“I believe in the Jewish people – in the energy and in the vitality of the Jewish people. I believe in the man-made miracle that is Israel.”
By Judie JacobsonNo sooner had My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit hit book stands in 2013, than it landed on the New York Times bestseller list, capturing the rapt attention of Jewish communities the world over and garnering high praise from Mid-East pundits and the media – many echoing the sentiments of the Washington Post, which described the book as “[A] searingly honest, descriptively lush, painful and riveting story of the creation of Zionism in Israel and [Shavit’s] own personal voyage.”
Named one of the best books of the year by the New Times Book Review and The Economist, My Promised Land is winner of the Natan Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
One of the most influential journalists writing about the Middle East today, Shavit has been a columnist for Ha’aretz since 1995, and also serves on the paper’s editorial board. Born in the Israeli town of Rehovot, he served as a paratrooper in the IDF and studied philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the 1980s he wrote for the progressive weekly Koteret Rashit, and in the early 1990s he was chairperson of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Shavit is also a leading commentator on Israeli public television. He lives in Kfar Shmariahu.
The Ledger recently spoke with Shavit about the future of Israel and the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
Q: In your recent op-ed,“The Challenge of Anti-Semitism,” you talk about a scathing article you wrote years ago in a leading American newspaper, in which you were highly critical of the Israeli government. You were stunned to find your text adopted by Jew-haters from both the right and left. Self-criticism seems to be an Israeli trait, much to their credit; but do you think that kind of introspective honesty sometimes plays into the hands of the world’s anti-Semites? Do Israelis not quite get what it’s like to live in the Diaspora – in a world in which Jews are not warmly embraced?
A: First, it’s certainly true that one of the greatest achievements of Israel and Zionism is that Israel-born Israelis have less of an anti-Semitism complex or anti-Semitism awareness – for better or worse. I think that I’m one Israel-born Israeli who has deep sensitivity to the Diaspora; I care very much about the Diaspora, and I think I do my best to understand it. It is very much part of my life.
Generally speaking, if you are talking about the enemies of the Jewish people, I think there are two extreme phenomena at work here.
On the one hand, there are Jews – and by the way, this is not only true in terms of Israelis, it’s true of many people on the left wing of the American Jewish community, as well – who overlook the fact that we do have enemies. We are a minority, and there are many people who have deep emotions regarding us that are not totally rational and definitely not justified. And many people who are critical of Israel, whether the criticism is justified or not, sometimes overlook the fact that there are enemies and dark forces out there that are after us. This is true for many people on the left and it’s definitely true of many in Israel. On the other hand, I think there is the opposite phenomenon – people who are too conscious of anti-Semitism; those who are overprotective of Israel and the Jewish people because they are aware that we have enemies.
I actually think that we have to look for a kind of complex and mature approach which is realistic, and in which we are loyal to ourselves while being just and decent and honest. We need to allow self-criticism – I think it’s very much needed – yet, we need also to be aware not to play into the hands of these dark forces out there.
Q: Do you think you successfully navigated between these two phenomena in My Promised Land?
A: My experience in writing [My Promised Land] was actually a very positive one because, although I dealt with some of Israel’s faults, I actually put them in such a pro-Israel context because of my commitment to my country. I think my love for Israel is so apparent that even the most difficult parts of my book were not used by Israel’s enemies because they were afraid to quote something that is written by a really devoted Zionist. In actuality, my ability to be candid allowed me to be much more forceful in my support of Israel and in my belief in Zionism.
One of the comments written about this book that really pleased me is that I made Zionism noble again; that I enabled people to love Israel again. I did it because it was not totally protective. I was honest. I was truthful. I was also critical – but I put it in the context of our basic righteousness and our basic justice.
So, I think we have to be aware of the two extremes: on the one hand, we should be careful and always aware that there are dark forces out there – people who have a difficulty with the Jewish people or with the Jewish state; on the other hand, we cannot take that caution and turn it into the kind of mentality that keeps us from dealing at all with our faults and our problems. I think we have to be mature, and mature people find a way between these two extremes.
I did my best in the book to strike that balance and I do my best in my writing and when I talk to strike that balance, and I think that my record proves so far that you can do it; that there is a third way to go, between being naïve about the fact that we have enemies and being totally obsessed with the fact that we have enemies.
