Ari Shavit’s Zionist revival is a hit in New York

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Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit

Israeli author Ari Shavit is the toast of the town. It’s almost embarrassing how much attention his book is getting from media royalty. Tom Friedman wrote him up last weekend. Terry Gross interviewed him yesterday. Charlie Rose had him on last night. David Remnick will have two discussions with him, one for the Council on Foreign Relations, one at the 92d Street Y.

I think there’s some insecurity in the American response. People know that things are falling apart. Ian Lustick’s piece in the Times on the Two-State Illusion must be taken on, Max Blumenthal’s book must be dismissed; and Shavit is the man to do these things, an elegant Ashkenazi and unapologetic Zionist with an English-Israeli accent.

I listened to Shavit on Terry Gross yesterday and found his ideas insightful but disturbing, even reactionary. He says that John Kerry is creating expectations of a deal where none can be achieved and the result could be a “terrible clash… a terrible cycle of violence,” in which the two-state solution will be lost, and the two-state solution is the only solution. I.e., just as Camp David’s failure produced the Second Intifada, this failure could produce a Palestinian uprising, but one teetering “on the edge” of regional “chaos.”

So instead of creating expectations that the Israelis will give up settlements and Jerusalem (they won’t) and that the Palestinians will give up the right of return (they won’t), Shavit says that the Americans should be seeking to ameliorate Palestinian conditions so that they make slow progress year by year, have better lives. “A modest humble peace.” In a word, prosperity without freedom.

Will that end the occupation? Terry Gross asked sharply. It can’t be done overnight, Shavit said, and besides, the occupation is not the root of the conflict: 1948 is, the existence of a Jewish state on ethnically-cleansed land.

That is the “tragedy” of Shavit’s title, and the one achievement of his emergence in the U.S.: he is mainstreaming the idea that the conflict is not over settlements but justice, he is mainstreaming the beginnings of a Nakba narrative. Ilan Pappe couldn’t do it, Ghada Karmi couldn’t do it, Ussama Makdisi couldn’t do it. But an elite Zionist can. Because elite media here will listen to him say “Israel was created at the expense of Palestinians who lived there.”

Of course Shavit’s story of this tragedy is different from a Palestinian’s. He says that it was impossible for his Zionist forefathers to see the Palestinians around them because they were so focused on Jewish persecution in Europe. He worships his grandparents; they prophesied Auschwitz, and were right to leave Europe.

“I am totally with them. I think they were right to come. I admire the enterprise that they started.”

But then Shavit says it wasn’t just persecution they fled. His great-grandfather, a prosperous lawyer, left England for Palestine in the 1890s because:

“He realized what I think many in the United States in  American Jewry of today realize, which is that there is an inherent challenge of maintaining non orthodox Jewish life in the Diaspora, and therefore there is a need to have a national home for the Jews.”

So we need a Jewish state not just because the gentiles want to murder us but because they want to marry us.

That’s one of the contradictions in Shavit’s argument. Here’s another contradiction that gets at the intellectual and spiritual corruption in the belief in the need for a Jewish state:

Shavit says that he has married twice, in England, because he wanted a civil marriage, not a religious ceremony, which he’d have to have in Israel; and he says that the ultra-Orthodox in Israel should go to Brooklyn to see how the ultra-Orthodox behave themselves here, they work and they pay taxes. So the west has better political arrangements for Jews in certain ways. But then why aren’t all western liberal political norms a model for Israeli Jews?

Aren’t both problems Shavit mentions the direct result of constituting a Jewish state?

As for the Arabs, Shavit is an unreconstructed Zionist, and his views are essentially neo-colonial:

“The great challenge is that there is an inherent contradiction between our values which are basically democratic, liberal human values, and the brutal reality that we live in.”

And as for the Palestinians, the challenge to them is that they must recognize the Jewish state. They must “make the ideological almost theological compromises needed to make peace” — i.e., give up Jerusalem and the right of return.

And how are Palestinians supposed to reconcile themselves to their dispossession? Shavit seems to think that the two communities will do this truth and reconciliation work on their own. Palestinians will see the profit in having peace with Israelis, while the Israelis mull their crimes and move on:

My role and my commitment and my mission, the mission of my generation, is to keep Zionism, to maintain the Jewish state, and yet to realize that we have done wrong to others and try to limit that moral damage that was done and to enable the two people to live eventually in the future in a peace after they come to terms with their dramatic and traumatized pasts.

I don’t think that Jews can do this on their own. As was true of the recovery from the Holocaust, the only way to come to terms with this tragedy, the Nakba, is to hear plainly from the victims in formal proceedings. That is also the only way to avoid a violent future. Whether a Jewish state survives that conversation, I don’t really care. Shavit cares deeply.

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