Mosaic Magazine

Their Tragic Land

Two acclaimed new books about Israel betray a disquieting lack of moral confidence in their subject and its story


The story of the Jews was told so effectively in the Hebrew Bible that it shaped and sustained them as a people from that time to this. But what happens now?

We live in an era in which the Jewish people, having suffered a catastrophic national defeat greater even than the one recorded in the book of Lamentations, went on to write a chapter of its history at least as remarkable as any in its sacred canon. In a single decade, bereft of one third of their number, and without the obvious aid of divine intervention, Jews redefined “miracle” as something that could be enacted through human effort. Over the past six decades, the vitality and civilizing restraint of the Jewish way of life, honed in almost 2,000 years of exile, have been made manifest in the regained conditions of a thriving Jewish polity—one that simultaneously has been under relentless and, lately, spiraling pressure from all sides.

Will authors rise to this occasion as ably as the biblical authors did to theirs? Two recent and well-timed accounts of modern Israel offer a useful framework for examining how the challenge is being met. At over 450 pages apiece, each book required years of research and gestation: ten in the case of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers, five in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. So there is no question about the gravity of these authors’ intentions, or the definitiveness of their aims and ambitions. Those ambitions, moreover, have already been rewarded in the form of unfailingly warm, respectful, and serious attention in the American press—and in Shavit’s case by a place on the bestseller lists.

What, then, have they wrought?


Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation traces the intertwined lives of seven men of the 55th Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, which won back the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. A brief introduction situates the author himself circa 1967 as a fourteen-year-old boy in Brooklyn. His father, a Holocaust survivor, is so shaken by the terrifying lead-up to war—many in those months feared a devastating cataclysm—but then so relieved by its outcome that he takes his son to see Jerusalem at first hand. Fifteen years later, the son, already a journalist, immigrates to Israel. One day, he is inspired by an article on a reunion of the 55th Brigade to look up the paratroopers, hoping to write about them on his own. As his project expands into a book, he is struck by a fascinating division among the men that suggests the main arc of tension in his burgeoning story: the split in outlook between secular Zionists hailing from the world of the kibbutz and religious Zionists hailing from the world of the yeshiva.

Except for continuing to treat his subjects as a unit, Halevi tries to stay out of their way and let them speak for themselves. The book is arranged chronologically, from 1967 to 2004, beginning with a detailed reconstruction of the battle for Jerusalem and then following the seven men at key intervals as they move into civilian life while also being drawn back repeatedly into their unit as reservists. A complicated grid, mainly unseen by the reader, weaves in and out of their intersecting lives, telling their back stories and highlighting their individual idiosyncrasies even as it connects them as a group to major historical developments over almost four tumultuous decades in their country’s life. In this way, above and beyond what we come to learn about each man, his family, his personal achievements and failures, we are shown the interdependency that persists among them as their attitudes, thoughts, and convictions play out in the context of an open society debating its future while under unremitting threat from without.

Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is one man’s personal account, almost confessional in its intensity, of the history of his country from the arrival of a great-grandparent in 1897 to the writing of this book in 2013. It, too, is arranged chronologically. Its seventeen chapters trace the history of early Jewish settlement of the land, the growth of collective settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim), the advance of agriculture, housing, and scientific research, the early absorption of Holocaust survivors and expellees from Arab countries, and so on into the present. Each of these developments is situated in the geographical locations within Israel with which they are historically associated.

A fourth-generation Israeli, an influential columnist for the daily Ha’aretz since 1995 and a sought-after political commentator, Shavit writes with an insider’s familiarity, interviewing leading cultural and political figures as old friends who share a lifetime of assumptions and sometimes quoting his own previously published words as pithy statements on Israeli events and personalities.

In their contrasting approaches, the two books thus somewhat resemble the reportorial versus the editorial sections of a newspaper. That being so, it makes sense to begin with the one that reads like reportage, if of an extremely high literary order.


The photograph on the dust jacket of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers is of young, battle-exhausted paratroopers looking up at the newly won Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In the center, the youngest of them, helmet in hand, will become an iconic image, epitomizing the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise: v’shavu banim l’gvulam, “Your children shall return to their borders” (Jeremiah 31:16). Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem, the culminating event in several months of apocalyptic tension and six days of ferocious fighting, released a sense of relief and joy unparalleled in the country before or since. It was something like this same sense of relief that Halevi was reaching for in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, when he began seeking out the veterans of that earlier battle to see what had become of them.

