Palestinians harvesting olives
Palestinians harvest olives with the help of Israeli peace activists in the West Bank village of Yanoon, October 2002 © Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit, Scribe RRP£20 / Spiegel & Grau RRP$28, 464 pages

Israel: A History, by Anita Shapira, Weidenfeld & Nicolson RRP£25 / Brandeis RRP$35, 528 pages

If Ari Shavit is not actually the angel in the minefield he certainly writes like one. Not a page of My Promised Land goes past without a smart provocation – “He wonders about the mysterious bond between Jews and oranges” – or a perfectly focused vision: “The land my great grandfather sees [in 1897] is just as he hoped it would appear: illuminated by the gentle dawn and shrouded by the frail light of promise.” Shavit conducts this orchestration of the senses like a maestro, even when his subject encompasses hatred, slaughter and (less inevitably) taking ecstasy in Tel Aviv. His accomplishment is so unlikely, so total – a history of Israel and Zionism written by an unapologetic and impassioned lover of his country who nonetheless fully registers the disasters inflicted on Palestinians – that it makes you believe anything is possible, even, God help us, peace in the Middle East.

To those of us Jews whose identity and personal history are locked together with the fate of Israel, much of what Shavit unsparingly records makes bitterly painful reading, which is precisely why his book is not just enthralling, but morally dignified. The insomnia mission – keeping us up at night worrying open the scars that are more easily left untroubled – has been the historian’s obligation ever since Thucydides did a number on Athenian hubris. Our professional honour is preserved by such cold comforts, rather than the toasty pleasures of national self-congratulation. And it is just because Shavit’s pages are so full of unresolved conflicts, personal anguish and humane compassion for both suffering peoples, along with a brilliant gift for capturing the high voltage creative exuberance of an Israel living on the edge, that his book is, by some light years, the best thing to have been written on the subject.

Beginning with its title, which is at the same time spring-loaded with irony yet also innocent of it, Shavit has the rare gift of dual empathy. As you would expect, he conveys the anguish of Jews in the late 1930s and during the war, when they realised they had been abandoned by the rest of the world. That anguish reached its most acute moment in 1942, when at the same time, the killing centres opened for business in Poland and Rommel’s Afrika Korps stood poised to break through to Egypt and Palestine. But at no point does he ever look away from the magnitude of the Palestinian catastrophe. In fact, he seems all the more of an Israeli for being able to think and feel like a Palestinian.

Shavit is no sentimentalist. He tackles the failings of the peace movement to which he once belonged with as much unsparing scepticism as he brings to the messianic delusions of the settler movement. He shares the view that either Israel ends the occupation or the occupation will end Israel. But he wants to make you understand that the condition of any kind of peace is the effort of alterity that also defines the historian’s vocation: thinking like someone you are not. Shavit is neither a Zionist romantic nor an anti-Zionist self-mortifier in the style of the new (revisionist) history. He just does that supremely difficult thing: telling it like it is – even when clarity brings cruelty along for the ride. His view of Israeli power is Machiavellian, in the sense of unblinking realism, but every page is stamped by decency and a stern respect for the truth.

It helps that Shavit, whose strong-minded columns have appeared in the liberal-left leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz since 1995, is one of the most dazzling non-fiction writers alive. He has the eye of a painter. To its young climbers in 1942, the shadow of the desert fortress of Masada falls “like the shadow of a hulking, sunken ship”. Nor does his intellectual seriousness preclude moments of fun: “Although he believed in labour and preached labour, the young Tabenkin [a socialist Zionist from Warsaw] was not very good at labour.” Even if you’ve had it up to here with the Jews and the Arabs, this book will sweep you up in its narrative force and not let go of you until it is done. It is a reminder that if the first obligation of history is self-criticism, the second is philosophically enriched storytelling – and how very rarely this goal is achieved. Most of our histories are too heavily costumed, too charming by half in their invitations to saunter down memory lane. Or else they err in the opposite direction, confusing seriousness with solemnity, getting trapped in the airless conventions of academic writing.

This, alas, is the case with Anita Shapira’s Israel: A History. Professor at Tel Aviv University and an Israel Prize laureate, Shapira has written what is in many respects an important, exhaustive and richly thoughtful march through the annals of Zionism. But its arguments and stories are hobbled by the ball and chain of grimly formal prose. It is not just a trivial matter of style. History is pointless without connection beyond the academy, and all it has to make that connection with are words chosen to bring the dead to life.

What Shapira’s history does do, however, is to engage with subjects that are glossed over or missing from Shavit’s vaulting narrative: Zionist institution-building in Mandate Palestine; the against-the-odds victory in the war of 1948-49; Suez and the airlifting of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s along with the Israeli debate about their identity. There are moments, too, when she supplies crucial context for the unfolding drama, reminding us, for instance, that 1946-48, when the uprooting of Palestinians and Jews in Islamic lands took place, was also the time of immense movements of the helpless and homeless in central and eastern Europe, and in India and Pakistan. Shapira’s book is best used as a gap-plugging aid after reading Shavit. But for all its virtues, it is not a work designed to grab the attention of the intermittently interested non-Jewish passer-by.

