With the imminent expiration of British mandate rule and with no other regional partition plan acceptable to the UN and the countries directly involved, Israel declared itself an independent state on May 14, 1948. The next day, hoping to establish their own vision for Palestine, joint Arab League forces attacked, the first battle of a conflict now in its sixty-seventh year.
As reflected in the opening sentences of My Promised Land, journalist Ari Shavit’s personalized history of growing up Israeli, nationhood brought with it a state of perpetual apprehension: ‘For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.’ After itemizing the successive hostilities that terrorized his youth — the Six Day, Yom Kippur, and Gulf wars — Shavit also recalls his other heritage: ‘For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation.’ As a boy, Shavit would visit the occupied cities and regions and notice the fear and humiliation inflicted on his Arab peers; in his twenties, as a member of an elite paratrooper brigade, Shavit often did the occupational ‘dirty work’ — checkpoint duty, protest dispersal, midnight abductions. Shavit says that My Promised Land is rooted in this double soil of felt and inflicted fear:
“Only a few years ago did it suddenly dawn on me that my existential fear regarding my nation’s future and my moral outrage regarding my nation’s occupation policy are not unconnected. On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique. Intimidation and occupation have become the two pillars of our condition.”
The two pillars are untenable, argues Shavit, and will not bring peace. “If peace is not feasible, how will we withstand a generation-long conflict as our strategic superiority is endangered and our legitimacy is fading and our democratic identity is fractured and our internal fissures tear us apart? . . . Angst hovers above the land like the enormous shadow of an ominous volcano.”
Simon Sebag Montifiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography is at once more expansive and more focused, as indicated by its opening sentences: “The history of Jerusalem is the history of the world, but it is also the chronicle of an often penurious provincial town amid the Judaean hills.” After covering the city’s history from pre-Christianity to post-independence, Montifiore says that Jerusalem, as the soul and microcosm of the region, may be the first eruption of the volcano Shavit described:
“Jerusalem today lives in a state of schizophrenic anxiety. Jews and Arabs dare not venture into each other’s neighborhoods; secular Jews avoid ultra-Orthodox who stone them for not resting on the Sabbath or for wearing disrespectful clothing; messianic Jews test police resolve and tease Muslim anxiety by attempting to pray on the Temple Mount; and the Christian sects keep brawling. The faces of Jerusalemites are tense, their voices are angry and one feels that everyone, even those of all three faiths who are convinced that they are fulfilling a divine plan, is unsure of what tomorrow will bring.”