In 1967, about half of the soldiers and 70 percent of the officers of the 55th Brigade were the products of kibbutzim; a much smaller proportion was made up of religious Zionists. The two groups disagreed about such things as the place of religion in Israeli and Jewish identity, but Halevi finds an essential commonality in their animating idealism. “[For] all their differences,” he writes,” religious Zionism and the secular kibbutz movement agreed that the goal of Jewish statehood must be more than the mere creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people.” Each side saw itself as laying the foundation of an ideal society—egalitarian in the one case, religious in the other, with the dominant form of utopianism being that of the secularists. In deference to their common zeal, he draws the title of his book from a passage in Psalm 126:

When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion,

We were like dreamers.

Then our mouths filled with laughter,

And our tongues with songs of joy.

Then they said among the nations:

“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us.

Like Dreamers then follows these men from their dream state into daily life—much as paratroopers drop from the skies to land on unyielding earth.

Halevi relishes the evolving diversity of his cast of characters. Among those from the kibbutzim there will emerge a managerial genius who helps move the Israeli economy from statism toward capitalism; a songwriter who strikes out from the farm to the city; a sculptor whose large-scale installations harness the physical resources of his kibbutz; and an anti-Israel spy who joins a terrorist network and gives his handlers in Damascus whatever they want to know about his military training. (You read that right.) The distance each of these individuals seeks from the collectivist esprit of his upbringing helps to explain why the kibbutz as an institution had to give way to a society of greater freedom—and perhaps even why one individual would use that freedom to betray it.

Among the religiously devout, temperamental and intellectual differences also disturb the initial unity of purpose. Several after 1967 become leaders of the settlers’ movement, which for a time enjoyed the support of the Labor government and continues to be supported by much of the country at large. Here Halevi may be simplifying his story-line when he writes that “the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz movement became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” For the religious men in the unit, as his narrative shows, it is less a case of symbolism than of adjusting, like their secular counterparts but in different terms, to the non-ideological opportunities and obligations of a dynamic society under siege; when it comes to the settlements, the same can be said for Israelis in general.

No surprise to those familiar with Israel’s history, soldiering occupies a prominent place in this book, sobering in the degree to which it holds these particular men in its grip. In America, only professional soldiers are called up for successive tours of duty. But, scant years after the battle for Jerusalem, the reservists of the IDF’s 55th Brigade were fighting again, in even more traumatic conditions, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Then came 1982, when Israel undertook, in concert with Lebanese Christians, to drive the PLO out of Lebanon; during their second tour of duty that year, the battalion members could sense the eroding support of a country beginning to tire of ceaseless combat. Around the campfire there is talk of a colonel who has refused an order. Some of the men call him courageous, but a religious reservist invokes his eight-year-old son, according to whom it is permitted to speak against the government and forbidden to speak against soldiers—but also forbidden for soldiers to disobey an order.

“‘Why, Odi?’ I asked him. ‘Explain it to me.’”

“‘What will happen,’ said Odi, . . . ‘if there is a war and someone will say I don’t want to fight?’”

The reservist concludes, embellishing a rabbinic aphorism, “After the destruction of the Temple, prophecy wasn’t given only to fools but also to children.” A future generation of Israeli soldiers was beginning, at an early age, to balance civic and personal responsibilities in a democracy where the word of security officials was being subjected to doubt. In the decades after 1982, as Halevi demonstrates in his remaining chapters, the coils become only tighter, the conundrums more agonizing, opinion more polarized.


A reader whose taste I normally share told me this book left him dissatisfied. He kept losing track of the characters and had to keep thumbing back to the orienting “Who’s Who” at the front. I see his point, but nothing conveys the experience of daily life in Israel—where the boundaries between war and peace can be as permeable as those between Manhattan and the Bronx—better than Halevi’s back-and-forth between the contrasting yet contiguous spheres of battlefront and home front, secular and religious camps, collective and individual experience. By letting the men speak for themselves through interviews and memoirs, he also projects a feeling of unedited frankness and spontaneity.

