Ari Shavit is a pretty famous journalist, and WKND was way excited (read: intimidated) to interview a professional interviewer. We tried to play it cool. But actually: Shavit is an award winning author and nonfiction writer. Born in Rehovot, Israel, he attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem and went on to write for Haaretz, the oldest Israeli daily newspaper. (He has also written for The New Yorker.) His book, My Promised Land: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel came out in 2013. WKND sat down with Shavit to talk about his profession, his convictions, and Middle Eastern politics.
Q: When did you start writing?
A: I always wrote: I’m a writing person. I started writing as a journalist when I was at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I gave up on having an academic career — I was going to be a philosophy major. The natural choice was to start writing for the student paper. I was lucky that I was accepted to a progressive, small but high quality weekly. I didn’t have any struggle. From the university paper, I just ended up in the national media in a surprisingly easy way. How long have you been doing it?
Q: About a year? (laughs) What made you want to be a journalist?
A: I was never quite like a reporter in the aggressive way, trying to get the scoop for tomorrow’s headline. I was kind of a thinker, looking at the larger picture, looking at the macro rather than the micro. I loved interviews — my passion was to get to know people, talk to them. I think there’s ambition and ideology behind being an interviewer. You respect people and you try to decipher them at the same time. I never had an aggressive interview. Even with people I totally disagree with, I was always trying to understand their worldview. I wanted to get their inner grammar out, the language they speak to themselves in.
Q: Do you have tips for students who want to be journalists?
A: First of all, I feel for students who want to be journalists because of the terrible state journalism is in right now. I hope we’re experiencing the worst and that it’ll get better. I feel that there is a fundamental, intellectual need for journalism. I really believe that there is no meaning to democracy if you don’t have good journalism: Without it, the fact that we can vote is meaningless. What’s the sense in voting if you don’t know what you’re voting for, or if you don’t even have the opportunity to consider different ideas? And this isn’t because I’m a journalist and I’m biased. This isn’t a business and this isn’t even a profession. I sometimes say that journalists are unsacred people doing sacred work.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: Democracy is so important — one thing I can’t stand is any sort of totalitarianism, even intellectual totalitarianism. The need for free discourse is oxygen for me. I feel suffocated when that’s not the case. There are many journalists who are cynical, or aggressive — they have to deal with the rough side of life as well. Behind that, we’re all competing with each other and being, well, loud. That’s unsacred. But the function of what we do is really sacred — it’s doing democracy’s work in the best sense of the word.
Q: People have been talking about your recent article, “Liberals Look at the New Middle East.” How do you respond to your critics?
A: I think it’s our responsibility as liberals to deal with things that are brutal. A moral stance that is totally detached from reality is not moral. This is especially relevant these days in America, especially regarding the U.S. relationship with the Middle East. When you look at the world around us, there are no strong liberal forces or options in Syria, or Iraq, or even Egypt. I understand the American fatigue regarding the Middle East, because America tried to fix the Middle East using a lot of resources. People are sick and tired of the Middle East — they realize their attempts to bring benign, American ideals don’t work. There’s a tendency to run away from the Middle East, to ignore it. But I think this is a bad idea. I think that it’s important to understand that it will probably be impossible to have peace and democracy there in the coming years. We should try to make the most of what’s there. I think there are things that will make it slightly more peaceful, but that can only be done through wise American leadership.
Q: What work are you most proud of?
A: Probably the book. I had it in me for twenty or thirty years. Writing it was very rewarding but very demanding. It’s really a personal journey, and I was alone. There was no one there to assist me. I think I took risks, both content-wise and genre-wise. There are moments when you’re full of hope and self-confidence, and others when you ask yourself, what am I doing? It was quite an adventure. I miss that now. I already feel the itch to go back to real writing.
Q: Do you have a work that you’re least proud of?
A: Most of my life, I’ve been able to avoid personal fights and campaigns. I try not to get into pettiness and “bad blood writing.” There were two or three occasions when I found myself conducting personal campaigns. I believe that I was right in all these instances, but being more mature and calm now, I would have used softer terminology. I don’t like to be the crusader.
Q: Why not write heatedly?
A: When you fight power, power fights back. I found myself in combative situations. I don’t like that. I prefer to be contemplating, observing and seeing both sides.
Q: Can you describe a challenging moment in writing the book?
A: I think the beginning was particularly hard. There were several things I wanted to do: have a timeline, a story, and cover different aspects of the Israeli condition. I didn’t know how to combine the three. The first year was really challenging — it took me a long time to find myself, to find my voice. Once I heard my voice, it was roaring. The second most difficult part was the ending. One review in the New York Times says that my book reads like a love story and a thriller. The love is because I love my country with all its faults, flaws and wonders, and I love the people that I write about. The thriller is because it’s a bit like a roller coaster between pessimism and optimism. I love Israel, but I see that we are a challenged nation, that we’re living in turmoil, especially in the 21st century. Writing is hard labor, but it’s a labor of love. Honestly, I wake up in the morning and I envy myself. I have friends who make much more money and are more famous, but I would never consider switching for a moment. There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning and doing what you really believe in.
Q: So how do you reconcile wanting to tell true stories with wanting to give things a happy ending?
A: Well, in this case, I didn’t have to deal with boring facts — Israel is a gold mine of stories. We are the land of the Bible, which is not only the best book ever, but contains the greatest and deepest stories. What’s so powerful about the country is that it’s charged with meaning. So there was no need to change facts to make them more dynamic or romantic.