Go into any Jewish community in the United States these days and spend a few hours talking to people. At a certain point in the conversation, at least one person will bring up Ari Shavit’s bestselling book, My Promised Land.
Mention of the book will arouse great enthusiasm. Invariably, a prominent member of the group will say, with utter conviction, and to the nods of all present, “I think that Shavit’s book should be required reading for all American Jewish students.”
The most illustrious American Jewish writers and editors today are all but unanimous in their praise for Shavit’s book, which they proclaim is an “epic,” account of Israel.
As Martin Kramer wrote this week in the online journal Mosaic, “the last ‘epic’ account of [Israel’s birth in] 1948 to seize the imagination of its Jewish and non-Jewish readers,” as Shavit’s has done was Leon Uris’s Exodus, published in 1958.
Uris’s book was an inspirational, historical fiction that told the story of Israel’s birth. Decades of American Jewish readers were profoundly influenced by the narrative. Ask any American Jew over the age of 35 who made aliyah if he read Uris’s Hollywood-style account of the Zionist revolution. The answer is almost always affirmative.
Like Exodus, Shavit’s My Promised Land has been a runaway success. As Kramer noted, Shavit has been embraced by the Jewish establishment’s celebrity intellectuals – sharing stages with New Yorker editor David Remnick, and Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg. He’s been kvelled over by Tom Friedman and Franklin Foer from The New Republic.
Shavit got marquis billing at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington in March, and has been feted by the Jewish Federations and the most affluent synagogues in America.
Unlike Exodus, which is a fictional account of Israel’s founding, Shavit insists that his narrative is the undisputed truth. As Foer put it in his blurb an on the back cover, Shavit’s book is an, “epic history . . . full of moral complexity . . . mind-blowing, trustworthy insights.”
Also unlike Exodus, Shavit’s tale of Israel is not one of heroism, determination, faith and gumption. Rather, Israel’s tale is morally ambiguous. Israel is a country born in sin and its subsequent history has been immiserated by tribalism, fanaticism, displacement, and war crimes.
On the other hand, Israel isn’t all bad. Shavit still loves it with all his heart because it is a great country made up of human beings. And you should love it too. At least a little bit.
Shavit’s portrayal of Israel revolves around the continuous clash between the bad and good things that Israel is and does. A central anchor of the “Bad Israel,” narrative is Shavit’s account of the battle of Lydda (Lod) in the 1948 War of Independence. Kramer’s article, titled, “What happened at Lydda?” is a critical assessment of Shavit’s account of that battle.
By Shavit’s telling, the Israeli forces that conquered Lydda from the Jordanian Arab Legion and the local Arab irregulars in July 1948 massacred civilians who were hiding in a mosque. Shavit alleges that after killing the innocent, Israeli troops forced local Arabs to bury the bodies to hide their crime, and murdered the Arabs who dug the graves.
The purported massacre, according to Shavit, is what fomented the Arab flight from Lydda. Shavit judges the soldiers and commanders who participated in the operation. But he lays the blame for these alleged events on “Zionism.”
“Zionism,” he wrote, “carries out a massacre at Lydda.”
Shavit claims his historical narrative is based on interviews he conducted in the 1990s with soldiers who participated in the battle. Shavit has not released the transcripts of those interviews.
Yet as Kramer relates, the same sources to whom Shavit attributes his story gave opposite accounts in on-record, and in many cases, on-camera interviews with other reporters and researchers.
Shavit referred to the battle of Lydda as “Israel’s black box.” As Kramer put it, Shavit maintains that, “in its story lies the dark secret not only of the birth of Israel but indeed of the entire Jewish national movement—of Zionism.”
Through his point by point examination of Shavit’s narrative, Kramer demonstrated that Shavit’s account is arguably no less fictional than Uris’s idealized portrayal of Israel.
Kramer found no clear evidence that a massacre was carried out at Lydda. At best, there is an argument between historians about what happened. Shavit’s claim that the dead were “civilians,” is not supported by historical accounts of the battle. His claim that 250 Arabs were killed in the battle is disputed.
Moreover, as Kramer demonstrates, contrary to Shavit’s claim that Israeli soldiers allegedly killed Arabs out of rage and not for reason of military necessity, the documentary history of the battle contains no evidence of malice by any of the soldiers or commanders involved in the battle.
A perfectly reasonable explanation of the evidence — and a better one than Shavit’s claim of original sin — is that the Israeli fighters fought a hard battle in an urban area under the accepted rules of war. And people died.
Whereas Shavit wrote that the Israeli forces buried the bodies of the Arab dead to hide evidence of their supposed war crime, according to the participants’ firsthand accounts, the Arab dead were buried because it was hot and the bodies would have rotted if they weren’t interred.