The method works especially well in the case of the poet-singer Meir Ariel. In May 1967, just weeks before the outbreak of war, the popular Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer had composed “Jerusalem of Gold,” expressing a longing for the Western Wall and the still-lost parts of the nation’s capital. Weeks later, King Hussein’s unanticipated attack on the Jordanian front, followed by victory in the resulting battle for Jerusalem, the song, with updated lyrics, turned into an anthem of reunification. Its patriotic fervor disturbed some on the Left. Drawing on his experiences in the city’s liberation, Ariel wrote an alternative version that he titled “Jerusalem of Iron,” registering the cost in the number of Israeli casualties (swollen by inadequate intelligence) and the lead needed to win that city of gold. Yet he insisted that his darker lyrics not replace but remain a commentary on the original song, and he declined to be lionized as a political protester.

Restive in the disciplining embrace of family and kibbutz, Ariel eventually drifted into religious life—not as a captive of any movement or party but on his own, looking for what he needed. Were Halevi a tendentious writer, he might have cast Ariel as the paradigmatic baal teshuva who “returns” to God and religion. Instead, we follow the unsteady path and tortured consciousness of a young man in an open society whose freedoms he has helped to secure.

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.


To pass from Yossi Klein Halevi to Ari Shavit and My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is like moving from the admittedly buffeting winds of freedom into a long-term care facility. Shavit sets out, as he says, “to tell the Israel story” through family sources, personal history, and interviews. He begins his guided tour with the arrival of Herbert Bentwich, his great-grandfather, on an exploratory visit to the land of Israel in 1897, the same year Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Basle. In then guiding us through the country’s geography and history, Shavit selects places where members of his family settled. Thus, Ein Harod, founded in the valley of Jezreel in 1921, is the book’s emblematic kibbutz, while the city of Rehovot, where Shavit spent part of his own youth, forms the background of otherwise disparate narratives about Israel’s citrus industry and its atomic project.

This recruitment of his family is not intended as family history, however. Shavit scarcely mentions, for example, Herbert Bentwich’s eldest son, Norman, a British Zionist activist and author of Israel Resurgent (1952) who was the more commanding historical figure of the two. From his family, as from the country, Shavit chooses only what he wishes to show.

Which is fair enough. But what does he wish to show?

“For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” These sentences introduce us to the awakening consciousness, at the start of the Six-Day War, of the nine-year-old who in later passages will go on to experience the terrors of the Yom Kippur War, the Iraqi SCUD missiles falling on Israel’s civilian population in the first Gulf War, and the shooting, rock throwing, and suicide bombings of two Palestinian intifadas. In sum, according to Shavit, Israel’s victories, like Israel’s vitality, serve merely to camouflage “how exposed we are, how constantly intimidated.” Projecting his fear onto the national psyche, he foresees the day when the life of his “promised land” will “freeze like Pompeii’s” as Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses.

By age nine, any child with a passable Jewish education will have learned that the scouts sent by Moses to report on the promised land of Canaan committed a lethal sin when they instilled panic in the Israelites with accounts of the giants they had allegedly encountered there. (“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”) The forty years of wandering through a desert that could have been traversed in a matter of weeks were divine punishment for the cowering faithlessness of these former slaves and their spineless guides.

Shavit is either unaware of the relevant Jewish lore or indifferent to its message. To be sure, fear is a rational response in a minority population living among hostile neighbors—but that is precisely why Jewish leaders have so often invoked this biblical episode to warn against undermining public morale. In my mother’s arsenal of daily proverbs, the only non-Yiddish saying she regularly incorporated was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Although it tells a story of impressive national achievement, everywhere in My Promised Land the techniques of literary foreshadowing are deployed to telegraph impending doom. In 1926, the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz performs for thousands in a makeshift theater at Ein Harod. Here is Shavit’s take on what can only have been a thrilling occasion:

I think of that great fire in the belly, a fire without which the valley could not have been cultivated, the land could not have been conquered, the state of the Jews could not have been founded. But I know the fire will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself, too. Its smoldering remains will eventually turn Ein Harod’s exclamation point into a question mark.

Several pages later, he comments on the spring of 1935, when the citrus harvest has enriched the villages surrounding Rehovot and “Jewish medicine” has brought progress to “desperate Palestinian communities.” Somehow, he writes, the “Zionists of Rehovot” have convinced themselves that, thanks to their altruism, “the clash between the two peoples is avoidable.” But this is delusion. “They cannot yet anticipate the imminent, inevitable tragedy.”

