Ari Shavit, whose recent book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, profiles the Israeli experience, told a Washington audience last week that he fears Israeli and American Jews are retreating into their own worlds.
“I fear inter-Jewish isolation. I don’t want the American Jewish community to withdraw into its own borders, and I don’t want Israel to be alienated from the American Jewish community. These are the two great pillars of world Jewry.”
Shavit, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, was a featured speaker Feb. 4 at American University’s Katzen Center.
Israel’s isolation coincides with a steady loss of the “moral high ground” it so desperately needs to guarantee U.S. political support, he told more than 200 people.
“I’m very unhappy with the way Israel is, and what it projects,” he said. “What really makes me angry is that for a long time, we’ve seen this alliance between ‘tea party Israel’ and ‘tea party America.’ This keeps away those progressive and non-Orthodox Jews who need Israel more than anyone else.”
By tea party Israel, Shavit said he meant “extreme right forces, the settlers and ultra-Orthodox” Jews who constitute a growing percentage of Israel’s population of approximately 8.1 million.
“Israel’s existence depends on the fact that we have the moral high ground,” he said. “But for decades, we’ve neglected this, using brute force and tainting Israel in a way that endangers it.”
Despite his long association with the Israeli peace movement, Shavit said he is not opposed to the use of force when necessary.
“In many ways, the post-World War II world and definitely the 21st century is a world that’s very averse to the use of power,” he said. “It’s perceived as weird and strange. But our lesson from Auschwitz was exactly the opposite. We tried this righteous, powerless option for a long time, and it ended with us going up in smoke. So we resolved never to be powerless again. That’s why there is an inherent tension between us and Europe – and not only because there is anti-Semitism. The reality is that the use of power every now and then is essential.”
But he added: “Israel today doesn’t have military problems. We have all the F-16s we need. Its main problem is its legitimacy. The way things are, we will not be able to use force – even when it’s justified – because we’ve destroyed our moral position. This is a threat to our national security.”
Shavit said he’s “very much pro-Diaspora” in that he wants to see American Jews strengthen their communities rather than make aliyah.
“I do not want you to come to Israel,” he said with insistence. “The new Zionism should be about strengthening the American Jew and Israel simultaneously. The old formula about God and the ghetto is not relevant anymore. That stopped working 100 years ago.”
During the question-and-answer session, an American University student asked Shavit if Israel was “a country in the Middle East that we support [solely] as a function of U.S. foreign policy? Is it a spiritual homeland, or is it just another place on the map?”
“Yes,” Shavit responded to laughter. “I think Israel is the home of the Jewish people. In many ways, we are still a homeless people. We needed to build that home to guarantee our physical existence. Israel is a unique historical phenomenon. Its existence is the triumph of the human spirit.”
Shavit said he’s shocked by the mood on U.S. college campuses as the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement seems to be gaining strength.
“I’ve seen faculty members who find it difficult or even frightening to speak in Israel’s defense,” said Shavit. “Students, Jewish kids who feel intimidated by their professors and even some of their peers, [have] sent me emails that are heartbreaking. I cannot believe that in this day and age, people … experience such intellectual terror.”