Ari Shavit’s history of Israel, entitled “My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” has been very well received throughout the Jewish world. Both the American Jewish and mainstream American presses nearly all gave it rave reviews. It has received three prestigious Jewish book awards—The Natan Book Award, and The National Jewish Book Award.1 Shavit made a successful and very well-paid speaking tour of synagogues and Jewish community centers throughout the United States, complete with book-signings and sales. Both the Hillel organization and the pro-Israel American Jewish lobby, AIPAC, distributed and marketed “My Promised Land” for Shavit. HBO is in the process of filming a documentary series based on Shavit’s book, to be narrated by Shavit himself.2
But while all this acclaim is certainly a triumph for Shavit, his book is best described not as a tragedy but as an “abomination of desolation” of Biblical proportions. It is a vicious assault on Israel, a false and libelous narrative of Israeli history, although cleverly disguised as a sympathetic account by a loyal son of his country.
According to Shavit, Zionist leaders in Palestine decided, no later than in World War II, that the Arabs of Palestine would have to be expelled and their land seized to enable the resettlement of the Jews who would survive the Holocaust in Europe, and to preemptively crush Arab resistance to the creation of a Jewish state. The “Zionists” then launched a surprise attack on the “Palestinians” in 1947-48, driving them out of the country by perpetrating numerous massacres of unarmed civilians, executing prisoners, and dynamiting villages, while celebrating these deeds with savage war dances, and gleefully looting the villages and towns evacuated by the fleeing Arabs.
But Is this the truth? Numerous eye-witness accounts by participants in the conflict, Arab as well as Israeli, reporting by journalists who covered the conflict “on the spot” in Palestine, and masses of documentary records in Israeli archives, both military and political, that have now been made available to scholars (the archives of all of the Arab states, significantly, all remain closed to researchers), all reveal an authentic history that is completely at odds with Shavit’s Jewish-conspiracy narrative. The best summary and digest of these authentic primary sources for the history of the war is the thoroughly documented study by Israeli professor Efraim Karsh, entitled Palestine Betrayed;3 but Karsh’s conclusions are fully confirmed by many other books written by journalists who covered the war from Palestine while it was happening, and military historians with access to primary sources, both human and documentary.4
All of these legitimate sources of history affirm that Israel’s War of Independence was actually a defensive war of survival fought by Jews fighting not only for their independence, but for their very lives. It resulted not from any premeditated aggression by the Jewish-Zionist leadership, or much the less by ordinary Palestinian (soon to become Israeli) Jews, but quite the contrary, premeditated aggression by both the League of Arab States and the leaders of the Palestinian Arab community, with the semi-covert participation of the British colonial authorities in Palestine.
These sources describe a Jewish leadership that hoped to resolve the Palestine dispute peacefully through diplomacy, and planned on accommodating a large Arab population with full citizen’s rights in the hoped-for future Jewish state. This is also thoroughly documented in the published speeches and writings of the major Zionist leaders of the 1940s. The war known to Israelis as the War of Independence, and to the Palestinian Arabs as the “Nakba” (disaster), was initiated by the Arab Palestinian leaders within 24 hours of the passage of a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly calling for the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. The resolution was more than fair to the Palestinian Arabs, granting them half of what was left of Palestine after the British gave three fourths of the country to a sheikh from what is now called Saudi Arabia. It also granted them full parliamentary representation in the area of the country designated for a Jewish state.
Despite this very fair offer made to them by the UN General Assembly, which the Jewish leaders of Palestine accepted even though it gave the Jews only one-eighth of the land granted them by the League of Nations twenty-five years earlier, the Palestine Arab leaders, backed by the League of Arab States, and Britain, immediately launched a terrorist war against their Jewish neighbors. Nearly every Jewish village, urban or suburban neighborhood was attacked. Jews were also attacked on every major road in Palestine when their vehicles drove past any Arab village, which placed the entire Jewish population of the country under siege. Jews were removed from buses by the Arab guerilla terrorists and shot on the spot. The “Palestinians” (as they are now called) also attacked trains and seized huge quantities of food and other supplies from them that were being sent to Jewish communities, especially the 100,000 or so Jews in Jerusalem. Severe shortages of food and fuel developed in Jewish communities; tens of thousands of Jews suffered malnutrition and nearly starved to death, and shivered in the winter in unheated buildings. Finally, the “Palestinian” guerillas even cut off water supplies to the Jews of Jerusalem, forcing them to subsist on carefully rationed water collected in cisterns.
Far from plotting an aggressive war to expel the Arab population, the Jewish political and military leaders had never drawn up any plan for full-scale war until three months after the Palestinian Arabs launched an all-out guerilla-terrorist war against their Jewish neighbors in November and December of 1947.When the Jewish “Haganah” (meaning “Defense”) militia finally did draw up a serious military plan to repel the Arab armed attacks, it contained no provision for the expulsion of the Arab population. Quite the contrary, it contained plans for caring for the large Arab population that the Haganah leaders expected would become citizens of the soon-to-be-proclaimed Jewish state.
