My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW AND THE ECONOMIST

Winner of the Natan Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

An authoritative and deeply personal narrative history of the State of Israel, by one of the most influential...

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW AND THE ECONOMIST

Winner of the Natan Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

An authoritative and deeply personal narrative history of the State of Israel, by one of the most influential journalists writing about the Middle East today
 
Not since Thomas L. Friedman’s groundbreaking From Beirut to Jerusalem has a book captured the essence and the beating heart of the Middle East as keenly and dynamically as My Promised Land. Facing unprecedented internal and external pressures, Israel today is at a moment of existential crisis. Ari Shavit draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well as his own family’s story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is larger than the sum of its parts: both personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension.
 
We meet Shavit’s great-grandfather, a British Zionist who in 1897 visited the Holy Land on a Thomas Cook tour and understood that it was the way of the future for his people; the idealist young farmer who bought land from his Arab neighbor in the 1920s to grow the Jaffa oranges that would create Palestine’s booming economy; the visionary youth group leader who, in the 1940s, transformed Masada from the neglected ruins of an extremist sect into a powerful symbol for Zionism; the Palestinian who as a young man in 1948 was driven with his family from his home during the expulsion from Lydda; the immigrant orphans of Europe’s Holocaust, who took on menial work and focused on raising their children to become the leaders of the new state; the pragmatic engineer who was instrumental in developing Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s, in the only interview he ever gave; the zealous religious Zionists who started the settler movement in the 1970s; the dot-com entrepreneurs and young men and women behind Tel-Aviv’s booming club scene; and today’s architects of Israel’s foreign policy with Iran, whose nuclear threat looms ominously over the tiny country.
 
As it examines the complexities and contradictions of the Israeli condition, My Promised Land asks difficult but important questions: Why did Israel come to be? How did it come to be? Can Israel survive? Culminating with an analysis of the issues and threats that Israel is currently facing, My Promised Land uses the defining events of the past to shed new light on the present. The result is a landmark portrait of a small, vibrant country living on the edge, whose identity and presence play a crucial role in today’s global political landscape.
 
Praise for My Promised Land

“This book will sweep you up in its narrative force and not let go of you until it is done. . . . [Shavit’s] accomplishment is so unlikely, so total . . . that it makes you believe anything is possible, even, God help us, peace in the Middle East.”—Simon Schama, Financial Times
 
“Spellbinding . . . In this divided, fought-over shard of land splintered from the Middle East barely seventy years ago, Mr. Shavit’s prophetic voice carries lessons that all sides need to hear.”The Economist
 
“[A] searingly honest, descriptively lush, painful and riveting story of the creation of Zionism in Israel and [Shavit’s] own personal voyage.”—The Washington Post

“[An] important and powerful book.”—Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review

From the Hardcover edition.

2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winner

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

I must admit that I read this book out of guilt: For many years, indeed decades, I have been following breaking Middle East news earnestly, but I still lacked a fuller perspective on Israel. In a sense, it was as if I had grown up with Israel without getting to know her better. Ari Shavit's beautifully written first-person history My Promised Land gave me a wider and deeper sense of the nation and the region. This is no narrow pedantic history: As Shavit describes it himself, it talks of "pioneers, orange groves, Masada, war, housing estates" and, of course, inevitably, bombs, including nuclear weapons. Ultimately, it is a story of people, both Jews and Palestinians, not government bureaucracies. It succeeds by burrowing beneath the ideologies that impede real dialogue. (Note: Readers interested in this topic might also enjoy Diana Pinto's Israel Has Moved: Harvard University Press, 9780674073425, $24.95.)
—R.J. Wilson, Bookseller, #1002, New York NY

