“Would you consider running for prime minister of Israel?”
That question was posed with complete seriousness to author and journalist Ari Shavit at the 2015 URJ Biennial in Orlando, Florida, after he concluded another of his eloquent speeches that had consistently won him rounds of enthusiastic applause.
Watching Shavit speak in Orlando was my first and only encounter with him, despite our common employer. Like the thousands of American Reform Jews who hung on his every word, I knew Shavit only from his writing. And back then, I felt I knew him well after reading his highly personal and impactful book. That best seller, “My Promised Land,” breathed new life into liberal Zionism at a time when, embattled by angry forces on its right and its left, it desperately needed a champion as articulate and convincing as Shavit.
The book was showered with superlatives by the gatekeepers of American Jewish public intellectual life and Shavit became a familiar face on the lecture circuit in North America from the moment it was published.
I had heard of his popularity, but seeing it in person was still stunning. I’d seen countless Israelis do their best to connect with North American Jewish audiences, but never had I seen a speaker treated as a blend of rock star and Messiah.
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Witnessing that level of adulation firsthand helped me understand the depths of disappointment among American Jews when journalist Danielle Berrin – followed by other young American Jewish women – accused him of aggressive and transgressive sexual behavior.
Being present at that scene also made Shavit’s recent attempt to wipe the slate clean, by offering a grand apologia in the pages of Haaretz headlined with his words “I Was Blind to the Power I Had as a Privileged White Man,” ring disingenuous and false.
In the article, billed as a dialogue between Shavit and feminist scholar and attorney Dr. Orit Kamir, the fundamental sin to which Shavit confesses is “blindness” to his status.
“I began to realize that I had been struck by a certain kind of blindness. I was blind to the power I had as a privileged white man. I had always thought of myself as an ordinary person with a certain aptitude for thinking, writing and speaking. I had not seen myself as part of the establishment, nor did I identify myself with a hegemonic group or a power center. And I did not see the way I was perceived by others – men and women. I was not aware of the responsibility entailed in the success I had achieved and in the power I had acquired. I did not understand that when I thought I was being amiably effusive, I might actually be spurring apprehension and unease.”
Even if one were to believe that after years spent as a senior newspaper columnist and network television pundit in Israel, Shavit was still unaware of how far he wielded power, his power and influence in the American Jewish arena was unmistakable. I find it nearly impossible to conceive he was as blind to it as he claims.
How did Shavit inspire such adulation? It wasn’t only the fact that his book turned him into a liberal Zionist icon with whom American Jews identified – wrestling, as he did, with his pride and love for the Jewish state, while reconciling himself to the morally problematic acts done in its name and without which, he believed, it could never have existed.
In Orlando, after traveling through North American communities and campuses – he boasted of having spoken on 40 campuses that past year – he declared that while Israel was indeed a miracle, “the other Jewish miracle of the last century is you – the perfect Diaspora you created here.” Shavit told the crowd how moved he was by the Reform Shabbat services and that there was “much Israelis could learn from them.”
He vowed that when he returned to Tel Aviv, “I will be your ambassador in Israel.”
Again, these were not the words of a man who views himself “as an ordinary person with a certain aptitude for thinking, writing and speaking.” They were those of someone who thinks of himself as important, influential and, yes, powerful.
This influence and power meant the community that had embraced him so tightly felt deeply betrayed when it learned that its champion apparently viewed its communities and campuses as an allegedly acceptable hunting ground. After Berrin, his next three accusers were all affiliated with the advocacy organization J Street: One was an employee and two were J Street university student leaders who said Shavit touched them inappropriately against their will. According to their accounts, it appears he targeted the young women whom, he must have assumed, were so dazzled by him that they would be flattered by his uninvited and boorish sexual advances – or at least know better than to complain.
If Shavit was blind to anything, it was the depth of the betrayal and disgust felt by the Jews of his “perfect Diaspora.” Otherwise, he would never have attempted a grand comeback as he did last year on one of the most prestigious platforms of the New York Jewish community, as the scheduled keynote speaker at an Israeli Independence Day program at 92nd Street Y.
That attempt failed dramatically when the announcement of the event – unfortunately timed at the height of the #MeToo scandal – not only resulted in protest, but led additional accusers to emerge with new accounts of sexual impropriety.
Seven months on, the interview with Kamir was a similarly major gesture, this time in the Israeli arena. Presumably Shavit held out hope that the absolution of a prominent feminist – or at least the blurring of guilt – could pave the way for a full-scale return to the ranks of elite Israeli opinion-makers.
Just like the 2017 attempted comeback, this leap also fell flat, and it brought yet another accusation out of the woodwork – this one closer to home, coming from his daughter’s ex-girlfriend.
While Shavit prides himself on his respectful response to Berrin’s story, he has barely acknowledged the experiences of the other American accusers. And his most recent response to his Israeli accuser, live on Israeli radio, was angry, aggressive and unhinged.
It remains to be seen if there is still an audience that wants to hear what Shavit has to say. If it exists, the road back to the public square doesn’t have a shortcut back to the lofty heights he once inhabited. It certainly won’t happen without supplementing his sweeping apology to womanhood at large with facing and addressing the substance of the accounts of all of his current accusers – and any that might emerge in the future. And it can’t be shortened by Shavit’s clear sense of self-entitlement to reoccupy that position.
If redemption is possible, it will have to begin at a humble place and it will be a slow, steady, difficult climb with no guarantee of success. Whether Shavit possesses the patience, stamina and humility to withstand – or understand – such a process remains to be seen.