Eventually, the Jewish Haganah defense militia had no choice but to occupy Arab villages that served as bases of operation and sources of recruits and supplies for the hostile guerillas who were attacking the Israelis. The guerillas, who intermingled with the civilian population and used their houses as fortresses, resisted these necessary Jewish counter-insurgency operations fiercely, and as the Jewish forces gradually overcame their armed resistance in one village after another, the civilian residents, who in many cases were the wives and children of the fighters, fled along with the Arab fighters to areas still under Arab control.
In May of 1948, the Palestinian irregular fighters and the out-of-uniform soldiers from the Arab states, who had infiltrated Palestine’s Arab villages and reinforced the local Palestinian-Arab fighters, were joined by tens of thousands of regular army soldiers dispatched by six Arab states in a concerted invasion of Palestine and attack on its Jewish community and their newly proclaimed state of Israel. But the local fighters continued to participate in the war against their Jewish neighbors, and assisted the Arab League invaders in every way they could. In order to repulse the fierce attack by the Arab League invaders, the Jewish militia, now renamed the Israel Defense Forces, had no choice but to occupy additional Arab villages and two small Arab towns, Ramleh and Lydda (now named Ramla and Lod), that were held either by the invasion forces, the local Palestinian Arab irregular fighters, or both. Inevitably, additional Arab civilians fled from these settlements along with the defeated, withdrawing Arab soldiers. In this way, a population of Palestinian Arab refugees on the Arab side of the eventual armistice lines separating Israel from the Arab-occupied areas was created. Israel had neither desired this result nor expected it when its leaders accepted the UN General Assembly recommendation for a compromise settlement of the conflict. The Palestinian Arab leadership, along with the governments of the Arab states, rejected the UN proposal and instead chose to launch an aggressive war. Arab refugees were the result--a self-created “Nakba.”
However, a deceitful counterfactual narrative has been created over the course of many years by numerous writers who are motivated by malicious hatred of Israel, and who are propagandists seeking to justify the continued Arab war against it--a war that has genocide as its openly proclaimed objective, and that uses the most atrocious acts of cruelty against innocent civilians, including babies and holy men praying in houses of worship, as its characteristic method. None of these writers were actual witnesses to the conflict, and none even attempts to give a complete account of the war, instead focusing exclusively on the Palestine Arab refugee ‘exodus.”. These deceitful counterfactual narratives have been constructed by misrepresenting the contents of earlier, legitimate histories of the conflict, by quotations from them that have been carefully scissored, cropped and spliced out of their original context so as to distort their meaning, and by systematically expurgated and sanitized versions of the actual sequence of events in the conflict that leave out any references to Arab violence against Jews.5
Shavit claims Ben-Gurion announced his intention to drive out the Palestinian Arabs, (the early 1940s) but he actually told a group of Jewish leaders that they had to plan on a million Arab citizens living in the future Jewish state. The inclusion of such an obvious fabricated quotation from Ben Gurion in Shavit’s narrative is truly outrageous.
While Shavit’s book thus adds to an already “rich tradition” of anti-Israel propaganda disguised as history, it does have some unique aspects. For one thing, unlike previous anti-Israel narratives, it does not distort or misrepresent its documentary sources, but rather contains no documentation at all! Although Shavit claims at various places in the text to have consulted he doesn’t ever bother to tell us what these archives are or where they are located, or much the less, identify the specific documents he is citing. He summarizes and at times quotes what he says witnesses told him in interviews, but doesn’t tell us when or where he interviewed them, and in some cases, doesn’t even identify the interviewees by name, instead referring to them by nicknames-- such as “The Bulldozer” for one Israeli retired officer whom he dislikes. He quotes from letters that he says were written by witnesses to the conflict, but often fails to identify them by name, name the individuals to whom they were written, indicate when they were written, or where and how he gained access to them. He quotes from an alleged remark by Israel’s future Prime Minister, supposedly made in 1944, which says that Israel must expel all of the Arabs from Palestine in order to establish a Jewish state. But he cites no source at all for this supposed statement.
