Interview: Ari Shavit, Author Of 'My Promised Land' Journalist Ari Shavit says Israel must find a way to reconcile its democratic values with the reality of everyday life there. His new book draws from interviews with hundreds of Israelis — both Jews and Arabs — as well as his military experience and Zionist family history.
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'Promised Land' Wrestles With Israel's Brutal Contradictions

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'Promised Land' Wrestles With Israel's Brutal Contradictions

'Promised Land' Wrestles With Israel's Brutal Contradictions

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In his new book "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel," journalist Ari Shavit grapples with several basic questions. Why was Israel created? What has it achieved? What went wrong there? Where is it heading? And will it survive?

The book is based on interviews with hundreds of Israelis - Jews and Arabs - as well as Shavit's family history and his own story. Shavit's great grandfathers became Zionists in the last 1800s. Shavit was born in 1957. Serving in the Israel army in the occupied territories left him morally outraged and turned him into a peace and human rights activist.

But he writes that there are no simple answers in the Middle East, which is why he prides himself on challenging what he describes as both right-wing and left-wing dogmas. Ari Shavit is a columnist for Israel's leading liberal newspaper, Haaretz, and a commentator on Israeli Public Television. Ari Shavit, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Let's start with a little bit about your family. Both of your great grandfathers were Zionists, and you describe one of them, Herbert Bentwich, as going to Palestine in 1897 and thinking that the Jewish people really needed a homeland and a homeland there. But you say he didn't see the Palestinians. And in 1897 there were half-a-million Arabs, Bedouins and Druze in Palestine. There were 27 cities and towns and hundreds of villages. And you ask yourself, how could he not have noticed them? Why is that such a significant question for you to ask?

ARI SHAVIT: Because this is where the triumph and tragedy of Israel begins. My great grandfather was one of the founders of Zionism in Britain. He preceded Herzl, knew Herzl well. He arrives as a pilgrim in the Port of Jaffa in April 1897, just a few months before the First Zionist Congress. Why did he come? Why did a prosperous, successful British-Jewish lawyer from North London who did well, why did he have a need to go to that distant, desolate country?

And the answer to that is that he realized what I think many in the United States, in the American Jewry of today realize, which is that there is an inherent challenge in maintaining Jewish non-Orthodox Jewish life in the diaspora. And therefore there is a need to have a national home for the Jews.

But the deeper, the deeper answer is that my great grandfather did not only - and the other ingenious Zionists, who were much more, you know, impressive then he himself - he's my great grandfather, but he's just a person - he was not the hero. But if you think in Herzl and his people and the crowd, the group that created Zionism, they, in 1897, they realized in a sense that Auschwitz will happen in the 1940s.

They did not realize it will take the horrible shape of Auschwitz and Treblinka. They did know there will be crematoria. But they realized that Europe is going mad in its relationship to the Jews. They loved Europe, they admired Europe. Their wish - they were already non-Orthodox. They wished to be, most of them were more secular. They wished to be part of enlightened, impressive, liberal, progressive Europe.

But they saw that that Europe, that modern, liberal Europe, was rejecting them. Now, the fact that they saw this decades before Hitler, they realized that the 20th century will bring a disaster to European Jewry. But because their need to seed(ph) that, to build that home, to go to that country and built that home was so deep, they could not have seen the Palestinians who were already there.

So I am totally with them. I think they were right to come. I admired the enterprise they started. But I do see that the problem that was built into the project from the very start was the fact that they did not see the Palestinians who were already there.

GROSS: And let me ask the question, another question you ask in your book. How could they not have seen them?

SHAVIT: I think there are several reasons that they have not seen the Palestinians. One has to remember that the Palestinians at that time were not a self-defined nation. I think at that time you could have seen the entire region as one huge, chaotic, Arab-Islamic area with no modern states. They did not conquer a Palestinian state in any sort of way.

So there were many reasons that you can explain why they did not see them. But the main one, actually, is that their need was so great. Their need to save the Jews by building a national Jewish home in Palestine was so great that they did not see the Palestinians, and even some of their sons and grandsons and daughters did not see the Palestinians for a long time. And my...

GROSS: Would you put your parents and grandparents in that category of not seeing the Palestinians?

