“Usually when I speak, I have to open by telling people that Israelis are neither angels nor devils. But at Yale, I am Superman,” began Ari Shavit, the Haaretz journalist who dramatically shifted the dialogue on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict last year with his book, My Promised Land. On Monday, he spoke at the Law School about the prospect of peace in the Middle East, merging stirring oratory with a no-nonsense evaluation of the cultural, historical, and geopolitical realities of the region.
The most distinct element of Shavit’s presentation was his ability to separate dogma from reality. He is an ardent proponent of what he calls “liberal Zionism,” which champions the imperative of a homeland for the Jewish people to foster cultural growth and a common identity. Yet his brand of Zionism diverges radically from the ideology of the ultra-Orthodox, religious fundamentalist minority population that has seized control of the political elite in Israel. By Shavit’s assessment, “Orthodox Jews don’t need Israel. They’ll be OK in their ghettos. The whole point of establishing the Jewish democratic state is to deal with the challenges that Jews face in the modern era.”
As the summer proved, Israel faces a multitude of modern challenges. First, Iran. Shavit urged American leadership to focus on a long-term strategy for the Middle East, not one constantly fractured by the spirit of the day. Following 9/11, US strategy has shifted from an attempt to fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, to a dream of bringing “Jeffersonian democracy to Iraq,” to fatigue and isolationism resulting from the drawn-out nature of those conflicts. But running away from the Middle East won’t work, as the horrifying execution of an American journalist by ISIS proved. But if ISIS served as a reminder, Shavit urged that it not distract US policymakers from preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb. An Iranian bomb would set off a domino effect in the Middle East as countries from Saudi Arabia to Egypt would pursue their own, forcing Israel to abandon its responsible nuclear policy. But his hardliner recognition of geopolitical realities does not make him a hawk. Shavit staunchly opposes any military solution, and urges diplomacy as the only way forward.
Next, he recognized the challenge posed by Israel’s Arab neighbors. The Arab Spring left moderates to choose between military dictatorships and oppressive theocracies, resulting in a “terrible human catastrophe all around Israel.”
Third, Palestine. Shavit unapologetically advanced his view of a two-state solution. He sees settlements as an unjust Israeli intrusion antithetical to any long-term peace. While arousing sympathy for Israelis as he described the unbridled fear his son experienced when the “sirens began to howl” in July, he expressed equal, if not more consideration for the terror that occupation has brought on Gaza’s civilian population. Yet if the rhetoric seemed familiar, the solutions did not. Shavit pointed to the repeated failure of attempts at a traditional peace, whereby parties are brought together to negotiate. Instead, he called on the Israeli government to take unilateral steps of good faith, including the institution of a Marshall plan for economic recovery in Gaza. The peace going forward need not be a formal peace, but could take the form of a de facto one: the terms need not be spelled out in a treaty, but rather be mutually agreed upon by both parties. However, Shavit did not take the position of a hopeless idealist. He recognized the Catch-22 that ties the hands of the Israeli government: Hamas, a “fascist organization,” targets Israel’s civilian population and hides behind its own, with the knowledge that Israel cannot use its military power, and if it does, it “ends up in the Hague.” But the way to effect change is for the people of Gaza to rise up against Hamas, and that can only happen if they see a glimmer of hope. Israel has to be the actor to provide that hope.
Lastly, he discussed the dangers that Israelis face from the wave of latent anti-Semitism that reared its head throughout Europe over the summer. Israel has to maintain the moral high ground and always be actively seeking avenues of peace to ease the tide of hate that threatens to wash over Jews worldwide.
Despite the challenges, Shavit remains optimistic. “I believe that most Israelis are moderate – they want Israel to look like Southern California.” If the moderate majority can find their voice, then peace will be possible going forward. But it will require constant and close cooperation between the world’s liberal democracies, from Israel to the United States to European nations that have sometimes abandoned Israel in times of need.
Overall, Shavit articulated what I believe to be the most reasonable position of Israel. Too often, people who are critical of Israeli policies peg themselves as anti-Israeli in a way that no one critical of US policymakers would characterize themselves as anti-American. For some reason, the prevailing paradigm dictates that the legitimacy of the Israeli state hangs in the balance, swayed by the actions of its leaders and nothing else. Criticism of Israel becomes condemnation of Zionism, and any defense is strawmanned as hawkish extremism. Shavit separates Israel as a cultural and idealistic entity from Israel’s public policy by lauding the former and sharply criticizing the latter. Peace is possible, but it can only come once the liberal ideals of a Jewish homeland are realized.