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Groping and crying

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Ari Shavit’s mea culpa for sexual assault sounds uncannily like the argument of his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.  At least that’s the way the New York Times frames it. In “Israeli Columnist Resigns after Harassment Claims,” Peter Baker protects Shavit’s Liberal Zionism from the taint of his current moral lapse, just as his Promised Land redeemed the miraculous narrative of Israel’s founding from its origins in the Nakba.  In both cases, heartfelt acknowledgment of wrongdoing redirects attention away from both the victim of violence and the culpability of the perpetrator to highlight his admirably ethical qualities as confessor.  

Caveat—I am not positing an equivalence or even an analogy between sexual assault and ethnic cleansing. But Shavit, a master of rhetoric, does employ a parallel logic in response to both: the rhetorical strategy of “shooting and crying.” This Israeli phrase refers to the phenomenon of soldiers beating their breasts about the violence they’ve committed in order to relieve their sense of guilt and demonstrate their moral depth. Crying bathes the shooter in renewed innocence.

Shavit’s famous chapter on the ethnic cleansing of Lydda, originally published in the New Yorker, tells a shoot and cry story of the Nakba on a national scale.  Some American readers may have been shocked by the revelation of how Israelis massacred Palestinian inhabitants of the town and expelled the survivors, a history well known to Palestinian and Israeli historians and to the people, of course, who lived through it.  Most American reviewers, however, singled out this chapter, not for its record of brutality, but for Shavit’s honesty and courage in exposing Israel’s original sin and in welcoming its tragic necessity for Israel’s founding. Mea Culpa.  

As Shavit’s confession of national guilt enhanced Israel’s image in My Promised Land, so does Shavit’s personal apology enhance his own image today. He has discovered male privilege(!) just as he discovered Israel’s privilege to whitewash the narrative of its own founding. Even his accuser praises his moral gumption in examining his own soul–just as his book bravely examined the soul of his nation.  Shavit’s moral fortitude shines out against the dark shadow of Donald Trump, from whom he is keen to separate himself—though one might assume that sets a very low bar.  But that kind of moral contrast underlies the shooting and crying story as well: WE cry because we respect the value of life in contrast to THEM—they worship the culture of death. It’s not surprising to read that Shavit is genuinely remorseful and would never challenge the truth of his female accusers, unlike the incorrigible misogynist, Mr. Trump.

The Times article ends oddly with a two-paragraph non-sequitur about Shavit’s importance as a spokesman for a “sort of liberal Zionism that has fallen out of fashion.” Shavit may have learned something about male privilege, as he claims, but neither he nor the New York Times has learned much about the privilege of white Israelis of European background, the privilege to narrate a history of violence that bespeaks your own moral superiority. What better proof of this privilege than the article’s last words. Rather than the voice of the women assaulted by Shavit, the final paragraph quotes Leon Wieseltier’s endorsement of My Promised Land.

Amy Kaplan

Amy Kaplan is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture. She is currently working on a book on the history of the changing ways that Americans have viewed Israel.

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9 Responses

  1. Marnie on November 2, 2016, 12:42 am

    Wandering through Oz this week (Jerusalem Post) I read an article pertaining to Shavit and was astonished at the vitriol in the comments section – not against Shavit’s sexual predations, no. The comments were angry bytes wrt his ‘lies’ about the state of israel vis a vis My Promised Land, his being a ‘leftist’, etc.

    The right is vewy, vewy angwy.

  2. Citizen on November 2, 2016, 5:32 am

    Good article!

  3. CigarGod on November 3, 2016, 10:00 am

    Shoot and cry.
    The whole time I read this I was thinking of cops who shoot and then are said to suffer greatly. Their defenders like to use the phrase: No cop wants to shoot.
    However, we have multiple videos of hi-5ing and other celebrations after shootings.

    Sorry for veering off, but seems like a tool that might have multiple uses.

  4. michelle on November 3, 2016, 1:53 pm

    more often than not the people who are caught
    or feel caught aren’t crying for any but themselves
    many have yet to learn that
    just as each good act blesses every & all
    each wrong act wrongs every & all
    by His measure we all fall short
    By His Will
    may none of us get what we truely deserve
    G-d Bless

  5. Steve C on November 3, 2016, 4:27 pm

    I had the exact same thought about the similarities in his logic. You’ve expressed it so well.

  6. LarryDerfner on November 4, 2016, 7:51 am

    Why at the end does she single out the “privilege of white Israelis of European background” (Ashkenazi Jews) – when darker-skinned Israelis of Middle Eastern background (Mizrahi Jews) tend to be more nationalistic and anti-Arab than Ashkenazim, and much more so than Shavit?

    • Mooser on November 4, 2016, 12:38 pm

      “when darker-skinned Israelis of Middle Eastern background (Mizrahi Jews) tend to be more nationalistic and anti-Arab than Ashkenazim, “

      Ands receive exactly the same, if not more, benefits and privileges than “Ashkenazim” and “Shavit”?
      Of course they do, everybody knows that! Hasn’t it been plain throughout Zionism’s history?

      • Mooser on November 4, 2016, 2:47 pm

        Well, one privilege the “darker-skinned Israelis of Middle Eastern background (Mizrahi Jews)” will never lose is the privilege of being thrown under the bus when an example of violent Israeli nationalism and “anti-Arab” is needed.
        No doubt it was the Mizrahi who forced the Ashkenazim to take up thopse “nationalistiuc and anti-Arab attitudes (to the small extent to which they appear among the “Ashkenazim”)

  7. smithgp on November 5, 2016, 1:00 am

    At least it’s groping and crying, not groping and justifying. Near the end of his chapter on Lydda, 1948, Shavit writes: “I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the 3rd Battalion soldiers. On the contrary. If need be, I’ll stand by the damned, because I know that if not for them the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them, I would not have been born. They did the filthy work that enables my people, my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live.” A proper parallel to his take on Lydda would have been for him to have consummated his sexual attack, and after describing it in lurid detail conclude: “I will not condemn myself for this assault. It was filthy work, but it enabled me to get my rocks off.”

    Shavit was not always such a hypocritical blowhard. During the first intifada, he published a moving essay in Haaretz (translation published as “On Gaza Beach” in the New York Review of Books in 1991; included essentially intact in My Promised Land) on his tour as a camp guard in a detention camp in Gaza. The writing has almost none of the portentous bombast of his present work. He conveys in simple, direct language the growing horror he felt at what he witnessed and abetted. Needless to say, there was no heartfelt peroration earnestly justifying his country’s or his own actions.

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