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Where Are the Women in Shavit’s “Promised Land”?

January 10, 2014
by Lawrence Bush A Review of My Promised Land, The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. Spiegel and Grau, 2013, 464 pages. promisedI’ll be brief, because I don’t like to write about Israel, I don’t feel legitimate doing so. I was raised a leftwing non-Zionist (different from an anti-Zionist, but not much different), pissed off in an inherited sort of way about Zionism’s denigration of diaspora Jewishness — and I’ve only actually been to the country once, for a month in 2007. I know far too little about its inner workings, its geography, its personalities, its multiple subcultures, its challenges and its achievements, to be writing about it — and I tend to think of the place in abstract political terms, with a certain amount of resentment as well as guilt. So if you place me into the hands of a powerful and two-fisted journalist like Ari Shavit, I’m putty. Teach me, Mr. Shavit. You’ve interviewed everybody. You’ve got depth and soul. You’re a mover and a shaker. Teach me. Shavit does, first touring me through the grand first half century of Zionist experimentation, 1897-1947, and the first two decades of nation-building achievement. Yes, he says, the triumph of national renaissance for Jews in Palestine was the tragedy of displacement and expulsion for the Palestinians of the land — but don’t let that reality discourage you from recognizing how close the mythology of “draining the swamps” and building a young people’s socialist laboratory was to the reality, which he portrays with eloquence and insight. Next, Shavit tours me through what he calls the “seven different internal revolts” that have roiled Israel since Ben Gurion’s heyday and resulted in “the disintegration of the Israeli republic” into “a stimulating, exciting, diversified, colorful, energetic, pathetic, and amusing political circus.” First, there is “the settlers’ revolt,” represented by Yoel Bin Nun, a founder of the Gush Emunim movement, Pinchas Wallerstein, a founder of the Ofra settlement, and Yehuda Etzion, who fantasizes blowing up the Dome of the Rock mosque. Second, there is the peace revolt, exemplified by Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin, who mistakenly believe, according to Shavit, that an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands would mean actual peace for Israel. (The Palestinian grievance, Shavit argues, just runs too deep, the non-acceptance of Israel is just too established, for an independent Palestinian state to inaugurate a new era.) Third came the “liberal-judicial revolt,” which redeemed the Israeli individual from the overweening Israel government — and gave rise, fourth, to the “hedonist-individualistic revolt,” which makes Tel Aviv such a sexy, youthful, international, and decadent city. Fifth was the “Oriental revolt,” exemplified by the founding and growth of Aryeh Deri’s Shas Party, and sixth was the ultra-Orthodox revolt in Jerusalem, the settlements, and beyond. Seventh was the Palestinian Israelis’ revolt, which Shavit captures in conversation with Mohammed Dahla, a Galilean Arab attorney who has been increasingly radicalized by Israeli Jewish inertia. Shavit’s conversations are fascinating, and his own soliloquies are compelling and convincing, especially to a relative naïf like me — until the thought occurs: Where are the women? Of all of Shavit’s extended interviews in this 464-page book, I count only two with women: Gal Gabai, also a journalist, whose entire conversation is about Deri, Shas, and the pain of Mizrakhi Jews; and Michal Nadel, a Tel Aviv clubber “in an extravagant getup, with her provocative mannerisms . . . looking for the guy she’ll have fun with at dawn.” What about Daphne Leef, who launched the Occupy Tel Aviv movement by pitching a tent on Rothschild Boulevard to protest soaring rents? Shavit references her, but never tracks her down for a conversation. What about Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Minister of Justice and probably the most influential female politician in the country since Golda Meir? Livni doesn’t even get a mention in Shavit’s index. What about Women of the Wall, who have been challenging sexist Orthodoxy in Israel since 1988? As I become aware of this omission, Shavit’s paeans to his countrymen’s creative genius and utmost confidence and business seykhl and sheer indominability suddenly seem part of a macho pose, and his spell on me shatters. Damn, now I’ll have to reread his 464 pages in a state of disbelief rather than rapt belief, and see if there are any more women hidden there who aren’t having casual sex in nightclub bathrooms. If, in fact, this invisibility of women as players in Israel — if this absence of an eighth “revolt,” the feminist revolt — is an accurate reading of Israel, then the country seems far more Mideastern, for better or worse, than on Shavit’s scorecard. If, on the other hand, female invisibility in My Promised Land is more a matter of Shavit simply having a sexist blind spot, then his reportage and especially his interpretations are not to be trusted. And maybe, just maybe, ending the Occupation would mean peace. Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and