Priscilla Read of Westchester Jewish Voice for Peace sent out the following report yesterday by email to colleagues, saying it was an individual response to an event. Her title was: “In the Belly of the Beast: Report on the February 5th event at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale.” She allowed us to republish.
The author of My Promised Land, Ari Shavit is a darling of liberal Zionists. Tom Friedman adores his book, David Remnick championed it at 92d Street Y, St. Louis Reform rabbi Susan Talve has promoted it. Both Jerome Slater and Nathan Thrall have pointed out how rightwing Shavit’s views actually are.
AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The event was billed as “Westchester Reform Temple and The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) cordially invite you to an evening with Ari Shavit.” It included a private reception by invitation only.
Thinking that the evening at Westchester Reform Temple on February 5 would be focused on a discussion of Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (see New Yorker excerpt), I went and encouraged others to attend. For me, Shavit’s text was profoundly frustrating. It depicts in grim detail the expulsion of Palestinians that preceded and followed the establishment of the State of Israel; and then it justifies conquest and dispossession – the tragedy – as the only way to achieve what the author considers the moral triumph of Israel’s survival and success. I went to Scarsdale expecting something like the lecture series at Temple Israel in New Rochelle that has presented a variety of perspectives on Israel and Palestine, including viewpoints distinctly sympathetic to the Palestinians, that help Westchester residents break through the fog of pro-Israel propaganda that dominates American media. JVPers and kindred spirits attend with the goal of making sure Palestinian rights get attention. It was my hope that on February 5 some of us might, through our questions, raise some doubts in the audience about whether ethnic cleansing can be justified morally.
The fact that registration for the evening involved contacting an aipac.org email address raised my suspicions in advance; but I was unprepared for what I found at Westchester Reform Temple: an AIPAC-sponsored pep-rally with the cheerleaders alternately pumping up enthusiasm and issuing grim threats. The event was attended by a huge audience, the vast majority of whom appeared to be totally in sync with the organization’s objectives. In the tightly controlled environment, questions had to be submitted on index cards for triage. In collaboration with the rabbi and several (mainly young) AIPAC staff, Shavit rolled out a drum-beat of predictable themes. Before this evening I knew a fair amount about AIPAC – its politics and its power – all absorbed from a safe distance. February 5th, however, was total immersion.
Some 500 people packed the synagogue’s sanctuary, which had been transformed into a political convention center, with almost all vestiges of sacred space hidden behind giant AIPAC banners displaying Israeli and American flags. Speeches were apocalyptic in tone. The repeated motifs were the sacrosanct bonds between Israel and the United States, the need to cultivate bi-partisanship, the growing threats to Israel and to Jews across the globe, and the urgent pressure to confront the menace before it was too late. Attendees were enjoined to sign up for the national AIPAC gathering in early March that was predicted to assemble 15,000 and were offered a $100 discount on fees if they registered before leaving. Think, they were urged, of the power of thousands of pro-Israel lobbyists massing on Capitol Hill.
Shavit echoed and expanded traditional AIPAC arguments. He pointed to five threats facing Israel and Jews around the globe: terrorism and turmoil in the Arab World; rising anti-Semitism; the generation gap between older and younger Jews whose commitment to Israel is weakening (no reference to the human rights abuses that might explain why); Palestinian issues (given remarkably short-shrift); and Iran, Iran, Iran and the existential nuclear threat it poses to Israel and the rest of the globe (even though Israel is the Middle Eastern country that actually possesses nuclear weapons). When asked whether My Promised Land’s grim depiction of the expulsion of Palestinians was alienating Israel’s supporters, Shavit countered that his attachment to his homeland was a realistic love based on acceptance of unpleasant facts, that idealizing Israel was ultimately unwise, and that many young Jews had told him that his book had made them “proud of being Jewish.” My question about how he would reconcile his acceptance of Israel’s perpetration of ethnic cleansing with the ethical traditions of Judaism did not make the cut during the question period. Proclaiming his continued support for a two-state solution, Shavit spoke of his vision of an American/Sunni/Israeli/ Palestinian alliance of moderates against extremists and of “peace as a process” of building structures for co-existence that would take many years but should replace the failed peace process. His only reference to this summer’s assault on Gaza was the tedious refrain: the cause was Hamas’ targeting of Israeli citizens and hiding behind its own.
For me this event was a decidedly uncomfortable experience.