The controversial author unravels the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the “inevitable tragedy” at the heart of Zionism.
Photo by Sharon Bareket
Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is a celebration, a lament, and a warning. In the book, already a bestseller only weeks after publication, Shavit examines, without denial or obfuscation, what he calls the “inevitable tragedy” at the heart of Zionism: a movement of orphans that created orphans, a movement of pariahs that created pariahs, a movement that sought refuge from violence yet wrought violence on others. (In this sense, Israel is unique—and not.) In a chapter titled “Lydda, 1948,” which was recently excerpted in The New Yorker, Shavit writes of the Israeli army’s destruction of Palestinian villages during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war—a war that both sides understood as a zero-sum, us-or-them battle. In the town of Lydda, destruction included looting and expulsions—and, most heinously, the massacre of over two hundred civilians in a mosque. “Forty-five years after it came into the Lydda Valley in the name of the Kishinev pogrom, Zionism instigated a human catastrophe in the Lydda Valley.”
This is, Shavit writes, the “black box” of Zionism, in which moral norms and humanist values dissolved. But this does not lead him to renounce Zionism, or to believe that the suicide of Israel as the state of the Jewish people would be a good, much less moral, response. “The Jewish state about to be born would not survive the external battle with the armed forces of the Arab nations if it did not first rid itself of the Palestinian population that endangered it from within,” Shavit writes of the Israeli army’s actions during the war. “If Zionism dies,…Jews will be Jews again”: that is, homeless, hunted, helpless. For him, Lydda represents the “dirty, filthy work that enables my people…to live.” Shavit is, I think, essentially arguing that war crimes can be committed even in the course of a just war. The justness of the war is not erased by such crimes; conversely, the criminality—the barbarism—of the acts in question cannot be mitigated by the justness of the cause. (This is, essentially, the position that members of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress put forth in their petitions for amnesty to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.)
Ari Shavit was born in 1957 in Rehovot, a scientific community; many of its inhabitants—including, Shavit implies, his chemist father—worked on developing Israel’s atom bomb. Shavit’s army service as a paratrooper took him to the occupied Palestinian territories—a traumatic experience that turned him into a dove. He writes, “What the hell was going on, I asked myself. Why was I defending my homeland by tyrannizing civilians who were deprived of their rights and freedom? Why was my Israel occupying and oppressing another people?” He later studied philosophy at Hebrew University, and he is a longtime writer for the liberal-left daily newspaper Haaretz.
My Promised Land does not center only on “the conflict.” Shavit’s range is wide: He explores, among other things, the patient tenacity of the orange growers; the 1950s housing estates filled with immigrants; the building of the atom bomb; the effect on Israelis of the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of Cambodia; the Dionysian spirit of the Tel Aviv dance clubs; and the early—terrifying—life stories of Israeli intellectuals such as historian Zeev Sternhell, jurist Aharon Barak, and novelist Aharon Appelfeld, all of whom survived the Holocaust as children.
Some of Shavit’s harshest criticisms are levelled at the internal dynamics of the Israeli political system, which has, he charges, fragmented into a “disoriented and dysfunctional…bizarre political entity.” He writes, “A movement that got most things right in its early days has gotten almost everything wrong in recent decades.” In Shavit’s view, the continuing occupation of the West Bank—which he regards as an utter disaster—is the result, not the cause, of what he calls “the disintegration of the Israeli republic” into various warring tribes. Indeed, he argues that while Israeli society is far richer than it was in its early, austere, egalitarian days, it is also far weaker—and that this weakness hurts both Israelis and Palestinians. Only a strong state and a united polity, he writes, can end the occupation—the opposite of the argument put forth by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
In the following interview, Shavit advocates what he describes as a gradual drawdown of the occupation—an idea that does not appear in his book, which does not offer policy solutions. His proposal is serious but problematic, for it seems to ignore the lessons of Oslo, which proved that, in the toxic context of Israel and Palestine, gradual programs will be subverted by fanatics (often enthusiastically supported by presumed moderates) on each side and, thus, create even greater mutual distrust, hopelessness, and hatred. Oslo—“a baby unloved by both parents,” in the words of Amos Oz—was followed, it should be recalled, by suicide bombers murdering Israeli children and Holocaust survivors, two decades of new settlements in the West Bank, a humiliating and onerous system of checkpoints, and the emergence of settler-terrorists.
