Jewish Journal

Ari Shavit: The promised man

by Rob Eshman

Posted on Feb. 20, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit

If you want to see what prophecy looks like among Jews in the early part of the 21st century, follow Ari Shavit around Los Angeles.

In Jerusalem, the prophets roam the streets in sack cloths and shaggy hair, screaming passages of Ezekiel at passersby. In L.A., we call those people “homeless.”

Shavit, who came to Los Angeles last week for a talk at UCLA to promote his New York Times best-seller, “My Promised Land,” is calmer.

He is a middle-aged Tel Avivian, with close-cropped black hair and a heavy brow. At all of his appearances, he wore dark slacks and a dark blazer over an open-collared blue and white striped shirt, and spoke mellifluous English with a charming Hebrew accent.

And the people came. The night after he arrived, Shavit was feted by Haim and Cheryl Saban, TV producer/writer Howard Gordon and agent Rick Rosen with a book party at the Saban’s home.  About 70 invited guests gathered on a tented patio as waiters passed oysters on the half shell and tuna tartare from Chinois.

Shavit, Gordon said in his introduction, is the epitome of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

[Related: The failed promise of "My Promised Land"]

Indeed, “My Promised Land,” revels in competing narratives and clashing ideas. In it, Shavit interweaves his family history with the modern history of his native land. The grandson of a famous English Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in 1897, Shavit was a parachuter in the IDF, a Peace Now activist and is now a journalist for Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli daily. He reports on Israel’s main challenges by telling the story of the people behind them: Palestinians, soldiers, peaceniks, settlers, entrepreneurs, activists.

The central problem for achieving peace, Shavit told the audience at the Saban home, is that the heroic Zionist story that created Israel and helped it flourish has, beginning with the 1967 Six-Day War, fractured and grown infinitely more complex.

“We’ve lost the narrative,” he said. “The stronger the country became, the weaker the narrative got.”

The next afternoon, Shavit spoke to a class of UCLA students, then, later that evening, to a packed crowd of some 500 people at Schoenberg Hall at UCLA in a talk sponsored by The Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. 

Shavit reiterated the importance of recapturing the story behind Israel, and again held forth on its profound contradictions.

Israel is a country of great vitality and achievement riven by internal strife. It’s a Jewish state in the midst of the Arab world. It’s a liberal democracy and an occupying power. It is consumerist and banal, and yet vibrant and sexy. 

(Shavit, I noticed, used the word “sexy” a lot — nine times in his book, and frequently in his talks.)  Even prophets need a hook.

We shared the stage after his Nazarian Center talk, and I pressed him on a few of these points.

How does he convince college students enamored with the BDS movement that a Jewish democratic state is not an inherent contradiction?

“The one-state solution is a beautiful poison apple,” Shavit said. He said he has long supported the idea that Palestinians should officially recognize Israel as a Jewish state — though he would still sign a peace treaty without that recognition.

If you want to see an example of a bi-national state in the Middle East, he warned, “just look at Syria.”

Israel and its American Jewish supporters, he said, have to help students understand how Israel fits into their world view, which speaks the language of universalism and human rights.

“There’s nothing further from Martin Luther King Jr. than the BDS movement,” he stressed. “It is so aggressive, so intolerant — it’s an attempt not to have dialogue.”

Shavit earned a huge ovation and ended the night with another private, well-heeled crowd at the Nazarian home in Bel Air. 

The fact that Shavit kept drawing such large and impressive audiences — he also spoke to 500 people at the Skirball Cultural Center just two months ago — says a lot about how we Jews are eager, desperate even, for someone with insights into the mess in the Middle East and Israel.

It also says a lot about Shavit’s book. Like Amos Oz’s “In the Land of Israel” published 30 years ago, Shavit is a tour guide into the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. By allowing all the contradictory and combative voices of Israel to speak, Shavit earned the right to add his own voice. His prophetic idea is not just to exhort, but to listen. 

“I want you to be engaged in any part of Israel you identify with, and I want Israelis to get engaged in any part of the American Jewish community they identify with,” Shavit said, summing up what he believes must happen.

“We are all committed to tikkun olam,” he said, using the Hebrew term for “repairing the world.” 

“We should all be committed to tikkun Israel.”

Now that’s sexy. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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