Ari Shavit in Seattle: Defending Israel must be about the young people

Ari Shavit in Seattle: Defending Israel must be about the young people

By Joel Magalnick Editor, The Jewish Sound

Attitudes about Israel can be grouped into three different age groups, according to author and newspaper columnist Ari Shavit, and the gap, he said, is astonishing. People 70 and older can look to the Holocaust and see Israel as their safe haven. People 50 and beyond look to the 1967 Six Day War as an important moment of solidarity. “People under 30 are in a different world. A totally different world,” Shavit told a group of nearly 1,000 at Temple De Hirsch Sinai on May 28. “If we do not act in a way to win their hearts, we will lose them.”

Shavit came to Seattle to launch a communal discussion, titled “The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Campaign Against Israel: Bad for Jews in Seattle and beyond?” about the movement against Israel’s government known as boycotts, divestment and sanctions. This movement, which has gained traction in past years — on campuses in particular — “singles out Israel in the most outrageous way,” Shavit said, by people who claim to be human-rights activists. But “you realize it’s not human rights activity, it’s something else [when] 130,000 people killed in Syria is nothing, but a settlement is a war crime. I oppose settlements, but [they are] not a war crime.”

Shavit is a longtime columnist for the Ha’aretz newspaper, and while he sits firmly on the left, his recent book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” a history of his own family intermingled with the Zionism narrative, has caught the imagination of both the left and the right. Attendance at the May 28 event reflected that.

Shavit based his talk upon what he has seen on college campuses across the country while touring in support of “My Promised Land,” and what he learned shocked him.

“I talk to thousands of students,” Shavit said. “Many of the conversations were heartbreaking.”

That’s because on campus, he said, “Israel has become radioactive and they don’t want to bother with it.”

In a week where Hillel students received a standing ovation for their work in defeating a divestment campaign at the University of Washingotn, Shavit suggested that perhaps 10 to 20 percent of Jewish students on any given campus will be dedicated to promoting and defending Israel. The rest fall toward apathy or even antipathy. And that, he said, is a problem the organized Jewish community has failed to deal with.

Students “have warmth toward Israel, but when faced with this vile attack, they stand helpless,” Shavit said. “They don’t have ammunition. It’s not their fault. It’s our fault…. They feel abandoned. They feel abandoned by Israel and by the Jewish establishment.”

Should another war arise, like skirmishes on the Lebanese border or in Gaza in past years, “the campuses will be ablaze and our youngsters will not have the confidence to fight,” he said.

Also speaking was Rev. Kenneth Flowers, pastor of Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.

“BDS wants the destruction of Israel plain and simple,” he said. “To suggest that Israel is an apartheid state is an offense to those people who lived and died in the true apartheid state, South Africa.”

Flowers challenged the movement’s supporters to scrutinize any proposed boycott and to question whether Israel’s actions, in light of the full context of the situation, would hold up to such scrutiny.

Shavit noted that like any other country, Israel is far from perfect, and explained how events over the past two decades have pushed people away from Israel:

• After the Iraq war, the U.S. and other Western powers prefer appeasement to force in the face of a threat, “and Israel uses force,” he said.

• Regardless of where one sits on the matter, the issues of occupation and settlement are a lost cause in the eyes of the world.

• Israel’s religious politics are often seen as a theocracy.

• Plenty of well-meaning people who support Israel have painted it as a positive force but painted over the negatives.

“Israel is indeed a high-tech party and it’s great, but it needs to be put into context,” Shavit said. “We have to go back to a discourse that addresses the politics, that addresses the problems.”

Both speakers urged an end to internecine battles when it comes to Israel, and for this event 37 local organizations, synagogues and schools, led by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, listed themselves as co-sponsors. The Jewish Sound was a co-sponsor of the event.

“Be united as one and stand together against this vicious movement known as BDS,” Flowers said.

BDS supporters, Shavit noted, “are as dangerous as Iran, and perhaps even more.” But ultimately, it’s up to our own Jewish communities to rewrite the narrative and make sure that the older generations hear what college students and younger Jews feel about Israel.

“If we do not listen to the young people’s concerns,” he said, “we will not have them.”