Seth J. Frantzman

The American Jewish community and the myth of Ari Shavit


“This fall from grace should be particularly troubling for the Jewish community: It’s the demise of an Israeli writer whose impact on American Jewish liberals was profound,” wrote Gabe Friedman on the Ari Shavit scandal in which an Israeli journalist was accused of sexual harassment. Danielle Berrin, the journalist who accused him of harassment recalled that before the encounter; “back then, the book he’d written was among several titles having an impact on the Jewish conversation, and many local community leaders wanted to meet with him. If I was going to be a part of this conversation, this was my opportunity.”

The Shavit story has caused shockwaves among the American Jewish community, particularly the part of it that is most deeply involved in the “conversation” about Israel. This portion of the community is particularly well represented in journalist and intellectual circles and large parts of it self define as “liberal Zionists.”  In the article lamenting this “fall from grace,” the author notes that heavy-hitters such as Leon Wieseltier, Simon Schama and Thomas Friedman were all involved in myth-making about the greatness of Shavit and his 2013 book My Promised Land. When we look back at 2014 when everyone in this community was telling their friends and relatives “you have to read this” it becomes extraordinary the degree to which one thing supposedly explained all of Israel.  Groups like Hillel and J Street U had Shavit speaking (these arrangements have been suspended). Makom, a Jewish education website, has an entire section of its website devoted to a “readers guide” to the book.

One almost gets the feeling that for many secular and liberal Jews who are Zionists, that My Promised Land became a kind of bible and that Shavit became a myth to be worshipped. Back in 2014 if you didn’t like Shavit and read his book and worship his “conflicted” views on Israel, “neither right nor left”, then you were considered un-enlightened.  Among the few dissenting voices was Noam Sheizaf at +972.  He identified problems with those interviewed; “the identity of Shavit’s interviewees reveals the limits of his analysis. All the book’s heroes save for a few—and there are, as I said, dozens of them—are Ashkenazi men…In a world that celebrates diversity, Shavit’s decision to narrow his story to the Ashkenazi-male experience is more telling than any of his observations.”  He points out that Shavit portrayed Arabs as “dark and primitive.”

I also reviewed Shavit’s book and called it “nostalgia for a Zionism that never was.”  The review noted how Shavit’s book created bogeymen of immigrants from places like Russia and provides fears of Arab and Orthodox birthrates.  The author poses as a descendant of the founding fathers of Israel, and portrays non-Europeans as not central to the state’s original Zionism. “Israel was to have been home to the Jewish people of Eastern Europe – that is what the state was designed to be…having no other choice, Zionism turned eastward.”

Why did American liberal Jews worship a book that is so diametrically opposed to their own worldview of diversity, multi-culturalism and acceptance of the other?  In a community that is quick to challenge American narratives about the perfection of the white, male founding father of the United States, why did they so unquestionably embrace the nostalgia of Shavit?

In many ways the fall of this author and the “controversy” it now has among the community that adored him is emblematic of a wider problem.  A major part of the problem is the prevalence of sexual harassment and entitled, powerful men who exploit their positions of influence and power.  That power and the mythmaking associated with these men is symbolic of a wider issue as well.  Exposing the dark side of Shavit allows us to also discuss the dark side of the myth that made him famous in the first place.

Many found in Shavit’s book an attempt to wrestle superficially with an Israel that was morally problematic for them.  Shavit promised catharsis in giving them a picture of a conflicted man and “his” country, where he wants to do good, but inevitably requires the strength that sometimes mean doing tough, unethical things for the greater good. Reading the book one could assuage one’s own feelings that Israel had problematic policies by having the sins explained and atoned through the author.  This need for atonement and catharsis is tied up to a unique historical connection.

Many American Jews have a strange relationship with Israel.  For years they created a myth about a 1950s “egalitarian” Israel that they pretended resembled their own liberal values.  The reality was far more complex.  1950s Israel was the one where minorities were kept under curfew and where education was segregated (as it still is), where bedouins were driven from their lands and an ethnocratic nationalist state created.  Why did people who supported civil rights in the US have so little interest in civil rights in Israel?  Extreme inequalities were created in the nascent Jewish state, Jews from Muslim countries were forcibly settled in “development towns” and extreme racism against them was normal.  They were often not permitted to move to rural areas, restricted by “acceptance committees” where race and religious background were determining factors of where one might reside.  Of course from a nationalist point of view this was necessary to develop Israel, just as the proletarian revolution in the Soviet Union or Mao’s China was necessary for success.  Many had to suffer for the “greater good.”

From the 1950s and its myths spring the Israeli leaders that American Jews have tended to identify most closely with, particularly Shimon Peres. The same voices that lionized My Promised Land found in Peres the symbol of the “good Israel,” and the “moral Israel,” the one that is a “light unto the nations” and does “tikkun olam.”  No matter that almost none of these things are true about Peres, the myth needs to be true in order to keep the love affair with Israel alive.

