by Richard Black
As part of his tour across British campuses with UJS, the distinguished Haaretz journalist and author of ‘My Promised Land’, Ari Shavit, spoke to a packed audience at Oxford University on Monday 12 October. His speech was as emotional and as politically immediate as any of his writings. His words were all the more striking considering the terrible outpouring of violence and distrust that has poured onto Israeli streets in these eventful times.
Everybody’s attention was captured by the moral strength of Shavit’s arguments for the legitimacy of liberal Zionism and a two state solution. He began by emphasising his family’s own intertwined history with Zionism and the land of Israel. Primarily viewing Israel as a safe haven which millions of endangered European Jews needed in the first decades of the twentieth century, he then layered his narrative with the histories of other Israelis whose stories have been marginalised – Mizrachi, Sephardi, and of course, Arab. His speech championed an inclusive history peopled with multiple voices, one in which all are autonomous agents – each worthy of respect, but also imbued with responsibilities towards the ‘other.’
He was especially careful to not only emphasise the Jewish narrative with which so many of us are familiar, but also the Palestinian one of humiliation and despair. He briefly addressed his controversial chapter dealing with the expulsion from Lydda in 1948. He decried Israel’s occupation since the Six-Day War, yet at the same time recognised Israel’s readiness to give up land for peace. He foresaw the difficulties of building a Palestinian state from scratch in the West Bank. He took no quarter and spared no prisoners. He attacked Likud and the Right for building settlements, but also lambasted the Israeli Left for their repeated naivety. His message to all sounded loud and clear; “both occupation and intimidation are unacceptable”, whether in the form of terrorism, delegitimisation or antisemitism.
The major criticisms of Shavit have centred on the tension between his Zionism and his support for a Palestinian state. Some argue that he recognises the painful history of Israel’s formation and yet expects Palestinian society to come to terms with it. One of these vehement anti-Zionist critics, Norman Finkelstein, has unfairly accused Shavit of justifying ‘ethnic cleansing’. But this of course grossly misreads both the history at hand and what Shavit actually argues. His critics would do better to focus on his proposals for reconciliation in the future rather than his honest portrayal of the historical, political, religious and ethnic fault lines that exist between Israelis and Palestinians.
The most striking part of Shavit’s talk was in the Q&A when he outlined what needed to be done to secure a two state solution and Israel’s position as both a Jewish and democratic state. Alongside former Shin Bet director Amihai Ayalon, Shavit has suggested a calculated arrangement carried out in three parts; an immediate freeze to all settlement building in the West Bank, a unilateral disengagement from strategically unimportant areas (in other words, not the Jordan Valley or the major settlement blocs around the green line), and a multi-billion dollar effort conducted with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to inject a ‘Marshall style’ plan of investment in Gaza and the occupied territories. He hopes that such policies would build up the economic and political infrastructure of an independent Palestinian state from the bottom up, as well as benefit Palestinian entrepreneurs, like at Rawabi, but on a much larger scale.
It is true that Shavit neglected Israel’s tortured political system, the lack of political capital and an inspirational leader seriously committed to peace (akin to the late Yitzhak Rabin) to enforce these measures in practice. Nevertheless, his ideas are imaginative and inspirational in their vision. They are in the best tradition of Israel’s founding fathers. Was it not David Ben-Gurion, who once exclaimed, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles?” The status quo is clearly unsustainable and it would surely benefit Israeli political parties across the spectrum to take Shavit’s considerations seriously.
On a more immediate level, Shavit’s words brought comfort to a body of Jewish students in Oxford who are embattled on all sides. They marked a rupture from the usual cacophony of hostile debates at the Oxford Union, as well as the week long hate-fest named ‘Israeli Apartheid Week.’
They also brought together a diverse Jewish and non-Jewish student community who have been so divided and demoralised in the past, often on a deeply personal level.
It was a privilege for UJS to bring Ari Shavit to our university, and I look forward to future cooperation between the Oxford Israel Forum, the new publication Zionish and any Jewish and non-Jewish students who wish to promote a more moderate and reasonable discourse surrounding Israel in Oxford.
Richard Black is reading for a master’s degree in Modern British and European History at the University of Oxford. He has served on the committee of the Oxford Israel Forum and has written for Standpoint and a variety of student publications. He blogs at https://richardblackshipofstate.wordpress.com/