parents, the chasm between being the people we are and the people we would like to be plays host to life’s most painful – but also most productive – moments. It is when great expectation confronts disappointment, when love is hamstrung by betrayal and yearning, that we learn that real commitment is tested in the crucible of heartache, in the desperate wish that things had been different, or still could be.
Zionism is actually no different. For those of us raised on stories of brave Jews saved from the cauldrons of Europe, defending themselves in the 1940’s against marauding Arabs and then dancing the hora on the streets of Tel Aviv in 1948, being forced to confront the reality of the Jewish state is always a deeply painful process. Most of us know people who, once exposed to Israel’s under-belly, have become Israel’s most relentless, loveless critics. Others assume precisely the opposite position, denying any fault or imperfection – anyone who dares critique the Jewish state must be shown to be wrong, or self-hating, or worse.

Is that really the world we wish to inhabit?

Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel, puts us to that test. There were a couple of chapters during which I literally could read only two or three pages, and then had to put the book down. I paced the living room, made myself a cup of tea, took a deep breath, and forced myself to plow through another two or three pages, before taking yet another break.

I finished My Promised Land exhausted, pained – and deeply grateful. For here is a book by a man whose love for Israel permeates every page. He adores the country and knows it deeply (unlike authors of much less nuanced critiques in recent years, for whom Israel is little more than an “occupation”) and is staying in Israel – “Come what may,” as he says in his last sentence. So Israel’s flaws don’t just trouble Shavit – they torment him. He wrote his book, one suspects, because he wants them to torment us, as well.

My Promised Land is a deft weaving of agony and ecstasy. Just as the narrative becomes almost unbearable, Shavit shifts tone and reminds us of the marvel, the creativity and the decency at the core of Israel’s soul. He does so with the keen eye of the first-rate journalist he is and the supple art of a great novelist. It’s no surprise, therefore, that reviewers as disparate as Leon Wieseltier, Jeffrey Goldberg and Thomas Friedman have heaped praise on the book.Shavit2

But not everyone has. Some, distressed by Shavit’s criticism of their beloved Israel, have sought to prove that Shavit is, well, just wrong.

Perhaps Shavit’s most painful chapter is about the mass killing and exile of Lydda’s Arabs in the War of Independence. When he recently published it in The New Yorker, predictable responses surfaced immediately. There was the “You see … Israel born in sin, and violently murderous to this day.” And there was the “No, Israel is legitimate, precisely because nothing of the sort ever happened.”

One column, written by a very articulate and knowledgeable Israel-advocate, cites a journalist, Dan Kurzman (who, though prolific, was not a trained historian), as basis for claiming that Lydda had “surrendered, went back on its word, massacred and mutilated Israeli soldiers, and then despite all this the residents were allowed to leave unharmed.” Then, the writer then asks, “Why would Shavit and his editors omit the crucial fact that Lydda had surrendered, and had agreed to disarm and live in peace, and that the Israelis had agreed to let them stay?”

A fair question. So I reread parts of an authoritative history of the period, Benny Morris’ masterful 1948. Morris writes (pp. 286 ff.) that IDF records show that 250 civilians were killed, and that Ben-Gurion authorized the expulsion of the town’s 50,000 residents (and then boasted to his Cabinet that they were all gone). Records of the IDF’s Fourth Regiment reported that “Some 30,000 women and children from … Lydda … are suffering from hunger and thirst to a degree that many of them have died.” Does this count as “all the residents being allowed to leave unharmed?” As for the “surrender,” Morris writes that “as for the surrender instrument that implicitly [emphasis added] allowed Ramla’s inhabitants to stay,” Yitzchak Rabin gave an order that “the inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly without attention to age” (page 290).

I’m not an historian and I’ve never researched that period. So I make no claim to knowing precisely what transpired. What does seem incontrovertible, however, is this: since the history of that era is highly contended, intellectual honesty demands that we at least not pretend otherwise. Did Morris (a world-class historian) and Shavit (an equally talented journalist) knowingly create a fictional account? Or is it more likely that my adopted country was (re)born in circumstances that were far more complex – and messy and painful – than the narratives on which many of us were raised?

