Nathan Thrall reviews My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit: Ari Shavit is a Haaretz columnist admired by liberal Zionists in America, where his book has been the focus of much attention. In April 1897 his great-grandfather Herbert Bentwich sailed for Jaffa, leading a delegation of 21 Zionists who were investigating whether Palestine would make a suitable site for a Jewish national home. Theodor Herzl, whose pamphlet The Jewish State had been published the year before, had never been to Palestine and hoped Bentwich’s group would produce a comprehensive report of its visit for the First Zionist Congress which was to be held in Basel in August that year. Bentwich was well-to-do, Western European and religious. Herzl and most early Zionists were chiefly interested in helping the impoverished and persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe, but Bentwich was more worried about the number of secular and emancipated Jews in Western Europe who were becoming assimilated. A solution to the problems of both groups, he believed, could be found by resurrecting the Land of Israel in Palestine.
At the end of the 18th century, roughly 250,000 people lived in Palestine, including 6500 Jews, nearly all of them Sephardic. By 1897, when Bentwich’s delegation made its visit, the Jewish share of the population had more than tripled, with Ashkenazi Zionist immigration pushing it up towards 8 per cent. Bentwich, Shavit writes, seems not to have noticed the large majority of Gentiles – the Arab stevedores who carried him ashore, the Arab pedlars in the Jaffa market, the Arab guides and servants in his convoy. Looking out from the top of a water tower in central Palestine, he didn’t see the thousands of Muslims and Christians below, or the more than half a million Arabs living in Palestine’s twenty towns and cities and hundreds of villages. He didn’t see them, Shavit tells us, because most lived in hamlets surrounded by vacant territory; because he saw the Land of Israel as stretching far beyond the settlements of Palestine into the deserts of present-day Jordan; and because there wasn’t yet a concept of Palestinian national identity and therefore there were no Palestinians.
Bentwich’s blindness was tragic, Shavit laments, but it was necessary to save the Jews. In April 1903, 49 Jews were murdered in a pogrom in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova. More than a million Jews fled Eastern Europe over the next decade, the majority of them to America. Most of the 35,000 who immigrated to Palestine were secular and idealistic. They believed Palestine could accommodate Arabs and Jews. They lived in communual agrarian settlements, and transformed the pale, effete Jew of the ghetto into the tanned, masculine pioneer of the socialist kibbutz. [Continue reading…]