There’s nothing sexy about politics, war or nuclear power, at least not according to Ari Shavit. Shavit, an Israeli journalist, writer and New York Times best-selling author, has plans to change the way people react to and engage in such topics. Shavit said “Israeli” is important to his title because had he not grown up in Israel, he probably would not have been a journalist.
Shavit has spent the past year on tour visiting various universities and speaking mostly to the millennial generation. On March 4, he presented his ideas and perspectives to the University.
“It’s so important to have a new kind of dialogue between the younger generation, the millennials, in America and Israel, and I’m doing my best to promote that new kind of dialogue and this is why I’m here, this is why I’m exhausted,” he said. “I’m in a different city everyday, I’m in planes all the time, I drink black coffee all the time, and yet I’m full of energy and I’m so happy because meeting people like you is a great privilege and [I almost] have a sense of mission regarding it.”
During the presentation, he called Israel “an underdog on steroids” and discussed how his best-selling book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is essentially a “yin and yang between despair and hope.”
“I’ve become a journalist because I feel that Israel, my country, is such a fascinating human endeavor and a kind of unique nation, for better and for worse,” Shavit said. “And therefore, to be a journalist in Israel, I feel, is a real privilege because we say that we journalists write the first draft of history, so when you watch, when you give testimony, you are a witness of such huge drama, even on a daily basis. It’s fascinating.”
Shavit released his book in November 2013. He said it’s a book about history, but it’s not a history book, and that it’s relevant to politics, but it’s not a political book. Shavit said he wrote the book’s content to be relevant on a “human level,” and created a non-fiction book that reads like a novel.
The Kansan spoke with Shavit earlier in the day, prior to his presentation, about current hot topics ranging from the Israeli Prime Minister’s recent speech to Congress, to the importance and delicate nature of remaining unbiased in so much controversy.
Kansan: Could you tell us about your career and what your objective is?
Shavit: I’m known for two things: one, what you are doing right now, which is in-depth interviews, and the other is having a rather strong voice as a columnist. My strong voice is usually because I challenge dogmas of both right and left. I come from the left, I am a progressive Israeli, but I challenge the dogmas of the progressive people, both in this country and in Israel as well. So… I don’t belong to any herd. I’m an independent voice, so that gave me a unique place in Israeli public arena, and yet I feel that this is not enough.
Kansan: You started as a philosophy major, you spoke a little bit about how you got into journalism. But why the change?
Shavit: Well, I didn’t decide. Life made the decision for me. I remembered that, ever since the age of five or six, I always wrote. So I said, ‘let’s try writing in a paper.’ It’s not that I was a journalist – I was a writing person, always. I always processed life through words, thinking, feeling, diary writing, poetry writing, whatever. So then came what I told you before, because I said ‘Wow, do I want this?’ because I didn’t plan it. And then I realized what I told you... in Israel, it’s such a privilege to be a journalist. When there is such high drama, being a journalist is great. I began enjoying the fact that I can be a player – not only in politics, but in maintaining the democratic system without wearing a suit and tie.
Kansan: Why exactly do you think it’s so crucial to talk to the millennials and to our generation?
Shavit: I think there is a deep and very important alliance between America and Israel, and the alliance has strategic elements that are a bit boring. They’re important, but boring. I think it’s real because Israel is the only rock-solid ally America has in the Middle East.
In the Middle East, everything is fragile and vulnerable, and we are the only country that is the real, deep, totally loyal ally. But it’s much deeper than that, much more interesting, because the alliance is really built on the fact that we have shared values, that you are a great democracy and, as I like to tell people sometimes, I have to remind Americans how great American democracy is, and we are frontier democracy.
My concern is that many of the younger people have lost the understanding of this special relationship, for good reasons. I think that for many young Americans, because there has been so much unpleasant news coming from the Middle East, many people lost that understanding, that feeling, and I blame no one. This is the way it is.
So I see it as my role to try and bring back that notion, but also to make it relevant for the day. On the one hand I’m a very patriotic Israeli and I love my country, but I’m also very critical of my country, and I’m into open discussion. And I think that some young people were not allowed to have an open discussion about Israel. So, people split into those who thought that Israel can do no wrong and those who thought that Israel could do no right. And I come and say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ I’m not afraid of debates, I’m not afraid of questions. I’m such a great believer in Israel, I’m a great believer in America, I’m a great believer in a relationship with America and Israel, but it’s all for discussion. So I am here to have sincere discussion that is not with clichés but regarding the real issues.
Kansan: So regarding that, relating to the U.S. and Israel relationship, how do you think the relationship is right now? Is it in jeopardy?
Shavit: You can describe my Jewish sigh. Fundamentally, it’s still very strong. I think there is a kind of slow erosion, which I think is very dangerous, especially with younger people and especially with progressive America and younger America.
On the one hand, I say to my own people in Israel that Israel has to prove how just it is, how moral it is and how democratic it is. I’m sure of all of the above, but I can see why some people have questions. Because when they look at settlement activity, when they look at the wars, they have questions and are confused, and I think we have to do much more as Israelis to prove how moral we are, how much we pursue peace, even if peace is not there. But we have to try and to prove to people like you that we are relevant to you, and that we have your values. We have, again, I think it’s there, but we have to do much more work. And for too long, more conservative forces that took over the political system have not projected that, and that is why I come to bring a kind of alternative Israeli voice.
