Shavit's 'My Promised Land Examines Israel's Complexities

Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep talks to Israeli journalist Ari Shavit about his new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit attempts to capture the complexity and contradictions of modern Israel by examining his country's history.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Recently my colleague Steve Inskeep heard an Israeli journalist give a talk. The journalist said that people in Israel had over the past few decades forgotten their nation's narrative.

ARI SHAVIT: We've lost this basic understanding that we are the ultimate victims of the 20th century. We are the ultimate victims of Europe. And Israel, with all its flaws, is a remarkable project of life-saving of a nation that was facing extinction and took its own fate in its own hands and tried to save itself and in many ways succeeded.

GREENE: Ari Shavit has long been a columnist for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Now he's written a book called "My Promised Land." In it, Shavit examines his country's history, its glories and its most painful chapters. When he stopped by our studios a few weeks ago, he talked with Steve about a man who visited the holy land over a century ago.

SHAVIT: My great grandfather was a self-made, very successful British-Jewish lawyer, and the question I asked myself at the beginning of the book is why would such a person who had it going so well for himself in London, which was the capital of the world at the time, why would he go to desolate, remote Palestine?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: He went on a scouting trip to see if this would be appropriate for Jewish settlement.

SHAVIT: And the answer I come up with, that he and his cofounders of Zionism had these brilliant insights. Although they did not know there will be such a place called Auschwitz, they realized that Europe was going mad and it's going after its Jews. And they tried actually physically to save the Jews. And to do that they actually launched the most amazing revolution of the 20th century. They transferred the people from one continent to another, they took a land, they built a nation, and all this and this amazing life-saving project that Israel is.

INSKEEP: Well, you went back and you read your great grandfather's journal of a portion of this journey to the holy land, to what is now Israel, and you read the journals of other people who were on this scouting trip of sorts. And you go into some detail in describing what he saw when he was looking around and looking at the prospects and, also what he did not see.

SHAVIT: Absolutely. There was this flaw from the very beginning, and the flaw was that my great grandfather, like other Zionists, did not really see the other. They did not really see that this land, this is the land of our forefathers, our ancient homeland, is occupied, it taken by another people. There was no Palestine national entity. There was no political entity.

INSKEEP: It was part of the Ottoman Empire.

SHAVIT: It was part of the Ottoman - and the entire region was, like, chaotic and tribal. So one has to remember, they did not conquer a well-established state, but those other people were there. And my great grandfather did not see them. Now, that's the source of the tragedy, because on the one hand, you have this amazing triumph that is a result of the brilliant insight. On the other hand, you have this ongoing tragedy of a 100-year war - more than that - that is the result of that basic flaw, that we did not see the Palestinians and the Palestinians would not see us, and...

INSKEEP: And you mean that in an almost literal sense - people would look right at Arab villages and ride past them.

SHAVIT: And in many ways. So I think, one of my hopes is that Palestinians would read this book and be able to understand where we come from, understand our narrative. And while we Israelis will really recognize our other and see that the Palestinians are there in a deep way, I think that that is the key - to recognize the past and move on and to see one another in a deep, human way.

INSKEEP: You do reconstruct in a literary way a lot of painful moments. The mid-1930s when Arabs realized the Jews were getting really quite numerous, attack the Jews, and there were Jewish reprisals that were terrible as well. You go to the 1940s - 1948 - this is around the time of the formal declaration of the state of Israel and describe Israelis forcing everyone out of a town called Lida(ph). Why focus on that episode? What happened there and why is it important to you?

SHAVIT: First of all, let me begin with what you say about the '30s. In many ways the most important year in the history of that holy land is really '36, because this is when the two people saw each other for a moment and the result was a total war. The Palestinians really wanted to drive us out. And Zionism has changed, 'cause it lost its innocence. Up to that point, with this romanticism and idealism, they did not see the problem. From that moment on, both sides saw the problem and the result was terrible violence.

INSKEEP: Meaning that at that moment both sides understood there was another people on this land.

SHAVIT: Yeah, and both wanted, and both - now, there is no - the brutality began in a big way in the late '30s. So in many ways the war of '48 was a result of that, because we moved from innocence to living in a brutal pain. My painful chapter about Lida is there because I think it's my moral obligation to look at things as they were. And I describe at great length what has happened there, which is that the Israeli forces conquered the city and drove away its civilian population. So this is a tragedy. And what I say about Lida is, one, I must acknowledge Lida happened; two, we all have to be fair and see that many things as Lida and worse happened in the 1940s; three, we have to remember that anywhere that the Palestinians or the Arabs then had a victory over the Jews in that war, worse things happened; and the most important thing is really this dialogue, in a sense, that I have with the Palestinians here, which says, yes, I recognize, I acknowledge Lida, but you must not get addicted to Lida. You have to leave that behind and we must build our future in that land, remembering that it happened, remembering and understanding that it's at the heart of your tragedy. But other tragedies happened and let's move on. Let's not get caught in this tragic cycle of trying to bring back that past and not being able to get out of the vicious circle.

INSKEEP: So what does Israel owe the Palestinians then?

SHAVIT: A state. I think that the two-state solution is necessary for political reasons, first of all, but also for moral reasons. I think that it's incomprehensible that the Palestinians will not have a state of their own. But that state should live in peace and it should not try to replace Israel. And regretfully, there are still many Palestinians who have a vision of Palestine that actually in this way or another replaces Israel. I think that after having such a long war, you have malaise on both sides. Our malaise is occupation. We have to end occupation. If we can do it through peace, that will be great. If not so, we have to do it unilaterally in a cautious, gradual way, because we cannot be occupying them. And we owe it to them - they should have a state. What the Palestinians have to do is to realize that their Palestine will live next to Israel and we cannot endanger Israel. Both patients have to be cured.

INSKEEP: Ari Shavit is author of "My Promised Land." Thanks very much.

SHAVIT: Thank you very much.

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