SHAVIT: I think that my grandparents' generation and my parents' generation had a difficulty in seeing the Palestinians because they were so much into this amazing revolution of creating the Jewish national home that they tended not to see the others. And I see it as my role and my commitment and my mission, the mission of my generation, to balance it, to keep Zionism, to maintain the Jewish state, to protect Israel, to love Israel, and yet to realize that we have done wrong to others and to try to limit that moral damage that was done and to enable the two people to live eventually, in the future, in a peace after they came to terms with their dramatic and traumatized pasts.

GROSS: What was the turning point for you in realizing that Israel was created at the expense of the Palestinians, who had lived there, and that they were no longer being treated fairly?

SHAVIT: When I grew up, and when I came of age politically, the Palestinians were the Palestinians of the territories, of the occupied territories. It took me a while, but after 10 years after occupation began, I realized that - how wrong occupation was, and I saw the Palestinian issue as an occupation issue.

Only much later did I realize that the conflict is really an existential one regarding the entire state, that it's not only about the occupation and about the settlements, but it's about the entire country. And one has to realize the tragedy of the country, but one was not going to despair because of that. We should not give up on peace and on dialogue. We have to acknowledge the very difficult, painful past but try to process it and move forward.

GROSS: You write that when you were a teenager - you were born in 1957. You write that when you were a teenager, the common wisdom was that yours was a benevolent military occupation of Sinai and Gaza. And you say only when you were a soldier did you grasp that something was wrong. What kind of post did you have as a soldier, and what are some of the things that that exposed you to about what the occupation really was like?

SHAVIT: Yes, it's almost amazing to remember that really in the first decade of occupation so many Israelis believed there is nothing terribly wrong with it. I had several traumatic personal experiences. First was when I was doing my regular duty as a paratrooper in the Israeli IDF and we were sent to the West Bank, to Jenin and Nablus and other towns.

And suddenly - it wasn't a terribly difficult period at the time, but suddenly this roar of working as a very rough police force, not as a soldier defending our borders but as a kind of rough policeman enforcing law on people that don't want us, that was the first shock.

I think the deeper shock came years later, although by that time I already - I was a Zionist dove, when I was sent to a detention camp in Gaza in the early '90s. And that was...

GROSS: You were sent there as a guard, not as a prisoner...

SHAVIT: I was sent there as a guard on my reserve duty, yeah, yeah, yeah. And that was probably the most traumatic experience I had as an Israeli, because serving my country by imprisoning others was horrific for me, and I had the time there to sit in that watch tower in Gaza, to look at the beautiful Mediterranean, to see all of the potential beauty of the country and what the country can be, and to see how these two people - I mean they were doing terrible things to us as terrorists, and we were doing terrible things to them, imprisoning them and occupying them and not giving them the fresh air needed to survive and live properly.

And this was a very, very difficult experience for me, and when I came back and wrote about it in Israel, I was called upon by the Israel justice minister, who did not know me at the time, I was not that well-known journalist at the time, who asked me all the details about that experience and tried to change all kinds of things.

So within that tragic and impossible situation, actually, good Israelis, liberal Israelis tried to limit evil and to do more justice, but the basic situation of occupation then and now is intolerable.

GROSS: So when you were serving as a guard at a prison in Gaza, you know, guarding Palestinian prisoners, and there were things you really objected to in the prison, you know, the way the prison was handled, I'm wondering, you know, like sometimes when you're put in a position that you have no control over and you have to do things you don't really want to do, you find a way to reconcile that by convincing yourself it's not so bad, it's OK for me to do these things, and that makes it easier to live with when you're doing that.

Did you have to prevent yourself from doing that? And I wonder if in some ways that you think that the military service in Israel almost forces some of the people in the military to find a way to find the things that they have to do acceptable and to justify it and self-justify it so that they can do the work that they've been assigned to do.

SHAVIT: I did not have this problem. This is a problem of personality and having a moral backbone. This was not only the case. I had several cases in my armed service where I confronted, say, evil or wrongdoing, and in all these cases I objected, I acted, I fought the system, and sometimes I even achieved change...

GROSS: Can you give us one example?

SHAVIT: I was a soldier in 1978 in some military operation in Lebanon. There were wrongdoings. I was nobody. I was a private. I wrote a letter to the chief of staff. The chief of staff brought my letter to my brigade commander a few weeks afterwards and had him deal with the looting and some other problems that were there.

