Old Wine, Broken Bottle

ARI SHAVIT'S PROMISED LAND


NORMAN G. FINKELSTEIN

"Mr. Finkelstein['s] … research is certainly thorough. His characterizations, too, can be brilliant, and he spares nobody …" —The Economist

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About the Book

My Promised Land by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit has been one of the most widely discussed and lavishly praised books about Israel in recent years. It has garnered encomiums from a broad spectrum of influential voices, including Thomas Friedman, David Remnick, Jonathan Freedland, Jeffrey Goldberg, Franklin Foer, and Dwight Garner.

Were he not already inured to the logrolling that passes for informed opinion on this topic, Norman Finkelstein might have been surprised, astonished even. That’s because, as he reveals with typical precision, My Promised Land is riddled with omission, distortion, falsehood, and sheer nonsense.

In brief chapters that analyze Shavit’s defense of Zionism and Israel’s Jewish identity, its nuclear arsenal and its refusal to negotiate peace, Finkelstein shows how highly selective criticism and sanctimonious handwringing are deployed to create a paean to modern Israel more sophisticated than the traditional our-country-right-or-wrong. In this way, Shavit hopes to win back an American Jewish community increasingly alienated from a place it once regarded as home. However, because the myths he recycles have been so comprehensively shattered, this project is unlikely to succeed.

Like his landmark debunking of Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial, Finkelstein’s clinical dissection of My Promised Land will be welcomed by those who prefer truth to propaganda, and who yearn for a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict based on justice, rather than arguments framed by anguish and schmaltz.

Publication April 24, 2014 • 100 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-939293-46-6 • E-book ISBN 978-1-939293-47-3

About the Author

Photograph © Maryam T. Ordoubadi

Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University. For many years he taught political theory and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Finkelstein is the author of a number of books, among them Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End (OR Books, 2012); What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage (OR Books, 2012); “This Time We Went Too Far”: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion (OR Books, 2010, expanded paperback edition, 2011); Goldstone Recants: Richard Goldstone Renews Israel’s License to Kill (OR Books, 2011), Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (University of California Press, 2005, expanded paperback edition, 2008); The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000, expanded paperback edition, 2003); Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995, expanded paperback edition, 2003); with Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (Henry Holt, 1998); and The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years (University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

Read an Excerpt

“THE REAL ISRAEL IS…A SHOPPING MALL”

 

TO JUSTIFY THE INJUSTICE inflicted on Palestine’s indigenous population, Shavit formally invokes the conventional Zionist arguments of greater need and higher justice: Were it not for Israel’s founding, Jews would have disappeared both spiritually—because of assimilation—and physically—because of anti-Semitism.

When Shavit asserts that, if not for Israel’s founding, “I would not have been born,” and that it “enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live,” he in part actually intends, “I would not have been born as a Jew,” and it “enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live as Jews.” Hailing as he does from a distinguished line of British Jews, Shavit speculates that, had his family not settled in Israel, he would today probably be an Oxford don. The problem, as he lays it out, is that, because of unprecedented worldly success, non-Orthodox Jews in the UK and everywhere else in the Western world are assimilating, intermarrying, and consequently as a people inexorably disappearing:

Benign Western civilization destroys non-Orthodox Judaism… This is why the concentration of non-Orthodox Jews in one place was imperative. And the one place where non-Orthodox Jews could be concentrated was the Land of Israel. So Jaffa was inevitable. We had to save ourselves by building a Jewish national home all around Jaffa.

Valid as Shavit’s premises might be, it still defies logic, not to speak of justice, why Palestinians should have paid the, indeed any, price, to reverse the effects of a deliberate and altogether voluntary option Jews themselves elected. If it would be wrong, and no doubt an avowedly enlightened secularist such as Shavit would think it wrong, to impose external constraints on Jews—residency, dietary, and personal status laws—in order to preserve their peoplehood, then it must be all the more wrong to use force majeure against an exogenous party in order to preserve Jewish peoplehood.

The ultimate irony is, the Israel that Shavit loves and lauds is not recognizably Jewish. The Zionist movement’s seminal years witnessed an ideological clash, the principals of which were Herzl, who conceived a state comprised mostly of Jews but cast in the mold of what was highest and best in European culture, and Ahad Ha’am, who envisaged in Palestine a spiritual center infused with reinvigorated Jewish values. To judge by Shavit’s account of the contemporary Israeli scene (or, at any rate, the part of it that he embraces), Ahad Ha’am’s vision clearly lost out. It might be true, as Shavit purports, that in the course of Zionist colonization and Israel’s founding years, Jews created a secular “Hebrew culture” and “Hebrew identity.” Still, it’s difficult to make out what was distinctively Jewish, except for revival of the Hebrew language (to which Shavit seemingly attaches slight importance), about Israel’s collective Spartan existence back then—which, although according to Shavit, it “sanctified the Bible,” had more in common with Bolshevism than the Bible. He himself acknowledges that this Hebrew identity “detached Israelis from the Diaspora, it cut off their Jewish roots, and it left them with no tradition or cultural continuity… Lost were the depths and riches of the Jewish soul.”

