February 17, 2019

Why Shavit struck a nerve

It's rare to see a passionate critic of Israel resonate with so many passionate defenders of Israel. And yet, Ari Shavit seems to have pulled that off with his new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.”

In my right-wing circles, many people are talking about the book. And while I’m hearing the obligatory moaning about some of the harsh criticism of Israel, I’m also not hearing the usual name-calling of “Israel basher” and “self-hating Jew.” 

People on the right are paying attention. Why?

Why is Shavit earning the respect of  many on the right who abhor the reflexive criticism of Israel that routinely comes from Shavit’s comrades on the left?

One way to approach this mystery is to look at those who have failed at the same task. My friend Peter Beinart, for example, in his book “The Crisis of Zionism,” got nowhere in trying to resonate with right-wing defenders of Israel.

If anything, he did the opposite. His unrelenting criticism of Israeli policies alienated him from the Zionist right.

Why did this happen to Beinart and not to Shavit, even though they are both critics and passionate supporters of Israel?

After all, it’s not as if Shavit has used kid gloves when taking on Israel. In fact, you can argue that Shavit has gone even further than Beinart in criticizing Israel. Whereas Beinart focused much of his criticism on the post-1967 era, Shavit also went back to the 1948 War of Independence, describing Israel’s brutal expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from the city of Lydda (Lod) as the “black box of Zionism.”

His chapter on Lydda, which has caused a stir, is as nasty as it gets for Israel’s image. Some have argued that he exaggerates the case against Israel and only reinforces the Palestinian narrative of the Nakba (catastrophe). And yet, his book is attracting readers from across the Jewish spectrum, including fervent defenders of Israel. How could that be?

Here’s one theory: Shavit’s book feels more Jewish.

By that I mean it’s more complex. It’s not one-dimensional.

When you see a title like “The Crisis of Zionism” on a book cover, you don’t think about complexity. You think about one dimension and one agenda: selling the reader on a “crisis” narrative.

When you see “The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” all you can think about is complexity: the Jewish notion of duality, of tension between opposing ideas, of that eternal Jewish struggle to reconcile contradictory forces.

But complexity is only part of the answer. There’s also something emotional at work — how writers express their love.

Authors like Beinart, when criticizing Israel, often include obligatory passages about how much they love Israel, how they sympathize with its difficult predicament and so on. But those passages feel like set-ups to their main point, which is: Israel is screwing up big time.  

This is common among liberal critics of Israel. Anything positive about Israel is almost always followed by a “but” — a but that nails Israel. Of course, as we all know, it’s what you say after that but that really counts (“I’d love to lend you the money, my friend, but …”).

Instead of the predictable “but,” Shavit prefers to say “and.”

His theme is not the triumph but the tragedy; it’s the triumph and the tragedy.

When Shavit delves into the triumph of Israel, when he celebrates the “remarkable success of Zionism … the transformation of the Jews in the Zionist century,” we feel his passion for Israel and nothing else. He’s not setting us up for anything.

When he expresses his empathy for the fears and centuries of vulnerability that have accompanied the Jewish condition, again, he’s not setting us up for a left hook.

His expressions of love and understanding are deep and independent. They don’t feel obligatory. You don’t ask yourself, nervously, “OK, when is the other shoe going to drop? When is he getting to his real point?” 

It’s by being so pure and passionate about the “triumph” of Israel that Shavit has earned the credibility to be so pure and passionate about its mistakes, its flaws, its “tragedy.”

There’s a lesson here for all liberal critics of Israel. If you want to make headway with the right and go beyond just preaching to the choir, show your complexity, and show your love. Don’t settle for throwaway lines of love and support that are only there to set up your criticism.

Complexity earns respect. Holding two passionate and conflicting thoughts simultaneously is the mark of big thinkers. When your deepest emotion is reserved only for criticism, your audience shrinks, no matter how right you are.

Shavit has struck a nerve with such a wide audience because, while he has sharply criticized Israel, he has also — to paraphrase Leonard Cohen — danced Israel to the end of love.