During an event at the Sydney writer’s festival last month, Israeli writer and author Ari Shavit told a packed auditorium that his country was “an oasis in the Middle East”. He explained to the audience, who largely appreciated his words despite some grumblings when he condemned the occupation of the Palestinian territories, that “the Zionist revolution is a phenomenal success”.
Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, has received plaudits from the cream of the liberal, American, political elite. Even former Israeli prime minister and defence minister Ehud Barak writes on the back cover that Shavit “is being brutally honest regarding the Zionist enterprise”.
The book attempts to challenge Zionist myths. One of the more celebrated chapters revolves around Shavit’s recounting of Israeli forces driving the Arab residents from the Palestinian town of Lydda in 1948. He doesn’t shy away from explaining the violence inflicted but then writes that, “I know that if it wasn’t for them [the militias], the State of Israel would not have been born … They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”
During an exclusive and extensive conversation with Shavit, he tells me that despite decades of conflict and negotiation the “only solution is the two-state solution”.
He continues: “It is the moral and political duty of every Israeli prime minister to try to achieve the two-state solution. Because I have some doubts if this final status peace agreement can be signed today, the next step should be trying to create two-state dynamics that will lead to a two-state solution. We must end the occupation for sure, which if it can’t be done in these circumstances immediately must be done gradually by a settlement freeze and then a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.”
Shavit also believes that the Palestinians have a responsibility to build a viable state of their own. They “should use whatever land liberated for them in order to have development projects and rebuild a new kind of Palestinian reality,” he says. “You then have Israel moving forward, what I call a nation saving project that ends the occupation, while Palestinians are going into a nation building process to hopefully build a democratic, life-loving Palestine.”
On the first page of My Promised Land, Shavit writes that, “as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” I ask him if he still feels that way in the 21st century, as a man in his late 50s. He does. “Although Israel seems to be strong, politically, economically and militarily, at the same time we are intimidated. The two pillars of Israel’s existence are occupation and intimidation and there is a tendency on the Left to see occupation and overlook intimidation and on the Right to focus on intimidation and overlook occupation. Both are there and both are unacceptable.
“Peace-loving people around the world should also address that Israel’s security concerns are not just an issue for generals and strategic experts, or because of Jewish neurosis and our history, but we’re intimidated because of Iran and brutal, violent forces in the region such as Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamist forces in Syria.”
My Promised Land hasn’t received universal praise. American historian Norman Finkelstein just released an entire book, Old Wine, Broken Bottle, debunking the book. Others condemn Shavit’s many writings advocating violence against Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.
Independent Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf, writing in +972 Magazine, sees the work as the “Zionist story, retold by the elite, for the elite”. Sheizaf attacks “the intellectualisation of violence – and ultimately, murder – [as] a central theme with elites in the US and Israel, due to the inherent contradiction between their values and the massive implementation of military force they often pursue.”
Sheizaf condemns Shavit for obsessively focusing on powerful Ashkenazi, Jewish men with the almost complete exclusion of Mizrahi Jews, another large and influential section of Israeli society. “Every social or political group remains the object of the same view”, the reviewer concludes, “deprived of an existence that stretches beyond the role it plays in the Ashkenazi elite’s drama.” Furthermore, Sheizaf wonders about the lack of women in Shavit’s narrative.
Shavit counters these critics not by responding directly to them but by telling me that he refuses to accept that Israel, of all nations “with a past” such as Australia, should not be welcomed. He argues that it can’t be that “liberal Americans, liberal Canadians, liberal Australians and liberal New Zealanders will say that of all the peoples in the world, Israel is the only one that is sinful and morally wrong. Most nations, if not all nations, have skeletons in their past and I thought it was my moral duty to address the side that many Zionists and Israelis do not address. But to take that out of context and not see the larger tragedy of Jewish history and the larger impressive and sometimes even heroic parts of Israeli and Zionist history, that’s wrong.”
What does the success of Shavit’s book in the US reflect about the current climate towards the Jewish state? The author tells me that, “I think there are many people who have an issue with Israel’s present policy, mainly occupation and settlements, and yet they have a sense that there is a need to have Israel, that Israel is legitimate, just and a necessary entity.”
I ask Shavit about the growing global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, which the author strongly rejects. “The only way to win the battle within Israel [against Jewish extremism] is to have a strong sense that the international community will stand by Israel,” Shavit says to me, “totally accepts Israel’s legitimacy, and will stand by it post occupation.
“If people are not Israel haters and are into really ending the occupation in a reasonable way, the policy should be the exact opposite of BDS. Go to Israelis, hug them, promise them love and support once they do the right thing and demand of them to do the right thing. Right now so many Israelis have deep suspicions whether this kind of [BDS] pressure will end the moment they end the occupation.”
During Shavit’s Sydney writers’ festival event, he continually claimed that, “Israel is not settlers or soldiers” and yet the occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank has been a fact for nearly 50 years. Although he wants to “avoid the blame game” – he praises pro-settlement, Zionist lobbyists around the world because “I’m not ashamed that we have some organisations speaking up for the Jewish minority” – he’s aware that there is growing global impatience with maintaining the status quo.
Ultimately, Shavit fears the “cancer eating Israel from within” and tells me that, “we cannot survive another decade with the suicidal ways in which Israel is building more settlements”. But he has some hope that “a realistic peace concept, rather than a utopian one” can appear to convince the majority of Israelis that “they must act to save Israel from occupation”.