Monday, April 14, 2014

A Talk with Ari Shavit

Stewart Kampel for Hadassah magazine

After his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, was published, it sparked popular discussions and Israeli author and journalist Ari Shavit could be seen and heard on myriad talk shows. Here is Stewart Kampel’s conversation with Shavit.

ShavitFor several decades, Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land (Spiegel & Grau), has been a leading journalist and columnist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. He writes in English and Hebrew. Shavit, who is also a commentator on Israel’s public television channel, traces his Israeli roots to his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, a well-to-do British lawyer who led a group of Zionist pilgrims to Palestine from London in 1897. Bentwich was a Cambridge-educated pedagogue who helped develop Israel’s education system after settling in the wine-producing region of Zikhron Ya’akov, and his father was a chemist at the center of Israel’s nuclear program.

Born in Rehovot in 1957, Shavit served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and studied philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Shavit headed the nonprofit Association for Civil Rights in Israel and served as an unofficial spokesman for Israel’s political left. But in 1995, as suicide bombings became a monthly routine in Israel, Shavit broke with the left and wrote columns blasting the Oslo Accords as a “fraud” foisted on Israel by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Today, Shavit is considered a centrist. He is married, has a daughter and two sons and lives in Kfar Shmaryahu.

Q. Your book is getting strong reaction in the United States, from a warm embrace by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, a friend, to misgivings from Jews who believe your “promised land” is off the mark. What is your reaction to the book’s response?
A. What happened during the first week of my book’s publication went beyond anyone’s expectations, beyond my dreams. Four leading American Jewish intellectuals—David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker; Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic; Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic; and Tom Friedman—praised the book with generosity and enthusiasm, even love. It is a remarkable phenomenon. They are menschen, and I am deeply grateful.

Q. And what of the substance of the book?
A. For such a long time, the conversation about Israel has been corrupted by elements of tribalism, hate and gamesmanship, among other things. People who basically love Israel have been frustrated that it did not live up to expectations because of the occupation or ultra-Orthodox influences. This created a deep thirst. What I do in the book is to bring back a deep love of Israel in a realistic way.

Some commentators say that Israel can do no wrong or no right. Let’s relax. Let’s take a step back. Israel is a remarkable phenomenon and deserves our admiration. Because I’m such a committed Zionist, I’m very secure in my loyalty and commitment that I have no problem discussing Israel’s flaws. Zionism tried to create a nation as legitimate as any other nation. I see this as a mission. I want the book to be a launching pad to reach out to the American Jewish community. I want a fresh, new debate.

Q. How do you put the history of Israel in context?

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