So acute is Shavit’s anxiety that even the prospect of urban development suffices to darken an upbeat report on the integration of European and Arab Jewish refugees:

In 1957 [the moshav] Bitzaron is still encircled by breathtaking fields of wildflowers: autumn crocuses, asphodels, bellflowers, and anemones. But they are about to disappear. A wave of development is replacing them with more and more housing estates populated by more and more new immigrants who are rapidly become new Israelis.

Israel’s triumph—its valor, its initiative, its natural beauty—is real only as a foil for Israel’s tragedy, which is where the real emphasis falls in Shavit’s deceptively balanced subtitle. There is no humor or lightness in his telling—this, in a country that in 2013 ranks 11th in the world on the happiness index. Even his exuberant report on the sex, drugs, and gay scene of contemporary Tel Aviv serves as prelude to a lament on the widening gulf between secure and exposed sectors of the country—a gulf judged by him to position Israel, in its seventh decade, as “much less of a solid nation-state than it was when it was ten years old” (and the wildflowers were disappearing from Bitzaron).


What is all this about? One can see why it might be hard to tell the story of European Jewry in the 1930s without a sense of foreboding, given what we know of its fate. But why would a successful Israeli in a successful (if threatened) Israel unspool a narrative thread of decline and disaster reaching back into the 1890s, weaving a shroud in which to wrap his country’s irrefutable triumphs?

One obvious answer lies in the ceaseless Arab war against Israel, which began long before the emergence of the state and came to play an expanding role in the domestic politics of Arab and Muslim countries, in the rabble-rousing of their religious leaders, in the ideology of their terrorists, and increasingly, in our own day, in the mental formation of leftists and internationalists everywhere. In this reading, the drumbeat of aggression that frightened Shavit as a child would appear to have kept him traumatized ever after.

Yet the obvious does not apply here. For, according to Shavit himself, his fears arise less from what Arab and Muslim leaders intend to do to Israel than from what Israel has done to them. The fear of attack with which the book opens yields immediately to its anxious echo—“For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation”—and the second anxiety supersedes the first. The obsessive foreshadowing is all about the wrongs that Jews have done or are about to do the Arabs, from the great-grandfather who fails to “see” their villages on his first journey through the land of Israel, to the kibbutzniks of Ein Harod who “burn the valley’s Palestinians,” to the 1948 war, and onward till today.

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

Nothing that happens to the Jews concerns them alone, so it is worth pausing here to consider what it means to substitute the Palestinian term naqba for Israel’s war of independence. In her recent one-volume Israel: A History, the historian Anita Shapira describes the special strains on the Jewish fighters of battles like Lydda’s that involved the highly trained Jordanian troops. As compared with Shapira’s meticulous account of what she rightly dubs an “Arab invasion,” Shavit’s Arabs and Muslims are deprived of agency, morality, and will. They are never seen to be plotting or planting, they never consider strategy or its consequences, they never indulge in moral reflection or compunction. “They suspect nothing,” “they cannot imagine what was about to happen,” and so forth. This combination of solipsism and unintended racism reduces Arabs to bit players in a drama of Jewish guilt.

Shavit’s precursors, who settled Israel, saw very well the Arabs and their villages; their failure lay in imagining people, like themselves, who had been living among and at the sufferance of others (in the Arabs’ case, mainly the Turks) and who would willingly have let others live among them. Some, indeed, did. But this is what Shavit cannot “see.” He will not apply to Arabs and Muslims the standards of decency he expects of the Jews, so he must decline to hold them responsible at all for their decisions, their politics, their behavior. In reporting on his meetings with Jewish religious figures or others of whom he disapproves, Shavit makes a point of telling us how he stands up to them in argument. Not so in his chapter “Up in the Galilee,” where his Arab friends assure him that Israel is doomed, and in response he merely reaffirms his love for them, asking, plaintively, “What will become of us, Mohammed?” No wonder they respond with contempt.


A further casualty of this book is journalism’s commitment to truth. Forecasts of doom are glaringly absent just where they are needed—and nowhere more so than in the section where Shavit describes how in the early 1990s he and his leftist political camp decided to bring “Peace, Now” by obscuring the declared intentions of Israel’s enemies.

In 1992, Israel elected a government headed by Yitzhak Rabin on a platform of no negotiations with Yasir Arafat’s terrorist organization, routed ten years earlier from Lebanon and now relocated to Tunisia. Subverting the democratic process, a few Israeli leftists, backed by an American millionaire, secretly plotted with Arafat to install him as head of a “Palestinian Authority” in return for nothing more than his word that he would keep the peace. Again with American help, they persuaded Rabin to accept this contract, very much against his better judgment. Israel thereby put the world’s leading terrorist in charge of protecting his prime target, and then proceeded to support and arm him.