And the present moment is so woefully choked with malignant distortions, mutually screamed polemics, ancient stereotypes and recycled hatreds that we cannot afford to do without the literary lapel grab, a gripping narration grounded in scholarly integrity. To meet that challenge, Shavit has produced a historical narrative pitched to our restless times, and cinematic in its widescreen pathos. The expulsion of the Palestinian population of Lydda in 1948, for instance, is seen through the eyes of the conquering Israeli military governor: “He climbs the tall minaret of the Great Mosque. From the top he watches chaos engulf the town. The people of Lydda grab anything they can: bread, vegetables, dates and figs; sacks of flour, sugar, wheat, and barley; silverware, copperware, jewelery; blankets, mattresses. They carry suitcases bursting at the seams, improvised packs made from sheets and pillowcases . . . the procession gathers into a long biblical-looking column.”

Defying the conventions of the Olympian, impersonal narrator, Shavit forthrightly puts himself inside the action even when it occurs before he was born. He freeze-frames his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, momentously poised to disembark at Jaffa from his ship in 1897, to ask whether it would have been better for everyone had he not? He agonises over whether facing the truth of the massacre and exodus from Lydda means he must abandon Zionism and decides not: “I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live.” If this sounds too artful for its own good, it isn’t. It is simply a modernised version of the philosopher RG Collingwood’s appeal to make history an “imaginative re-enactment” – without the slightest trace of fiction.

My Promised Land is constructed as a chain of linked, exemplary episodes, each one set in a particular landscape, distilling the ethos of a moment in the torn-up history of Palestine and Israel. The pioneering of the kibbutz in the 1920s is set in Ein Harod in the Jezreel Valley, where “the blades of the sun catch the blades of the ploughs as they turn the valley’s soil, penetrating the crust of the ancient valley’s deep earth. And as the ploughs begin to do their work, the Jews return to history and regain their masculinity.” The burgeoning enterprise of the 1930s happens in the orange groves of Rehovot, Shavit’s own town, where the day-to-day working relationship between Arabs and Jews is smashed by the mutual murders of 1936. The Israel of Holocaust survivors is embodied in a housing estate built in 1957, where Shmuel Gogol tries to tell the young about his time playing harmonica with his eyes shut in the Auschwitz death orchestra. “But the children . . . want to leave their fathers’ nightmares and their mothers’ migraines behind. They want to play volleyball, basketball, soccer, go to the scouts and have parties.”

At two ends of the psychospectrum, Shavit draws on his own traumatic memory bank in an interrogation prison in Gaza: “fifty yards from the showers where I try to rinse off the day’s dust and sweat, people scream. Eighty yards from where I try to eat, people scream”; and at the other, in 2000, he escapes all that pain into orgiastic hedonism, following a troupe of dawn revellers, driving from Club Allenby 58 in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “smiling and red-eyed and dressed like vampires or satanic demons carrying pitchforks”.

The jump-cuts of Shavit’s narration inevitably mean breathtaking omissions from the Zionist canon, all of which it’s clear he mischievously enjoys. So there is little mention of Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, except one reference to the building of his house in Rehovot; two brief drive-bys past Vladimir Jabotinsky, the patriarch from whom the hard nationalist Likud political tradition descends. Instead of some generalised treatment of the challenge of Sephardi religion and politics to the Ashkenazi establishment he delivers a revelatory chapter on the charismatic fallen hero of the non-European Israelis, Aryeh Deri. Shavit sums up that deep cultural schism by commenting that the Israel designed for one kind of Jews (European in origin) became populated by another people entirely (the Moroccans, Yemenis, Indians, Ethiopians).

Knowledgeable readers will have their chicken bones to pick. Shavit’s great-grandfather Bentwich appears ex nihilo, without any of the story of Victorian philo-Semitism (one part moral hydraulics, the other part Bible evangelism). Perhaps Shavit might have economised on the throbbing gristle of the club scene in Tel Aviv to give us instead a bit more about the calamity of the Lebanon war. And given the subject, we can guarantee that hardliners and boycotters in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps will find something to complain about, which in turn will mean Shavit has acquitted himself well. But with any luck all readers of this scrupulously just, wisely impassioned book – Jews, Muslims and everyone else – with their prejudices shaken loose by the truth will be prepared to share just a small piece of the modest optimism with which the book ends: Shavit’s children running towards him on the quayside of Tel Aviv port.

Israel may be a fortress in a storm-racked sea of Arab chaos but Shavit knows that it is not impregnable. The Iranian threat is real; and the slaughters engulfing the Arab world make it likelier that the threats to Israel will come from loose cannons, lethally armed, than from any war of states. On the Israeli side, Shavit thinks the election of 2013 did bring about authentically new politics. Whether or not that is true, he is committed to a redefinition of his nation, “a new Jewish Israeli narrative”. If that does come to pass, Ari Shavit will be recognised as having written its inaugural text.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor and author of ‘The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000BCE-1492CE’ (Bodley Head)

This article has been amended since original publication to omit an inaccuracy


Letter in response to this article:

History writing that aims at damage control / From Prof Emeritus Ralph M Coury

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