Ari Shavit, author of the controversial best-seller My Promised Land, told an audience at Drew University in Madison that Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank “is a cancer that is killing us from within.”
The senior correspondent at the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz focused on solutions to current tensions between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors for more than half of his 80-minute speech.
He said Israel’s control of the West Bank “endangers us more than anything else because it undermines our legitimacy…. The greatest need in my mind is to change the conversation and to prove to Israelis that this project is an anti-Zionist project, and therefore in my mind — peace or no peace — the greatest Zionist project in the 21st century is ending the occupation in a reasonable, conscious way.”
Shavit was the guest speaker at the Shirley Sugerman Interfaith Forum, established in 1991 and endowed by Drew trustee emerita Shirley Sugerman and other donors. The talk was held under the auspices of Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict.
Shavit’s book, subtitled The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, has been variously celebrated and panned for its warts-and-all history of Israel. In his address, as in the book, he juggled talk of Israel’s accomplishments, mistakes made by its policy makers, and threats from its enemies.
“While on one hand Israel is an occupier nation — something that must change — on the other hand, Israel is an intimidated nation. Both occupation and intimidation are the pillars of our existence,” he told several hundred people in the Dorothy Young Center’s crowded concert hall.
“The tendency of the Right is only to focus on intimidation. The tendency of the Left is to only emphasize occupation. But the truth is you cannot separate them. You have to deal with both,” he said.
Waving his arms at the audience, Shavit said, “No one in this room has any doubts whether America will be here in 100 years’ time. It might be a superpower. It might be just a power. But it will be here. No Israeli knows whether Israel will be here in 100 years’ time. We don’t say it aloud. We don’t speak about it. It’s a taboo. But everybody is aware of it.”
‘Most painful chapter’
He called his book a “journey” informed by his various careers as a student, soldier, peace activist, and journalist. He said he was determined to write a book “that tries to deal in a personal, deep manner with the overall Israeli condition.”
Referring to what many consider the most controversial portion of his narrative, Shavit said the conquest of Lydda — where Israelis were responsible for the expulsion of 50,000-70,000 Palestinians in July of 1948 — “was the chapter that was most painful to write. This was indeed my attempt to write about what I describe as ‘our black box’ — this history you do not want to know about or want to remember…. I had to address the fact that some of my own people found themselves carrying out very brutal actions.”
Adding that “it was important to put Lydda in context,” Shavit said, “in that terrible civil war, whenever Arab forces won, not one single Jew remained…. It is not that we were just some conqueror and the Palestinians were innocent victims. It was a brutal war between two peoples who found themselves in a cruel fight for life and death.”
Saying he was “cautious” about criticizing the United States, Shavit argued nonetheless that “Hiroshima was 1,000 [times] worse than Lydda.”
In describing the Jews who made aliya after World War II, Shavit implicitly compared them with Israel’s enemies.
“They were refugees from the Arab world, and they were survivors. So many of them were human wrecks. So many of them had nightmares. And yet, they did not become suicide bombers,” he said. “Their revenge was to live. Their revenge was to send their kids to school.
“Under incredible conditions they created a health system somewhat better than yours,” he added, drawing laughter.
Even as he expressed a fervent hope that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts will succeed, Shavit called for “an alternative Plan B.”
His plan would be based on two processes short of a signed agreement: “the Palestinians going to a nation-building process while Israelis go for a nation-saving process of ending occupation. But you cannot do it overnight. It must be a gradual process where we deal with our phase, which is occupation, while they deal with their phase, which is a negative political ethos.”
Shavit saw a “positive note” in observing that “the moderate Arabs actually see Israel as the lesser of evils…. They are so afraid of Iran and so afraid of the Islamic Brotherhood, and regretfully they have lost their confidence in American and Western leadership.
“They see the potential of a strategic alliance between the many moderates in the Sunni Arab nations and Israel.”