Shavit's fair view on Israel is a call to action

By Nicholas Saphir, March 7, 2014

No one who has read the Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, will doubt that he writes with both hands. His analysis takes the reader from the late 19th-century through the eyes of real people and dumps shovel-loads of blame on both Jews and Arabs in equal proportions. We arrive at the end weighed down by the enormity of the baggage that both sides bring to the current peace negotiations and there will be no quick and easy resolution to the 70-year conflict.

On the one hand, his account of the magnificence and chutzpah of the Zionist vision stirs deep passionate emotions of pride and gratitude for those generations who devoted their lives to establishing and building a Jewish homeland.

On the other hand, his account of the Naqba of 1948 through the eyes of individual Palestinians, coupled with the ongoing Palestinian tragedy, calls for a fair and just, two-state solution.

However, the abiding message that I came away with, after hearing Jonathan Freedland interview Ari Shavit at Jewish Book Week last week, was his challenge to both Israelis and diaspora Jews, to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state.

Shavit argues the case by insisting that “Jewish and democratic” requires the obvious need to deal with the occupation but his main and overriding message is that this is not the palliative that solves the problem.
His accumulation of personal stories clearly demonstrates the need for Israel to succeed in delivering a state that provides fundamental equality and social justice for all its citizens regardless of tribe, religion, gender and cultural background.

His is the uncomfortable message of a journey that has only just started to reach the foothills of a long march. His is no easy and superficial message of hope, but a deep cry for openness, charity and tolerance and a recognition that Israel cannot live by the sword alone in securing its long-term survival.

Whether Kerry, Netanyahu and Abbas deliver a peace treaty or not, New Israel Fund recognises that its work will be even more important in the years ahead. Over the years, we have helped create some 800 organisations that have been instrumental in challenging wrongs and encouraging change.

Women’s rights, including our work with Charedi and Bedouin women, are changing old traditional ways of life and delivering enormous social and economic improvement for many Israelis.

The fight for religious pluralism is vital in putting to rights the political deal-making that has delivered a social order completely out of touch with today’s realities and needs. Our work with Israel’s minorities is critical in delivering a society that will stand a chance to be at peace with itself whatever happens outside its borders.

However, all of this now needs to come together in a cohesive working blueprint, which we at NIF are committed to providing through further funding and development of strategic thought leadership.

We will increase our work in building a strong political, pluralistic and vibrant democracy from municipal to national level. We have to focus our funds and grantees on structurally narrowing the economic gap between rich and poor that has seen Israel right at the bottom of the OECD tables.

We have to nurture the increasing political moves towards religious pluralism and ensure inclusive citizenship for all, while maintaining the state’s Jewish identity.

My thanks go to Ari Shavit for disappointing the reader. His ending is no upbeat promise that God or fate will smile benevolently on Israel. He argues that the future is in our hands.

In the short term it may well depend on Jabotinsky’s “ring of iron”. However, the necessary burden will become an increasingly urgent need to answer the difficult questions at the future heart of the state.

The only answer that bears contemplating is committing ourselves wholeheartedly to supporting Israelis who are working tirelessly to deliver equality and social justice for all of Israel’s citizens and by so doing prove the enlightened possibility of being both Jewish and democratic.

Nicholas Saphir is chairman of the New Israel Fund

Last updated: 3:45pm, March 7 2014