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‘We’ve Lost Our Narrative’

Ari Shavit hopes his new book will revive an honest, painful, conversation on Israel.

Tue, 11/26/2013 - 19:00
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

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 U.S., in January, when he will visit a number of college campuses. (He will appear at a Jewish Week Forum here March 6; see below). 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.

Ari Shavit will discuss his new book at a Jewish Week Forum on March 6, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. at Central Synagogue. More details about ticket reservations will be available soon. 

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thank you!Deborah

Professor Etzioni is one of the most famous sociologists of my professors' generation. He is the author of many widely known books, was full professor at Columbia University in New York City, and is currently (in his non-retirement) professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Politically, he has been known as a progressive his entire career. He wrote a critique of one of Avi Shavit's main points in his new book as a letter to the New York Times, which it refused to print. The paragraphs below are those of Professor Amitai Etzioni:

"Your statement 'In Israel's first months, large Arab cities emptied as inhabitants were forced to flee' is untrue (nor does the text of the article so claim or support). I was a Pal Mach fighter at the time, including in the area around Lydda. Many Arabs left because they assumed, for good reasons, that Israel will be finished within days, and marked which Jewish houses they would occupy on return. Others fled the cross fire. And still others -a few- were forced out. Moreover, like you and me, they had mixed motives: greed in the morning, fear in the evening, and both in between.

I would love to learn about your motives for publishing another anti-Israeli story, about events that happened two generations ago, while the Middle East is full of atrocities committed right now, for instance, by rebels in Syria the U.S. support. And will you publish a story about the number of Jews who fled Israel in those years and since--fearing Arab terrorism and attacks?


Amitai Etzioni"

A good article that brings Shavit across as a serious Israeli, an intelligent man, trying to understand his society and its dilemmas, under the cloud of very real concern for its long term survival. I am puzzled: Does Shavit's account (that I have not yet read) of the Jewish conquest of Lydda/Lod and the expulsion of its Arab populace mention the strategic significance of Lydda/Lod as the location of what is now known as Ben-Gurion Airport? Does that possibly explain why the fragile new state's leadership decided that security of a principal lifeline justified expulsion of a hostile population within pistol and rifle range of the country's sole international airport? Israel was born in blood, that included the lives of about 6,500 of its Jewish residents, a death toll of fully 1 per cent of the Jewish population in 1948, equivalent to an American toll of 3 million dead today. Thousands also died among the several invading armies and the local Arab forces that attempted to strangle the infant Jewish state at its birth. Civilians on both sides, Jewish and Arab, suffered and died, whether intentionally targeted or as a result of collateral damage, as the professionals call it nowadays. War is hell, as an American Civil War general said. With all of his pain at the imperfections he sees in Israel and its society, can Shavit point to any other state in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia that provides a model to be imitated in the creation of a just, humane state? How long did the United Kingdom of Great Britain, etc. take to evolve from medieval barbarism, wars of religion, and the adventure of imperialism to become the ideal where Mr. Shavit spends his summer vacations? I have to admit, it is easier to raise questions than to provide viable solutions that lead to real peace for Israel and all its neighbors.

"I’ll stand by the damned." Me too.

While I accept Shavit's assertion that we should criticize Israel for her treatment of her Palestinian subjects, I take issue with his position that actions like the expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda are an unambiguous negative and that the only proper response is to balance them out with the rest of Israel's story. The reality is that there were Arab villages in the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor that harbored soldiers for the invading armies and Israel had to deny those armies sanctuary. It is unfortunate that Arab homes became collateral damage in that effort. If Shavit wants to present evidence that certain evacuated villages were not harbors for the invading armies, that would be a reasonable point of discussion, but there needs to be discussion of what leaving those Arabs alone would have meant.

Moving to the issue of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians today, there is no discussion of what the Palestinians are entitled to. One one side of the spectrum there's the view that the Palestinians are not a real people and therefor deserve nothing while the other side holds that because the UN blessed Jordan's 1949 conquest, the Palestinian national movement is entitled to everything it demands east of the armistice line. If we were to have a discussion of what the Palestinians deserve and why, other than because the UN blessed some conquest from over 60 years ago, we can make progress towards implementing those rights instead demanding the maximum and complaining that no progress is being made.