Israel fascinates us as Christians. It is the land where Jesus lived. It is the "Holy Land". Many Christians sign up for tours of the land of the Bible every year and talk about how the Word became alive for them when they were there. More than that, Israel is our nation's only trusted ally in the Middle East. Then, there is apocalyptic Israel for many Christians believe the last great battle of the world will be fought, or begun, there. But, how much do we know about modern Israel? About how it came to be. And what challenges it faces? And how it sees itself now that it is almost 100 years old (nationhood in 1948, but Zionists began settling years earlier). I visited Israel in 1982 and the tour I was on went to all the traditional sites Christians want to see. I remember our Arab Christian tour guide tried to discourage a few of us from electing a trip to Yad Vashem ( Museum of the Holocaust) which was the most moving part of the trip for me. He also asked me why so many Christians in the West have forgotten about the plight of Christian Palestinians. It may come as a surprise to many Christians (it did me) to discover that 35% of the school children in Jerusalem are Arab and that Israel's population is projected to be majority Arab by 2040.
Modern Israel is a complicated and conflicted place. Ari Shavit gives us a picture of that complicated and conflicted place, his homeland, in his new book, My Promised Land. Shavit, a journalist, has not written an academic work of history, he says, but a story of his personal journey through contemporary and historic Israel. Shavit is a story teller and he tells Israel's story by telling the stories of individuals who settled there and made Israel what it is today. Shavit was on a personal journey of discovery: what is the meaning of Israel? How to understand it? And, most importantly, what is it's future? He writes as an Israeli and as he celebrates the accomplishments of his people he is not blind to their flaws. He is constantly mindful that Israel is the only modern nation that occupies another and lives daily with the thought of it's own annihilation. Israel is a threatened land. From within, Israel today is a very different place from the land of kibbutzes and a fierce will to survive. Israel is an affluent, consumerist nation of six million people who are divided about their identity and what it takes to survive this new century. At the same time, they are surrounded by a billion Arabs most of whom want nothing less than for Israel to disappear. They see their Western allies in decline and their influence weakened in the region. They see a resurgent Iran who has out waited and perhaps outwitted the West and Israel into believing they do not have a nuclear weapon yet. They have not had the moral and political will to end the settlements of the occupied territories which are a drain on the energies of Israeli society.
Israel has always been between a rock and a hard place. The whole world had turned it's back on them, it seemed. There was no where else to go so they heard the call of the Zionists to come to this new, yet what was their old, homeland. It was in their DNA and they had to have some place to make a stand and try to make a life. Somehow, they withstood the Arab attack in 1948, and grew stronger to face the wars to come. They thrived together in the new land. First, the Jews who survived the holocaust came. Then, the Jews fleeing the Arab world where they had lived in communities for centuries. Then, the Russian immigrants. It was like a huge refugee camp but they made a nation. But the land they came to was not empty, of course. For a long time, no one seemed to notice the Palestinians. With growth, and world war, tensions arose between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel took Palestinian land and villages and homes and livelihoods and the Palestinians became refugees. Now, it seemed no one in the world wanted them. Israel exists on the horns of this dilemma: an occupying nation that lives with the existential threat of annihilation.
Shavit writes with understanding and passion. He deeply cares about his homeland and as Christians we should, too. This book is a helpful guide to fill in the gaps between our knowledge of the "Holy Land" and the reality that is modern day Israel.