Do I agree with every assertion in Shavit’s book? I don’t. Would I personally have written a sentence like “Zionism had carried out a massacre in the city of Lydda”? I don’t think that I could.

shavit1But here’s the rub. Precisely because I hope to bequeath to my grandchildren a better Israel than the one I inherited, I need thoughtful observers, careful researchers and Israel-loving writers like Ari Shavit to pen sentences like that. For prose like that stops me in my tracks, makes it hard to breathe. Accounts like these, even sentences like those that make me bristle, force us to recognize, when it’s easiest not to, that despite its just cause, our country – like many others– was created in a crucible of confusion, anger, passion and violence. And they force us all to ask what kind of narrative we’re going to create from here on in.

It’s that painful mix that Shavit believes we can – and must – confront, in order for Israel’s moral core to continue to flourish. Can we love this country only if it is perfect? Or can we model a Zionism in which we both confront the complex and painful parts of our history all while asserting that we have every right – and need – to be here?

Shavit believes we’re capable of taking the intellectually and morally sophisticated high road. He hopes, I sense, that we can bequeath to generations to come an Israel that is profoundly Jewish yet deeply committed to humanity at large, physically secure yet confident enough to be deeply self-reflective. Isn’t that what Jewishness is all about?

Is Shavit justified in his faith in us that we can be that sophisticated? Or has he, perhaps, over-estimated us? For all our sakes, we must hope – and we must ensure – that he hasn’t.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

17 Comments on "Zionism, Between the Real and the Ideal"

  • Steve Kalin says

    Thank you for this column I just finished reading the chapter on Lydda and was surprised and very disturbed. I am glad to hear you were too.

  • StanleyT says

    But what happened, did not happen in a vacuum. Israel was fighting for her survival – and if the Jews had lost, you can be sure that the consequences for them would have been far worse than they were for the losing Arabs. For example the sentence about Ben Gurion “boasting to his cabinet” is really upsetting. Perhaps Ben Gurion was just informing his cabinet that a situation that was highly threatening had been dealt with. Imagine how the King of Jordan reported to his people that the Jews had been ethnically cleansed from Jersualem.

    Yes, it’s all very well to hold Jews and Israel up to the highest standards, but to do so while ignoring the realities on the ground and what was actually happening, is really asking too much.

  • Gary Newman says

    I heard Amos Oz say in a lecture some 4 or 5 years ago that Israel could not possibly fulfill the ideals envisioned by so many of its founders. Insofar as it is the fruit of the dreams and work of people so different from each other——in religious convictions, in political and in economic aspirations——from all over the world, it is a wonder that it even came into existence. Nevertheless, contrary to most common sense and conventional wisdom, it DOES exist, albeit like a contemporary version of the mythical fiddler on the roof.

  • Geoffic says

    I have not read it yet. Its on a long list of History books that I intend to read soon.
    But would like to ask ” is it balanced” in your opinion?

    And why was the Lydda chapter published recently , on its own , in the New Yorker? what is the intention?

    And does he explain about the fog of war? and does he quote references? Eg Karsh of London**
    And who is the intended audience? Israelis in general ? English speakers? Tom Friedman of the New York Times,, , noted critic of most of modern Israel, where very little good has occurred, according to him.


    PS. ** ” Palestine Betrayed” by Efraim Karsh
    ( Karsh is an academic Historian, as opposed to a Journalist

    Quote ” I consider this latest of Karsh’s books, Palestine Betrayed, a work of meticulous, even exhaustive scholarship which must be taken with the greatest seriousness and respect by historians of diverse points of view. Indeed, any student of modern Israel will ignore at their peril its sheer cornucopia of factual revelations.” – Howard Sachar
    (Howard Sachar)

    “Basing itself on Arabic as well as Western, Soviet, UN, and Israeli sources, Karsh’s is corrective history at its boldest and most thorough.”–Jewish Ideas Daily

    (Jewish Ideas Daily)

    “[A] tour de force. . . . With his customary in-depth archival research. . .clear presentation, and meticulous historical sensibility, Karsh argues. . . that Palestinians decided their own destiny and bear near-total responsibility for becoming refugees.”–Daniel Pipes, National Review

    (Daniel Pipes National Review 2010-05-17)

    “A thoroughly researched, sound historical account of the struggles that ensued between the Jewish and Arab communities when the British decided to leave Palestine.”–Sol Schindler, Washington Times

    —- ” >>>>>
    “Replete with references the Professor & Head of the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies Programme at Kings College, London University has provided an excellent, detailed, objective analysis of both the origins as well as the history surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    In my own opinion this authoritative, timely and well written study is destined to become a classic in relation to this contentious subject. Those who have already embraced the revisionist history of the ‘new historians’ will probably want to give it a miss as the detail and depth of this work tends to blow their case completely out of the water.

