‘Gloomy’ Israeli scribe has cause to smile
Ari Shavit defends ‘most intimidated democracy on the face of the earth’
Introducing Ari Shavit to the Green Brook Country Club Book Club, Irwin Cohen described the Israeli journalist’s best-selling book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, as brilliant and depressing. A number of audience members also said they had found it very disturbing.
But, speaking at the event in North Caldwell on June 7, Shavit surprised the crowd. He declared, “Actually, I’m not in a gloomy mood.”
Shavit, 58, a columnist for Ha’aretz and a leading commentator on Israeli public television, was the keynote speaker at the second event of the book club’s 2015 season. About 400 people crowded the banquet room for the lunch, talk, and Q&A.
He acknowledged that he depicted Israel as being in deep trouble. Though more powerful economically and militarily than ever before, he said, the country is contending not only with a resurgent antagonism from Europe, but also a loss of coherence within.
So what has produced this fresh glimmer of hopefulness, despite last summer’s Gaza conflict and the outcome of the recent Israeli elections? The writer, describing Israel as “an underdog on steroids” and Israelis as “loud, neurotic, and usually late,” pointed out that despite being “the most intimidated democracy on the face of the earth,” Israel has been rated the 11th-happiest country in the world.
Before starting the book, he was warned not to do it. “People said there is such a deep Israel fatigue,” Shavit said, “but I had a deep personal need to decipher Israel for myself. I’m a journalist and I have good access to information, and even I don’t know what’s going on. I needed to step back — like the villager who goes up on the hill to get a different perspective.”
What he saw was “a young and very fragile country” that has lost “the narrative” that held it together. The process began, he said, “on the seventh day of the Six-Day War.” From being “too self-confident, Israelis have become too self-critical, too cynical,” he said.
But Israelis, he stressed, “are not angels or demons. We did — and do — wrong things, but we are definitely not demons, and anyone who demonizes us has serious, serious moral or mental problems. But we are human with an extraordinary human story.” He wrote the book to help his fellow Israelis and people across the world see the country as “an extraordinary human endeavor, for better or worse.”
Among the bright spots are new possibilities created by women, “who are especially important as agents of change,” and some young haredim, fervently Orthodox Jews, “who are open-minded and want to join the world.”
As relatively upbeat as he was about Israel and positively buoyant about Jewish life in the United States in general — especially the country club version, he joked — Shavit sounded a note of warning about the future. While visiting 27 college campuses this year, he encountered idealistic young Jews finding it harder to identify with Israel.
He has made it his mission, he said, to give them a perspective with which they can engage those attacking Israel, and them, and which goes beyond the “cliches of loving or hating” the country.
First of all, Shavit told the audience, there has to be communication like this. “There is nothing more important than that there be deep, candid, hopefully intelligent communication between us,” he said. And, despite all the conflict, such communication is occurring — not just with people in the Diaspora, but also within Israel, between Jewish groups that at times have seemed increasingly closed off from one another. And, he said, that is what gives him hope.