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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


"My Promised Land"

I would like to share with you a review, by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, of Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land.” Ari Shavit is a columnist for “Haaretz” who challenges the dogmas of both right and left. He is one of the leading political thinkers of the Jewish state. The reason I feel that reading his book (or at least reading Friedman’s summary of it) is of value is NOT because I agree with his conclusions. As a matter of fact, I disagree. However, in my opinion, Shavit’s book provides a balanced perspective and great insight into the challenges that Israel has dealt with since its inception and still faces this very day.

Here is Friedman’s summary:

Shavit claims that to understand Israel today requires keeping several truths in tension in your head at the same time.

First, that Israel, at its best, is one of the most amazing political experiments in modern history, so much better than its critics will ever acknowledge. Second, Israel at its worst, is devouring Palestinian farms and homes in the West Bank in ways that are ugly, brutal, selfish and deceitful, so much worse than its supporters will ever admit. Third, Israel lives in a dangerous region — surrounded by people who hate it not only for what it does but for what it is, a successful Jewish state — but its actions matter, too. It can ameliorate or exacerbate Arab antipathy.

Shavit winds the history of Israel through these truths, starting with his own family. His great-grandfather, a lawyer, was a founding father; his grandfather helped to build Israel’s education system; his father, a chemist, worked among the scientists who built Israel’s nuclear program. He then weaves in the next waves of immigrants, the broken survivors of World War II who joined up with the idealistic Zionists to rebuild the Jewish commonwealth in its ancient homeland. Israel’s founders were a remarkable lot. They were modest — Golda Meir died in a two-bedroom apartment — pragmatic, but utterly focused builders, who laid the foundations for a country that absorbed Jewish immigrants from 100 nations, built world-class universities and hospitals, its own Silicon Valley and 12 winners of the Nobel Prize.

“Zionism’s goal,” writes Shavit, “was to transfer a people from one continent to another, to conquer a country and assemble a nation and build a state and revive a language and give hope to a hopeless people. And against all odds, Zionism succeeded. If a Vesuvius-like volcano were to erupt tonight and end our Pompeii, this is what it would petrify: a living people. People that have come from death and were surrounded by death but who nevertheless put up a spectacular spectacle of life.”

But this miracle also produced a nightmare. There was another people there when the Jews returned, who had their own aspirations: the Palestinian Arabs. In a brutally honest chapter entitled “Lydda, 1948,” Shavit reconstructs the story of how the population of this Palestinian Arab town, in the center of what was to become Israel, was expelled on July 13th in the 1948 war.

“By noon, a mass evacuation is under way,” writes Shavit. “By evening, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs leave Lydda in a long column, marching south past the Ben Shemen youth village and disappearing into the East. Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda. Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. ... If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.”

Shavit wrestles with this contradiction, arguing that it is vital for every Israeli and Zionist to acknowledge Lydda, to empathize with the Palestinians’ fate. “But Lydda does not make Zionism criminal,” he insisted in an interview. History has produced many flights of refugees — the Jewish refugees of Europe were one such wave. Israel absorbed those refugees. European countries absorbed theirs. For too long, the Arab world kept the Palestinians frozen in victimhood. “It is my moral duty as an Israeli to recognize Lydda and help the Palestinians to overcome it,” said Shavit, by helping them establish a Palestinian state that is ready to live in peace with Israel. But, ultimately, “it is the Palestinians’ responsibility to overcome the painful past, lean forward and not become addicted to victimhood.”

Shavit’s chapter on the Oslo peace accords, which he first supported but later denounced, challenges the Israeli left. The great mistake of the Israeli left was that it was right about the evils of Israel’s occupation, he said, “but it was wrong that ending the occupation would end the conflict with the Palestinians, because the Palestinians have not overcome the trauma of 1948 and many still oppose a Jewish democracy in this region, no matter what the borders.” But Shavit argues that Israel can’t afford to just wait for every Palestinian to embrace a Jewish state. It must find a way to separate from the West Bank, as it did in Gaza, otherwise the spreading Jewish settlements there will be the virus that kills the original Israel.

FOR the Jewish people to have a sustainable home, he insists, it must be “just” and enjoy the support of the world — and the West Bank occupation is not just — and Israel must be democratic, and an endless occupation will lead to Jews being a minority in their own home. “Settlements endanger both these foundations for a Jewish state,” he says.

The uniqueness of Shavit’s book is that when you’re done with it you can understand, respect or love Israel — but not in a dogmatic or unthinking way, and not a fake or contrived Israel. Shavit celebrates the Zionist man-made miracle — from its start-ups to its gay bars — while remaining affectionate, critical, realistic and morally anchored. There’s that tension again. But it’s the only way to truly appreciate Israel. It’s why his book is a real contribution to changing the conversation about Israel and building a healthier relationship with it.