The Washington DCJCC’s “Embracing Democracy” series nimbly adjusted to the fierce weather conditions of earlier this week and stacked two nights worth of programming into one extraordinary evening at Adas Israel Congregation as over 600 attended a 6:30 panel discussion on the history of the 1948 War of Independence, and then were joined by over 300 more paying tribute to Israeli journalist Ari Shavit and to hear him elucidate on themes probed in his run-away best-selling book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and The Tragedy of Israel” in a conversation with Leon Wieseltier.
The first panel, “EXAMINING THE HISTORY OF 1948” was moderated by Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at Slate, and featured panelists Donna Robinson Divine, Morningstar Family Foundation Professor of Government and Director of Middle East Studies at Smith College; Shay Hazkani, Visiting Scholar at Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society; and Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. What proved striking to many was the consensus among the panelists of acknowledging the moral complexity of the history; that the multiplicity of perspectives culled from Israeli and non-Israeli historians have created a composite portrait of the War as being both a war of independence and liberation; a war for securing existence; a war of heroic achievement and stunning transformation; and at the same being a war of displacement; of “catastrophe” for those evicted, expelled, or those who fled in fright or at the behest of their leaders. It was startling to hear of the “coerced research” that the Israeli government commissioned to prove that Palestinians left the land of their own free will. It was moving to hear of the range of letters written by IDF veterans over the course of a generation reflecting on their own journeys from European displacement to finding and securing a sense of home in an embattled new land. And the panel was lifted but also challenged by the philosophical questions, “Does it make us more moral to know about history? Does knowledge of history necessarily change our identity? Is Selective Memory truly a core tenet of Judaism?” Facts and history, it was argued, don’t create identity. “Values create identity.” Soon we’ll have a video to post of the lively hour-long panel.
The headline event featuring Ari Shavit held the huge audience in rapt attention. The achievement of the book, Leon Wieseltier contended, was in its insistence on a simultaneity; that the book is a work of “de-idealization, yet written with love.” It is a book “drenched in Ahavat Yisrael — love of Israel,” Wieseltier contexted, as it asks us to continue to reconcile our love with our disappointment” for a country that can never measure up to our hope for it. Our challenge is to “love the object of our criticism” even as we “criticize the object of our love.” Shavit picked up on Wieseltier’s embrace of simultaneity. “I am a hawkish dove.” (That is part of Shavit’s appeal). Shavit extolls the virtues of Israel’s founding generation, in spite of their blemishes and moral blind spots. “Our main problem is cynicism. We got tired and bored of our own story. We lost the big picture; our grand narrative.”
That grand epic narrative that Shavit creates for the reader is one laced with oppositional strands; of existential panic and triumphant euphoria; of mortal fear and expansive exhilaration. The centerpiece of Shavit’s book, of course, is the chapter on Lyddah, excerpted this past fall in The New Yorker. The power of that chapter — what it exposes — won’t be talked about here; it wasn’t described in any detail at the talk either. But the reading of it profoundly alters one’s sense of Israeli history. And yet it doesn’t shake Shavit’s core belief in the state of Israel, or his allegiance as a Zionist. In fact, it simply makes it more real. And Shavit insisted on contexting the brutal events of the conquest of Lyddah with the overall brutality of the decade of the 1940s and the brutality of the region in general. A distinction was made between goodness and innocence. The reason to tell the story of Lyddah is to increase the moral sensitivity of the reader, and to activate that moral sensitivity within the framework of doing difficult things in order to secure survival.
Some have begun to post their thoughts about the event. Student thoughts can be found below.