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Ari Shavit's new book…is a gale of conversation, of feeling, of foreboding, of ratiocination. It takes a wide-angle and often personal view of Israel's past and present, and frequently reads like a love story and a thriller at once. That it ultimately becomes a book of lamentation, a moral cri de coeur and a ghost story tightens its hold on your imagination…This book's middle 200 pages are almost certainly the most powerful pages of nonfiction I've read this year. It's not just that Mr. Shavit lays out the story of Israel's founding with clarity and precision…It's that he so deliberately scrutinizes the denial he locates at the heart of Israeli consciousness.
The New York Times Book Review - Leon Wieseltier
Israel is not a proposition, it is a country. Its facticity is one of the great accomplishments of the Jews' history…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…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.
Kirkus Reviews
Israel has betrayed its best, truest self, argues Haaretz journalist and peace activist Shavit in this wrenching dissection of the nation's past and present. Born in 1957, the author is the descendant of intellectuals and idealists who brought Zionism to the shores of Palestine at the turn of the 20th century. The author's great-grandfather, a successful British solicitor, first visited Palestine in 1897 with a Zionist delegation; his reports on the marvels of progress and modernization that he witnessed there gave Theodor Herzl hope that a deprived people could create a future in their ancient homeland. To note that Palestine was in fact already populated, as one of the delegates dared to do, was received as "scandalous heresy" by his fellow Zionists. The movement's denial of Palestinians' existence, Shavit contends, meant that first Zionism and subsequently the state of Israel were established on a rotten, unstable foundation. Step by step, the author follows the Zionist dream as it played out in Israel. Kibbutz socialism initially had great success as the pioneer generation rebelled against the "daunting Jewish past of persecution and wandering." But tit-for-tat violence, fueled by global anti-Semitism and Arab nationalism, led to a "messianic impulse" that the author believes ran amok with the West Bank settlements initiated in 1975. While on military reserve duty, Shavit served as a guard in an internment camp for Palestinians; his searing account of the grim conditions there, "On Gaza Beach" (published in the New York Review of Books in 1991), made a seminal statement of his despairing belief that innocence is finished in his native country. Various internal revolts have riven Israeli society, Shavit writes, rendering it as chaotic as "an extravagant bazaar." His effective mix of autobiographical reflections and interviews with key participants peters out toward the end into journalistic snippets, but that hardly muffles the overall impact of his anguished cri de coeur. Thoughtful, sobering reflections on a seemingly intractable conflict.
From the Publisher
“This book will sweep you up in its narrative force and not let go of you until it is done. . . . [Shavit’s] accomplishment is so unlikely, so total . . . that it makes you believe anything is possible, even, God help us, peace in the Middle East.”—Simon Schama, Financial Times
 
“Spellbinding . . . In this divided, fought-over shard of land splintered from the Middle East barely seventy years ago, Mr. Shavit’s prophetic voice carries lessons that all sides need to hear.”The Economist
 
“[A] searingly honest, descriptively lush, painful and riveting story of the creation of Zionism in Israel and [Shavit’s] own personal voyage.”—The Washington Post
 
“[A] must-read book . . . Shavit celebrates the Zionist man-made miracle—from its start-ups to its gay bars—while remaining affectionate, critical, realistic and morally anchored. . . . His book is a real contribution to changing the conversation about Israel and building a healthier relationship with it. Before their next ninety-minute phone call, both Barack and Bibi should read it.”—Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times
 
“[An] important and powerful book . . . [Shavit] 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. . . . The author of My Promised Land is a dreamer with an addiction to reality. He holds out for affirmation without illusion. Shavit’s book is an extended test of his own capacity to maintain his principles in full view of the brutality that surrounds them.”—Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Shavit is a master storyteller. [His] retelling of history jars us out of our familiar retrospections, reminds us (and we do need reminders) that there are historical reasons why Israel is a country on the edge. . . . Required reading for both the left and the right.”The Jewish Week
 
“One of the most nuanced and challenging books written on Israel in years . . . [The] book’s real power: On an issue so prone to polemic, Mr. Shavit offers candor.”—The Wall Street Journal
 
“The most extraordinary book that I’ve read on [Israel] since Amos Elon’s book called The Israelis, and that was published in the late sixties.”—David Remnick, on Charlie Rose
 
“Reads like a love story and a thriller at once.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