At the end of My Promised Land, Shavit describes contemporary Israel with an intriguing if hardly comforting metaphor: “We are a ragtag cast in an epic motion picture whose plot we do not understand and cannot grasp. The script writer went mad. The director ran away. The producer went bankrupt. But we are still here…The camera is still rolling.” In person Shavit is energetic, articulate, and far more optimistic than his book may suggest to some. (Unless, that is, I am mistaking liveliness for optimism.) He presents a viewpoint—that of a Left-Zionist—that is rarely heard in the U.S., where a large number of supporters of Israel deny its crimes and opponents of Israel deny its right to exist. I spoke to him at a restaurant on the Upper East Side in mid-November, one day before My Promised Land was released.
—Susie Linfield for Guernica
Guernica: You wrote the book in English. Who is your audience?
Ari Shavit: I wrote it as a Jewish Israeli born into the Zionist Left. I felt it was time to ask the basic, fundamental questions. But when the book was emerging, and I began thinking about it also as a book that would be published in this country, I thought of reaching out for progressive Israelis, progressive Americans, progressive American Jews—this was probably my main mission. I’m in an avid dialogue with the Right, but the Right are not my people. I come from this progressive tribe. And I’ve been in pain for a long time, seeing what happened to progressive thinking about Israel in the West.
I think ironically that progressive thinking—in Israel and America and Europe—about Israel became somewhat dogmatic and narrow-minded. It sees some things very clearly like the futility and outrage of occupation, the brutality of the settlements. All that, I totally share. But I think we lost sight of the bigger picture. And I think that ironically this is the reason we [on the Israeli Left] are politically defeated. I think that good things will happen in the Middle East, in Israel, and to American progressive Jewry only if we work together to save a progressive Israel that progressive Americans can have affinity with again.
The terrible things done by the Israeli Right over decades have rightly alienated progressive Americans, progressive Europeans, and progressive Israelis. And I think we should not let that be the case. We should fight the Right, and we should fight the darker Zionist forces while remembering that there are also things to celebrate: that at its base Israel is a wonder and that there is justice [to a Jewish state]. And the fact that this was hijacked, so to speak, by the Right—we should not accept that, and let them have all the blue and white [colors of the Israeli flag], while we become anti-blue and white. I think at the end of the day there should be a Jewish democratic state, and we must fight the mutations, the terrible things that the Right has done to that country. But we should not give up on that nation.
Guernica: I did an interview in Berlin with the German-Israeli historian Dan Diner last spring. And he said that he thought the reason the settlers had become so powerful—although they are a small minority—is that they represent the unconscious desires of the larger Israeli public.
Netanyahu is not the sin, Netanyahu is the punishment.
Ari Shavit: I think exactly the opposite. I’ve said to some of my friends: [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not the sin, Netanyahu is the punishment—for the left of center and the Left’s complete political failure in Israel and regarding Israel in the last thirty years. The majority of Israelis: They’re not doves, they’re not pure liberals, they’re not idealists, they’re not highly moral. But they’re not that crazy, they’re not that brutal, they’re not that chauvinist, and they’re not that conservative. And I think that the success of the Israeli Right in the last generation has been a result of the political and ideological failure of the Left to reinvent itself, to adjust itself to a new reality. No one would dare try to sell a twenty-five-year-old Chevrolet in this country. You cannot go on selling a twenty-five-year-old peace concept which reality proved, time after time, is flawed. Is this progressive thinking?
We [on the Left] are supposed to be open-minded. We’re supposed to lean forward. We’re supposed to rejuvenate and revive ourselves. We are not into dogmas. What you have is the irony of a dogmatic left-wing peace concept that has become irrelevant in so many ways. I totally share these [Left] values! I think we need a life-loving Palestine living by a Jewish democratic Israel. There’s a tragedy inherent to the history of that country, and the only reasonable solution to that tragedy is the imperfect two-state solution. Ideologically, I don’t have any problems with going back to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem, all that.