Yossi Beilin, one of those who organized the meeting with Arafat in Norway, now admits they never considered the risks of PLO non-compliance. So when Shavit writes, “Peace was our religion,” he means, we acted idiotically through self-deception. In recounting this episode, he fails to look for where the dog lies buried (to adopt the Yiddish and Hebrew phrase). It does not help that, by now, Shavit recognizes the failure of the Oslo “peace accords” of 1993. In this respect, indeed, he early on distinguished himself from his colleagues at Ha’aretz. Nevertheless, he is still convinced that “[we] were right to try peace.” Instead of applying his professional acumen to investigating his and his friends’ part in the ensuing disaster, with its staggering loss of Israeli life, he limply seeks exculpation in his motives.

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves.

Yossi Klein Halevi immigrated to Israel as a Jew. So did Shavit’s ancestors. But one can’t help wondering whether Shavit feels himself less elevated by Judaism than condemned to it. Missing from his description of Israel’s “Hebrew identity,” as he calls it, is any evidence of the powerful sense of identity that has enabled Jews through the ages to withstand the aggression of others. Of the superabundance of contemporary Israel’s Jewish culture—the poetry and song, the popular revival of piyyut (liturgical poetry set to music), the theatrical productions, the ferment of academic and intellectual life, not to speak of Jewish religious life tout court—vanishingly little appears in his book. Missing, too, are the finds of the City of David and the Second Temple, or the attachment to native soil that makes amateur archeologists out of so many Israelis; the ruins of Masada make an appearance as a contrived means of boosting military recruits’ feelings of obligation and allegiance. Yet why else except through the unbroken connection of Jews with their homeland would Israelis today be speaking Hebrew in the first place?

Cut off from its Jewish rootedness, Shavit’s Israel finds its main justification in the suffering and supposedly nightmarish fears of its Jews. But suffering is not a Jewish virtue, only the sometimes necessary price to be paid for the privilege of living as a Jew. Moreover, in a face-off between competing fears and miseries, how can the prospering Jews of a “start-up nation” ever rival the perpetually deprived Palestinian Arabs? In his book, they don’t.


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 battle—and 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.


Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).


  • Harry Truman

    Ruth Wisse— a magnificent scholar to whom the Jews owe much for illuminating important parts of their past— would no doubt have penned a similar review of the book of Jeremiah 2500 years ago. She is of the school that Jews discussing unpleasant facts are traitors to the cause who cannot love their faith, people, and the State of Israel as much as those who clamp palms on ears and shut their eyes when questionable acts are done and necessary decisions postponed. In that she is like her mentor, ex-Trotskyite John Podhoretz, who would not defend himself at the 92d street Y a few nights ago against a willing to engage and not hostile Jeremy Ben Ami, and a crowd al least willing to sit there and hear him out. it is the Podhoretz crowd, that cringes when a campus Hillel invites a Palestinian to speak, that will chase away all the Jews in the U.S. except for those capable of believing in magical thinking.

    • Yoni

      Your comment makes no sense. You’re just arbitrarily choosing Jeremiah. What about Joshua? Or Isaiah? You just made Ruth Wisse’s point. Israel is Israel. Why arbitrarily link it to tragedy unless you have an agenda? You need to base yourself on evidence. And that evidence, from Israel’s prosperity to Arab and Muslim culture, points to a severe deficiency of understanding on the left, which is what causes them to choose Jeremiah in the first place.

      • Nate

        I agree entirely! Israel was just picking up the white man’s burden! We brought so much good to the region – what are the so called “Palestinians” complaining about? Israel hasn’t made any laws restricting what they can or cannot study, hasn’t been discriminatory in any way, hasn’t destroyed any Palestinian villages, hasn’t constructed more and more settlements each year making it even less likely that a Palestinian state will be formed, or anything like that! And I am so sick of people arbitrarily choosing Jeremiah. That’s what annoys me to no end!!!

    • bloom

      Too true! One has to live here in Israel. It is fine being an armchair critic and putting your hands over your ears.

  • bunuel

    Did not read this in its entirety yet but the final paragraph makes it sure that I will as soon as I can, thank you.

  • Trish94903

    Thank you for your cogent analysis. Much appreciated.

