The real tragedy of the public man formerly known as Ari Shavit is his deep betrayal of thousands of American Jewish college students looking for answers regarding the infinitely perplexing Israel-Palestine conflict.
Shavit was held up as a major role model by the American Jewish establishment — by Hillel International, AIPAC, J Street, the Federations, and others — and he turned out to be a true cad.
What does that say?
Last week, Shavit admitted he was the creepy, unnamed Israel journalist who, in the words of American Jewish journalist Danielle Berrin, “lurched at me like a barnyard animal, grabbing the back of my head, pulling me toward him.” After the story broke, both Hillel International and AIPAC suspended their highly paid speaking tours with Shavit for which he had already pocketed arguably more than $1 million.
Unlike a certain presidential candidate, Shavit didn’t deny the episode or call his accuser a liar. After having lost his journalistic integrity and trashing his public moral standing, he resigned Sunday from his posts as a senior columnist at Ha’aretz and a commentator on an Israeli TV station. Best known for his ersatz New York Times best seller, “My Promised Land,” Shavit announced he would take “full responsibility” for his actions. By then, another woman, a 26-year-old employee of J Street, had come forward with a similar claim. At that time, we also learned J Street had been aware of Shavit’s predatory practices since 2014 and callously remained silent, adding that organization’s failure to this debacle.
The rise and fall of the once-little-known Israeli journalist is as much a story about a deeply flawed man as it is about the American Jewish establishment’s flawed need to construct a savior following the release of the disheartening Pew Report on American Judaism. Along came Shavit’s little book and, voila, up rose a new prophet who could spin a good story when a good story was needed.
In many ways Shavit was a Frankenstein-like invention of the American Jewish establishment who had all the parts and pieces that mattered — a liberal Ha’aretz writer, AIPAC-J Street-Hillel-Federation approved, “Israeli-enough” but not “too Jewy.” But Shavit, like a cobbled-together man in literature, was lacking one fundamental element — a soul. Shavit was a fiction, invented and promoted to serve a perceived communal need; Shavit’s fatal need was his unremitting thirst to cash in and be deified.
And he did and was.
I know. I was the person at Hillel International who was tasked with organizing the Shavit campus tour. Last week’s news didn’t surprise me. He was a bully to my staff and several times I had to intercede. I made it no secret I considered Shavit boorish, arrogant and greedy — someone I called “a legend in his own mind.” Several times I suggested Hillel should sever its connections with him. His demands reminded me of a rock star diva — first-class airfare, four-and-five star hotels, a private car, and, of course, a hefty speaking fee. Shavit wanted Hillel to purchase tens of thousands copies of his book to pass out to students; only a few thousand were bought, all at the insistence of a wealthy donor. In fact, influential donors lined up to finance the Shavit campus tour. Hillels and other Jewish groups eagerly lined up for the chance to hear his liberal neo-Zionist message.
As a journalist on-and-off for 40 years, my nature is to distrust any anointed savior. I’d engaged with many “legends in their own minds” over the years, some well-known names. Shavit ranked right up with the worst of them. While planning his campus tour, I remember a discussion with the former campus director of a leading Jewish organization, who boasted about how he had turned “My Promised Land” into a New York Times best seller by purchasing thousands of books to pass out to students and, therefore, turned Shavit into a star. Following that lead, other Jewish groups and enraptured philanthropists followed suit and Shavit’s deeply flawed book became The Book — a Teflon sensation, the Talk of the Town.
I recall sitting in the salon of an influential and thoughtful billionaire, one of the funders of Shavit’s campus tour, at his West Palm Beach estate as he described how he had Shavit meet with family members who had grown disillusioned with Bibi’s Israel. Now what does that billionaire’s family member think? And how about the thousands of Jewish college students who heard Shavit? He spoke at more than 40 college campuses for Hillel International in the past three years, and has spoken frequently for AIPAC, including many of its student groups. He has appeared before thousands of Jews at local Federation events across the US. He has proposed, as if he were John F. Kennedy, the creation of a Jewish Peace Corps and was seeking to raise millions in funding for it. A good idea, really, but now doomed to go nowhere. He even has an HBO special on “My Promised Land” in the works. Will that now fly?
So many American Jews heard Shavit and were told he had the answer. So much time and money was invested and wasted in promoting Shavit by American Jewish organizations and philanthropists. Maybe, just maybe, a lesson has been learned from this scandal bearing his name. That one man does not have the answer to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. That there is no prophet with the answer. That there is no silver bullet.
A hiatus from journalism and a few word nuggets of apology are not sufficient to begin Shavit’s rehabilitation. He will have to find a way to do that privately with his wife and family. But here’s a suggestion for public redemption. Some of those funders who believed in him also support groups that work to combat sexual assault. Maybe Ari Shavit should consider donating the money he took in speaking fees to the groups who fight against people like him. And maybe he can go around and talk about what he learned about himself — and do it for free.