Israeli author and journalist Ari Shavit is best known in the U.S. for his personal history of Israel from the nineteenth century to the present day: the New York Times bestseller My Promised Land, published in 2013.
In the book, he traces his family’s engagement with Israel, beginning with the experiences of his great-grandfather, a prominent London lawyer who toured Palestine in 1897. The Zionist saw the growth of anti-Semitism, particularly but not only in Eastern Europe, perceived that Jewish life would be increasingly difficult there, and subsequently relocated his family to Israel.
Shavit’s book follows the same paths as his ancestor across Israel, presenting the modern reality of a land shared unwillingly by two peoples. The principles of human dignity and freedom expressed in historic Zionism, he argues, have been lost in the battles since statehood and the occupation of surrounding lands that has come about.
Shavit spoke at the Adath Israel Congregation on September 18, laying out his viewpoints after the war of the past summer. Shavit was presented by Haddassah to an audience of more than 500 people, who hung on every word.
Jews and Arabs have different life narratives that express their conflict, but both have lost sight of their proper goals, Shavit said.
This painful summer marked the longest war Israel has suffered since independence. It brought back the experiences of sirens and of fleeing to shelters, forgotten since the 1970s. For the first time, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were within the reach of the bombs.
Israel’s independence, Shavit said, was the most just revolution of the 20th century. This revolution broke the previous relationships of Jews to both God and country, and provided choices where those didn’t exist before. However well intentioned the early settlers were, they were blind to the Palestinian presence, and vice versa. This failure to cope with reality has led to the present tragedy.
The Middle East, Shavit said, is the worst neighborhood in the world. Israel’s failure to deal with the Arab problem or to create a just society contrasts with the great success it has become. Israelis, who have learned to live in constant danger, have created the most constantly exciting and wonderful society, filled with immensely creative, productive and lively and alive people.
The battle with the Palestinians and the failure of Israel to make peace in past times has produced a violent, fascistic Hamas that oppresses its own people, and today stands in the way of a two-state solution.
The endless occupation and battle with the Palestinians also isolates Israel and undermines its position in the world, moving the state to isolation in the face of 1.6 billion Arabs. Shavit sees the apparent resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe as a result of the endless struggle with the Palestinians.
Shavit noted that the Iron Dome defense was possible only with the assistance of the U.S. He credited the Obama administration with vital support of Israel during the summer war.
Shavit defined four problems facing Israel:
- the possibility of Iran achieving nuclear power, which he says will lead to a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East, the most unstable part of the world;
- Arab chaos itself, with governments falling;
- Regarding the Palestinians, Israel cannot stand pat but all efforts have fallen short and there is little opening today; and
- past success of Zionism was based on taking the high ground of morality and justice; Israel today has lost that high ground and is undercutting its great alliances.
Shavit said that we must pacify Gaza with a new Marshall Plan. As we enter a fight with ISIS, we ought not to entangle ourselves with the regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia. And we must not allow ourselves to be perceived as part of a great Shiite war against Sunnis – 85% of all Muslims.
Moreover, Israel must renew and redefine Zionism along its earliest lines, built around human rights and justice. Older Jews will continue to support Israel, but younger western Jews, particularly those younger than 30, see the matter differently. Zionism has a good story to tell in the immense success of Israel, but the story has to be rewritten to make it “sexy” for those people too.
After his speech, Shavit was given a standing ovation by the crowd.
Cartoon courtesy of The Cartoon Kronicles.