“For the first time in your life, you’re not thinking only as an engineer, in terms of problems and solutions. You, too, are now consciousness. You see context. And the context fills you with pride, but it also fills you with dread. You realize what you’ve done, and it is too big for you.”
Thus Ari Shavit concludes the first and last interview ever conducted with Yosef Tulipman, director general of Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor in the critical period of 1965 to 1973. It is a turning point in his “My Promised Land: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel,” and encapsulates many of his feelings about Israel itself.
Shavit’s story begins in 1897, but focuses less on Herzl than on his own great-grandfather, an upper-middle-class Londoner, who leads an exploratory mission to Palestine. Shavit notes how these early Zionists were enraptured by the romance of the Biblical history around them. They were excited as they considered the salvation that the land could offer their brethren facing the twin threats of anti-Semitism and assimilation. However, he also describes how they almost uniformly failed to comprehend the meaning of the Arabs around them, who lived in the cities and towns, who worked the farms and tended the flocks. They did not realize that building a homeland for Europe’s victims necessarily would mean displacing an indigenous population. As Shavit writes, “My great-grandfather does not see because he is motivated not to see. He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back. But my great-grandfather cannot turn back. So that he can carry on, my great-grandfather chooses not to see.”
Shavit was born 60 years later, in 1957. He describes growing up in the newly formed Israel as living with a series of denials, of the vague awareness of things that were just behind the surfaces. The Holocaust was never spoken of, especially by survivors. The Palestinians were never discussed, even by those living in what were once their houses. “Erased from memory are the land that was and the Diaspora that was, the injustice done to them and the genocide done to us.” For a desperate nation struggling for its very survival, having had so recently experienced and committed terrible things, denial was necessary to function, to live and move forward. All this to offer a future to the next generation, to project the secure, “normal” life at the heart of the Zionist dream.
Another half century later, though, and Shavit sees all too clearly. “What this nation has to offer,” he concludes, “is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge.” Once a devotee of the peace movement led first by Yossi Sarid and then by Yossi Beilin, he has come to see the Israeli-Arab conflict as ultimately unsolvable. He concludes that the flaw with both the peace and settler movements was the (perhaps necessary) belief that Israel could continue proactively solving its own problems and ensuring its own viability by taking unilateral action, whether by controlling the West Bank or by returning it. For Shavit, this belief was just another form of denial, because it ignores the essential Palestinian narrative, just as his great-grandfather could not see the villagers so many years before.
What neither Israel’s right nor left truly understood was that “the situation” is not a morality play, with misfortune the result of poor choices. Instead, it is an epic tragedy, pitting two peoples in a zero-sum struggle for a single homeland. Shavit now believes that “what is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon. They will not give up their demand for what they see as justice. We shall not give up our life.” Faced with the choice of accepting “Zionism with Lydda,” a Palestinian city wiped off the map in 1948, its population forced into exile, and no Zionism at all, he comes down unequivocally on the side of Zionism. By dint of that choice, he also understands how a people for whom Lydda represents its own national aspirations can never accept Zionism.
Shavit chooses Zionism because an independant State of Israel is necessary to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, to give Jews agency in determining their own fate. That being the case, there was no option other than to settle the land, to create a state, to displace one people to save themselves. It is also why Shavit does not seriously consider a Palestinian right of return, or Israel becoming a “state of its citizens” by forgoing its distinctly Jewish character in the name of democracy and equality, opting instead for perpetual existential conflict.
Shavit’s prose beautifully conveys his own deep understanding and love of Israel, which is both comprehensive and personal. His long career as one of Israel’s most influential journalists and political writers gives him a remarkable sense of perspective, one that dovetails with his own life experience and family history, and is his entree to a series of remarkable conversations with key personalities spanning the spectrum from Tulipman to the owner of Tel Aviv’s most celebrated nightclubs, from peace leader Yossi Sarid to religious-zionist revolutionary Yehuda Etzion, to Aryeh Deri, controversial head of Israel’s Sephardic Shas party. These interviews are the vertebrae that form the book’s backbone, and tellingly, all take the form of biography. Thus framed, their stories, richly developed, seem to carry a heavy sense of inevitability, of childhoods foreshadowing careers at the center of Israel’s triumphs and tragedy.
Indeed, Shavit is truly chronicling the loss of illusion, the waking from the dream of normalcy to realize the enormity of just what has happened over the last 100 years. Even as he exults in the relentless intensity needed to maintain Israel’s existence, an intensity that spills over into the frenetically creative and vivacious energy driving Israeli entrepreneurship, technology, life, and culture, he wonders if successive generations of Israelis, not hardened in the crucible of the first half of the 20th century, might not be up to the challenge. Towards the end, he reflects. “Our play was the most extravagant of modern plays. The drama was breathtaking. But only when we know what has become of the protagonists will we know whether they were right or wrong, whether they overcame the tragic decree or were overcome by it.”