Ari Shavit's My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel was rated the #1 best book of 2013 by The Economist, received a rave on the cover of The New York Times' Sunday book review and columnist Thomas Friedman urges President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu to read the book prior to their next meeting. Friedman praises the author, saying Shavit is one of a handful of experts whom I've relied upon to understand Israel ever since I reported there in the 1980s. If you care about fairness and accuracy in the coverage of Israel, all of that should give you pause.
One of the book's most controversial chapters was printed, prior to the book's official release, in The New Yorker magazine. Lydda 1948 recounts a narrative of a battle during Israel's War of Independence. Shavit claims Zionism had carried out a massacre in the city of Lydda. That's not actually the case, as CAMERA reported, thoroughly dissecting the inaccuracies in the chapter and concluding:
if you know the facts that the town surrendered, went back on its word, massacred and mutilated Israeli soldiers, and then despite all this the residents were allowed to leave unharmed the picture looks very different.
The book is selling well, has won several awards and earned accolades from critics. That is an undeniable triumph of marketing, despite the tragic inattention to facts and accuracy. But not all reviewers have described it glowingly.
A Daily Beast review by Sol Stern explains the destructive impact of the false expulsion narrative repeated in Shavit's book:
Contrary to many of Shavit's reviewers, there is nothing courageous about this kind of writing that is plainly wrong on the facts and relies on a false historical interpretation to enforce its moral logic. The refugees of Lydda may still be marching in Shavit's vivid but distorted imagination, but in reality they and their descendants now totaling 5-7 million souls have been locked up for the past 65 years in miserable refugee camps. It is not because of Zionism that they are still there. Rather it's their own leaders and the Arab regimes who want them to remain locked up.
This is a worse crime than the Lydda expulsions. It constitutes the only refugee problem in the world that the international community and the UN have refused to solve by integration of the refugees in their host countries. And yet there is a certain perverse logic to this policy, since it allows Palestinian leaders to continue feeding the refugees a daily diet of Jew hatred, along with the illusion that someday they will be returning in triumph to their homes in Lydda and other Israeli cities. Meanwhile the 1.5 million Arab citizens of Israel are the only Arabs in the region living in a free and democratic society and enjoy the highest standard of living among the Arabs of the Middle East.
In The New English Review, Jerry Gordon writes:
I found it morally flawed and in many cases redolent of the peace at all costs mentality of the marginalized left in Israel and their supporters here in the West. Here is an Israeli leftist intellectual who engages in secular yahrzeit' memorializing all of the disappeared Arab villages and towns whose residents fled the UN partitioned areas at the behest of the Arab Higher Council warning Arabs to flee to let five invading armies crush the embryonic Jewish nation, the State of Israel. Nowhere in Shavit's book does he recognize the enormous toll of Jewish lives in the War for Independence, 6,000 or 1% of the 600,000 Jews. As one graphic example he does not mention the massacre of 79 Jewish doctors, nurses and others in the April 1948 Mt. Scopus Hospital medical convoy. His heart bleeds for the massacre of Lydda when the embryonic IDF was allegedly ordered by Ben Gurion in July 1948 to sweep out the Arab fifth columnists and Jordanian Legionnaires from Lydda and Ramle after the Arab notables had agreed to surrender.
In a Times of Israel review, Marc Schulman, who describes himself as someone who shares most of Shavit's political views if anything I may be slightly to the left of him, declares:
Breathtaking, however, is what has been left out of this popular, acclaimed narrative of Israel. For example: The U.N. Commission on Palestine; the decision of the Arabs to oppose the plan, followed by their decision to start a war, is almost a passing reference in his story on Lydda. The refusal to resettle the refugees after 1949; the Hamas bombing after the Rabin assassination; the second Intifada; the rocket fire from both Lebanon and Gaza all omitted- or mentioned in passing the curious list of critical omissions goes on and on.
In my opinion, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is an excellent book for Daniel Gordis, or anyone who knows our basic history. It is a terrible and potentially dangerous book for the world to read and embrace, without the historic context that many of Shavit's stories demand in order to be fully understood.
Ruth Wisse concludes her joint review of Shavit's book and Yossi Klein Halevi's Like Dreamers in Mosaic with this admonition:
Doing justice to the story of modern Israel requires the moral confidence to distinguish between a civilization dedicated to building and one dedicated to destroying what others build. Is it really necessary to reaffirm that the Jewish state rests on a foundation of moral and political legitimacy stronger than that of any other modern nation, or that Jews maintained their indigenous rights to the land of Israel both when they resided in Zion and whenever and wherever they lived outside it? In modern times, and in modern terms, those rights were affirmed repeatedly, both in international law and through the gigantic efforts of Jews themselves, who purchased great tracts of the land, won back expanses of swamp and desert, built industries and cities, and repopulated the country in an unparalleled process of ingathering and resettlement of refugees.
Since war remains, alas, the universal means of securing land when a claim is challenged, the Jews of Israel have had to defend their land more often than any other contemporary people. In peace and in war, Jewish sovereignty has required and still requires of them greater qualities of mind and spirit than those that maintained their ancestors for centuries in other people's lands. If it took tremendous courage to reclaim the Jewish homeland, at least equal courage is required to sustain and protect it among people who are currently less politically mature than they. One can only hope that, in that monumental task, Israelis will manifest in their written and spoken words the same moral confidence that as soldiers they have shown in battleand that those writing specifically in English will remember that, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, prominent among their present-day assailants are Western liberal elites.
Shavit clearly does not display this moral confidence in an interview on PBS. Rather than take issue with Margaret Warner's slanted leading questions, Shavit plays along:
MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think the Jews, who had been an oppressed people, a persecuted people, could not or didn't empathize with the Palestinians that they were in turn uprooting, as you so vividly describe in this book?
ARI SHAVIT: I think that what happened is that the need to have a Jewish national home was so deep, this was such a deep existential need, that the first Jews who went there, the founders of Zionism, were blind to the existence of others.
As Shavit continues his book tour, he may be speaking in a synagogue, JCC or university auditorium near you. If you attend an event, be armed with the very facts that have escaped Shavit's narrative and the moral confidence he lacks.