This book is an attempt to explain Israel. If I were asked how long it would take to accomplish such a gargantuan task, my guess would have been several encyclopedic tomes, and then some. Ari Shavit did it in less than 500 beautifully written pages.
Shavit uses his family’s history as the framework for telling the story of Israel. His great-grandfather, a Victorian English Jew, travels to Palestine in 1897 and, after a short tour of the land, decides to make it his home. Through the experiences of this early 20th century Zionistic immigrant, Shavit begins to weave the magnificent yet tragic story of the Jewish settlement of Palestine. Magnificent because of the unparalleled success of Zionism in bringing back a people who were nation-less for two millennia to their forefathers’ land, to build a thriving and prosperous country. Tragic because the land these pioneers settled was not empty. In their eagerness to fulfill their mission, they neglected to take into proper account the existence of the native Arab population. Half a century before the establishment of the State of Israel, they story of Shavit’s great-grandfather encapsulates the seeds of the struggle for this tiny piece of land.
With admirable candour and acute perspicacity Shavit goes on to examine the multifaceted story that is Israel, the forces that shaped it into being and the forces that will determine its future. He speaks of how the story of Masada – where besieged Jews committed suicide en masse rather than succumb to Roman forces – became the defining story for early Zionists. He recounts, with vivid detail, the story of Lydda, an Arab town whose population was forced into exile during the 1948 War of Independence (known to Palestinians as the Nakba, the Catastrophe). He interviews right-wing settlers and left-wing “peaceniks” to try and understand the post-1967 struggle between a Greater Israel and the efforts to bring an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. He examines the demographic changes that are transforming Israeli society: the huge influx of ex-Soviet Jews in the 1990s, the minority of Arab-Israelis and the fast-growing Ultra Orthodox community. He analyses the policy of nuclear opacity that allowed Israel to build a doomsday capability and yet avoided leveraging its existence even in the most dire of circumstances. And he describes the threats that Israel faces in the 21st century, among them a regional nuclear arms race, the so-called “Arab Spring”, the complex relationship with world Jewry and the troubling lack of sense of identity in the young generation.
While I don’t necessarily agree with all of Shavit’s conclusions, I am awed by his phenomenal accomplishment. He succeeded to convey the complexity of Israel, past and present, in a coherent and comprehensive way, while trying to outline a vision for the future. Even as an Israeli, familiar with the story and the details, I found this to be a fascinating read.
I also found myself wondering if non-Israelis would find Shavit’s book as comprehensible and evocative as I did. I will recommend it to some friends abroad and see what they say.