Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit (left), author of the bestselling book “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” discusses Jewish affairs with NBC’s David Gregory during a Feb. 4 event at Washington’s American University. (Larry Luxner)
Continued occupation of the West Bank and proliferation of Jewish settlements is causing Israel to lose the “moral high ground” it so desperately needs to guarantee future U.S. political support, visiting Israeli journalist Ari Shavit warned Tuesday during a talk at Washington’s American University.
Shavit, a columnist for Ha’aretz newspaper, was joined onstage at AU’s Katzen Center by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic. Their conversation was moderated by David Gregory of NBC’s Meet the Press.
“I’m very unhappy with the way Israel is, and what it projects,” Shavit told a packed audience of about 220. “I fear inter-Jewish isolation. I don’t want the American Jewish community to withdraw into its own borders, and I don’t want Israel to be alienated from the American Jewish community. These are the two great pillars of world Jewry. What really makes me angry is that for a long time, we’ve seen this alliance between ‘Tea Party Israel’ and ‘Tea Party America.’ This keeps away those progressive and non-Orthodox Jews who need Israel more than anyone else.”
Asked who “Israel Tea Party” refers to, Shavit said “extreme right forces, the settlers and ultra-Orthodox” Jews who comprise a growing percentage of Israel’s population of around 8.1 million. “Israel’s existence depends on the fact that we have the moral high ground. But for decades, we’ve neglected this, using brute force and tainting Israel in a way that endangers it.”
Shavit is author of “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.” The 464-page book currently ranks 18th on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Copies were offered for sale following the hour-long event, which was organized and sponsored by AU’s Center for Israel Studies.
Despite his long association with the Israeli peace movement, Shavit said he is not opposed to the use of force when necessary.
“In many ways, the post-World War II world and definitely the 21st century is a world that’s very averse to the use of power. It’s perceived as weird and strange. But our lesson from Auschwitz was exactly the opposite. We tried this righteous, powerless option for a long time, and it ended with us going up in smoke. So we resolved never to be powerless again. That’s why there is an inherent tension between us and Europe — and not only because there is anti-semitism. The reality is that the use of power every now and then is essential.”
But he added: “Israel today doesn’t have military problems. We have all the F-16s we need. Its main problem is its legitimacy. The way things are, we will not be able to use force — even when it’s justified — because we’ve destroyed our moral position
This is a threat to our national security. If we don’t win hearts and open minds and we don’t reposition ourselves, we will endanger ourselves morally and politically. I’m so angry at the people in Israel who don’t realize this.”
Shavit said he’s “very much pro-diaspora” in that he wants to see American Jews strengthen their own communities rather than make aliyah.
“I do not want you to come to Israel,” he insisted. “The new Zionism should be about strengthening the American Jewish and Israel simultaneously. The old formula about God and the ghetto is not relevant anymore. That stopped working 100 years ago.”
Goldberg, who’s interviewed world leaders ranging from Cuba’s Fidel Castro to Jordan’s King Abdullah, is a former Israel Defense Forces soldier who served as a prison guard during the first intifada, or uprising. He said “it would be ridiculous to sit up here and say the Jewish people couldn’t survive without Israel — we’re good at surviving.”
But he agreed with Shavit that the Jewish state’s continued occupation of the West Bank runs against Israel’s long-term interests.
“One of the tragedies of the settlement movement is that it makes Judaism look small-minded, petty and repressive. That’s dangerous,” he said. “The Israelis can be very myopic. They don’t understand what they’re doing to themselves and their image. A Judaism that is small and petty is not good for the rest of us who think of Judaism as something larger than possessions of a set of hills.”
During the Q&A that followed Shavit’s speech, a young man who identified himself as a senior at AU asked if Israel was “a country in the Middle East that we support as a function of U.S. foreign policy, is it a spiritual homeland, or is it just another place on the map?”
“Yes,” Shavit responded to laughter. “I think Israel is the home of the Jewish people. In many ways, we are still a homeless people. We needed to build that home to guarantee our physical existence. Israel is a unique historical phenomenon. Its existence is the triumph of the human spirit.”
Shavit said he’s shocked by the mood at U.S. college campuses as the anti-Israel divestment movement seems to gain strength. In December, the American Studies Association passed a resolution approving the boycotting of Israeli universities in support of Palestinian self-determination — but the ASA resolution has sparked a loud protest from Jewish students and Israel sympathizers throughout the nation.
“I’ve seen faculty members who find it difficult or even frightening to speak in Israel’s defense,” Shavit said. “Students, Jewish kids who feel intimidated by their professors and even some of their peers, would send me emails that were heartbreaking. I cannot believe that in this day and age, people would experience such intellectual terror.”
Larry Luxner is a freelance writer with The Washington Diplomat and former editor of CubaNews. Born and raised in Miami and now based in Israel, Larry has reported from every country in the Western Hemisphere. His specialty is Latin America and the Middle East, and he’s written more than 2,000 articles for publications ranging from National Journal to Saudi Aramco World. Larry also runs an Internet-based stock photo agency at www.luxner.com.