My Promised Land
Spiegel & Grau, 2013
Nation Books, 2013
The Toby Press, 2013
Read Ari Shavit and then Max Blumenthal and you get some idea of why it is so impossible to find a balanced account of Israel. Shavit is a journalist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and he presents the perspective of the center-right in Israel, which is currently the mainstream perspective there. Shavit, a master storyteller, romanticizes Israeli history and presents a picture of Israel that thrills apologists by contextualizing all that is hurtful in ways that soften moral outrage. And yet, for those of us at Tikkun who love Israel, even while detesting its policies toward Palestinians, Bedouins, and other minorities, there is much in the story that rings true, because Shavit captures and highlights the remarkable story of a people crawling out of the death camps and managing to create a vibrant society capable of absorbing millions of Jewish refugees. Shavit acknowledges that most Israelis today do not see the suffering caused by the Occupation as urgent but are instead worried only about Iran. Shavit, however, also sees Iran as an “existential danger” to the survival of Israel and therefore lionizes Netanyahu’s militarist approach to the problem.
Max Blumenthal, on the other hand, highlights all of Israel’s darkest sides, and his book is at once depressing and likely to cause outrage. In his narrative, the oppression of Palestinians and the increasing intensity of Israeli racism (which has become widespread in recent years and is sometimes expressed as a desire to expel Palestinians) are discussed with an urgency that is sadly lacking in Israel, in the American Jewish community, and indeed in the mainstream of American politics (even among those who are otherwise liberal or progressive). He demonstrates how little change has been accomplished by “well-educated Ashkenazi teens inserting themselves into frontline combat units to civilize their less cultivated, lower-class peers from Mizrahi and Russian backgrounds.” And Blumenthal laments that “many members of the Zionist left still claim to revere the late Israeli writer Yeshayahu Leibowitz, but few are willing to heed his … call for Israeli youth to refuse army service, to organize mass revolt or risk becoming assassins.” Blumenthal does not account for what in Israeli society or Judaism has helped to inspire those young people who have indeed followed Leibowitz’s advice and put their lives at risk in order to challenge Israeli militarism and chauvinism from within. Nor does he give attention to the heroic work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem, or the many groups concerned with dialogue, reconciliation, and empowerment of Israeli Palestinians that are supported by the New Israel Fund. Nowhere in Blumenthal’s account does one feel an inch of sympathy for the Jewish people or an awareness of the ways in which our collective post-traumatic stress disorder has led us down this destructive path. In this way it fails to engage with the powerful insight offered by Rabbi Michael Lerner in his 2012 book, Embracing Israel/Palestine: that PTSD has distorted the perceptions of many Israelis (just as it has distorted the perceptions of many Palestinians), leading each side to despair about the other.
If we keep the stories from both Shavit and Blumenthal in our minds at once, we can start to get a picture of the complexity of the current reality in Israel and Palestine—though little to provide us with a ground for hope. Yet Blumenthal’s piercing outrage, if felt by enough Americans, might help us break through the pious self-righteousness of the American Jewish community, which is deeply ensconced in self-satisfied denial of the realities of daily life in Israel. And Blumenthal’s narrative might also help energize a younger generation of activists who are pushing J Street to stop lobbying in favor of expanded budgets for the Israeli military, which it has presumably been doing to gain enough credibility within the Jewish community so as to be able to support the Obama administration’s weak-kneed efforts for a peace agreement.
After reading these two books, look at Gershon Baskin’s account of his role in freeing Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces soldier captured by Hamas and held for years in Gaza. Baskin’s courage and persistence demonstrate how an American who became an Israeli peace activist has actually had a profound impact. His story strengthens the argument that 100,000 American Jewish peace and social justice activists moving to Israel could have a great impact in challenging the psychology of fear that fosters the worldview of racism and domination that continues to distort daily life in Israel. But such an effort will only succeed if the activists bring with them a peace-oriented Jewish spiritual worldview, which none of these books is able to articulate.