This is not an ideological review. I chose this book not due to any special interest in Israel, but for my world books challenge. For those keeping score at home, my book from Palestine got 2 stars as well. I suspect this is not a coincidence, and that both books’ inflated averages result from ideological/emotional ratings interfering with honest evaluations of their merits.
My Promised Land is a long opinion piece, including a partial history of Israel and a smattering of memoir. Shavit makes no bones about his political views – he’s a liberal Israeli journalist and one-time peace activist – and much of the book consists of his wrestling with the fact that Israel has done and continues to do some awful things, and yet it is his homeland, a country with impressive accomplishments and which he loves very much. His ultimate conclusion is that he’s willing to accept the wrongs Israel committed in order to come into existence (i.e. the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948), though he condemns the occupation beginning in 1967. It is balanced enough that he’s drawn criticism from both directions – some reviewers blasting him as an Israeli apologist, others as anti-Israel – and while I don’t necessarily agree with him, I do appreciate his wrestling with these issues, when most people would rather not think about the wrongs our own countries have committed. Toward the end Shavit also expresses a great deal of concern about Israel’s future, faced with both internal and external challenges.
Unfortunately, overall I found this book to be repetitive, long-winded and sentimental. One of Shavit’s favorite subjects is the contrast between the tough, suntanned Israeli farmers and warriors and their ancestors, the passive, servile European Jews – yes, these are his descriptions, and he brings them up frequently. Several chapters go into detail about the cultivation projects that apparently transformed the Jewish psyche, and just when you think that’s finished, he’s back with another immigrant story along the same line.
So the history sections were hit or miss for me, but mostly miss. My favorite chapter was “Housing Estate, 1957,” which details the life stories of several newcomers during that decade and the impressive measures Israel took to house and absorb a massive wave of immigrants. Yet that was probably the only chapter I enjoyed. Several chapters go into detail on rather eccentric topics: for example, a youth leaders’ camping trip to Masada in 1942, or the hardcore nightlife of the early 2000s. Other chapters would make sense in a history book, but this is a personal work that doesn’t claim to be comprehensive history, and having chosen this rather than a textbook, I wasn’t looking for every detail about who signed what agreement with whom regarding the Israeli nuclear program, for instance.
Meanwhile, some major topics are mentioned only in passing, such as the wave of Russian immigration in the 1990s, or the lack of assimilation of the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom don’t work but rather receive subsidies for religious study. There’s an odd chapter about a Sephardic leader, in which Shavit asserts repeatedly that the Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African origin are “oppressed” and “downtrodden” without ever explaining in what way – he does tell us they comprise half the population and that they aren’t discriminated against in housing or employment, but by some unclear means their culture is being destroyed? I could have done with more explanation of that, and fewer passages about lemon and orange groves, or sex in nightclub bathrooms.
At any rate, Shavit makes some odd choices about what material to cover, perhaps determined by whom he was able to interview. He does include interviews with many prominent Israelis, some of them protagonists in important chapters in the country’s history. The book does not show quite the breadth he claims in the acknowledgments (“Jews and Arabs, men and women”) – Shavit includes interviews with many Israeli men, a handful of Israeli women, and three Palestinian men. It’s telling that even this author, a prominent liberal journalist, barely knows any Palestinians; how many Palestinians must a typical Israeli know, and vice versa? But Shavit does a good job of including (Jewish) voices with which he disagrees, giving them space to talk and not vilifying opposing viewpoints.
(As a side note, Shavit is a bizarre interviewer, at times lecturing his subjects and including his lectures verbatim in the book, other times asking questions like, “So what is the crux of your story? And what is the crux of the Oriental Israeli story? Do the two really converge?”)
But in the end, this book simply failed to hold my interest over its 400+ pages, and seemed far too long for the amount of material presented. Perhaps worthwhile for those with a strong interest in Israel, but I would advise casual readers to steer clear.