Ari Shavit, an Israeli author and columnist for the newspaper Haaretz, one of the nation’s most influential newspapers, spoke to a group of about 300 people in the Union on Tuesday about Israel’s political strife and the role Jewish-Americans can play in alleviating the country’s challenges. The University’s Hillel sponsored the event.
Throughout the lecture, Shavit focused on three questions derived from his best-selling book, “My Promised Land”: “why Israel?,” “what Israel?,” and “will Israel?”
Audience members were organized into groups of 10 individuals. Each group was seated around a table and provided with a facilitator to lead discussion after Shavit’s responses to each of the three questions.
To address the first question, Shavit discussed why settlers founded Israel in the first place.
“They saw that the old religion-based anti-Semitism was replaced by a more dangerous race-based anti-Semitism,” he said. “So they saw the terrible hate and they realized they had to take action.”
Hillel executive director Tilly Shames said the interactive format allowed attendees to participate in the conversation.
“Too often, speakers come to campus and only three or four people have the opportunity to ask questions or have their voice heard,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “We know that students have a lot to say about Israel and we wanted to provide a space where they could express themselves, feel heard, and listen to others.”
While recognizing that the formation of a new country was a radical solution to avoid persecution, Shavit said the decision by many Jews to emigrate from one continent to another was the only way to respond to persecution and anti-Semitism in Europe.
“We need a place that is a powerhouse for modern, Jewish identity,” he said. “That’s why Israel was needed, that is why Israel is needed, that is why Israel will be needed, and this is so relevant to young, American Jews.”
Shavit stressed how impressive he believed Israel’s conception was, noting that it required “political genius” and sacrifice to create a homeland for the Jewish community. Israel declared independence in 1948.
However, he criticized modern Israeli politicians for alienating young people and abandoning the idea of a democratic Jewish state.
He said the left and right wings have failed to deliver hope to the Israelis, an ideal which served former U.S. President Bill Clinton well when he moderated peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“The one person who had a landslide victory in Israel is Bill Clinton,” Shavit said. “He was so popular because we felt he loved us, and he gave people the sense of good-willage that they never got from our own leadership.”
While discussing the array of challenges facing Israel, Shavit said the most difficult stem from conflicting political factions within Israel and their inability to find common ground.
“In my mind, the greatest challenge within Israel is to create a new kind of republic that has a kind of pluralistic unity, that respects individual rights, that respects each one of these minorities, but creates a kind of federation of these different tribes,” Shavit said.
Beyond internal issues, Shavit said developing better relations with the West, other Middle Eastern countries and Palestine is imperative to Israel’s survival.
“There is nothing more important than refueling and reenergizing the relationship between Israel and young, American Jews,” Shavit said. “We are totally interdependent, we will not have a future without you, you will not have a future without us.”
Shavit called upon the young Jewish community to create a new, energetic and more liberal form of Zionism.
“Only liberal Zionism will give us the meaning, the social justice (and) social cohesion in Israel,” Shavit said. “Only that will give them the energy, the tools and the confidence to belong to our people, to be proud of our people and to protect the future of our people.”
LSA freshman Emilie Weisberg said tensions about Israeli policies on campus motivated her to attend the lecture.
Last semester, the University student group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality lobbied Central Student Government to support a resolution calling on the University to divest from companies allegedly involved in human rights violations against Palestinians. The resolution did not pass.
Weisberg said she was impressed by Shavit’s call for young Jewish-American involvement in Israel.
“I really wanted to get some more information on how we can help be more supportive of Israel on campus,” Weisberg said. “People of the United States often feel that they don’t have anything valuable to add to an Israeli conversation and I think his stress on how important it is for Americans to have a say was really inspirational.”