My Promised Land is an Israeli book like no other. Not since Amos Elon’s The Israelis, Amos Oz’s In the Land of Israel, and Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem has there been such a powerful and comprehensive book written about the Jewish State and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ari Shavit is one of Israel’s leading columnists and writers, and the story he tells describes with great empathy the Palestinian tragedy and the century-long struggle between Jews and Arabs over the Holy Land. While Shavit is being brutally honest regarding the Zionist enterprise, he is also insightful, sensitive, and attentive to the dramatic life-stories of his fascinating heroes and heroines. The result is a unique nonfiction book that has the qualities of fine literature. It brings to life epic history without being a conventional history book. It deepens contemporary political understanding without being a one-sided political polemic. It is painful and provocative, yet colorful, emotional, life-loving, and inspiring. My Promised Land is the ultimate personal odyssey of a humanist exploring the startling biography of his tormented homeland, which is at the very center of global interest.”—Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister and Defense Minister of Israel
 
“With deeply engaging personal narratives and morally nuanced portraits, Ari Shavit takes us way beneath the headlines to the very heart of Israel’s dilemmas in his brilliant new work. His expertise as a reporter comes through in the interviews, while his lyricism brings the writing—and the people—to life. Shavit also challenges Israelis and Diaspora Jewry to be bold in imagining the next chapter for Israel, a challenge that will no doubt be informed by this important book.”—Rick Jacobs, president, Union for Reform Judaism

“This is the epic history that Israel deserves—beautifully written, dramatically rendered, full of moral complexity. Ari Shavit has made a storied career of explaining Israel to Israelis; now he shares his mind-blowing, trustworthy insights with the rest of us. It is the best book on the subject to arrive in many years.”—Franklin Foer, editor, The New Republic
 
“A beautiful, mesmerizing, morally serious, and vexing book. I’ve been waiting most of my adult life for an Israeli to plumb the deepest mysteries of his country’s existence and share his discoveries, and Ari Shavit does so brilliantly, writing simultaneously like a poet and a prophet. My Promised Land is a remarkable achievement.”—Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent, The Atlantic
 
“Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land is without question one of the most important books about Israel and Zionism that I have ever read. Both movingly inspiring and at times heartbreakingly painful, My Promised Land tells the story of the Jewish state as it has never been told before, capturing both the triumph and the torment of Israel’s experience and soul. This is the book that has the capacity to reinvent and reshape the long-overdue conversation about how Israel’s complex past ought to shape its still-uncertain future.”—Daniel Gordis, author of Saving Israel and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College, Jerusalem

“This book is vital reading for Americans who care about the future, not only of the United States but of the world.”—Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

From the Hardcover edition.

Library Journal
Israeli journalist Shavit (editorial board, Haaretz) presents a history of and meditation on Zionism's successes and failures since his great-grandfather's arrival at Jaffa in 1897. He traces the rise and demise of the kibbutzim, the 1948 displacement of Palestinians, the shock of 1967's Six-Day War victory, and the near defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Unlike other recent books, either by foreign journalists focusing on the military or Israelis who accentuate the positive (e.g., Martin van Creveld's The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel), this work attempts a personal, political, intellectual, and cultural history of Israel through dozens of interviews with those who participated in the Zionist enterprise, asking and answering the important questions: Can Israel fully integrate its Arab citizens, do justice to the Palestinians, and assure security in the face of looming military and demographic threats? Long a critic of the "Occupation," Shavit argues that Israel's future depends not only on giving up that land but on coming to terms with those displaced by Zionism. VERDICT Shavit's case for a more inclusive 21st-century Israel will interest all those following Israel's struggles.—Joel Neuberg, Santa Rosa Junior Coll. Lib., CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385521703
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/19/2013
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 299
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Ari Shavit is a leading Israeli journalist, a columnist for Haaretz, and a commentator on Israeli public television.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. To tell the history of his country, Shavit begins with the story of his British great-grandfather’s trip to Palestine on a Thomas Cook caravan in 1897 and continues in his role as our guide throughout the book.  He also introduces significant historical events through a personal lens, telling the story of one orange grove owner, for example, to represent the economic boom of the late 1930s in Palestine and of an individual entrepreneur to represent the tech boom of the past decade.  Do you feel that this approach to writing about the history of Israel is effective?     

2. Was there anything in the book that challenged your assumptions about Israel’s history?  What surprised you?

3. Chapter Four, “Masada,” is the story of one man’s successful campaign to change the perception of history by shaping a national narrative.  To what degree is history shaped by individuals?  Can you think of other examples, within the book or in world history in general, in which an individual has reshaped a country’s identity and narrative?

