Several overseas friends have urged me to read and write about Ari Shavit''s My Promised Land.
Shavit is a well known columnist for Ha''aretz, but the book is not the left of center all out screech that might be expected from the paper''s turn in recent years. According to the unusually long, detailed, and highly positive review of The New York Times.
"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 . . . in full view of the complicated facts. “My Promised Land” startles in many ways . . . 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."
The book has gotten a great deal of attention in the English language press, but relatively little in Hebrew. This may reflect that its Hebrew edition is due out later, or that details that surprise my correspondents have been well known and widely debated here for years.
The expulsion of Arabs from Lydda impressed American readers and reviewers. It occurred during the 1948 war in response to the participation of numerous Arab civilians in the fighting and the strategic location of Lydda between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It was not pretty, but is well established in Israeli memories, often pitting those concerned with human rights against those inured to the costs of war. Many of the pragmatists express regrets, but justify the operation. The "ethnic cleansing" of Arab settlements during the war, and again in 1967, was covered in the course on Hebrew literature given in the junior high school of my older son in 1978.
Another book that deserves a read by those open to the complexity of Israeli society is Like Dreamers, by Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi is a friend and neighbor, and I heard about this book during several casual meetings over the many years he was collecting the material and wrestling with its composition. It describes the different political paths taken by a group of soldiers involved in the 1967 seizure of the Old City. Some became prominent as builders, settlers, and activists in the newly acquired land they viewed as Israel''s patrimony, while others joined the critics who saw settlement as the greatest threat to Israel''s values and its existence.
The much greater reception given both books overseas may only reflect publishers'' strategies and the lack of early Hebrew editions, or it may say something more profound about the social distance between this country and others.
While every country''s people know more about themselves and may be tired of discussions that interest others who become aware of details, Israel may be extreme in this regard. Perhaps its people are more intimately involved in public affairs than those of other countries. Most of its men and many of its women have had military experience, with many of both involved in dicey operations that go beyond the routines of citizen soldiers elsewhere. Discussions of military operations from the distant past or last week are common topics at Friday night dinners with several generations of extended families.
Our small clan has heard war stories that might qualify as crimes observed, and crimes suffered. We include one person whose military career dealt with managing the barriers and movement of Palestinians from the West Bank to Israel, and another person active in Barrier Watch, whose members assemble early each morning and do what they can to assure humane treatment of those wanting to pass.
The Holocaust is an iconic national experience whose details are not considered too sensitive for the ears of younger children. Ours heard about the Germans who did very bad things from a nursery school teacher who, as a teenager, smuggled munitions to soldiers fighting in Jerusalem during 1948. A few years later those kids donated to their school library in memory of a great grandmother and a great uncle, both of whom were killed for being the wrong kind of Germans.
Arrogance may be part of the Israeli experience, traceable in some to being God''s Chosen People in the Promised Land, and among others to their tested survival under conditions more severe than those experienced by friends and relatives elsewhere.
The sharpest contrast I can think of is between battle hardened Israelis and overly privileged professors of the American Studies Association. My guess is that few tested themselves in the American military or learned the realities of the Middle East. Yet they voted to impose an academic boycott on their Israeli colleagues. They come close to making me ashamed of my profession. They remind me of the different kinds of colleagues encountered in numerous institutions of several countries over the course of 50 years. The vast majority have been bright, hard working, and decent, but some have been fools, not very bright despite their capacity to pass through the hoops of academia, with some of those committed to academic fashions as firmly as the mindless consumers who go wild over the latest shoes.
Pathetic was the comment of the Association''s president, called upon to defend sanctions against the one Middle East democracy whose record on civil rights may not fall below those of countries in North America or Western Europe. He expressed his own arrogance with, "One has to start somewhere."
While I may approach envy for Americans who avoid what Israelis expect to do, and do not have to put their children on the bus to basic training and 2-3 years in the IDF, I pity the parents who pay high US tuition, and the kids who learn in classrooms tainted by such shallowness.