Ari Shavit’s much discussed My Promised Land opens with the story of his great-grandfather Herbert Bentwich, a well-heeled, thoroughly respectable British Jew of the late Victorian era, who becomes an ardent Zionist. Bentwich visits Palestine in 1897 and is at once convinced that this is where a homeland for the Jewish people must be created. “A land without a people for a people without a land.”
The result, three generations later, is Ari Shavit: liberal, fair-minded, scholarly, passionate, Anglophile, but above all angst-ridden – tortured by the innate contradictions and discomfiture of being a liberal Zionist.
My great-grandfather, Arthur Lehman Goodhart, was also a well-off, socially successful, Anglo-American Jew, who became a staunch Zionist. But, unlike Bentwich, his Zionism remained political rather than personal. The thought of upping sticks and moving his family permanently to Israel never crossed his mind.
The result, three generations later, is that I am neither Israeli nor Jewish (my great-grandfather stayed in Britain and married a gentile), and my liberalism requires no qualifying postpositive, nor intense soul-searching. The occasional light-hearted accusation of champagne socialism aside, I have never had to seriously defend myself against the charge of hypocrisy so frequently levelled against Shavit and his fellow liberal Zionists. Unlike them, my political and cultural identity does not comprise incongruous (and, arguably, incompatible) elements.
Early on in My Promised Land, Shavit muses on what his own life might be like if his great-grandfather had not travelled to the Holy Land but instead stayed in Britain:
‘My personal life in England will be rich and rewarding. I won’t have to do military services; I’ll face no immediate danger and no gnawing moral dilemmas. Weekends will be spent at the family’s thatched-roof cottage in Dorset, summers in the Scottish Highlands.
Yet if my great-grandfather does not disembark [at Jaffa], chances are that my children will be only half Jewish. Perhaps they will not be Jewish at all. Britain will muffle our Jewish identity. In the green meadows of Old England, and in the thick woods of New England, secular Jewish civilization might evaporate. On both coasts of the Atlantic, the non-Orthodox Jewish people might gradually disappear.’
This passage raises two interesting questions about the nature of identity and the political choices that surround it. The first is about the extent to which our identities are pre-determined, as opposed to chosen. The assumption running through Shavit’s book is that his fate – to be an Israeli – is inescapable; that the gulf that separates him from me has little to do with the choices we have made and everything to do with the choices our great-grandfathers made.
The second is about the relationship of the individual to the collective. The unspoken belief that underpins Shavit’s worldview is that the preservation of a particular way of life, in this case ‘secular Jewish civilization’, is inherently good and important. Each member of the collective has a duty to uphold and protect the integrity of their shared cultural heritage. But at what point do the costs of preservation outweigh the benefits?
To take the first question first, in historical terms, all national identities are ‘imagined’ or ‘invented’. They are creations of the human mind, and hence in an age of cosmopolitanism, inexpensive air travel and relatively open borders in many parts of the world, most of us are, at least theoretically, free to choose which ‘imagined community’ we offer our allegiance.
The Israelis (a nation of immigrants, and pretty recent ones at that) should be especially sensitive to this fact. Theirs, after all, is a historical fiction young enough for its origins to be within living memory for many people. Last year, some 19,200 Jews immigrated to Israel or made ‘aliyah’ as it is known. In doing so, the vast majority chose to shed whatever previous national identity they had and become Israeli instead. Not American-Israeli, Russian-Israeli or French-Israeli, just Israeli.
In this sense, Israel is unlike any other nation on earth. A considerably larger number of immigrants – approximately 526,000 – arrived in Britain last year. Rightly or wrongly, immigrating to Britain does not automatically imply becoming British in the way that making ‘aliyah’ implies becoming Israeli. Many immigrants in the UK consider themselves continuing members of another nationality who simply happen to be living in Britain. Or they create hybrid identities for themselves, as has always been common practice in the US (despite the occasional political attempt to de-legitimise ‘hyphenated Americanism’).
So, surely, if 19,200 people could choose last year to be Israeli, Shavit could, if he so wished, un-choose to be Israeli. The quiet life of a literature don or a BBC journalist that he idolises could yet be within reach. I’m reminded of a story a Jewish friend told me recently about her mother who escaped Berlin for London in the 1930s on one of the last Kindertransports to leave Germany before war started. When, after the war, she went to the new state of Israel, she was so shocked by what she saw that she refused ever to go back and for decades afterwards, whenever the subject of Israel was mentioned, she would opine simply: ‘if that’s what it means to be the chosen people, choose me out.’