I find it difficult to believe that anything like that could have happened in the French army, in the British army, or even in the American army.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ari Shavit. He is a senior columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the author of a new book that's part memoir and part social-political history of Israel; it's called "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ari Shavit. He's a senior columnist for the Israeli publication Haaretz and the author of a new book called "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel." It's part memoir and part social-political history of his country.

You became active in the peace and human rights movement after being exposed through your military service to the actual conditions in occupied Gaza and the West Bank. So as a result of that, you joined the peace and human rights movements. But now you say you're critical of the left and the right.

Share some of your criticisms of the peace movement, what's left of it in Israel, and the left.

SHAVIT: I'll do that, and I think that in a way it's even relevant to what's going right now with Secretary Kerry's attempt to bring peace within a very short time to my country. The basic mistake of the Israeli left and the international community is that they were totally right about occupation and settlement, but they were totally wrong about peace.

Occupation should not have come to the world to begin with, and it should not be prolonged. Settlements should not have been created to begin with, and they should be - I don't know if we can dismantle them all, we cannot, but it's a (unintelligible) - definitely no new settlements should be built, and we should do whatever we can to solve the settlement issue.

And yet the great mistake for 20, 30 years of the Israeli left and many good, willing Americans and Europeans who tried to solve the conflict is that they promised peace tomorrow. Now, if you understand the history of the conflict, if you understand that the settlements are an obstacle to peace, but they are definitely not the only obstacle to peace, and they are not the main obstacle to peace, if you realize the tragedy of that country, the attempt to impose peace from today to tomorrow is benign but futile.

So the Israel left has lost all its political credibility within Israel, and the international community failed now for over 20 years in trying to bring peace to that country because it tried - they are both trying to impose something that is not there. And my greatest fear today, that the benign, admirable attempt of the secretary to bring peace in a few months will fail in exactly the same way.

I'm a Plan B guy. I think that these attempts to go for final status immediately, the chances of success are minimal. The risks involved are enormous. And therefore one should - and this is where I plead for the State Department people and all the people leading the process right now, who are moral people, who are - again I have all the empathy and admiration for the moral commitment and their attempt to save the two-state solution, but they must plan Plan B because if we don't have that, we might actually have peace, not only peace but the two-state option, crashing in a dazzling way. And that was...

GROSS: Well let me interrupt you here. What do you mean by Plan B?

SHAVIT: I think that when you look at the history, you realize - and in the context now with all the chaos in the Arab world, with extremism all around - the chances that the Palestinian leadership can make the ideological, almost theological concession needed to achieve peace, in compromises over Jerusalem and in giving up the right of return and in recognizing a Jewish state, all these things, the chances that will happen are minimal.

The chances that current Israeli political leadership can make the concessions needed on the Israeli side are minimal. Therefore, the risk is that within a few months we'll see a terrible crash, a clash between these two sides, who will not be able to do the deal Secretary Kerry wants them to do. Therefore what is needed is to work right now on plans that are much less ambitious, interim agreements, unilateral steps, coordinated unilateral steps.

I have a Ph.D. on this. I can give you, you know, if you'll give me 10 hours, I'll give you all the range of possibilities. But the different possibilities are not important. The important is the principle: Don't go for a castle in the sky. Try to build a tent on the ground. If we can stop settlement, if we can give the constructive Palestinian forces now some more space, geographic space, political space, if you can let them advance their nation-building process while we begin the process of ending occupation, this is so much to do.

And for that we can bring in the support of Saudis and Egyptians and Jordanians who would love to support that process. This is the kind of modest, humble peace that might be possible. If we go for the ambitious peace, we've tried for 20 years and failed, we might fail again, and the consequences might be dramatic, bordering on the catastrophic.

GROSS: But the modest peace that you're talking about still leaves Palestinians under occupation, right?

SHAVIT: I think that if you try the short way, you end with a longer problem. If you go for a gradual process in which Palestinians will feel that every year is better than the previous one, every month is better than previous one, they will have something to hope for. I think the Palestinians themselves, they do not say it, they cannot make the concessions needed.

What's happening right now, I am sad to say, it comes the benevolent American, this time it's Secretary Kerry, but there were many others before, and they have an idea, which I think is the right idea. I share their ideology. I think what they want as the final status is what I want. But the parties are not there, and the parties are cunning and sophisticated.

