a text version of yesterday’s sermon discussing My Promised Land –
Many of you will remember that each year on Oscars weekend Rabbi Loeb would give a sermon about the films that were nominated for Best Picture. He was a movie buff of the first order, and in the weeks preceding the Oscars he would traipse around from theater to theater making sure that he had seen every picture that was nominated that year. Some years he would speak about which movies he thought would win, or which ones he believed were best, while other years he might take one movie and use it to highlight a sermonic point. But you could bet your house that by Oscar night he had without question seen all of the nominated films, and he would be settled in a comfortable chair, in front of a TV, and he watched it from the opening of the red carpet to the very last award of the night.
I am not nearly the movie aficionado that Rabbi Loeb was, and in fact this year have only been able to get out to see two of the nine nominated pictures, Captain Philips and American Hustle, both of which, in my opinion, are worth a trip to the theater. But I do follow the Oscar buzz, and Becky and I, and our son Josh, who is a true movie fan in the Rabbi Loeb style, try to get through the best picture list in the months after the Oscars take place. The pundits are saying that this year the science fiction movie Gravity is an early favorite to win best picture, but the dark horse, which many of the experts are saying has a real chance, is 12 Years A Slave, the Steve Mcqueen film based on a true story and set in the years just before the Civil War. It tells the tragic tale of a free black man from upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
As I understand it many believe that 12 Years A Slave IS the best picture, but they feel it may not win because of how disturbing a movie it is, with an unflinching exploration of the institution of slavery and all of its brutality. I will confess that I have personally struggled with whether or not to see the movie. On the one hand I am resistant to it, because I know it will not be a pleasant two hours, and I am just not sure I want to confront those issues in that kind of graphic way. On the other hand I know that I should see the movie – not only because of its quality, but also because it tells the tale, albeit in movie form, of a dark chapter of the history of my country, and whether I like it or not, or whether I am comfortable with it or not, is not the point. As an American, I should know about it. In fact, you could make the argument that the more uncomfortable I am with it the more important it is for me to see the movie. I do believe one thing by the way – were Rabbi Loeb still alive, he would been rooting for 12 Years A Slave to win, because of his involvement in the civil rights movement in the 60s, but also because in general he tended to root for the underdog – that was just part and parcel of his personality.
Of course they do not have an Oscar night for books, but if such a thing existed I think Ari Shavit’s new book about Israel, My Promised Land, would be playing the role of 12 Years A Slave. It has already received a variety of awards, including the prestigious Natan award, the National Jewish book award, and it was named one of the best books of the year by the NY Times. Shavit is one of the most respected journalists in all of Israel, and his book is a beautifully written first person account of the history of the modern state, told through anecdotal stories, interviews with participants of some of the most significant events in Israel’s history, and his own experiences as an Israeli and journalist. It is a book that tells the history of Israel from the perspective of an insider, some who has lived it, who loves the land, who is proud to be Israeli, and who, as he writes in the book, could not imagine making a life anywhere else.
But despite the book’s quality it has quickly become highly controversial, and has received quite a bit of flack from a variety of sources, both in Israel and here in the States, to the point where some people are saying they will refuse to read it at all. The book’s critics have been particularly disturbed by two chapters, one describing events during the War of Independence in ’48 that took place in the Palestinian city of Lydda, where Palestinian civilians – including women and children – were killed by Israeli soldiers, and where the Israeli forces systematically expelled some 60,000 Palestinians from their homes. The other challenging and disturbing section of the book is a description, by the author, of one of his Army reserve service assignments where he was stationed as a guard in the Gaza Prison Camp, just outside the Gaza strip.
It is important to say that everything in the book is true. No one – even the book’s harshest critics – has questioned the factual accuracy of what Shavit has written. It is all true, it all happened. But a number of people have challenged him on the way he contextualizes some of the information. For example in the Lydda chapter about the expulsion of the Palestinian population, he fails to mention that the Israeli forces were in a sense trapped between advancing Jordanian forces in front of them and the Palestinians in the village – again, 60,000 people – behind them. So from a purely military point of view the safest and most prudent thing to do was to create a safe buffer behind the Israeli forces, and the only way to do that was to expel the Palestinians. But all that being said, the facts are the facts, and Shavit examines them unflinchingly – even if they deal with the death of Palestinian civilians, or the forceful expulsion of entire towns, or the brutal treatment of Palestinian young men by Israeli forces.
Now if you haven’t read the book you might think it is some liberal screed against Israel and her government, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The book also records the many and brutal killings of Israelis by Palestinians, from before the War of Independence down to the second antifada, and it does not excuse the Palestinians their sins. That part of the story we already know – it is just part and parcel of how we understand Israel and her challenges, and it is entirely in our comfort zone. But what is not in our comfort zone – and what is so powerful about this book, and also disturbing and haunting – is what we did not know, or at least what we did not want to think about – the profound moral compromises that Israelis have made in order to ensure their safety, their security, and ultimately their state.
Shavit acknowledges these compromises, but he also admits that he does not know if it could have been done any other way, and he makes it clear that he has no intention of going back. And in my mind it is precisely that tension that makes the book so important, that makes the book, in my opinion, a must read for anyone who loves and cares about Israel. Israel exists – and Israelis live – in a continual space of tension. The strongest nation in the Middle East, but also the most existentially threatened. A Western democracy, yet at the same time an occupying entity, controlling another people against its will. A Jewish nation state, with a population that is increasingly secular. A place where the Zeitgeist is strongly liberal, but where ultra-Orthodox Jews make government policy.
These tensions are captured in the subtitle of Shavit’s book – the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Israel’s existence is poised precisely between these two poles. At times the sense of triumph has been stronger, and at other times the sense of tragedy. But both are true, both are real, and both make Israel what she is today. And no book has explored that tension in a more honest, and more moving way, than My Promised Land. It would certainly get my vote in any kind of Oscar race.