Surprised by Shavit? We should be surprised at ourselves

So now it’s Shavit. The same fellow who extolled Israel’s Cast Lead massacre and defended the ethnic cleansing of 1948, and whose recent book excused his country’s atrocities with paeans to a land where Jewish men, extracted “from the recesses of the previous generations’ humiliation,” were “tanned and muscular…like models of revolutionary potency” and where “the girls are surprisingly provocative…tantalizing” — yes, that same Ari Shavit has now been revealed as the man who crudely propositioned Jewish journalist Danielle Berrin.

No, that crashing sound you hear isn’t the collapse of Shavit’s reputation. It’s the shattering of the American Jewish establishment’s hypocrisy.

Because if all the pundits and critics who lionized Shavit ever since the publication of his book, My Promised Land, in 2013 — Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman, David Remnick at the New Yorker, Leon Wieseltier at the New Republic, to name a few — are really surprised by Shavit’s Trumpish antics, they have only themselves to blame.

Surely his own book signals Shavit’s real attitude toward women, who appear in it (when they do at all) only to be rated by the author for their sex appeal. But then, why would that detail surprise anyone either? My Promised Land, with its shameless rationalizations for Israeli power, its kvelling over Israeli nukes and breathless praise of Tel Aviv’s sultry night life, its equation of Zionism with “the adrenaline rush of living dangerously, living lustfully,” its glorification of the “training group boys” who carried out the massacre and death march of Lydda — what is this but a book-length apologia for Israeli machismo, as exemplified, in Shavit’s eyes, by the brutal seizure of Palestinian property that created the Israel he so admires?

Yet the American Jewish establishment made a hero of Shavit, heaping praise on a book crammed with stale propaganda and characterized (as Norman Finkelstein observed) by some of the worst prose since Elie Wiesel. And now the pundits are shocked — shocked! — that Shavit also grabs women!

Why weren’t they shocked by Shavit’s warmongering, by his patent contempt for Palestinians — whose ultimate sin was to have been weaker than the “tanned and muscular” Israeli Jews who took their land from them? Oh, no — the establishment types doted on him for those things, as did the journalists who blinked at the book’s gross factual errors (according to Shavit, Zionists never contemplated the expulsion of Palestinians until 1937, when in fact it was advocated by Herzl himself), so long as it seemed that Shavit’s apologetics for international crime might soothe their troubled consciences.

But if Shavit’s defense of Jewish gangsterism didn’t upset Jewish elites — not even my own Orthodox rabbinate, which claims to be more devoted to ethical norms than to Jewish nationalism — why should his sexism astonish them?

In the wake of Berrin’s revelation, and Shavit’s lame apology, a few voices —Times of Israel blogger Elana Sztokman, for one — have been raised to ask why Jewish leadership overlooked Shavit’s insulting attitude toward Jewish women for so long.

They make a good point.

But what about Shavit’s far worse disdain for the basic rights of Palestinian women? And men? And children? Why didn’t an ostensibly religious community shun him after he used his journalistic platform to cheerlead for the mass murder of Gazans in 2008/2009, and to denounce critics of the Cast Lead slaughter as “Israel-hating Israelis” who “believe that Israeli lives can be forfeited” because of their “hatred of their people and their homeland”?

Bottom line: the man the pundits and journalists and rabbis so gladly embraced was a Jewish Goebbels. They knew that. They just didn’t care. And now — maybe — they’re ready to shake him off because he’s also a Jewish Bob Packwood.

That’s not a lot to be proud of.

I know these are provocative words; they are meant to be. The years of work that went into my own book about Orthodox Jewish sex abuse cover-ups has taught me how easily Jewish leadership will overlook abusive behavior until it strikes too close to home. Maybe Shavit’s sexism will disqualify him, if somewhat belatedly, from the Jewish establishment’s pantheon of heroes. But I think we should be disgusted — should have been disgusted long before now — at the same establishment’s sinister double standard: abuse of non-Jews is okay (if it seems to strengthen the tribe); abuse of Jewish women is shocking (if it becomes too public to ignore).

To overlook the hypocrisy implicit in that mindset is to invite more Shavits. Does every one of them have to grope a Jewish journalist before we know what we’re dealing with? Who will we fawn over next? Michael Oren? Avigdor Lieberman? Yitzhak Yosef? If some of those Israeli warmongers turn out to have offensive personal habits, will we be surprised all over again?

About the Author
Michael Lesher is an author, lawyer and Orthodox Jew who lives in Passaic, NJ. His most recent book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014).
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