    Citing many documents which have been declassified over the past decade, both the Arab and Jewish perspectives of this conflict are addressed from the very start. The political/diplomatic manoeuvering of many prominent individuals on both sides and in the international arena are all given due reference.

    Recent declassification of millions of documents from the era surrounding the British Mandate are shown to have been ignored or distorted by the ‘new historians’ in order to paint a picture that the author claims ‘is completely at odds with the anti Israel caricature that is so often the order of the day’. <<<<

  • The soldiers in the IDF in 1948 were either children of survivors, survivors, children of Europeans who fled pograms before the war, Palestinian Jews having endured British cruelty. Today’s IDF members have left the warmth of their mother’s love, had their Bar Mitzvahs, freedom education. There is never an excuse for wrong behavior but
    people who have been brutalized sometimes can do things under pressure that they normally would not do.

  • December 6, 2013 at 3:15 pm The soldiers in the IDF in 1948 were either children of survivors, survivors, children of Europeans who fled pograms before the war, Palestinian Jews having endured British cruelty. Today’s IDF members have left the warmth of their mother’s love, had their Bar Mitzvahs, freedom education. There is never an excuse for wrong behavior but people who have been brutalized sometimes can do things under pressure that they normally would not do.

  • Michaels says

    Thank you Daniel once again for a very thoughtful response to s very introspective and soul searching and heart opening book.
    Israel is the first and last refuge. Many of us know that because we know history and see current events with open eyes. Honesty like yours and the Author’s is unheard of in contemporary society. We have been persecuted for thousands of years and continue to be persecuted today. Nonetheless, existential self examination will bring us closer to our collective truth and allow us to look other countries in the eyes and ask them to be truthful, reconcile our past injustices and lets live interdependent in peace.
    All of that psychoanalysis does not eliminate the need for a country where we can live, work and pray in Peace. All of that analysis does not remove the need for defensible border. All of that analysis does not make living with people who are committed to killing us any more tolerable or make a good case for tolerating their intolerance.

  • Sam says

    Why now?
    Shavit’s motivations are not so pure, when writes over the top sentences like “Zionism carried out a massacre in the city of Lydda”?
    Where is his sentence – the Arabs attempted genocide of the Jewish Palestinians and in the course of the self defense, there were unfortunate military actions? Attempted genocide has unpleasant consequences, such as refugees and killings, even some excesses. But the war and its consequences are the responsibility of the Palestinian Arabs for trying to wipe out the Jewish State. Certainly Jewish behavior is important, but must be measured as a response to a genocidal war and not taken out of context and put under a microscope. That is dishonest.

    Shavit’s mixing of praise for Israel with the need to confront Israel’s demons at this point in time makes no sense unless possibly, he is trying to soften up Israel for a deal with the Palestinians. “You see, we are no better than they are, so let’s compromise, even if it puts us at risk since we are also killers and brutal.”

    But we are better than they are, since we grieve for bad actions and take responsibility for them and apologize for them. For the Palestinians, terrorism and violence and demonization are justifiable because of the original sin of the Jews – inhabiting Eretz Yisrael. But Jews always remained in Palestine – see Homeland by Jerome Verlin – and half of the Jews of Israel are indigenous to the Greater Middle East. The Palestinian Arabs are hardly more indigenous, with many coming from Syria and Egypt and even Bosnia. Just look at their names.
    They are trying to shame us and Shavit seems to have eaten some of their poison and is feeding it to the rest of us.