  • Ranen Omer-Sherman

    Wisse often asserts an understanding of Israeli culture that she sorely lacks. She could begin with a recent book filled with wonderful reflections on the nexus of war and culture in Israel but it would likely leave her apoplectic.

    • Tzur

      Only critics of Israel have “wonderful reflections on the nexus of war and culture in Israel”? Do tell.

  • yosefblau

    Ruth Wisse does a service in connecting the books of Yossi Klein Halevi and Ari Shavit which complement each other. However she is so wedded to her nationalistic definition of being Jewish that she has little sympathy for an equally lengthy tradition of moral sensitivity and concern for the other. To a religious Jew like Yossi Klein Halevi, the religious settler movement is the alternate vision to the kibbutzim of a transcendent Israel.
    Ari Shavit is lacking in his appreciation of Judaism but not because he is insufficiently nationalistic but because he ignores Jewish texts and traditions.

  • Beatrix17

    I was born in America before the establishment of Israel and I can’t tell you the
    difference between being Jewish then and being Jewish now. It was the difference between being flotsam and jetsam or belonging. It was the difference between being pitied, dispised or respected.

    Israel has its Palestinians, America had its slaves and racism, England had its colonization. But all three are free, modern, educated nations who have or had problems they were expected to resolve. Perhaps Israel is folding under the weight of ignorant Palestinian propaganda because there are still too many Ari Shavits in the nation —21st
    century Jews who think they’re still living in 1930s Germany.

    • bloom

      Unfortunately there are not enough Ari Shavits. We in this promised land see and hear things you in yours do not wish to see or hear.

      • Beatrix17

        I’m sure you’re right. But I loved America despite the injustices of slavery and the horrible treatment of blacks. That’s what the 60s were
        about—trying to use our best aspects to solve our worst problems.
        Israel needs to do the same. You have too much hatred and propaganda against you. I’ve never seen anything like it. You need to stand up for your country even as you admit and correct its faults.

        • Myron Joshua

          Right. It is too bad that only the left is willing to admit and try to address our faults, leaving the right the chance to admit and address the faults of the left.

  • petty_boozswha

    I sometimes read these intramural Jewish arguments as a bemused outsider – I was raised Protestant and am a pretty secular fellow – but always have a question for those like Wisse or Podhoretz [who I admire immensely]: why should America continue to subsidize Israel with billions in foreign aid when the settlements are conceded by most Israelis to be a long term addiction more dangerous than the worst meth or crack available? Shouldn’t Obama and others that sincerely care about Israel stage an intervention and force a pull back from the West Bank?

    • Beatrix17

      Palestine was the name the Romans gave to Israel. In 1948, the UN divided
      Palestine between the Palestinian Jews and the Palestinian Arabs. The Jews called their portion Israel. The Arabs went to war and lost to Jordan, Egypt and Israel. In 1967, Israel won the West Bank and Gaza back from Jordan and Egypt, and legally started building homes. The Palestinians, now led by the Egyptian Arafat belatedly called for a homeland again, and Israel offered the West Bank and Gaza to the Arabs. They even offered Israeli land to compensate for the legal
      settlements they had built. The Arabs have never and will never accept offers from the Jews. Israel should donate the land to the UN and let the UN handle negotiations.

    • subwayguy

      This conflates foreign aid and settlements which are two separate issues. Regarding the settlements these war prizes began for security reasons.

    • Tzur

      Petty, you are apparently unaware that the foreign aid the U.S. gives Israel is almost all tied to the requirement that it be used for American products, military goods in the main. In effect, it is aid for the American economy. It is not lost to the U.S. but returns to it, producing more economic benefits for the American people, more employment, etc., and also brings with it the Israeli improvements in technology and innovation that strengthens the American military force, just as in civilian medical and other scientific matters the Israeli cooperative involvement vastly benefits the U.S.

      But it is not a minor benefit that it also helps Israel, America’s firmest and most liberal democratic ally in the Middle East, anchoring that ally in the region and thus benefitting American foreign policy there. Israel is a major strategic ally globally for the U.S. It is not just a matter of common values, nor of the traditional American desire to support the underdog threatened by truly evil oppressive enemies. Israel represents American interests. All the world knows this, so if America betrays Israel, the world would rightly conclude that its commitments are worth very little elsewhere too.

