In October, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, published the most transgressive portion of Ari Shavit’s very-Zionist book, a piece about the ethnic cleansing of Lydda in 1948, and when the book came out a month later, Remnick interviewed Shavit on stage at the 92d Street Y, where it was clear that the two journalists have been friends for many years. But Remnick also differed with Shavit over several issues, and in some of those utterances, Remnick showed that he is weary of Israeli claims and has heard anti-Zionist arguments.
I study Remnick’s public statements because he is a leading Establishment intellectual who has been associated with the pro-Israel cause. Yet he has shifted in recent years in ways that indicate an internal struggle that will surely be reflected in the discourse. He has lost patience with the occupation and slammed the lobby for turning the US Jewish community into “breakfast at the Regency [hotel].” He has published Yousef Munayyer’s call for democracy in Israel and Palestine; and on Charlie Rose, sitting with two other Jewish journalists, he bridled at the absence of Palestinians at the table.
If you watch the 92d Street Y appearance from November 19, Shavit comes across as a witness of Israeli miracles, with all the sophistication of the head of the Chamber of Commerce in Topeka, while Remnick comes across as dissenting, skeptical, even troubled by some of these assertions.
When Shavit says that the Palestinians need Salaam Fayyad’s program of economic development in the West Bank more than anything, Remnick says, “His popular support is shaky at best.” When Shavit says that secular American Jews need Israel “like oxygen,” in order to survive, Remnick is dubious, and doesn’t cotton to Shavit’s idea that Israel should help fund secular Jewish schools here for American Jews so that we stay Jewish. When Shavit says that Edward Said’s legacy has “poisoned” the American left so as to blind us to the evils of Palestinian intolerance, Remnick says, “I don’t agree with you at all.”
The two differ over the Israeli nuclear program. “By the way there is one,” Remnick says, shaking his head at the official deception (at 16:56). “‘According to foreign sources.’ The most ridiculous scam. Ridiculous!”
And in addressing Shavit’s claim that his government learned about the torture of Palestinians in an Israeli jail in Gaza from his own groundbreaking piece as a reservist in 1991, Remnick isn’t buying. He relates it to US politicians playing him (28:30):
“How did they not know?… There’s always the chance, and I feel it at times, that the government is performing for you, its own moral outrage, when they know damn well about it.”
“You’re too cynical, David.”
The best moments are historical, when Remnick raises questions about the Zionist project in light of the crisis it finds itself in. When Shavit says that the settlement program was a huge mistake, akin to the “mindboggling… march of folly” to World War I, Remnick says, “Ari, is it an irreversible mistake?” He reminds us that this mistake has gone on for a long time, fostering dreams of one democratic state:
Remnick: Israel is the only nation of its kind that is an occupying power and at the same time it feels itself under threat enormous threat.
Shavit: It doesn’t feel itself– it is threatened.
Remnick: It is threatened, we agree on that 100 percent, whether from its geography, its proximity to the Syrian situation, Hezbollah, Iran. How is it possible to become solved? The occupation has been there since 1967, the vast majority of the life of the state of Israel. The sense of threat, the actual threat, the geopolitical, geostrategic threat, has existed from the very first hours of the beginning of that state. How does this possibly move forward in your view? Right now Secretary Kerry is shuttling from Washington to Ramallah to Jerusalem in the search yet again of the revival of a two state solution. It seems highly unlikely that that will happen anytime soon. In the meantime, discussion of a one state solution raises its head all the time, more and more in different quarters… What’s the way out?
Last, a dialogue about historical experiment.
The discussion turns to the Nakba, and Shavit takes the side of Israel’s ethnic cleansers. The founders of Israel can say with justice to bleeding-heart liberals, “We did the dirty work. They live on the land that we cleared for them and they say that these guys committed war crimes.” It’s a valid argument, Shavit says, because of the American genocide of Native Americans:
Shavit: I think it’s very important to remember, and I said it to you on some other occasions. This country [the U.S.] is based on crimes that are much worse than Lydda, much worse than Lydda. When I hear American liberals, Canadian liberals, Australian liberals and New Zealand liberals– their liberalism and their universal values are based on the fact that they basically murdered the others. And therefore they can criticize us.
Remnick: What’s the difference?
Shavit: 100 years.
Shavit: Zionism was late… All these countries were really the product of white Europe. We are the product of the victims of Europe. This is why we were late.
Remnick: When somebody points out not only these realities, of the ’40s and before, but also precisely where the state of Israel is situated and what it’s surrounded by and somebody says to you, confronts you with those realities that you hardly deny, in fact it’s your work as a citizen, as a journalist, as a thinker, as a human being to confront them all the time– How is Zionism then not a mistake, considering its predicament, considering the lack of bright light and optimism even at the end of this book of the most passionate Zionist one can imagine? That’s a question you have to confront all the time.
Shavit says, “We will know the answer about Zionism in 100 years time or 200 years’ time.”
History doesn’t have time for that.