But of course it’s not that simple. The rationalisation of identity has its limitations, because the way identity manifests itself in real life is based to a large extent on irrational forces. For Shavit, being an Israeli isn’t about choice, it’s about destiny and belonging. His raison d’être is to be modern Israel’s equivalent of the prophet Jeremiah. Each word of criticism falls like a hammer blow because it is underpinned by a deep sense of loyalty. Shavit identifies so totally with his promised land that each failure of the state is felt as a personal shortcoming; each word of reprimand, an act of self-flagellation. Without Israel, Shavit would be a prophet in the wilderness – a man without an identity or a purpose.
Perhaps the closest equivalent to Shavit we have in Britain is Jeremy Paxman. Both hold similarly exalted positions within their respective national journalistic establishments. Both have a reputation for straight talking and their lack of deference has made them a thorn in the side of successive governments. Yet, neither can truly be described as a radical – in divided times, both have come to represent what the esteemed US historian and one-time aide to JFK, Arthur Schelsinger Jr., called the ‘vital center’.
Like Shavit, Paxman has a lot to say about identity. Much of his recent TV and literary work demonstrates an almost obsessive interest in Britishness. And Paxman too seems to see it as his patriotic duty to not pull his punches when it comes to the less wholesome aspects of our island story.
For sure, there are still many parts of the world where to be British is to have something to answer for. Paxman’s book Empire: what ruling the world did to the British opens with a story of being accosted on the streets of Belfast whilst he was working there in the 1970s and confronted with the menacing words “you’re a Brit, aren’t you?” Such an experience may be less common in Northern Ireland today than it was 40 years ago, but it’s generally true that people with a history of colonisation have longer memories than their former colonial overlords. How many Brits remember the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century? Certainly, most would be surprised to find how strong resentment about these shameful campaigns, fought to defend our right to peddle drugs, is in China. And, of course, we more than played our part in creating the mess that is the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Walking through the streets of Ramallah earlier this year, a colleague of mine was stopped by a local resident and informed at some length that the British had ruined everything with the Balfour Declaration. The fact that the colleague in question is in fact Dutch did not seem to make the slightest bit of difference.
Ultimately though, there is nothing about contemporary Britishness that requires the kind of moral gymnastics that Shavit and his ilk must master in order to maintain the integrity of their liberal Zionism. 21st century Britain differs from Israel in two important respects: one, occupation of other people’s land is something we British dabble in from time to time these days, but it is not a defining element of Britishness (which is somewhat ironic, given that Britishness was largely a product of empire in the first place). Two, Britishness, at least in its post-2012 Danny Boyle and Mo Farah inspired mainstream form, positively embraces multiculturalism and encourages the formation of hybrid identities.
Incidentally, this is one reason the case for Scottish independence is built on shaky foundations – there are currently hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Scots-British living on both sides of the border, who are perfectly happy with their hybrid identity. They see no reason why they should have to choose between being Scottish and being British. Again, there’s a hint of irony about the fact that it’s not the supposedly oppressive Westminster government that is asking them to choose, but the would-be liberator Alex Salmond.
But what if it were true that Britishness and Scottishness could not co-exist? Would that make the case for Scottish independence any more compelling? This brings us to the second assumption that underpins Shavit’s Zionism – that we each have a duty of stewardship over whichever culture we happen to have been born into. It’s not hard to spot the shadow of the Nazi gas chambers lurking in the background of this argument. Only an identity that has embedded in its collective memory the horrific experience of genocide – the explicit, systematic and unrestrained effort of members of another group to eradicate your forebears and their entire way of life from the face of the earth – could command such loyalty from even its most liberal, cosmopolitan adherents.
Today though, the narrative of Jewish exceptionalism looks increasingly outdated and unhelpful. Whether or not you agree with Shavit’s alarmist views on Iran – ‘if Iran went nuclear, the Middle East would go nuclear, the world order would collapse, and Israel’s existence would be in jeopardy’ – it’s certainly true that there are many powerful voices in the Middle East who would like to see Israel obliterated. But this, repugnant as it may be, is of a different order of magnitude to the Nazis’ wish to exterminate the entire Jewish population of the world. Shavit’s concern when it comes to global Jewry is that it might now die peacefully in the night – terminated not by force but by a gradual process of cultural assimilation and inter-marriage.
Although my own non-Jewishness is in a sense evidence that there is a grain of truth in this argument, the notion that Jewishness might simply disappear from Europe and the US within a few generations seems far-fetched and paranoid, given the rude health of the Jewish diaspora. But even if it were true that global Jewry still faced an existential threat, would that justify the worst excesses of Zionism – the killing in Gaza, the settlers in the West Bank, the separation walls with IDF-manned watchtowers, the economic and political castration of the Palestinian people?