In addition, we have not found it in any of the numerous anti-Israel “histories” published before Shavit’s book that we have consulted; the authors of these narratives would certainly have included it if there was even the slightest plausible evidence that Ben-Gurion said such a thing. Last but not least, a collection of Ben-Gurion’s speeches, published years ago, reveals that at around the same time
Shavit claims Ben-Gurion announced his intention to drive out the Palestinian Arabs, (the early 1940s) he actually told a group of Jewish leaders that they had to plan on a million Arab citizens living in the future Jewish state. The inclusion of such an obvious fabricated quotation from Ben Gurion in Shavit’s narrative is truly outrageous. 6
Like earlier anti-Israel narrators of the of War of Independence, Shavit includes many allegations of Israeli atrocities in the war. Nearly all of these atrocity stories had already been disproven, even prior to the publication of Shavit’s book, by the research of legitimate historians. But Shavit goes beyond any of the previous anti-Israel story-tellers with which we are familiar by depicting every military operation undertaken by Israel in the course of the war as an atrocity marked by murders of innocents, forcible eviction of the Arab population, the torture and execution of Arab prisoners, and massive looting of Arab property. And he depicts all of these purported atrocities as part of a systematic, premeditated plan to drive the Arab population out of the country and seize their land.
Shavit also adds some lurid details of his own to the preexisting fictitious Israeli atrocity narrative that we have never seen before in any publication, such as ecstatic war dances by Haganah soldiers, dancing with knives between their teeth, in order to rev themselves up to commit atrocities in a planned attack on innocent Arab villagers, or in celebration of these atrocities after returning from such a raid. Jewish soldiers are thereby presented as a sort of combination of American Indian braves (the war dances) and Viking raiders (the knives in their teeth). It is something out of a really tasteless comic book.
Also, unprecedented in Shavit’s presentation is his constant return to these false allegations even when he has moved on to other topics and later periods of Israeli history, and the long “poetic” passages of purple prose in which he invokes the alleged continued suffering of Israel’s alleged victims, decades after the 1947-49 war. In reality, many of the Palestine Arab refugees, and their children and grandchildren, have led very comfortable and successful lives since 1948. And those who have suffered have suffered at the hands of corrupt Arab rulers and Arab terrorist gangs, not Israel.
How did Shavit get away with writing such a viciously libelous book about his own country, and still persuade American Jews that he was –pro-Israel? One reason major reason is that large numbers of American Jews, and for that matter many Israeli Jews as well, have internalized the lies that our enemies tell about us, have been persuaded that they are true. But Shavit has reinforced these misconceptions by inserting rhetorical maneuvers into his narrative that help him to deceive people into thinking that he loves Israel, despite all of its (fictitious) sins. The maneuvers most frequently employed by Shavit are sympathetic portraits of individual Israelis, their personal histories and their work, which he intersperses with his libels of the country’s political and military institutions. For example, he describes the allegedly idyllic life of a Jewish farmer in Palestine during the 1930s, who works hard to grow beautiful oranges with the help of both Arab and Jewish workers, or a teacher who founds a wonderful school for orphaned Jewish children during the same period. But before long Shavit has switched the subject to the atrocities supposedly committed by Jewish terrorists during the “Arab revolt” of 1936-39 and the War of Independence (1947-49).
In later chapters, he will admit that Israel helped to rehabilitate and provide decent lives to numerous Jewish children who survived the Holocaust somehow, and give sympathetic biographical sketches of the lives of several such individuals (many of them leftist writers like himself), both in their miserable childhoods in Europe and their later successful lives in Israel. He even admits that Israel worked miracles creating a successful economy from scratch and integrating over a million and a half penniless people from Europe, North Africa and the Mideast into a vibrant reborn nation.
But soon he returns to the theme of how Israel accomplished all this only by “destroying Palestine evicting and impoverishing the “Palestinians” in order to create space for all these Jewish refugees and immigrants. (This is not only a falsehood, but an anachronism, since the Arabs living in Palestine prior to 1948 almost never called themselves “Palestinians,” and did not even recognize the existence of a country called “Palestine”; their homeland, as they conceived it, was “al-Shams,” meanly literally “the North,” a country that in Arab parlance comprises present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel/Palestine as one country). But even as he returns to his favorite theme of Palestinian dispossession, Shavit claims that he considers all of these atrocities supposedly committed by the Jews to be partially justified, since Jews really needed a homeland of their own, both to escape persecution in Europe and to avoid assimilation in the liberal democracies, such as England and the United States. In this way, Shavit is able to pose as a loyal Israeli while relentlessly slandering Israel. It is a very seductive, even innovative, kind of rhetorical hypocrisy.
Shavit should have entitled his book My Betrayal of the Promised Land; the Triumph and Treachery of Ari Shavit.
1. https://www.amazon.com/My-Promised-Land-Triumph-Tragedy-ebook/dp/B009QJMXI8/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1496064610&sr=1-1&keywords=my+promised+land+by+ari+shavit#customerReviews ; http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-ari-shavit .