      Besides, the settlements are not at all the core issue in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, not even close to it. That is just the current Palestinian spin. After all, the settlements did not exist before 1967 when Israel won the West Bank and Gaza, nor even before 1994 when Arafat was very foolishly allowed to take over the West Bank and Gaza. But nevertheless his P.L.O. still engaged in constant terrorism over those decades, refusing peace. Once established in the P.A. territories, terrorist attacks continued and even multiplied every time it looked like peace pressures might succeed. Arafat and his P.L.O. violated every single clause of the Oslo Accords that he had signed on to, stalled on peace, and finally he responded to the extraordinarily generous peace offers of Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 and Taba shortly thereafter (which gave him some 97% of the West Bank and Gaza) only with the Intifada.

      You will also recall that Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza completely in 2005, pulling out all settlements too, but that this seems only to have hardened the Gazan Hamas response, which was constant terrorist attacks and thousands of rockets into Israeli cities in the years that followed.

      If the Palestinians were really concerned about settlements, is it not obvious that they would rush to make peace as soon as possible before those settlements extended further? Or they could give assurances that they would accept Jewish citizens into their proposed Palestine, and give them security and full civil equality and rights just as Israel does to Arabs in Israel. But the P.A. demands a complete ethnic cleansing of Jews from its claimed territories. Do you not see that this telling demand betrays the real nature of the problem? The same thing is shown by their official denial that there are any Jewish holy sites even within the State of Israel itself, which provide entirely legitimate roots for the Jewish State as such. It is this Jewish state that they really refuse to accept; settlements or not, this is the barrier to real peace.

  • Al Neuman

    Simply outstanding review by Ruth Wisse of a very troubling and one-sided book of Shavit’s. Why Jews/Israelis like him choose to focus on some supposed chronic culpability of incredibly victimized and heroic people rather than the Israel’s stupendous economic, political and humanistic accomplishments is beyond my comprehension.
    Perhaps Shavit is acting out some primal guilt or some other psychologic aberrations, but 1 thing is clear–Israel’s enemies (of which sad to say there are many on the Left) don’t need any more slanted biased screeds against noble little Israel to continue their shameless attacks.
    Great great analysis Ruth Wisse!

    • Nate

      I hate those psychologic aberrations. Guilt is such a terrible thing, isn’t it? I would hate to feel guilty about anything. Let’s just feel good about ourselves. Sprinkle in a healthy serving of self-pity. What’s the use of focusing on our culpability when we can talk about how awesome we are?!?

      • Beatrix17

        America was also an occupier of Germany for several years after WWII. There was undoubtedly mistreatment, injustice, and unfair treatment of innocent Germans by Americans, but we didn’t let compassion fool us into
        believing that we’d ever allow the Nazis to rule Germany again.

        Treat people fairly, but also think of what life would be like for a dhimmini Jew in “Palestine” if the Palestinians were to win. You aren’t awesome. You’re a minority surrounded by 500 million people who want you dead.

  • Yisrael Medad

    Norman, btw, was shot by an Arab in 1929:- “August 29, 1931 Jerusalem (JTA, Aug. 28)

    Mr. Norman Bentwich, the Attorney-General to the Palestine Government, who has been out of the country for several months on leave of absence, will not return to Palestine to take up his post again, the Hebrew Labour daily “Davar” states, on what it claims is authoritative information.

    Mr. Bentwich has from the beginning of civil government in Palestine in 1921 been constantly attacked by the Arabs as part of their campaign against Jewish high officials in Palestine. Since Sir Herbert Samuel’s retirement from the High Commissionership in 1925, he has been the only Jewish high official in Palestine, with the exception of Mr. Hyamson, the head of the Immigration Department, who ranks lower, however, being not in the Executive but in the administrative service.

    In November 1929, when the country was still in a state of turmoil after the August outbreak, Mr. Bentwich was shot at and wounded by a young Arab in Government employment. The Shaw Commission was sitting at the time in Jerusalem, and the Chairman, Sir Walter Shaw, protested at one of the sittings against “this horrible, detestable, foolish and wicked crime”, adding that “such crimes cannot benefit the community to which the assailant belongs and can only prejudice their case in the eyes of the entire world”.

    The Palestine Arab Executive issued a statement in which it said: Although we have always protested against the activities of Mr. Norman Bentwich as Attorney-General for Palestine, we regret and condemn most severely the attempt which has been made upon his life, because acts of violence are contrary to our tactics and methods.”