  • Bayla Chaikof says

    Thank you Danny for this article which provided the psychotherapy I needed to finnish reading Shavit’s book!! The book was amazing and very powerful but difficult to read for someone who grew up with Zionism and a love for Israel. It’s time that we faced the errors that our beloved leaders and heros made ! Let’s hope that we leave our amazing homeland in good hands so that our grandchildren will remain dedicated and proud of the State of Israel
    Shabbat shalom
    Bayla Chaikof

  • morton meyerson says

    Rabbi Dr Gordis (Danny to most) nails a tough subject that is
    painful to approach as he indicated in the first part of his article.
    I loved the connection to family tensions which exist in every family.
    This is one of his best

  • I have just finished the book, and being a historian I found the book to be accurate. I have many problems with the book from a structural point of view and not sure I like history through stories, and of course there are many important points are left out.

    My biggest problem is that this book should have been printed in Hebrew and received the sort of coverage in the Israeli media that it has in the American media- but I will write much more about that in a review I will write soon

  • Israel’s legitimacy doesn’t depend on whether its conduct @ Lydda was perfect. Bad things inevitably happen in war. Israel accepted Partition. The Arabs didn’t and started a war to exterminate nascent Israel. At p.122, Israel’s military governor tells the leaders of the Lydda Arabs “We shall do to the (Arab) prisoners what you would do had you imprisoned us.” The leaders reply by begging “Please do not do that.” At page 130, an Israeli officer tells a fleeing Palestinian, whom he recognizes, that he needn’t flee. The Palestinian replies “that if he stays he will be a considered a traitor and will be executed.” Many regrettable acts occur in war. These snippets suggest that Israel has less to be ashamed over Lydda than Shavit would lead us to believe. This is an excellent book, which will challenge many readers’ assumptions, even mine.

  • What purpose does it serve when you bring up these issues today as published by Benny Morris, Arie Shavit?

    Do you believe that by admitting the wrong doings of Israel during the war of Independent, when it was attacked by 7 Arab nations including the local Arab population will bring us today closer to conciliation with the Arab world?

    Have you forgotten the atrocities committed against the Jews in the Arab world since time immemorial? The Arab pogroms against the Jews in Palestine in 1920, 1921, the Massacre of Hebron in 1929 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1929_Hebron_massacre) the pogroms in 1936-1939?

    The massacre of 133 defenders in Kfar Etzion in 1948 who were captured by the Arabs and assembled, they were photographed by a man in a kaffiyeh, and then an armored car apparently belonging to the Arab Legion opened fire with its machine gun, and then Arab irregulars joined in. A group of defenders managed to crawl into the cellar of the monastery, where they defended themselves until a large number of grenades were thrown into the cellar. The building was then blown up and collapsed on them. About 129 persons died in the battle and its aftermath. Only three of the remaining Kfar Etzion residents and one Palmach member survived.

    Whats the point of shooting ourselves in the foot time after time?

    Will that bring peace any sooner when all around us hundreds of thousands of Muslims are being butchered by their brethren?

    Will we face a different fate?

    What do you think would have happened if God forbid, the Arabs would have won in 1948?

    Have you forgotten what they had planned for us?

    What exactly does Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran hold in store for us? Why did Assad produce 1,300 tons of chemical weapons? Why is Iran fervently working on WMD including atomic bombs?

  • Following my post, here are some additional examples of Arab atrocities in 1948:

    The Convoy of 35 (or the Lamed Hey, which stands for “thirty five” in Hebrew numerals) was a convoy of Haganah men who were ambushed and killed by Arabs during an attempt to resupply the blockaded kibbutzim of Gush Etzion on January 16, 1948, after earlier convoys had been attacked.

    The Hadassah convoy massacre took place on April 13, 1948, when a convoy, bringing medical supplies and personnel to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus was ambushed by Arab forces.

    Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members were murdered. Dozens of unidentified bodies, burned beyond recognition, were buried in a mass grave in the Sanhedria Cemetery.

  • Jennifer Read says

    The chief attraction of Danny’s writings to me when he made aliyah was his willingness to admit that Israel could cease to exist through its defects, tragic as that would be. Recently, he has seemed to me to move more into the chauvinist camp. This column brings back the Danny I first respected. I hadn’t heard of he book, but will read it ASAP.

  • Jennifer says

    I was first attracted to Danny’s writings, apart from personal acquaintance and many common friends, by his willingness to admit that Israel’s flaws could lead to its destruction, tragic though that would be. He has lately seemed to me to move into the chauvinist camp. This column brought back the man I respect. I have not read the book, but I will ASAP.

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