So what the parties, both of them, do, they sing the song Washington wants them to sing, but they don't mean it. No one means it. So we have this repeating process where there are high expectations. The Palestinians and Israelis are singing the song. Nothing happens. Then there is a clash, then there is a crash, and then there is violence.

We don't want that repeated. We have to learn from history. You cannot repeat and try for the third and fourth time a historical thesis that failed. So my plea is you want to try Plan A, great, perhaps I'm mistaken, perhaps you can reach it. But while doing that, prepare Plan B, because if Plan A crashes and we have nothing as an alternative, we might see a terrible cycle of either violence or political deterioration, and God forbid the two-state solution would be lost, and the two-state solution is still the only solution.

GROSS: Ari Shavit will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ari Shavit, author of the new book "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel." The book tells the story of Israel, its promise, its achievements and its mistakes, through interviews with Israeli Jews and Arabs and through Shavit's story and the story of his family. Shavit is a columnist for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

You write a lot about conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and its Arab neighbors. You also write a lot about divisions within Israel - the conflicts within your country. And one of those conflicts is the one between secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews - or to put it another way - ultra-Orthodox Jews and all the other Jews in Israel.

SHAVIT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What are some of the policies that you see as very extreme that are supported by the ultra-Orthodox in Israel now?

SHAVIT: The ultra-Orthodox challenge is one of the main ones contemporary Israel faces internally. The basic challenges that the community that was very small is growing very fast, and it's becoming a big 10 percent, soon 20 percent minority with a lot of political power - although, the people there are not fully integrated into the society, the economy and even do not feel a political responsibility for the future of the state. Therefore, I think what is needed; I'm not totally pessimistic regarding the ultra-Orthodox. I see many positive processes within ultra-Orthodox society. But I think ultra-Orthodox of Israel have to learn from the ultra-Orthodox of Brooklyn. They have to live in Israel. They have to be working. They have to be paying taxes. They have to be constructive citizens. They have to serve in the army. They have to be gradually integrated into Israel. They cannot live outside the state and society while enjoying all the benefits of being Israeli citizens. And most important of all, they cannot impose their own values on the state.

I, for me, the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community - which is mostly non-Orthodox - is essential. I don't only love this relationship; I'm committed to that relationship. We cannot let ultra-Orthodox politics and ideas endanger our relationship with out American Jewish brothers and sisters. We need civil marriage. We need openness to all minority rights, equality to women, gay rights, all these things which secular Israel shares, and Israel is doing pretty well on many of these issues. But the ultra-Orthodox keep want to push us back to their values. We cannot allow them. So we have to give them their freedom, their equality. We have to integrate them into our larger society, but we must stand very, you know, very forceful way against their attempt to impose their values on us.

GROSS: What are some of the values they want to impose on women in Israel?

SHAVIT: Look, we've some of these shameful, appalling cases of attempts to have segregation between men and women in all kinds of ways. I will not have that. We cannot accept it. We should not tolerate it. On this we have to be very, very tough. Women first, individual rights first, gay rights first, all these thing have to be protected. And again, they are protected in the non-Orthodox Israel. Israel is doing very well on many of these issues, but we have to keep it and we cannot let the ultra-Orthodox try to push us back into some sort of dark ages.

GROSS: Has the ultra-Orthodox movement had a personal impact on your life or the lives of the people in your family?

SHAVIT: Good question.


SHAVIT: Well, it had impact - that I married twice and twice I got married in England rather than in Israel. And the reason was that I did not want to have an orthodox Jewish wedding. And although I'm very committed to my Judaism, I love my Judaism. And actually the first instance I had - I did have a Jewish ceremony in Israel by a very prominent American conservative rabbi that was not recognized by the state. So then I had to go for the formal stuff, I had to get married in a nice British resort town that was respected by the law. So this is a...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. So is the only way you can get married in Israel and have it be recognized by the state is if you have an orthodox wedding?

SHAVIT: You put me to shame, but basically, this is the situation. There is a monopoly, a state monopoly, of the ultra-Orthodox of a marriage and divorce. And now Israelis found a gazillion ways to bypass that. I mean it's not, in real life it's not as horrible as it sounds, but it's true that the law in Israel on these matters is an unacceptable law. And personally, I was not willing to obey by this and this is why I got married twice in Britain. And only my divorce was a Jewish divorce under the state and that was compulsory.