    Read more:

  • lpf1836

    Having read Halevi’s excellent book, I am at a loss as to why Prof Wisse fells that he “betrays a disquieting loss of moral confidence” in his subject. Perhaps Halevi is simply guilty of not having written the book about Israel that Wisse would compose.

    Lawrence Feldman

  • peterstone

    Terrific article Ms Wisse, as ever.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but as your closing paragraph might be said to imply, there is a vanity in the loud small minority of Israeli (and diaspora) Jews like Mr Shavit who express their inner self by claiming a kind of moral superiority over both Jews and Arabs. Such a feeling of superiority is based on their psychological needs and not the facts, that when known, either contradict their stories or put them in a whole new light. Whether by intention or unconscious design, such people empower the enemies of the Jews. They are moral dilettantes.

    As well as giving power to those threatening Israel, and thereby most Jews, it is heartbreaking that their Jewishness or Israeli Jewishness, is a source of pain to them. But, frankly, that’s not the main concern.

  • Mordavig

    I don´t know. Other good questions would be: Why should America continue to subsidize Pakistan with billions in foreign aid while it continues to host the Taliban, as it once did to Obama Bin Laden? … Shouldn’t Obama and others that sincerely care about China stage an intervention and force a pull back from Tibet?

  • Jeff Millstone

    Professor Wisse brings a refreshing cogency in her review of these two important books. Her conclusion reminds us how the indifference of Western liberal elites for the fate of the Jewish people during the Holocaust appears today in the form of “Palestinian” apologists. The intellectual fashion among many academics casts Israel as the “oppressor” and Palestinian Arabs as victims. This narrative camouflages anti-Semitism in a scholarly guise that aims to delegitimize the Jewish state.

    • Nate

      I completely agree. Wouldn’t you just love to be a Palestinian? Each day your worth is bolstered by the wonderful opportunities of going through check-points. You’re constantly reminded that the homeland you desire is but a yearning as you see the steady increase in the number of settlements being constructed, even during peace negotiations. You are confident that the laws are not racist or discriminatory in the least. You love the Israeli parade that goes through Arab neighborhoods each year, smashing windows, chanting derogatory insults, and beating residents as they celebrate their victory over the sore losers who had the nerve to live in Jerusalem before the Six Day War. Yes, it is the Western liberal elite who are indifferent. A lesser individual may have thought it was the right-wing, but you have made me see the light. All of Israel’s critics are disgusting anti-Semites. How can the Jew be the oppressor? It’s antithetical to rabbinic Judaism, and therefore it simply cannot be a reality. Well that takes a load off my back! No more worrying about those who are “dedicated to destroying what others build” and have no desires at all to build anything (or rebuild anything) themselves. Phew, I was getting a little worried there…

      • Beatrix17

        It’s also antithetical to history. The Palestinians lost their portion of
        Palestine (formerly Israel) when they went to war against the Jews
        and lost. Israel, in offering the West Bank and Gaza to the
        Palestinians is giving them a 2nd chance at a homeland.
        In 20 years, the Palestinians have never agreed to a single Israeli
        offer no matter how generous. They won’t. The Arabs will never
        accept less land that that owned by the dhimmini Jews—they want
        all of Israel. The inconvenient checkpoints are the result of Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Israeli civilians.

  • ClaudiaMonteverdi

    Many thoughtful and interesting comments so far regarding your astonishing well written, important article..So why do the Shavit types write these things? Forgive me for being somewhat contentious but so many of you are looking for depth and meaning and ethos and gistalt… ain’t none of’s where the money is!

  • mdk4130

    Until the Arabs come to their senses and say, as did Chief Joseph, “As the sun now sits in the heavens I will fight no more forever”, there will be no peace. Isn’t is time to stop all the silly arguments like “Is occupation legal”, Who cares anymore! Israel will eventually occupy the land from the river to the sea and the Palestinians will be heard of no more.

    Ruth Wisse makes the final point:
    “If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is
    that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and
    whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to

  • Nate

    Can you please clarify this – “The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves.” Really??? There’s been absolutely no harm that the Israelis ever caused the Arabs? No homes destroyed? No Lebanon War? No Plans C and D in the 1948 War? Would you be so kind as to elucidate your position. I am rather confused.

  • Jack Kuper

    Thank you Ruth Wisse for saving me from buying either book.

  • Nachum1

    Who was the American millionaire who funded Oslo?



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