More than 400 people gathered at Columbia University’s Upper West Side campus last night to hear Ari Shavit talk about his much-discussed best-selling book, My Promised Land, which recently won a National Jewish Book Award. The event, which was hosted by the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and was open to the public, filled one of the largest lecture halls on campus to capacity and had students and adults alike sitting and standing in the aisles. Columbia alum and Tablet contributor Jordan Hirsch moderated the event, challenging Shavit with tough, and at times quirky, questions.
Though a malfunctioning microphone and Shavit’s imperfect English were cause for some confusion, the author answered Hirsch’s questions excitedly and with conviction about the book he says has been on his mind for 20 years. “Israel was a narrative before it was a state,” Shavit told the crowd, “and the narrative became lost over time, and I made it my responsibility to recover and revive this narrative. My book is not an ideology, it is humanity.” Still, the evening’s discussion was much more of a political, ideological conversation than a literary one.
Audience reaction to Shavit’s views on suppressing a nuclear Iran and releasing occupied Palestinian territories was mixed, and a comment Shavit made about ensuring that ultra-Orthodox values are not imposed on Israeli society resulted in some uncomfortable mumbling in the crowd. Columbia sophomore Noah Schoen, who is studying Middle Eastern Studies and leads the campus chapter of J Street, expressed gratitude toward the author, saying Shavit “demonstrates to American Jews that a deep love of Israel and concern for its security can stand alongside condemnation of occupation.” The long line for autographs at the end of the event indicated that his fellow students were no strangers to this sentiment.
One question lingered, though. I asked Shavit why he wrote the book in English if his goal is to revitalize the lackluster Israeli polity, who, last I checked, spoke Hebrew. “A weird thing about Random House,” Shavit laughed, “is that for some reason they like to publish in English.” He went on to say that the book is for now written but unedited in Hebrew and will one day be released.
Until then, the future of the Israeli narrative, it seems, lies in the hands of Columbia students.