GROSS: So you would like to see civil marriage ceremonies become legal in Israel, which they're not yet.

SHAVIT: Absolutely.


SHAVIT: Absolutely.

GROSS: Let's talk nuclear a bit. You know, reading between the lines here, it sounds like your father was involved perhaps peripherally, with the nuclear program that developed Israel's nuclear bomb, which you're not even supposed to acknowledge exist.


GROSS: So let's see if we can figure out a way to talk about this. But, you know, your father worked at the Weitzman Institute.

SHAVIT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Was that like a research institute or part of a university?

SHAVIT: It still is. The Weitzman Institute, to this day, talking of Israeli pride, I mean the Weitzman Institute is really the most amazing scientific institution, one of the leading in the world, and definitely one of Israel's jewels. My father was, you know, not very important scientist, so the point is not my father, but the point is the environment in which I grew up. I mean I, yes, I was, I grew on the laps - if you wish -of Israel's leading scientists and very early on I realized that they have a double life. They have the life of a civilian work in the Weitzman Institute, which does remarkable research in every field you can imagine. But they had this other life, which was secretive. And quite early I realized what the secret was, and the secret was and the secret was - and to use the terms cautiously - the building of the Dimona nuclear reactor and everything that went with it. So when I was - because I was a sensitive child and I always had the sense for drama or for what's important, I realized that beyond the very pleasant American-like campus in which I grew up, and the quiet lawns and the very nice and enriching life that I experienced, there is a major, major drama going on, because these scientists were trying to save Israel by bringing Dimona into the world and they succeeded.

GROSS: You write in your book that you grew up with existential fear because you were born in 1957, so you were young during the 1967 war and the Yom Kippur War. Do you think that your children are growing up with the kind of existential fear that you grew up with, and if so, if the quality of that fear, what they're afraid of is different?

SHAVIT: Look, I think that in many ways, our life in the last decade, in the last few years, were safer and more quieter than ever before. Since the second intifada stopped, which is like 2004, we were in a horrific period of this terror offensive in the early 2000s. But in the last seven, eight years, we had, you know, the economy is booming, there is little violence most of the time. There are incidents here and there, but there is no daily threat and there is no, Israel is pretty peaceful, actually. But I think that one of the dangers is we are becoming a victims of that success. Perhaps my children, I have a four-year-old boy and nine-year-old boy and a 21-year-old daughter, so she experienced some of the more difficult times that we had 10 years ago, my boys did not experience that. So they grew up in a very prosperous lively, happy, creative, innovative Israel, which is wonderful. I think that one of the problems we have that we have become victims of our success. Because Israel was successful in giving its citizens so much security and prosperity in recent years, I think they lost touch with the challenges surrounding it. So we've become a bit escapistic(ph). We, although we are in such a dangerous place on the edge, if you wish, we tend to ignore the chaos, the regional chaos around us. We tend to ignore the Palestinian issue. We ignore the problem for occupation. We went, we turned so much inward - which is good thing in many ways, but we do not really wrestle and deal with the existential challenges that are still surrounding us and threatening us. So I'm very happy that my children are so happy. But I'm somewhat concerned about the political leadership that does not acknowledge the threats that are out there and are and might risk us in coming years.

GROSS: Well, in your book you describe your concern about young people who are devoting a lot of time to clubbing and what you consider to be a kind of hedonistic lifestyle.

SHAVIT: Well, I love clubbing and I love nightlife. I'm, you know, a bit old for that stuff but I love it. So I have no criticism. I think that, you know, being hedonistic is perfectly OK as long as you are moral and realistic. So yes, dance, drink, be merry. But remember that you all the time you have to be ready, you have to be responsible, you have to be mature and you have to be moral. At the end of the day we must deal with the moral challenges, mainly occupation and we must be ready for the existential challenges that are all around us. The great challenge for Israel is that there is an inherent contradiction between our values, which are basically democratic, liberal, humane values and the brutal reality we live in. And the challenge is to find a way to reconcile them the best way possible. Not to lose our soul and not to lose our values while we defend our life and protect our future.

GROSS: Well, Ari Shavit, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SHAVIT: Thank you.

GROSS: Ari Shavit is the author of "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel." You can read the introduction on our website,

Coming up, we listen back to excerpts of two interviews with Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing. She died yesterday at the age of 94. This is FRESH AIR.


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