by Hannah Sharron, reporting on Israeli journalist – Ari Shavit’s UK tour, which saw over 500 students in five cities attend his events.
When Ari Shavit visited the University of Birmingham, I didn’t want to like him, but I did – and he taught me more about myself than I realised.
I tried to write about the talk the following day, but only a couple of weeks later, am I able to cognise everything that I heard and bring it together fully.
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During Shabbat UK, I participated in a panel discussion at Bushey United Synagogue entitled ‘How my Israel experience changed me.’ I sat alongside three other community members who have had profound experiences in Israel, and when the question was posed, ‘what is the greatest challenge facing today’s students regarding Israel?’, it was Mr Shavit’s talk that enabled me to answer fluently and in a way that reflected my true opinion and feelings.
Mr Shavit is a senior correspondent and on the editorial board for Haaretz, and is also the author of the 2013 New York Times bestseller ‘My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel’. Opening his talk at the University of Birmingham during his tour of UK campuses. he claimed to have ‘no Rabbi and no guru’, instead calling it as he sees it; challenging everything he hears, and angering his friends on the left just as much as his adversaries on the right (his words, not mine.)
I admit that I was not inclined to like Mr Shavit. I knew very little of him, other than that writes for a left-wing paper, Haaretz, which has frustrated me. I was not interested in being told that we have to return more land to people who will simply use it to build tunnels to attack us and launch rockets against us, or any other tired lefty argument. But Ari surprised me.
Mr Shavit is Israeli, yet he spoke flawless English. Eloquently he told us of his anger at those who label Israel colonialists, reminding the audience, predominately pro-Israel, but not without its naysayers – that the land of Israel was not created by emissaries of an empire, but by those who were running from the darkest of twentieth-century empires. He expressed his support for the establishment of the state of Israel, adding that the ‘real sin of Zionism is that it was too late’ to provide a Middle Eastern refuge for those who perished in Europe’s furnaces.
Shavit also acknowledged the ‘darker side of the story’: the failure of those Jewish refugees to see the refugees they were themselves creating.
He demonstrated an impressive awareness of what interests us as British students, touching on Scottish independence, speaking frankly about settlements as ‘Israel’s greatest historical mistake’ and the failures of Oslo, Camp David and the return of Gaza.
I was concerned that in attempting to appeal to everyone across the spectrum, Shavit would end up appealing to no one – not left enough for the hard left, not right enough for the far right – but he answered questions openly, and did not do what many speakers before him have done and twist the questions to suit his own agenda.
His closing call for new visions and new ideas was met with rousing applause. When asked about the two-state solution, Shavit told us to turn our eyes to Syria, reminding us that a one-state solution would require a strong dictator, who would inevitably weaken eventually; and in Syria, this had created ‘the worst human catastrophe in the world.’
‘Are you willing to make Israelis and Palestinians the guinea pigs for this experiment?’ he asked.
No answer was needed. If ever I need to defend the two state solution, I know whose argument I will quote.
Shavit was a breath of fresh air in a frequently stifling debate, appealing to a generation of moderate, rational, peace-loving students – who could be the ones to bring about change.
So when I came to answer that question on the panel at my shul during Shabbat UK, I knew exactly how to identify the greatest challenge we face as students today.
We grow up in schools and shuls that teach us to actively support Israel – as we should – but we are blinkered. We are taught that Israel and everything Israel does is right and good, and anyone who disagrees is wrong and bad.
Ari Shavit showed me that it is possible to love Israel and yet criticize her; indeed, that the most honest and justified criticism can be born out of love.
He taught me that we need to question and interrogate, and that we cannot teach our children to blindly praise Israel just because no one else is doing it.
If we aren’t part of the solution, we are part of the problem, and I believe that the underlying message of Mr Shavit’s address was that anyone who is unwilling to see two sides of a story – and be brave enough to admit and address it – is part of the problem.