4. Chapter Five, “Lydda,” presents the book’s central moral conflict through the lens of one battle. At the end of the chapter, Shavit writes, “I condemn Bulldozer.  I reject the sniper.  But I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the training group boys.  On the contrary.  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.”  Discuss Shavit’s moral response to what happened in Lydda.  Does every country have a Lydda in the history of its statehood?  If so, think of some examples.

5. Chapter Six, “Housing Estate,” describes the enormous sacrifices made by the new refugees for their future state, often unwillingly.  Do you agree with Ben Gurion’s view that memories of the Holocaust and the past needed to be subverted to create the new state?  Discuss the tension between the individual and the state in the creation of Israel.  You might also discuss the astonishing success rate among the immigrant children of the Housing Estate, many of whom became the leaders of the young country.  What factors do you think contributed to their success?

6. Chapter Seven discusses the stealth creation of Israel’s nuclear reactor.  Discuss its implications for current discussions of nuclear proliferation.  Shavit presses the engineer to discuss the moral significance of his life’s work, but the engineer refuses to take part in the discussion.  Do you think Shavit is right to push the engineer as he does, or is the engineer right in saying, “If everyone spent as much time thinking as you do, they would never act”?

7. In Chapter Eight, on the settlements, Shavit writes, “The question is whether Ofra is a benign continuation of Zionism or a malignant mutation of Zionism,” and answers that it is both.  Discuss the two ways of viewing the settlements.  Do you agree with Shavit’s assessment?

8. In Chapter Ten, “Peace,” for Shavit, Hulda represents the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict.  And he says that Hulda has no solution, “Hulda is our fate.”  What does he mean by this?

9. In Chapter Seventeen, “By the Sea,” Shavit describes the concentric circles of threat that challenge Israel.  The sixth threat he describes, on pp. 403-404, is a moral threat: “A nation bogged down in endless warfare can be easily corrupted.  It might turn fascist or militaristic or just brutal.”  How significant and urgent is this moral threat compared to the other threats Israel faces?  Do you believe Israel has a greater moral responsibility than other countries? Is a moral Israel necessary for its survival, and is this true for countries in general?      

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2013

    Very informative but verbose at times

    Superb insight into modern Israel, its start, history, and problems and uniqueness and problems written by a reporter mostly usng interviews with Israelis, Arab and Oriental Israelis. and Holocost survivors. I learned a lot and enjoyed the last half more than the first half. Sometimes verbose and repetitive on superficialites. Definitely worthwhile reading.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 11, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    This is an extremely thoughtful rumination on the current state of Israel and Israeli society. Although this is a highly charged subject that often arouses strong pro and con reactions,, I think Mr. Shavit has been able to carry our a difficult balancing act. While clearly empathetic to the Palestinians he is also very fair in treating the Israeli point of view. I highly recommend his book. As it is not a work of history per se I would also recommend reading Anita Shapira's "Israel" to supplement this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 29, 2014

    A personal and compelling account

    This is a personal account by a writer whose ancestors were early Zionists and who has spoken with some key characters in the nation's history. He loves his country unabashedly, but struggles with its history and current conflicts. The writing is personal and compelling, not at all dry. He offers no easy solutions, but then, there aren't any.
    The chapter on Lydda, which I had read before as a stand-along, will break your heart.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2014

    Balanced and thought provoking. 

    Balanced and thought provoking. 

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  • Posted March 7, 2014

    Personal Perspective on Israeli Society

    An engrossing personalized trip from the end of the 19th century to the opening decades of the 21st century covering Israeli society. A clear eyed yet sympathetic rendering. Well worth a careful read

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2014

    Important read

    Everyone who is interested and concerned about what we do or don't know when making decisions about our foreign relations should read this. Our allies don't always make the best decisions even for their own good, and we should not feel pressure to support them no matter what in all matters. First we have to know the whole picture and this book helps fill in the blanks on what we are ignorant. Only by seeing and considering the whole picture can viable choices be made in regard for all sides involved.

    That's why this is an important read, especially for those who make our foreign policy decisions. We need to be aware of the whole picture and this book helps get us there.

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