I was against the settlements from the first moment—since I came of age politically. In 1983, I warned [that we] will reach forty thousand settlers. That’ll be the end of Israel. Now we are [at] nearly four hundred thousand. So I’m adamant about that. But the peace concept that was presented to the Israeli public for years is an unrealistic one. That [is] the reason the Right is winning—and it’s an uncalled-for disaster. The Israelis don’t want the settlements. The settlers use the failure of the Left in order to build settlements.
I have yet to see a legitimate Palestinian leader who is genuinely willing to give up the right of return, or the demand for the right of return.
Guernica: You frequently use the word “tragedy” in the book. Most Americans are optimists—we have no sense of tragedy. So let’s talk about that, because your critique of the peace movement is based on your belief that it denied what you call the existential tragedy that is at the heart of Israel.
Ari Shavit: Let’s talk about my tribe: the Israeli Zionist Left. Because there is the extreme [anti-Zionist] Left, which is a different issue. The [Zionist] Left was absolutely right in seeing the danger of occupation very early. When the country was drunk with a sort of chauvinist, national messianism, they stood against the current. They were realistic. And they were courageous.
But the [Israeli peace activists] were blind to the facts that the Right and the extreme Left were aware of: which is that, for the Palestinians, the main tragedy and formative trauma is 1948 [United Nations partition of Palestine, declaration of the State of Israel, and first Arab-Israeli war], not 1967 [Six-Day War and beginning of Israeli occupation]. They ignored the fact that, although occupation is a problem and settlements are a problem, this is not the core issue. That does not justify settlements and occupation. But the conflict is about Hulda [a Palestinian village conquered and destroyed by the Israeli army after an attack by Palestinians in 1948]. It is not about Ofra [a post-’67 settlement].
I have yet to see a legitimate Palestinian leader who is genuinely willing to give up the right of return, or the demand for the right of return. As far as I know, there was one: [Palestinian academic and activist] Sari Nusseibeh, who stopped saying that. I don’t know of any other. And I think one of the faults of the Israeli Left, and the international Left, is that they turn a blind eye to this. They don’t want to see this.
I’m not saying this is because the Palestinians are criminals or extremists. I understand why, for the Palestinians, it’s so difficult to make this historical reconciliation. But because occupation is killing us, I think we cannot wait for the Palestinians to come round to really recognizing the Jewish democratic state within the ’67 borders. I do not see them right now doing that. [So] the right way is to work on an end-occupation project that will not be part of a peace deal.
It is the crime of the right-wing [Israeli] governments that they don’t even put this [a real peace plan] on the table. It’s a moral imperative for Israel to put such a plan there, to be committed to its implementation once the Palestinians come round. But on the other hand, I would not wait for that [Palestinian agreement] to materialize. We cannot be hostages to that hope. And [so we have] to work on some sort of unilateral approach, coordinated with the Palestinians.
Don’t repeat the Gaza mistake, which was a simplistic, brutal unilateralism: We just go out, we forget about them, we don’t care about them, and we let them rot. And they become Hamas. That was wrong. But if peace is not possible at the moment, and if occupation is immoral and dangerous, let’s deal with occupation although there is not peace. Go for a gradual, cautious, well-calculated [pullout from the West Bank settlements]. I actually believe that in their hearts the Palestinians would love that [option], because it would not force them to make concessions they cannot make.
Look, Israel is very confusing because it seems to be a Goliath, and in some ways it is, when you look at the tanks versus the Palestinian boy. But deep down, when you look at the big map and the big picture and the big history, we are really a David.
Guernica: I think that most people on the American Left—and probably the foreign Left—believe that the end of the occupation would automatically bring peace.
Ari Shavit: These are two separate issues. Combining the two is a mistake.
Occupation is morally wrong. You cannot have—even if people would argue this—something that looks in many ways like a colonialist enterprise at the end of the twentieth century and now in the twenty-first. It’s morally wrong, it’s politically wrong because it taints [Israel] entirely, and even [hurts Israel] in security. It’s wrong in every way. Yet it’s not clear that the perfect peace that we had hoped for is possible.
There are two main issues here. Because the trauma of 1948—of losing more than half of their villages and towns—is the formative trauma of the Palestinians, I do not think they can write a document sealing that [i.e., acknowledging a partition of historic Palestine and the Arab defeat in the 1948 and 1967 wars]. And without them signing that, we cannot go back to the ’67 borders.
