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Journalist Ari Shavit wrestles with complexity of Israel in ‘My Promised Land’

December 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the decades since its founding, the nation of Israel has seen wars, violent uprisings and attempts to negotiate peace. Margaret Warner sits down with Ari Shavit to discuss his new book, "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel" and his own personal journey understanding and acknowledging its history.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: This year, Secretary of State John Kerry embarked on the task of trying to settle the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talks with Israeli author Ari Shavit about his acclaimed new book, exploring that conflict and the contradictions he sees in his nation’s history.

MARGARET WARNER: Sixty-five years ago, the state of Israel was created from the ashes of the Holocaust. Its birth also uprooted, by U.N. estimates, some 750,000 Palestinians who had inhabited the land.

The decades since have brought wars, violent Palestinian uprising and Israeli crackdowns and many attempts to negotiate peace. Yet, today, the land remains divided, with the majority of the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and the unoccupied, but hemmed-in Gaza Strip.

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The family story of writer Ari Shavit spans Israel’s founding and history, from the days of his great grandfather, a British solicitor in art and scientist. Shavit, a one-time paratrooper, now a columnist, tackles this complex history in his new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.”

We spoke recently at Washington’s historic Sixth and I Street Synagogue.

MARGARET WARNER: Ari Shavit, thank you for joining us.

ARI SHAVIT, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”: Pleasure to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: The subtitle of your book is “The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.”

You’re a fourth-generation Israeli. Have you always felt that way, that there was a duality to the whole nature of this country?

ARI SHAVIT: Absolutely.

One of the basic things about that country that I love so much is that it is so complex. And, usually, the conversation about it is too simplistic this way or another. And if you don’t wrestle with the complexity, you don’t get it. You don’t get Israel, you don’t get the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you don’t get the Middle East.

The book is a personal journey of real soul-searching. On the one hand, Israel is an amazing triumph because it did build a home for a homeless people. So Israel is a remarkable success of the people that have saved themselves and have chosen life and are celebrating life.

The tragedy is that the conflict — and what my claim is, is that the conflict is not only about occupation and settlement. It is a deep conflict that has religious, historical elements, begins from the very beginning, because there was an inherent tragic flaw, if you wish, in this great success story of Zionism, and that created the conflict that created a kind of 100-year war which is still with us.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think the Jews, who had been an oppressed people, a persecuted people, could not or didn’t empathize with the Palestinians that they were in turn uprooting, as you so vividly describe in this book?

ARI SHAVIT: I think that what happened is that the need to have a Jewish national home was so deep, this was such a deep existential need, that the first Jews who went there, the founders of Zionism, were blind to the existence of others.

And, in a sense, this blindness created this conflict from both sides. We were blind to the fact that there is a Palestinian people. The Palestinians were blind to the fact that we are a Jewish people that has a right on that land. My hope is that we will get over this blindness and that will be the key to a real peace, not just a political peace.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you tell the story dramatically by focusing in on one village or town of Palestinians called Lydda, 50,000 to 70,000, that really on one or two days in July of 1948, they were evicted, some of them murdered.

Are you the first to really peel back the layers of the onion on that story? And was it a painful experience for you?

ARI SHAVIT: Writing the Lydda chapter was very painful.

I thought it was my duty, and I still think it is my duty as an Israeli, being honest about the history of my nation, to acknowledge the darker side of our history. But, on the other hand, I think it’s very important not to take that out of context.

One must remember that the 1940s were not 2013 or 2014. The 1940s were brutal throughout Europe, throughout the Middle East. One has to remember that wherever the Arabs, the Palestinians won, not many places, they evicted all the Jews, and in many cases there were massacres.

In order to be honest with our Palestinian neighbors, what I say to them, I must acknowledge Lydda. This is my moral duty. But it’s your duty to overcome Lydda, because one cannot be addicted to the pain of the past.

MARGARET WARNER: How much soul-searching is going on in Israel, not just among intellectuals and journalists, but in the population at large, about this?

ARI SHAVIT: Look, I think it’s very difficult for many Israelis to go through deep soul-searching because they feel endangered.

On the one hand, we are an occupying nation, like no other democracy. And we may have to deal with occupation. But, on the other hand, we are an intimidated nation like on other nation on the face…

MARGARET WARNER: Intimidated?

ARI SHAVIT: Intimidated.

So, occupation and intimidation are the two pillars of the Israeli condition. And, usually, people on the left in this country and elsewhere, and in Israel, focus on occupation and ignore intimidation. People on the right focus on intimidation and ignore occupation. We all must wrestle with both.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, though, that the Israeli political leadership could do more to help solve some of those external conflicts?

ARI SHAVIT: I think there is a need for all leaders in the area to try to achieve what I call emotional breakthrough.

If an Israeli leader will go to Ramallah and speak directly to the Palestinian people, recognize their tragedy and their pain and offer them a future, I think things might change a bit. It will not solve it. But the same applies to the Palestinians.

I want to see the Palestinian Mandela. There is no doubt that, had the Palestinians had a Nelson Mandela, Israelis would have totally changed. There is deep wish on both sides of people to move on, to rebuild a life for themselves, and try to put a lot of the anger and old ideas behind.

But one of the greatest troubles of both peoples right now — and I’m not talking about this specific leader or another — generally, for a long time, we have not seen worthy leadership either in Israel or in Palestine.

MARGARET WARNER: Can the current state of affairs, 65 years really, after the birth of Israel, can it continue indefinitely?

ARI SHAVIT: Absolutely not.

I mean, the abnormality of occupation — occupation is unacceptable for moral reasons, for demographic reasons and for political reasons. We have to try to end occupation with peace, what Secretary Kerry is trying right now.

But, if that doesn’t work, we have to prepare a kind of plan B, in which we Israelis launch a nation-saving process of ending occupation gradually, cautiously, with wisdom and creativity, while the Palestinians launch a nation-building process in Palestine, building a constructive, life-loving, and hopefully democratic Palestine.

MARGARET WARNER: Ari Shavit, thank you.

ARI SHAVIT: Thank you very much.