By Peggy McInerny
International Institute, February 19, 2014 —
Speaking at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on February 12, renowned Israeli columnist and author Ari Shavit defended the Zionist ideal and celebrated Israel’s remarkable achievements, including its very existence, its revival of the Hebrew language and its colorful and vital society. The Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies
event was cosponsored by Hillel at UCLA
Yet intimidation remains an essential part of Israel’s experience, making it “the most endangered nation on the face of the earth,” said Shavit. He traced the precariousness of Israel’s existence to fundamental tensions between Jews and Muslims; between the Israeli nation state and the Arab world surrounding it; and between Israelis and Palestinians, who are fighting for the same land.
“The conflict between us and the Palestinians is not only about occupation and settlements,” he commented, “but a deep, deep conflict that has religious and historical and social dimensions that [make it] difficult to solve. And it creates an ongoing burden on our existence and makes us an endangered nation."
To guarantee the future of the Jewish people, Shavit called on Israel to return to early Zionism’s imaginative and determined spirit and address its present-day challenges with a renewed sense of realism.
Equally important, Israel needs to reach out to American Jews, especially young progressive Jews, to renew the Israeli-American Jewish alliance on the basis of shared values. “We must make it clear in our behavior that we really mean it about a Jewish democratic state,” insisted the speaker.
A new narrative of Israel
A polished and thoughtful speaker, Shavit said he wrote his book for two reasons: to satisfy a personal, existential need to “decipher” Israel and to address the totality of what he called the “Israel condition.”
“What I wanted to write is a book that would bring the Israel story back to the human level,” he said; the deeply personal story begins with the arrival of his great-grandfather in the port of Jaffa in 1897.
Shavit claimed that as Israel became stronger over time, it began to lose its national narrative. First, the Six Day War of 1967 (and ensuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip) split Israel’s national narrative, which had previously been imbued with the ethos of “the besieged and the just” (the words of Israeli poet Haim Gouri ).
Second, Israelis have become increasingly cynical about themselves, especially in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. And third, the great loss of life in the war, and subsequent disappearance of the country’s “ancien régime” (the Zionist founding generation of Israel), made the war the equivalent of World War I for Israeli society.
Seeds of the present planted at creation
Shavit dismissed criticisms of Zionism as a force of imperialism or colonialism, saying the Jews rightfully returned to their homeland. He lauded the prescience of the Zionists, who in the 1890s understood that an emerging nation- and ethnic-based anti-Semitism would make Europe “a death trap for Jews.”
Schoenberg Hall was virtually filled for the February 12th lecture. (Photo: Todd Cheney/UCLA).
The creation of a Jewish state was the Zionists’ courageous and imaginative response to a perceived threat that was historically borne out in the twentieth century, he argued. And they succeeded in creating what has become today, he said, “one of the world’s most amazing, robust, free societies.”
Not only did the Zionists set out to save the Jewish people by transferring them from one continent to another, they understood that a Jewish state was needed as “a powerhouse for a non-Orthodox Jewish identity” in the modern era.
The very fact of Israel’s existence — its successes, the fact that it has endured against all odds — is “proof of the deep need to have Israel exist,” asserted Shavit.
The speaker acknowledged that the creation of Israel involved a tragedy: the failure of early Zionists to recognize the Arabs in Palestine as a people and their right to also live on the land. In fact, he depicted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as essentially a conflict between two people who refuse to see and acknowledge each other.
Questioned why his book addresses the massacre of Arabs by Zionist forces in Lydda in 1948, Shavit said he felt it was important to acknowledge this part of Israeli history. He noted that Palestinian identity — which did not yet exist at the time — is shaped by the trauma of 1948. “It is so important to realize that this is their tragedy, their pain, their concern,” he emphasized, “and you have to deal with it.”
Yet Shavit refused to accept that Lydda, and the Zionists’ failure to see “their other,” cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Jewish state. “What I say is that it is my moral to duty acknowledge Lydda and it is the Palestinians’ duty to overcome it,” he asserted.
Jews, he pointed out, did not become suicide bombers because of the Holocaust. “We chose life, we built a country, we did not choose victimhood,” he said, contending the Palestinians must now do the same. “[W]e respect their past, we respect their pain, we know it’s there, but we demand of them not to be addicted to it and to move on. This is the only way, to my mind, to achieve peace,” said Shavit.
“While we do live on the edge. . . we’ve not become passive, or pessimistic, or sad, or depressed,” he commented. “On the contrary, what you see in Israel is the amazing phenomenon of people who are dealing with their challenged condition in a kind of heroic, civilian way.”
To hold Israeli society together and resolve its political dysfunctions, however, Shavit said its people must forge a new political deal among themselves to replace what he called a celebration of diversity amid political impotence.
Occupation and the prospects for peace
Shavit condemned Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and urged the country to end it. “But,” he said, “we must see the situation in context.” Most Israelis want peace, he continued, but all four previous attempts to negotiate a peace failed and those failures were followed by horrific violence against Israel.
And, since the late 1980s, Israel has gone farther in recognizing the Palestinians as a people and their right to a state than vice-versa. Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish people and their right to a Jewish national state in the Holy Land is both just and reasonable, said Shavit. “If I’m not willing to shake your hand, if I’m not willing to call you by your family name, what kind of peace is it?” he asked.
Although he wholeheartedly supports the current peace negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Shavit warned that Kerry’s effort to save the two-state solution could end by destroying it. He predicted that if peace negotiations fail yet again and there is no contingency plan to fall back on, both the Palestinians and the Israelis would feel betrayed.
Accordingly, he urged the development of a “Plan B” that would enable both sides to move forward without a complete resolution of the conflict. Policies that would enable an interim “two-state state” would, he argued, give the Palestinians time to go through a process of state building and Israel the time to go through a process of state saving (i.e., ending the occupation).
In this scenario, as Israel froze the settlements beyond the blocs and took steps to withdraw from the West Bank, the Palestinians would build new and vibrant towns. Time is needed for both processes, particularly as Shavit noted it would be very difficult for Israel to deal with the settlements in one stroke. Then, when both parties were, in his words, “more relaxed and more mature,” they could conclude a peace agreement.
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