Number two, and this is where I’m more critical of the Palestinians and a lot in the Arab world, is that I’m afraid—and this is something perhaps that progressive readers would not like to read, but I urge progressive readers to think progressively—because I think there is an inherent problem in the Arab world [in a refusal] to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, anywhere. I would put it even in a more blunt way: to accept the legitimacy of a non-Arab, non-Islamic state anywhere between Casablanca and Kandahar.
One of the most interesting interviews I did, thirteen years ago, was with Edward Said. It was published in Haaretz. It was a fascinating experience. And at the end of the interview, Edward Said came to say he worries about the Jews living in Israel, because at the end of the day they are a minority [in the region]—and the Middle East is very cruel to minorities. I urge progressive readers to think about that.
Look, Israel is very confusing because it seems to be a Goliath, and in some ways it is, when you look at the tanks versus the Palestinian boy. But deep down, when you look at the big map and the big picture and the big history, we are really a David. We are a David with some megalomaniac [ideas] who thinks he’s huge. But we’re not. At the end of the day, Jews as a people are an endangered species. One cannot overlook this dimension.
The Israeli condition is based on two pillars: occupation [of the Palestinians] and intimidation [by the Arab/Muslim world]. The Left tends to focus only on occupation, just to see the Goliath. The Right sees only victims: “Auschwitz never stopped, they all want to kill us.” The truth is that you have a situation where it’s both intimidation and occupation. And it’s the failure of the Left [that] we don’t address the legitimate fears of so many Israelis who are not right-wingers, but they are fearful. [The first line of Shavit’s book reads, “For as long as I can remember, I remember fear.”]
Guernica: You think that this sort of gradual change would convince the Israeli public to stop the settlements?
Ari Shavit: Again, it’s very difficult. First of all, because of the [Israeli] leadership problem and because the Israeli government became escapist. Because we had good years, with no violence, in a sense we were victims of our success. So Israelis have to wake up. But the way to wake them up is to prove to them that the international community, and mainly America, know what they’re talking about, that they know what the world is about. And if the concept seems credible, seems not detached from reality, then they will listen to it, and—hopefully, nothing promised—they will come round to do something about it. Right now, when what they are presented with is something that seems naive and irrelevant, they just reject it and then we end up with the settlers controlling the country.
So the answer is a non-messianic answer. Anyone who has a simplistic idea about the Middle East, or about the conflict, doesn’t get it—because there are no simple answers. And anyone who is messianic, in a right-wing way or a left-wing way, is wrong too. The way forward is a kind of cautious, commonsense approach—a cautious, humble hope. No fantasies.
Guernica: The world is full of tens of millions of people who have been refugees, who have been displaced. Why is it that the Palestinian trauma is still so active, more than sixty years later? There are ways that trauma and displacement can be, have been, dealt with politically. Why has that not happened in this case?
Ari Shavit: There is no easy answer. Look, obviously the most difficult chapter in my book is the Lydda chapter. Going to the edge of my identity and really looking, seeing the most difficult things my people have done, and really understanding what was done to our Other with total empathy.
Guernica: And not denying it.
Ari Shavit: Exactly. And yet that does not make me an anti-Zionist. One must remember that there were many Lyddas in the twentieth century, there were many things that were much worse than Lydda! And let’s not [even] talk about [the] evil powers. What what was done to the German population in the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia was far worse than Lydda. And they do not linger over this. It would be considered illegitimate! Only right-wing groups, neo-Nazis, would have “right of return” demands. So yes, Palestinians definitely deserve national rights, individual rights, everything. But I think it’s legitimate to demand of them to grow up. There is a tendency in their political culture to be addicted to victimhood. And at the end of the day, with all due respect, the Jews are the ultimate victims of the twentieth century.
And the Jews who came to Israel are amazing proof of how people do not get addicted to their victimhood. They build a future. The Jewish-Zionist revenge was to live. Not to kill, not to commit suicide, and not to keep telling the story [of persecution and loss] over and over again. I wish that the Palestinians would learn from that side of Zionism. Because in this sense, Zionism was remarkable. Here you had the ultimate victims of the twentieth century who were saying, “Let’s move on.” People who came out of the [concentration] camps, and within a year or two got married and made children and sent their kids to schools, and from nothing did something. That’s what the Palestinians should do now. It is my moral commitment and obligation to recognize Lydda, but it’s their commitment to overcome it. In a sense, I did my share, they must do theirs.
