Author Ari Shavit called for a new Zionist “narrative” in a Jan. 20 talk cosponsored by the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University and Hillel International.
“One of the main problems we have in Israel and with people talking about Israel is the fact that we have lost the Israel narrative,” said the Ha’aretz columnist and author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.
Through the Six-Day War, he said, “We had a strong sense of who we are, what we must accomplish, and why, before we had anything else, a state or an army.”
But over the last 30 to 40 years, the narrative has disintegrated “because of the seventh day following the Six-Day War — the debate over the territories cracked the sense that we had before of being the just and the besieged,” he said.
About 150 people attended Shavit’s talk at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, part of a 28-campus tour by an author whose book has proved uncomfortable reading for Israel supporters both on the Left and the Right.
In his talk, Shavit described the book as an antidote for critics who can’t see past Israel’s flaws, and supporters who can’t admit its mistakes.
“We have become cynical regarding our own nation,” Shavit said. “If before we were too confident, too sure of ourselves, now we are too judgmental, and we have lost the ability to see the wonder of what Israel is.
“What I have tried to do in the book,” he said, “was to bring back that sense of wonder — but I wanted to as well go beyond the usual polemics, that Israel can do no wrong, or no right, and to look at the complexity that is the basis of our existence.”
The triumph and the tragedy have been hand in hand since the late 19th century, he said. The triumph was the recognition that Europe was becoming a death trap for Jews and the radical solution of getting land, building a nation, and reviving the Hebrew language.
But, he continued, the early idealism was accompanied by “the inability to see our own other. There was no Palestinian republic, no kingdom we conquered — the Palestinian people defined themselves as a people decades later. But there were other people there, and because of our desperate need to have the land, we would not see them.”
The wonder of Israel also lay in the impressive leadership and statesmanship early on. “They knew the world was a tough place but also knew we were Jews and therefore must be moral and must have justice and morality as part of our political system,” Shavit said.
“The returning Zionists exhibited political and social creativity in the form of the kibbutz, moshav, Histadrut, and Kupat Holim,” he continued, “and Israelis developed the life-loving spirit and sense of humor that has gotten them through difficulties and is the wellspring of innovation and creativity in high-tech, arts, science, human relations, and the driving force in establishing this robust, free society, that is so energetic.”
But the creativity is challenged by the external stresses with the Islamic and Arab worlds and the Palestinian conflict. “Because of these tensions no Israeli knows what the future will hold,” Shavit said. “No one in this hall has any doubt of whether America will be here in 20 years’ time; in Israel we don’t know. We don’t talk about it — it is taboo — but it defines Israelis’ existential condition.”
‘A silent killer’
Shavit raised the issue of Iran potentially going nuclear and bringing other countries with it, suggesting “assertive, creative, sophisticated diplomacy” in response. At the same time, as the old order melts away in Arab countries, extremism and tribalism is taking its place, along with moderate Arabs who don’t like Israel but realize that Israel is a reliable neighbor.
The only solution to the Palestinian conflict is a two-state solution. “The current situation demographically, politically, and morally damages Israel,” he said. “The occupation is a silent killer that is endangering us and even killing us while we ignore it.”
“If we can’t solve Jerusalem and the right of return,” he continued, “let’s do something on the ground even if we can’t reach the final destination right now. We must keep a two-state option and let the Palestinians have as much of a state as possible, even without having a final-status agreement signed.”
Shavit suggested that recently many moderate Israelis are rejecting the extremism that arose during the most recent Gaza War, and he hopes the elections will bring a government “somewhat better” than the current one.
“If the Gaza War pushed Israel to the right because it was traumatized, these extremist right-wingers overplayed their hands,” he said. “We are seeing people who do not want to have this kind of Israel…[and] find the phenomenon of xenophobic, racist, and extremist ideas unappealing.”
Shavit was introduced by CJL executive director Rabbi Julie Roth and the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer.
Roth said the goal of the event “is to bridge the divide between narratives, generations, and viewpoints.”
“At a time when we have just gone through a very traumatic year about events in Israel, and the discussion is very polar[ized], Shavit is a model who can talk in a ‘gam zeh and gam zeh — this and this — way.’”