2. See David Eden’s summary of the success of Shavit’s book in The Times of Israel, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-ari-shavit. For favorable reviews of the book, see https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n19/nathan-thrall/feeling-good-about-feeling-bad; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/books/review/my-promised-land-by-ari-shavit.html;https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/14/idea-israel-ilan-pappe-promised-land-ari-shavit-review; https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/08/14/liberal-zionists/;http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10635882/My-Promised-Land-by-Ari-Shavit-review.html; http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/my-promised-land-the-triumph-and-tragedy-of-israel;https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/tragedy-political-correctness-ari-shavit-confusion-zionist-liberal-left/ ; https://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=my+promised+land+by+ari+shavit&tag=googhydr-20&index=digital-text&hvadid=177276011443&hvpos=2t2&hvnetw=g&hvrand=14551111597318695181&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9004924&hvtargid=kwd-67855113305&ref=pd_sl_2nr36js006_b ;https://www.amazon.com/My-Promised-Land-Triumph-Tragedy-ebook/dp/B009QJMXI8/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1496064610&sr=1-1&keywords=my+promised+land+by+ari+shavit;https://www.amazon.com/My-Promised-Land-Triumph-Tragedy-ebook/dp/B009QJMXI8/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1496064610&sr=1-1&keywords=my+promised+land+by+ari+shavit#customerReviews. For the HBO series in the making, seehttp://variety.com/2015/tv/news/hbo-israel-my-promised-land-ari-shavit-documentary-1201453453/ .
4. Other reliable sources for the history of Israel’s War of Independence, including the Palestinian Arabs who became refugees during it, include Natenel Lorch’s Edge of the Sword, https://www.amazon.com/Edge-Sword-Israels-Independence-1947-1949/dp/B0000CL7TH/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496080006&sr=1-1&keywords=Israel+War+of+Independence+1948 ; Jon and David Kimche, Both Sides of the Hill, https://www.amazon.com/Both-Sides-Hill-Britain-Palestine/dp/B0000CKNCM/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496080248&sr=1-6&keywords=Jon+Kimche , also published under the name A Clash of Destinies, https://www.amazon.com/Clash-Destinies-Arab-Jewish-Founding-Stat/dp/B0014O2A54/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496080248&sr=1-7&keywords=Jon+Kimche ; Jon Kimche’s Seven Fallen Pillars in the Middle East, https://www.amazon.com/Seven-Fallen-Pillars-Middle-East/dp/B0006DHMSY/ref=sr_1_19?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496080514&sr=1-19&keywords=Jon+Kimche ; Kenneth Bilby’s New Star in the Middle East,https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Kenneth+Bilby+Israel&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3AKenneth+Bilby+Israel , and Edgar O’Balance’s Arab-Israel War 1948. https://www.amazon.com/Arab-Israeli-War-1948-Edgar-OBalance/dp/B00UBAQ2LU/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496087887&sr=1-2&keywords=Edgar+O%27Balance . While these histories of course differ with each other about some details here and there, they are in agreement about all of the major causes and events of the war, and the context of the Palestinian refugee problem that was one its consequences. In this column, we have accurately summarized all of the main events described in these works.
5 See Efraim Karsh’s Fabricating Israeli History; the ‘New Historians,’ is the best introduction to, and expose of, these “counterfactual’ story-tellers masquerading as historians. (https://www.amazon.com/Fabricating-Israeli-History-Historians-Politics/dp/071468063X/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496092620&sr=1-7&keywords=efraim+karsh ). The most widely read and popular of these pseudo-historians, prior to Shavit’s entry into the field, was Benny Morris—like Shavit, an Israeli citizen of British origin. See https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_2_12?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=benny+morris+books&sprefix=Benny+Morris%2Cstripbooks%2C156&crid=2X0FI23CI2JCF for a list of Morris’s misleading counterfactual histories. His The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, https://www.amazon.com/Palestinian-Refugee-Problem-Revisited-Cambridge/dp/0521009677/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496082938&sr=1-1&keywords=benny+morris+books is the one that has inflicted the most damage on Israel. Other Israeli writers who are prime offender’s at libeling their own nation are Ilan Pappe (https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Illan+Pappe) and Tom Segev (https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_9?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=tom+segev&sprefix=Tom+Segev%2Cstripbooks%2C159&crid=3D6JN7XB61PKE&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Atom+segev ) . But the true “pioneer” of fabricating the false narrative of Israeli history is probably Walid Khalidi, an Arab scholar who has been a professor at Harvard for many years (;From Haven to Conquest, https://www.amazon.com/Haven-Conquest-Readings-Palestine-Anthology/dp/0887281559/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496082026&sr=1-5&keywords=Walid+Khalidi ).
6. David Ben Gurion, Rebirth and Destiny of Israel, https://www.amazon.com/Rebirth-destiny-Israel-David-Ben-Gurion/dp/B0007DEAM4/ref=sr_1_26?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496162883&sr=1-26&keywords=David+Ben-Gurion
Rachel Neuwirth is an internationally recognized political commentator and analyst. She specializes in Middle Eastern Affairs with particular emphasis on Militant Islam and Israeli foreign policy.
John Landau is a freelance journalist, independent scholar, and longtime student of world history and international relations.