Guernica: Actually, you write in your book about the ways in which the Shoah was repressed—denied—in the early years of the state.
Ari Shavit: Which was, again, cruel and unjust for the people at the time. But there was some wisdom in the repression. Because it [the Holocaust] was too much to deal with. Had you sent these people to analysis, to shrinks, they would’ve collapsed. What they experienced was so horrible that the remedy was in action, in moving forward. Only after you build yourself again can you begin to reflect.
Guernica: And yet in contemporary Israel, there seems to be more of an obsession with Auschwitz than there was fifty or sixty years ago. How do you explain that?
Ari Shavit: Part of it is [due to] elements that I do not like: to regain the rights of the victim when you’re not the victim anymore. But I think there is some justification. It [genocide] is something that is impossible to deal with. The kind of trauma we experienced, which is the ultimate trauma: it’s absolutely legitimate for us to still have it within us, especially when it repeats itself. Again, I’m not saying there are Nazis around—but there are people who want to see us gone. It’s not just a memory. We are still a people in danger. And yet I urge us not to get addicted to it. We should remember, it is part of our history, but we should not use it in daily life.
Guernica: And how do you understand the resurgence of religion in Israel? Zionism was originally a rebellion against religion. The term “religious Zionist” would have been seen as an oxymoron fifty years ago.
Ari Shavit: I’m not an anti-religious guy. I live at peace with religious people, although I’m totally secular. But I’ll tell you where the deep misfortune is. Orthodox, and definitely ultra-Orthodox, Jews do not need Zionism and do not need Israel. They can survive very well in Brooklyn, or even Manhattan! They are not endangered. The Zionist project basically is a project designed to save non-Orthodox Jewish civilization. To save the Jews physically, first of all—from pogroms, from Holocaust—but not less than that, to save non-Orthodox Jewish civilization. Now the irony is that because large parts of it [Israel] were taken [in recent years] by the Orthodox, it’s less of a haven for non-Orthodox Jewish civilization. So ironically, the people who do not need Israel are gradually taking over Israel, and they’re actually pushing out people who so need it.
Guernica: One of the original ideas of Zionism was to create a “normal” country. Yet you criticize the Israeli peace movement for having become “besotted with the illusion of normalcy.” Is it the fate of the Jewish people to never be normal? And if so, what does that mean?
Ari Shavit: [laughs] I’m not deterministic. But basically, yeah, Jews cannot be normal. I’m not saying it’s in our genes. I am saying this is our biography. I have all the respect in the world for Holland and Bulgaria, but this [Israel] is not Holland or Bulgaria. This is an old-new country, an old-new nation, it’s an invention, an artificial project on the one hand, and yet with very deep biblical roots. That doesn’t make it righteous. It has so many flaws, and there are sins built into it, like in a great Shakespeare drama. I don’t expect very happy endings, but I really want to prevent the bad ending.
But beyond that, I think that Zionism and the international community drew opposite conclusions from Auschwitz. Zionism said, “Never again”—because we [Jews] were moral and righteous but powerless for a millennia, and look what happened. But much of the international community said, “We do not want to see any use of power, anywhere; our new religion is human rights and we do not recognize historical events that are messy and bloody.” So we moved, in order to save ourselves, [into] a kind of history that the West altogether rejects. Europe, because it’s running away from its colonial past, rejects any friction with the Third World. And America, with human rights built into it… So there is an inherent tension between where the West went, and where we [Israelis] went. And yet Zionism is all about inner contradictions and how to turn them into a fertile force. Don’t be afraid of them, recognize them, turn them into creation, not into negation.
Guernica: In the book you say Israel is caught in a kind of Catch-22: The occupation will destroy Israel, but to withdraw from the occupation might lead to a Hamas West Bank—which would aim to destroy Israel.
Avi Sharit: Absolutely. And yet I think we should take the risk. At the end of the day I would say it [the pullout from Gaza] was the right thing. Because we can deal with the rockets. We cannot deal with the demography [i.e., Israel becoming a majority-Arab state if the occupation continues] and the immorality [of occupation]. But this is where we should have a real partnership with the international community. We’ll be taking risks, but they cannot be existential ones.