The sense of place

I read with amazement the new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit.  For a book that is so attentive to the physicality of the land, and the particularity of place, it struck me as surprisingly willing to use place names in their platitudinous sense, in a context that made them leap off the page in bizarre ways:

By his very presence, he turns En Harod into the Mecca of the kibbutz movement.

… has turned a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.

After seven and a half years in inferior and mediocre Sephardic institutions, Aryeh Machluf Deri had reached the Eton of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world.

If the thought of the Mecca of “dance, drugs, and casual encounters” doesn’t make your head spin (imagine, conversely, describing the Kaaba as “the Reeperbahn of pilgrimage and divine ecstasy”) then surely the thought of an ultra-Orthodox Eton must.

In all seriousness, the book accomplishes something I would have thought impossible: It tells the story of Israel from a Zionist perspective, while refusing to look away from, dismiss, or otherwise morally diminish the suffering inflicted upon the Arab population of Palestine. Ultimately, it’s the most depressing book on the subject I have ever read, not because of the horror that is recounted, but because holding up the justice and injustice of both sides to the cold light leaves the reader (and the author) with the sense that this is a paradox of justice that has no resolution, a doom of eternal conflict. Other books, like Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, that take a much harsher tone toward Israel and its political establishment, arouse a sense of moral fervour, a sense that just a bit of generosity and good will could bring both sides to the promised land of peace. Shavit’s is the disillusion of an old man, who has seen the rise and fall of grand hopes, and sees the avoidance of destruction as the best that his country can hope for.

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