In any event, one would be hard-pressed nowadays to find anything Jewish in secular Israeli culture, and Shavit doesn’t even try. Quite the opposite. He devotes a cheesy chapter of Time Out–like prose to boasting of Israel’s torrid nightlife (“The word is out that Tel Aviv is hot. Very hot”) and no-holds-barred gay life (“the straights now envy the gays,” “it’s the gays who are leading now”), the anthem of which is, “Forget the Zionist crap. Forget the Jewish bullshit. It’s party time all the time.” His book’s only points of comparative reference and ranking are the fashionable districts of Western metropolises: “Tel Aviv is now no less exciting than New York,” “a music scene… that rivals those of London, Amsterdam, or Paris,” “[N]o one ever thought [Sheinkin Street] would become Tel Aviv’s SoHo,” “Allenby 58 is perhaps the fifth most important club in the world…. DJs and drag queens from all over Europe want to come here… Allenby 58 is for 1990s Tel Aviv what Studio 54 was for 1970s Manhattan,” “at Hauman 17, the outcome is a burst of energy unlike anything seen in London, Paris, or New York,” “Tel Aviv’s liberal and creative culture is just like New York’s,” “Before me is an Israeli Central Park on the shores of the Mediterranean, a Hampstead Heath in the Middle East.” Contrariwise, Shavit repeatedly expresses disdain for Orthodox Jews (and Palestinian Israelis) as a brake on Israeli society and economy.

For all anyone knows or cares, Israel and Israelis might be, as Shavit proclaims, “astonishing,” “a powerhouse of vitality, creativity, and sensuality,” “innovative, seductive, and energetic,” “awesome,” “fascinating, vibrant,” “extraordinary… absolutely unique,” “exceptionally quick, creative, and audacious…sexy even in the way they work,” “hardworking and tireless,” “one of the most nimble economies in the West… an extraordinary economic accomplishment,” “truly phenomenal… astounding… a unique entrepreneurial spirit… a powerhouse of technological ingenuity… a hub of prosperity,” a “mind-boggling success,” “something quite incredible… extraordinary… authentic and direct and warm and genuine and sexy… exceptional… remarkable,” “creative and passionate and frenzied,” “phenomenal… epic.” But, as distilled through the secular values he prizes, Israel is also just another narcissistic Western consumer society. Indeed, consider Shavit’s own description of the “typical Jewish Israeli city of the third millennium”:

[T]he real Israel is… a shopping mall: cheap, loud, intense and lively… West Rishon is all about its malls. Consumption is its beating heart. I walk into Cinema City, a gaudy temple of twenty-six theaters that offer Rishon LeZion the California it wishes to be. Along the corridors stand wax figures of Superman, Batman, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart. There is Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Domino’s pizza, Coca-Cola. Youngsters wearing Diesel jeans and GAP sweatshirts and A&F jackets lug enormous vats of popcorn. Nothing remains of the initial promise of the unique beginning.

A “vibrant Israeli culture”? Perhaps. A vibrant Jewish culture? No. The most convincing witness is once again Shavit himself: “In the last third of the twentieth century, Hebrew identity was dulled. In the early years of the twenty-first century, it seems to have disintegrated… The Israeliness that was once here is not really here anymore. The Hebrew culture… is gone.”

The only thing Jewish about Shavit’s Israel is its demography. Shavit loves Israel not because it is Jewish but because those who created it are Jews. His is an apotheosis of biological superiority, not cultural uniqueness. Hence, the book’s paeans to Israel’s “outstanding fertility rate,” and its designating the “concentration” of Jews as “the essence of Israel.” It is also why wholly assimilated, on-the-make American Jews—the Alan Dershowitzes, Norman Podhoretzes, and Martin Peretzes—came to embrace Israel: not because it was distinctively Jewish, but because it was distinctively not Jewish. It confirmed that Jews stood in the front rank of Western civilization. Jews had beaten the goyim at their own game, even—especially—in killing non-Westerners. In any event, if the raison d’être of Israel’s founding, and its justification for dispossessing Palestinians, was so that Shavit could live a Jewish “inner life,” he might just as well have stayed in England and married a shiksa.

In the Media

Peace News, September 30th 2014

BookTV, August 9th 2014

The New York Review of Books, July 29th 2014

New Left Project, May 29th 2014

JFJFP, May 18th 2014

The Huffington Post, May 8th 2014

Guernica, May 1st 2014

Rap News 24, April 24th 2014

Book Culture, April 11th 2014