As for murdering the Arab burial detail, one of its members – who lived his whole life in Lydda (Lod) after the war — was interviewed on record about the battle several times. He was neither killed at the time, nor did he allege that his colleagues were killed.
Kramer ends his article by calling for “the grandees of American Jewish journalism who rushed to praise Shavit’s Lydda treatment,” to tell their readers the truth about the at best dubious nature of Shavit’s account of the battle.
Kramer is right to hold Shavit’s enablers to account. But the problem is that promoters like Jeffrey Goldberg, (who presented Shavit’s as “a beautiful, mesmerizing, morally serious, and vexing book,” for which “I’ve been waiting most of my adult life”) are unlikely to be called to order by their American Jewish audience.
Goldberg, Remnick, Friedman, Foer and David Brooks are not operating in a vacuum. True, they are leading voices in the American Jewish community. But their stature owes mainly to the American Jewish community’s desire to listen to them. They reflect the values and preferences of the American Jewish community more than they shape them.
AIPAC didn’t give Shavit the center stage at its annual conference because David Remnick featured an abridged version of his tale of the Lydda “massacre,” in The New Yorker. AIPAC gave Shavit center stage because AIPAC leaders like his message of Israel’s moral deficiency just as much as Remnick does.
How can this be? Shavit’s most enthusiastic readers are not uninvolved Jews. They are not American Jews who have left the community. Shavit’s biggest admirers are members in good standing of the American Jewish community. They belong to synagogues. They belong to AIPAC. They give to the Federation.
What is it about his dishonest moral indictment of Israel that excites them?
For generations of American Jews, Israel was perceived as “poor little Israel.” As they saw things, Israel was economically backward. It was dependent on charity from the American Jewish community. And it needed organizations like AIPAC to protect and promote its interests in Washington.
There was truth behind these perceptions in Israel’s early years in particular. Israel was a weak country and a poor country. American Jewish support was a critical component of Israel’s economic and diplomatic viability. But in recent decades, Israel has become more and more capable of standing on its own.
Today Israel is not dependent on the charity of American Jews. It is a prosperous country with a healthy, rapidly growing and diverse economy. With Asia expected to eclipse the US as Israel’s largest trading partner next year, Israel has become less dependent on the US in general than it was in the past.
Israel’s economic vitality is an unwelcome development for many American Jews who cannot get their arms around Israel not needing them to save it.
And as Israel becomes more powerful, American Jews are becoming less willing to defend Israel in any meaningful way.
For the past decade, AIPAC made convincing the White House and Congress to pass sanctions against Iran its primary goal. But when President Barack Obama told AIPAC to stop lobbying for further sanctions after he signed the interim nuclear deal with Iran last November, AIPAC folded like a deck of cards. Israel and the Republicans on Capitol Hill that had pushed the legislation were left high and try.
Defending Israel to an unsympathetic president from the Democratic Party is apparently too much to ask most pro-Israel American Jews to do.
And this is where Shavit’s book comes in.
By portraying Israel as a country that is morally deficient, Shavit gave the American Jewish community two gifts. First he gave them a way to feel morally superior, and therefore patronizing towards Israel. Israel, they can say, committed a massacre – and did so because its founding ideology is poisonous. American Jews would never do such a thing. But out of the kindness of their hearts, like Shavit, they will continue to love this unworthy cousin.
The second gift Shavit gave the American Jewish community was the ability to feel comfortable refusing to be inconvenienced for Israel. Clearly – given Israel’s moral failings as portrayed by Shavit – American Jews should have no interest in picking up and making aliyah. But beyond that, since Israel is a morally lacking country, there is no reason for them to take a serious stand on its behalf. There is no reason for them to object to the galloping anti-Semitism on college campuses. The BDS people may be over the top, but according to Shavit, they have a point.
There is no reason for them to stand up to Obama. He is using “tough love” to make Israel free itself of sin and atone for its past crimes – like the one it committed in Lydda.
The success of Shavit’s book reveals the rupture in the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel. A generation ago, being pro-Israel meant believing in the justness and morality of Israel and being willing to be inconvenienced a little or even a lot to defend the Jewish state.
Today, being pro-Israel means that you support Israel despite its immorality because you are forgiving. And supporting Israel means you’ll help Israel so long as it doesn’t inconvenience you in any way or make you feel uncomfortable about anything at all.
Ari Shavit’s libelous account of the birth of Israel is just playing to the crowd. It’s time to start worrying about how to heal a crowd that celebrates being lied to in this way.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.