Roger Cohen and Ari Shavit have much in common. They are both prominent columnists for their respective newspapers — Cohen with The New York Times and Shavit with Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli daily. They each are the authors of recent, highly personal memoirs: in “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” a bestseller, Shavit writes of his strong Zionist feelings as well as what he sees as Israel’s moral shortcomings; Cohen’s “The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family” traces his family’s displacement from Lithuania to South Africa to England, the U.S. and Israel, and the toll it took, particularly on his mother.
Both he and Shavit are seen as sharing left-of-center views on the Mideast; they are self-described Zionists who are highly critical of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coalition for not being proactive on the peace front.
But the two men have their differences, as was evident at their first meeting, which took place last Wednesday evening. The setting was a Jewish Week Forum, titled “Can The Jewish Narrative Be Revived?” in front of several hundred people at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, sponsored in partnership with American Friends of Tel Aviv University.
Responding to the first question from moderator Linda Scherzer, director of The Jewish Week’s Write On For Israel program, on the controversial Iran nuclear deal, Cohen hailed the initiative and spoke of his “guarded hope” for its implementation. “I’m not naïve,” he said, noting that it could fall apart at any time. But he asserted that the agreement was a triumph of diplomacy over the prospect of military action, with Iran being scrutinized full-time by UN experts to ensure that it does not attempt to build a bomb.
“Explain to me,” he said to Shavit, “how this is bad for Israel.”
Shavit said his concern is not just Israel but the Western world. He characterized the deal as “the outcome of decades of failure by Israel, the U.S. and their Western allies,” a lack of leadership and willpower, and a product of pursuing the wrong war — in Iraq — rather than employing tougher diplomacy with Iran.
Looking forward, though, he emphasized that the U.S. and its allies must define clearly “the harsh red lines” beyond which Iran cannot pass. “Don’t let them cheat,” he said.
Cohen said he agreed with Shavit that major mistakes were made over the years, but he argued that red lines are already in place.
Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cohen said that President Obama, in his final year in office, “is not interested in a fig leaf” peace process that doesn’t lead to peace. “It’s illusory to think we’ll see serious negotiations” in the coming year, he said, and warned that Israel cannot remain both a Jewish and democratic state in the current scenario. He criticized Netanyahu for lack of “a good faith effort” to make real progress, especially when Salam Fayyad, the most moderate of Palestinian Authority leaders, was prime minister from 2007 to 2013.
When pressed by Scherzer, Cohen said he is willing to acknowledge that the Palestinians are equally to blame for the status quo standoff. “I don’t know how the leaders on both sides sleep at night,” he said.
Shavit spoke out against the U.S. and Western powers “turning a blind eye to reality, to tyranny and to fascism” in the Arab world. He said it is morally and politically wrong that “somehow [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas is sanctified” and Netanyahu demonized.
Still, Shavit, like Cohen, said that Israel cannot remain a Jewish and democratic state as long as the occupation continues.
He said “ultra-nationalists” in Israel are “destroying our home,” and asserted that “settlers are the ultimate anti-Zionists.”
Shavit said that even though there is no prospect for a full peace at this time, Israel should take several proactive steps to reduce tensions and enhance the climate for future talks. He called for the cessation of settlement building and the initiation of a Marshall Plan for Gaza, rebuilding homes and other businesses with the help of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.
Shavit has spent a great deal of time in the U.S in the last two years, seeking out and speaking to young American Jews on college campuses in an effort to close “the dramatic generation gap” in terms of positive identification with Israel. While their grandparents and parents still support Israel out of memories of the Holocaust or Israel’s early wars, “those under 30 are different,” he said. “They want to love Israel” but its policies are “becoming gradually embarrassing,” and the Jewish state, once seen as David, is now viewed as Goliath.
Shavit said “90 percent of young American Jews are progressives, and Israel alienates them when it is supposed to inspire them.”
Cohen, who described himself as a progressive Zionist, said he agreed with Shavit’s assessment about American Jewish youth. “It is tragic,” he said, “that Israel’s success and vibrancy” in society is “hidden by the continuing occupation.”
At evening’s end, the last question posed during the Q-and-A session came from a young man in the audience who asked what liberal Jewish students can do for Israel. Shavit called on all Jewish organizations to combine Jewish identity with progressive values, like human rights, social justice and the environment, and he asserted that an international Jewish Peace Corps could embody those values, serving people from Detroit to the Third World.
Cohen emphasized the need for courageous leadership in the Middle East, noting the accomplishment of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in the Oslo peace agreement, and the example of black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk in ending apartheid in South Africa.
“Put the future over the past,” Cohen told the student. “Look to the next half century.”
A final observation: Roger Cohen and Ari Shavit agree more than disagree on issues of Jewish sensibilities and Israel. But Cohen has a more critical, impatient tone while Shavit strives to highlight — and even embrace — complexity.
Cohen is a deeply thoughtful and luminous writer whose family history in apartheid South Africa and foreign correspondent experience covering the Balkans War have made him particularly sympathetic to the underdog; he sees the Palestinians in that role in the Mideast conflict, and he puts the onus for resolution on Israel. That perspective, and his insistence during a 2009 visit to Iran that the remaining Jews are more protected than captive, have made him suspect to many American Jews. But they do themselves a disservice if they don’t follow his nuanced Times columns dealing with foreign affairs, which appear regularly online — and may prove surprising to readers who think his views are predictable.
Ari Shavit has become the rock star of the American Jewish speaking circuit since the publication of “My Promised Land,” and he is admittedly “obsessed” with meeting and engaging Jewish college students about Israel. His words — written or spoken — resonate with his audiences because he is able to describe and transmit his fierce love for and identification with Israel while criticizing its government’s policies regarding the Palestinians. The implicit (and rarely heard) message: being “pro-Israel” is not a zero-sum game. You can be a proud Zionist without losing your moral compass; it’s OK to be both a fervent critic and defender of Jerusalem.
The importance of that point can’t be overemphasized, especially at a time when, as he said the other night, “proving to our young people that we are David, not Goliath” is “the most dramatic issue facing the Jewish people.”