It seems to me that no identity has sufficient intrinsic value to warrant being preserved by violence and oppression. That is not to say that the people of Israel do not have the right to live in peace and to strive to free themselves from the near-constant threat of Hamas rockets. On these grounds, the use of force may well be morally justifiable (although I would still question the tactical soundness of some of the methods mentioned above). But, just as it is inexcusable when critics of Israel and its militaristic government fail to draw a clear distinction between being anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, it is to my mind equally offensive when the same trick is employed by the other side. Whether consciously or not, many Zionists elide the historic suffering of the Jewish people with the current travails of Israel.
For young Israelis, a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, is as much a rite of passage as is their national service in the IDF. The final room in the museum is a giant circular space – architecturally, a close relative of the interior of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford – whose walls are lined with box files: Yad Vashem is striving to collect a personal file (photos where possible, accompanied by testimonials from friends and family) on every single Holocaust victim. So far they’ve compiled 4.2 million such files. From this awesome mausoleum, you emerge onto a balcony overlooking the foothills that surround Jerusalem. The implicit message is unmissable: the final chapter in this tragedy of tragedies sees redemption come to the forsaken. The promised land of Israel is, quite literally, the light at the end of the tunnel.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that Yad Vashem connects the story of the Holocaust to the story of Israel in this way. How could it not? Nonetheless, it’s dangerous to commandeer the past to serve the interests of the present in this way. Commemoration is one thing – humanity must never forget what happened to the Jews in the middle of the twentieth century. But the use of the past to morally justify a particular course of action in the present is ill-advised. It is time to draw a line between the tragedy of the Holocaust and the plight of modern Israel.
Our own acts of remembrance in this World War One centenary year have so far, mercifully, not been used to further contemporary political ends. Even as Britain gears up towards a referendum on EU membership, the tone of remembrance services across the continent remains strictly conciliatory. Admittedly our collective memory of the Great War is arguably still overly Eurocentric and remembering our war dead is one area where Christianity still plays a very prominent role in public ritual in the UK. There is no hidden agenda here to exclude the millions of non-Europeans and non-Christians who died in that conflict, but, nonetheless, there is still a case to answer about their continued under-representation in public memorialisation.
There is also a significant qualitative difference between the role played by Christianity in Britain today and that of Jewishness in Israel. It is to do with the way religious, racial and national identities intersect with one another. In Britain, Christianity has often cut across race – from the first post-war immigrants who arrived from the West Indies to the more recent influx of Eastern Europeans, Christianity has often, though by no means always, been a common denominator that unites native and immigrant Britons. Jewishness, on the other hand, melds a racial and a religious-cultural identity into one. And in Israel, this religious-cultural-racial identity is further overlaid with a presumption of first-class citizenship for Jews. Herein lies the crucial difference between Britain and Israel – one is a Christian nation, the other is the Jewish state. Words all matter, but in this instance the articles matter more than the nouns or the adjectives.
The histories of modern Britain and Israel, as told by Paxman and Shavit respectively, reveal a rather strange irony about all this. Both identities are to some extent the product of European colonial projects, but, historically, religious zealots played a far more important role in the creation of the British Empire than they did in the birth of Israel. The cast list of Empire – from David Livingstone to General Gordon – is stuffed full of evangelical nuts who make the modern American religious right look positively demure. My Promised Land, on the other hand, tells the story of a modern, secular, left-wing colonial movement – from Theodor Herzl to David Ben-Gurion, Zionism was a creed for Jewish atheists. The early kibbutzim were awash with discussion of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, as well as countless other more obscure communist figures. The Torah, however, was considered an irrelevance.
In an age when the worldwide web means that news, ideas and opinions can be shared globally at the click of a mouse, when more and more businesses operate across national borders, and when people are more geographically mobile than at any previous time in human history, it may seem that nation-states are increasingly irrelevant to the way most of us live our lives. But, as history shows, once imagined into existence, identities are not easily re-invented. We may live in a theoretically post-nationalist age, but how we make sense of our national identities is likely to continue being a crucial political issue for generations to come. The question is whether we can sufficiently reform our respective nationalisms to be positive, forward-looking and inclusive or not.
In this regard, Britain is currently leading Israel, but the race is far from over. It’s thanks to Shavit and others like him that Israel is in the race at all. That’s why, despite the flaws and contradictions of liberal Zionism, the responsible response of anyone who cares about the future of the Middle East is to say “more power to them.” I don’t consider myself better than Ari Shavit for having been born British – just luckier.
 Shavit, My Promised Land, pp. 9-10
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983); Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983).
 Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Vital Center: the politics of Freedom (Boston, 1949).
 Shavit, My Promised Land, p. 365.