NEW YORK — Ari Shavit, the popular Israeli newspaper columnist for Haaretz, seems to be everywhere in the American media these days, talking about his newly published and highly praised book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.” That’s a good thing for those of us who believe that the better Israel is known and understood, flaws and all, the more it will be appreciated and supported.
In the past week Shavit, 57, and a native of Rehovot, was on “The Charlie Rose Show” and NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross; he was interviewed at the 92nd Street Y by his friend, New Yorker editor David Remnick; and his book was heralded three times in The New York Times with increasingly superlative acclaim.
Last Tuesday, Shavit spent several hours at The Jewish Week, noting in an interview that he is already anticipating his next trip to the United States in January, when he will visit a number of college campuses. (He will appear at a
Jewish Week Forum March 6.) He said he hopes to engage students in a “deep and different dialogue” about an Israel that must be criticized for its treatment of Palestinians and “celebrated for the miracle it is.”
“I’m a total Zionist,” he said in his rich baritone voice with the trace of a British accent. (He has family in England and spends summers there.) Unlike many of his countrymen, Shavit understands and appreciates the importance of American Jewry. Indeed, he says we need each other — that Israel cannot deal with the Palestinians and Iran without American Jewish support. “And you have Pew,” he says, referring to the recent Pew Research Center study showing the precipitous decline among non-Orthodox Jews in terms of religious and communal engagement. “There is no way you can keep progressive Jews in the community without us,” he said, asserting that Israel and American Jewry must find more ways to work together.
But he noted that it is an uphill battle to reach those young Jews “who see Israel as an embarrassment.
“We need to make Israel attractive and sexy again,” he said, “and to connect it with the heart of the Jewish experience. My mission is to change the Israel conversation and revive the sense of a relevant, renewed Zionism.”
A tall order, but Shavit lacks neither self-confidence nor talent. And he would like to see his book, which explores and exposes Israel’s best and worst qualities, as the ticket to the anticipated conversation.
Open, Honest Account
Like others who have lauded “My Promised Land,” a personalized history of Israel over the last century, I admire its ability to confront the country’s deepest moral flaws without losing sight of the miracle of its existence, and its remarkable successes.
Shavit gives us an open and honest account of the real Israel, from the early wave of European pioneers at the end of the 19th century, like his great-grandfather, who gave up a lucrative life in London to settle in the barren land, to the 2011 social protest on the streets of Tel Aviv and the foreign policy planners dealing with the existential challenge of Iran today.
Along the way there are chapters on the success of the orange industry in the 1920s; the development of the country’s nuclear program in Dimona, and all it symbolized; the 1950s generation of Holocaust survivors who settled in Israel and quietly committed to create new life; the growth of the settlement movement; the author’s army service as a guard in a Gaza prison, an experience that prompted him to become active in the peace movement; the emergence of the haredi Sephardi party, Shas, under Aryeh Deri; and the sex, drugs and hedonism of Tel Aviv in the early years of the 21st century.
Most powerful, though, is the chapter on the killing of scores of Arabs and the expulsion of thousands from the city of Lydda (now Lod) during the 1948 War of Independence. With toughness and tenderness, Shavit interviews Jews involved in the fighting, and describes their confusion and anguish, and he imagines “the columns of the homeless,” more than 30,000 leaving their city in stunned silence.
“Do I wash my hands of Zionism?” he asks in the book. Though “horrified” by what took place, “when I try to be honest about it,” he writes, “I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”
For Shavit, the answer is clear, if not simple: “I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know if it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”
Shavit presents Israel in all its complexity: the fulfillment of a dream that saved the lives of persecuted Jews from many countries, as well as an occupying country that maintains its strong hold on another people.
“What I did was risky,” Shavit told the audience at the 92nd Street Y event. In writing about Israel’s moral dilemmas, “I was trying to touch the fire,” he said, adding that as a native Israeli deeply committed to the Jewish state and people, he has “the inner strength to deal with the taboos.” If you don’t address “the dark side,” he suggested, you have little credibility when celebrating the accomplishments of today’s vibrant Israeli society.
In the final chapter, though, ever the realist, Shavit cannot predict a happy ending for his country. “There was hope for peace but there will be no peace here,” he concludes. “Not soon.
“What this nation has to offer is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge.”
‘We Lost Our Sense Of Meaning’
In our interview, Shavit attributed that intensity to “the richness of Zionism” that “was always flexible and life-loving, deeply optimistic” despite representing “the ultimate victims of the 20th century, and threatened to this day.” But “our main problem is that we lost our narrative,” he said; he hopes to revive it. “We were a story that became a reality, but we lost our sense of meaning. We need to love Israel in a new, authentic way” that both praises the society’s accomplishments and recognizes its shortcomings.
It’s critical, Shavit believes, to engage both Israeli and diaspora Jews in the discussion, recognizing that “any simplistic approach is wrong” because “complexity is built into the place.”
He worries that diaspora Jews became polarized over Israel in recent years and then “refused to even talk about it” because Jerusalem’s policies so divided the community. “The more critical approach is more promising” as a remedy, he insisted. “I hope young American Jews will see how to relate to Israel without faking it.” And he added that young Israeli Jews as well are in search of historical context. It is the highest priority that they be given a reason beyond nationalism as to why they are fighting for Israel, he said.
But while Israeli youth are “living Herzl’s dream, breathing a total Jewish existence,” Shavit fears that diaspora Jewry is disappearing. The future of British Jewry, he noted, “is not pretty”: a “wonderful life for individual Jews, but shrinking rapidly,” with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox. Shavit recalls that he wrote what he describes as “an apocalyptic piece” for The New York Times Magazine around the time of the millennium suggesting that American Jewry, if it is not careful, may become “a lush, comfortable graveyard of the Jewish people.” A strong sentiment, but one he still believes.
“I’m very worried” about the recent reports underscoring the level of assimilation here, he said. And he is hoping that his book will help spur an honest and deeper discussion about where Israel fits into the Jewish identity of young people, here and in Israel.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)