This is because the relationship with Israel in the community has often not been a healthy one.  Irish Americans probably like Ireland, but their love for the “old country” has little to do with the policies of the government. Ask them the difference between Fine Gail and Fianna Fail and most would probably not be able to tell the difference. Michael Collins?  Eamon de Velera? Sinn Fein and the IRA?  Yes, probably heard of that.  But the love for Ireland is not about identification with every policy, it is about identification with the land, the culture, the beer, the people.  It is built on kinship and nostalgia.  Similarly other diaspora communities are rarely so deeply connected to the politics of their former countries.  Do Chinese Americans or Filipinos fall out of love with their former homeland if one party or another comes to power.

How about reading more than one book on Israel? (Seth J. Frantzman)

But for many liberal Zionists the relationship with Israel is very political and personal. Such relationships require myths.  Such relationships also have a sense of entitlement and abusiveness to them.  Sometimes the relationship with Israel feels almost neo-colonial in its discussion.  Whether it is Jeffrey Goldberg or Peter Beinart, there is a lot of talk and insinuation about trying to get Obama to pressure Israel and and a feeling that when Israel “misbehaves” or “doesn’t represent our values” then it must be “punished” like a child. Beyond the punishment there is also a constant threat that some American Jews will desert Israel, that they will throw it away like an unwanted toy they have outgrown.  Young Jews, we are constantly told, are less connected to Israel.  Much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like John Judis, Harvey Pekar, or Sarah Glidden‘s books, there is a feeling that to connect to Israel is predicated on the country adhering to one’s own values.  Therefore when it can be shown that Israel has little in common with the values of liberal Jewish Americans, then their conclusion should be that they can’t identify with the country.

Ironically the same Jewish Americans who find it so difficult to identify with Israel, are often the same people who can easily identify with other countries and peoples and disregard the Israel-values litmus test.  Rabbi Brant Rosen, for instance, waxed lovingly about a trip to Iran as have many other writers.  So when it comes to Iran one can say “I dislike the policies of the government, but the people are wonderful.”  But for Israel there is little of that nuance.

The lack of nuance is because of the kinds of myths conjured up by Shavit. The myth of 1950s Israel.  The myth of unified Zionism and “good” Zionism.  The way in which the myth is said to be falling apart.  The picture those like Shavit paint of barbarians at the gate, of cities like Jerusalem overrun by “Arabs and Haredim.”  Instead of the constant force-feeding of “Israel was perfect and now it’s not” emblematic of histories like Anita Shapira’s (also one Americans read), why not provide an Israeli history as complex and nuanced as American history is told.  The naive, self-centered hucksterism of the title “My Promised Land” was so arrogant it should have been the first turnoff. No country belongs to one man. If anyone deigned to write a book about “my America” and paint a picture of 1950s white man nostalgia ruined by hordes of “backwards” minorities taking over cities and causing “chaos”, it would never be read by a liberal audience.  So why was such a simplistic approach accepted for Israel?

Because the relationship with Israel is not a mature relationship.  How did a community that is well educated and has an almost seventy-year relationship with a country have so little understanding of it that it needs such a simplistic myth-making book by such a character as Shavit to articulate it for them?  If you try to mention just simple details about Israel to many in the US Jewish community, such as discussion anti-Mizrahi racism, one is greeted by eyes that glaze over.  For them Israel is not so much more than it is for average Americans: Bibi Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Amos Oz. Often what is added to that by those “in the know” is the “disastrous policy of the occupation,” and the “threat of the Orthodox.”  Simple, neat, black and white analysis.

The lack of complexity ascribed to Israel is connected to the “surprise” and “shock” that Shavit was more than a cookie-cutter image.  Sexual harassment?  How can that be?  It’s a “fall from grace.”  But why was it so unexpected.  In a world of Barry Freundel, Woody Allen, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Bernie Madoff and many other morally unsavory characters, why do these myths of great white men (and they are almost all men) fly so high in a community that is supposedly not given to dogmatism, but rather critical, complex, analysis.

Ignorance has replaced complexity.  Birthright trips to Israel have brought 500,000 youth to the country.  That’s ten percent of the US Jewish population.  It would seem almost every Jewish student from this generation who even remotely wanted to go to Israel, has been to Israel on a free trip.  And yet so many were saying up until recently “this one book explains the country.”  How can one thing define a whole country?

It can’t.

Dangerous myths have grown up among the American Jewish community, myths that are totally detached from the reality in Israel, the day to day life, the complexity, the diversity.  When one’s view of Israel is entirely a view of the European-origin old elites, one has as ill an understanding of the country than someone who thought the whole of US history was related to George Washington.  For instance how many of those in this formerly-Shavit worshipping group know that 850,000 Israelis attended the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and only 50,000 came to see Peres. More than ten times more for a rabbi than a president. Not because of schadenfreude is it a good thing that Shavit myth has been broken, but because it’s time for people to start asking hard questions and have a complex understanding of Israel.  Not a “complex” relationship, wrestling with Israel, as they often want to have, but rather an acceptance that the stories about the nostalgia for history are wrong, and there is a need to have a mature relationship with the country and those who “tell its story.”