On the other hand I ask many people in the progressive world, in academic life, who I think, because of political correctness, are not addressing sometimes the difficulties of life in the Middle East. Sometimes people blame Israel so much, and sometimes, these people blame America as well, because it’s easy to criticize a Western power. And these people have a difficulty addressing the terrible, dark, fanatic forces that we have in the Middle East…
So many people here, again on the left, so to speak, have a difficulty addressing this evil, and then they don’t understand why Israel does what it does – I don’t justify everything that Israel does. some things I do justify, some things I criticize. But people have to understand the context. The context is, fundamentally, Israel is an amazing democracy fighting for its life in a very, very rough neighborhood — a very rough neighborhood that has some barbaric forces within it. So we have to do the utmost to try peace. People here have to understand the tragic circumstances with which we have to deal, within which we live.
Kansan: After hearing you speak a little bit, I’m just curious – how do you maintain such an unbiased perspective on everything? Do you ever find that it’s difficult, or that you want to sway towards one side?
Shavit: Great question. Thank you, thank you for the question. Look, it’s nature. It’s human nature. I’m almost tempted — you are a good interviewer because I am tempted to give you a very personal answer that I never gave to anyone.
If there is something that I always resented, it is mob mentality, herds. I hate it when people are running in a herd in one direction. One of my relatives that I loved very much was one of Israel’s chief justices. He was one of the important chief justices in Israel, and he was an American. He was the smart, wise old man. He was an Israeli, but very American. I was seven years old, but he liked me very much, and I admired him and I understood from him... He became a judge, he believed so much in the rule of law, because he was terrified of these processes where an American little town would go through the process of lynching. Now, many times when there was lynching, the guy was a bad guy, but this is not what you should do. You should have a process – you should think, you should use your brain, your heart, too. So, I think that I got something from my family, something in my very base that rejects one-sided, narrow-minded, conformist thinking, whether on the left or on the right.
Sometimes, I think it’s more difficult. To attack the people on the other side, the other political tribe, is easy. You know, it’s easy for democrats to criticize republicans or republicans to criticize democrats, but to go against your own political family is much more difficult.
This is the story of my life because, for years in Israel, I’d been wrestling with this need to be decent, even when it contradicts your friends and your peers, and you know it sometimes doesn’t make you very popular. I think it’s so important in order to become a great journalist, (to have) this kind of discipline that you look at things fresh everyday. You’re not indoctrinated by anyone. You don’t accept censorship, and you don’t accept indoctrination and you look at things. I don’t understand why people have to think in a group mentality. And then, what’s even more important, to have the courage to stand up and to stand by whether you are right or wrong – but this is your truth now, fight for it. Don’t let the peer pressure and the fraternity pressure or the sorority pressure make you betray yourself. There is nothing worse than betraying oneself. So for me, and again, I’m not saying I’m always right, but I make all my mistakes myself and with all my heart... So, I think keeping that integrity, again, in a very basic way, is crucial.
Kansan: How would you think the media impacts the war?
Shavit: The media today is so effective, so quick, but it doesn’t have the ability to give you context. So, it gives you just the immediate pictures – it doesn’t give you what’s around the picture. So, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t tell you who created the situation that brings about the death of children. It doesn’t tell you that Hamas actually fired rockets at Israel first. So, I don’t justify every Israeli move, I’m so sorry. First of all, I’m so saddened by what happened in the summer, and the terrible killing in Gaza, but it was definitely Israel reacting to a totally unprovoked attack by the extremist totalitarian organization. And, somehow, the media is attracted to the extreme picture, and they don’t give the context when Israel really does bad things.
Kansan: What did you think of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress earlier this week?
Shavit: Did Netanyahu give a speech to Congress? I ask people to listen to the content of what Mr. Netanyahu has to say, because I personally am deeply worried about Iran, and I think it will be a good idea if people would listen. I would ask people in Washington, in power, to listen to the people of the Middle East. When we are so concerned about this, we probably know why we are. We know the region we live in, and don’t dismiss us. Don’t overlook our concerns. On the other hand, I think that Mr. Netanyahu is making one great mistake: I think that, while his basic analysis of the danger of Iran and the risks of a bad deal is correct, the mistake he made, and he made it in Congress as well, was to make it an Israel issue. I think that too many people perceive now the threat of nuclear Iran is something that Israel is concerned about, that Mr. Netanyahu is personally concerned about. If Iran will go nuclear, it will endanger all of us: Americans, Israelis, Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, older, younger. This is an issue that I know that young people mostly are not, for good reasons, are not into – it’s not a sexy issue. It’s virtual and strange and seems remote... I ask Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Arabs, to rise to the challenge. It’s time to open our eyes. This is a very great danger. It’s true that it’s sometimes not pleasant to talk about danger and threats, it’s much nicer to talk about parties and good life. But, if Iran will go nuclear, that will endanger our parties in this country as well. So let’s wake up before it’s too late.
Kansan: In terms of your presentation this evening, what do you want the biggest takeaway to be?
Shavit: The one thing I ask people to do is wrestle with complexity. I think that Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East are very complicated, and anyone who is offering a simple, simplistic idea about it is wrong. The result of the conversation that I try to initiate [is that] people will go out thinking in a fresh way, not telling the thematic thinking on right or left or anti or pro, but wrestle with the complexity. I think, hopefully, we will have a discussion that is more intelligent, more civilized and deeper. And, perhaps, we will even discover that we can agree on much more than we think. Israel is a manmade wonder. It is the home of the homeless people. It’s a country that maintains democracy while fighting for its life, and therefore, while it should be criticized when it does wrong things, people should appreciate the astonishing, inspiring human endeavor Israel is. So, I’d like people to have an eye and heart to see that, beyond the politics.
— Edited by Mitch Raznick