Author Ari shares Israel's triumphs... and tragedies

By Simon Yaffe

PERHAPS it is the British sense of fair play which imbues Ari Shavit's views.

After all, his grandfather, Joseph Bentwich, was a London-born Israeli educator, who won the prestigious Israel Prize in 1962.

And Joseph's father, Herbert - Ari's great-grandfather - was a prominent British Zionist leader.

Journalist Ari's impartiality towards his country is shown in his new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Scribe, 20).

The 56-year-old asks difficult questions such as why did Israel come to be? How did it come to be? and Can Israel survive?

"I was very close to my grandfather growing up," Ari said. "I found his Judaism to be the most beautiful.

"He prayed every morning and kept the mitzvot - but he did it in a liberal and open-minded manner.

"He was a romantic, but he combined it with a deep sense of Judaism. I felt inspired and uplifted by it."

It is this inspiration and his family's history of Zionism which made Ari decide to pen his new book.

He said: "I wanted to delve deeper into the Israeli 'condition', as I feel we have lost our narrative.

"Zionism had a very strong sense of meaning and purpose and an understanding of the Jewish tragedy.

"As time went on, Israel became stronger militarily, but its ability to see the overall drama and situation was lost.

"We have been bogged down by political debate and it has become an argument between those who feel Israel can do no wrong against those who feel Israel can do no right.

"What I have tried to do is write about the larger human context to enable people to have the ability to love Israel, but in a critical way and see its flaws or problem."

Rehovot-born Ari was not raised in a politically-active home, nor was he tainted with a particular ideology.

He recalled: "There was a very liberal approach of being tolerant, as well as free-thinking."

After serving as a paratrooper in the Israel Defence Forces, Ari read philosophy at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

By now, politically-conscious, he went on to write for the progressive weekly Koteret Rashit.

And, in the early 1990s, was chairman of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

The plight of non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel is one which has a particular resonance for him.

Ari explained: "I believe in human rights. I look for the balance in things and any person who lives in Israel or who had their children here must be respected.

"However, we should do the utmost not to let anymore come in. But those who are here should be treated in a just and decent manner."

Ari has worked as a journalist for Ha'aretz and now serves on its editorial board.

He is also a leading political commentator on Israeli television.

He added: "I love Israel deeply and I love my nation.

"Since very early on in my life I have felt the uniqueness of the Israeli condition, although I am not tribal or party political in any way.

"I feel I have been born into a unique country and into a people.

"The tragedy is that the moment we set foot in the country, the conflict began.

"We are experiencing a 100-year war and I am not sure it is going to end soon.

"I hope for peace and yearn for peace, but I have some doubts, especially as I oppose the occupation and settlements.

"The right in Israel has a point in some of its assumptions regarding the conflict and that it may not end, even if the occupation ends.

"My claim is that we have to address the possibility it will not - there will be some radical Palestinians who will not be satisfied.

"If peace can be reached, that would be wonderful, if not we have to look for a border for Israel that can be seen as legitimate by the international community.

"This would be the way to secure the future of a Jewish and democratic state without risking our security."

As a columnist, Ari challenges both right-wing and left-wing dogmas, and, does not like to be labelled as a "peacenik", despite his sometimes-left views.

He also admits that his existential fear regarding Israel's future and his moral outrage regarding his nation's 'occupation' are not unconnected.

Ari explained: "In the beginning Zionism was not a colonial movement - it was something for a remarkable people who were facing extinction.

"It provided a safe haven for millions who wouldn't have existed otherwise.

"The future of the occupation is a moral, political and demographic problem.

"We have to look at the complexity of the condition - if we do, then Israel will be able to prosper.

"The issue with the left is that they only focus on occupation and overlook intimidation - such as Iran - while the right focus on intimidation and overlook the occupation."

One issue on which Ari agrees with the Israeli government is the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.

"I have been alarmist about Iran for decades and I am sad to say I was right," he said.

"The one positive thing is that many of our Arab neighbours have realised that we are not their worst enemies.

"There is a potential for co-operation."

Ari, who lives in Kfar Shmaryahu, near Tel Aviv, with second wife Pima, is not observantly Jewish, despite having deep feelings for his faith and a pride in being Jewish.

"I am not willing to have ultra-Orthodox values imposed on my nation, but I have respect for every Jew and for a Jewish way of life," he added.

"I am not one of those secular Israelis who is against religious people."

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph