Promise - and potential - in Israel

December 12, 2013: 7:42 AM ET

Ari Shavit offers an unvarnished but optimistic assessment of his homeland.

By David Whitford, editor-at-large

Tel Aviv, Israel

Tel Aviv, Israel

FORTUNE -- For my first trip to Israel I prepared three ways. First I watched National Geographic's IMAX movie, Jerusalem,  which helped me get my bearings. Next I reread Thomas Friedman's 1989 classic, From Beirut to Jerusalem -- still a terrific introduction to the region's cast of characters (and a gripping foreign correspondent's memoir to boot). Finally I followed Friedman's advice to President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and I read Ari Shavit's just-published bestseller, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.

Shavit's sprawling book is many things: a history; an oral history; a reporter's notebook; a memoir; an exploration of the Israeli economic miracle; and as the title suggests, both a celebration of Zionism and a painful self-examination -- a confession, really -- on behalf of the entire Zionist movement and the nation it spawned. Shavit is dogged, passionate, and insightful. If sometimes he wanders, only to circle back to his starting point, well, so do his protagonists. "What is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon," Shavit writes. "They will not give up their demand for what they see as justice. We shall not give up our life."

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Shavit, to be clear, is not a disinterested observer. "I was born an Israeli and I live as an Israeli and as an Israeli I shall die," he acknowledges. His great-grandfather was the Rt. Honorable Herbert Bentwich, a British subject who led a pioneering delegation of Zionist pilgrims to the Holy Land in 1897. As a liberal columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz and a former "antioccupation peacenik," Shavit thinks he would not have have liked his "rigid," "pedantic," and "arrogant" great-grandfather, who saw only "the quiet, the emptiness, the promise" of the land, not the Arab people already living there. But Shavit won't disown him, nor the swarm of Jewish settlers who followed, nor the citizen-soldiers (he himself was a jailer in Gaza) that serve on the front lines of the Israeli occupation.

In a chilling chapter about the 1948 conquest of the Palestinian city of Lydda, Shavit condemns what can only be described as an act of ethnic cleansing, at the same time acknowledging his debt to the "damned" who carried it out. "Because I know that if it wasn't for them, the State of Israel would not have been born," he writes, "If it wasn't for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live." Americans of European descent would do well to concede as much to their own ruthless forbears.

Shavit's Israel is defined by what he calls "the twin pillars of our condition," intimidation and occupation. "On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people," he writes. "On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique."

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Fear follows from that, and moral outrage, but also ambition, persistence, determination, imagination, and innovation. It's all part of what Shavit describes as Zionism's "unruly process of improvising imperfect solutions to acute challenges, addressing new needs, adjusting to new conditions and creating new realities."

The superficial sense I got during my 10-day visit to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the Dead Sea is that Israel in the second decade of the 21st century has come a long way toward achieving the Zionist dream of a tranquil, prosperous, and secure refuge for the world's Jews. But I also took a side trip to Ramallah in the West Bank, beyond the new high concrete wall topped with barbed wire, through checkpoints manned by heavily armed teenagers.

"Here is the catch: If Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed," Shavit concludes in his final chapter, "but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel's security. The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks." Tranquil, prosperous and secure? Not yet, and maybe not ever.

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