Q: In the same op-ed piece you write that the growing anti-Semitism sets a challenge before the world’s nations – “but anti-Semitism also sets a challenge before Israelis, from right and left.” What is that challenge and how can it be met?
A: I think that, in an interesting way, there is a tendency both from right and left to regard Israel as omnipotent, as some superpower.
The left-wing version of this is to totally focus on criticizing Israel without seeing the context that there are strong powers trying to destroy us and evil forces who are trying to kill us; actually believing that there is no limit to our power and everything that happens is only because we do it and if we just do the right thing we have peace tomorrow. The right wing version of the same phenomenon is that we can ignore the international community, and we can ignore large parts of American society, and we can ignore other forces in the world, because we are so strong that we can stick to our guns and it will be fine.
I say ‘no.’ I say that although Israel is, thank God, a strong state, the Jewish people are a very small people. We are lonely by definition. Our religion, our language, our culture are all different. We are really unique and we are alone. We have so many people who hate us; we have such a traumatic and tragic history; we face such unbelievable challenges that no other democracy faces. We are vulnerable. We are strong, but we are vulnerable.
So, I think that the right approach, which is both moral and realistic, is to keep up building our strengths while being aware of our fragile position and therefore developing a much more sophisticated attitude to our historical destiny. Not going to the left-wing extreme version that Israel is always wrong because Israel is all-powerful and everything depends on Israel; and not to go to the right-wing version, which is that Israel is so strong it can ignore the world. We cannot ignore the world. So, we have to act wisely and in a sophisticated manner in order to maneuver and survive in a rather anti-Semitic world.
Q: Bibi Netanyahu seems to be the last of a certain breed of Israeli leader. If and when he leaves office, who is left to lead who can and will represent the interests of all Israelis, and not just certain segments of the population?
A: It’s a short question with a very long answer. Netanyahu is an enigma and the question is a deep one, and I’ve observed and written about this phenomenon a lot. But I’m not much into personalizing politics – I think we should deal with ideas and the wider needs of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
But I would say this about Netanyahu: His achievement is that he was able to maintain stability in Israel in many ways, in times of instability. He maintained economic stability at a time when the world was in terrible economic crisis; he maintained security stability when the region was in turmoil; and he maintained a kind of political stability. These are his achievements.
All of the three are in doubt now: The crisis in Gaza actually undermines security stability because we do not know what’s ahead; the economic situation is still good, but not as good as it was; and political stability is in doubt because Netanyahu in many ways is weakened and we do not know if the success of his stability will maintain.
Then, the question is asked: except for stability, what did he achieve? Although Netanyahu is different than most of Israel’s previous leaders – and he has many faults and has made many mistakes – I have no doubt that he is not cynical. He cares about the nation and he does his best to serve the nation in his own way. And, I am concerned that some of the other politicians – whether it’s because they are younger or more extreme – do not have the same sense of responsibility; they are more cynical, more into their personal interests. We’ve seen that during this crisis. Again, generally speaking, Netanyahu made mistakes, but he acted in a responsible, calculated and mature manner, and many players in the cabinet and elsewhere were not responsible.
So, I must say that one of my greatest fears is, when all this ends, we might find ourselves with a troubling regional condition and, at the same time, with internal political turmoil. That might be very scary.
I do hope that we come out of this crisis with a sense of responsibility and some sort of minimal political unity – not just the unity of the Israeli society – and not be drawn into a kind of political turmoil that will endanger Israel. I think that there is much that unites Israel and we have to look at what unites us; we have to address the existential challenges today and we have to try to work together.
Whether it’s under the leadership of Netanyahu or someone else, I hope that we do come out of this crisis and deal with what’s ahead in a responsible and mature manner, and not in some sort of childish extremist political way which can be sometimes more dangerous for us than even our worst enemies.
Q: Are you hopeful?
A: I’m a believer. For years, many of my friends had high hopes and I was skeptical. I live with a degree of realism that sometimes people see as pessimism, but I never lost hope. I believe in the Jewish people – in the energy and in the vitality of the Jewish people. I believe in the man-made miracle that is Israel. I see great challenges ahead of us; but I believe and hope we shall overcome.