From the Knesset to Atlanta: An Interview with now-Professor Nachman Shai

By Brett Kleiman

ATLANTA — Nachman Shai exudes a frenetic energy. Interrupted multiple times over a 90-minute conversation this fall, the former member of Israel’s Knesset roars back each time with “as I was saying” before a monologue about Israel, Zionism, peace, Iran, BDS or the changing media environment. All while Israeli news blares in the background.

Born in Jerusalem in 1946, Shai has seen a lot. For 10 years he served in Israel’s parliament as a part of the Labor Party, which “literally established the state of Israel, built the state of Israel and led the state of Israel for almost 30 years,” but he does not let that time in politics define him. “Politicians are coming and going, but I was not born as a politician, and I won’t die as a politician,” he says. “The question is, how do you use your life?”

MK Shai has replaced debates and laws with syllabuses and lectures as Professor Shai. A visiting professor at Emory University through the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, he hopes to engage with students on serious matters. “I came here to teach… I had a very successful political career, but like everything else, there is a day that you figure out you can’t go further.”

While he is on the Emory campus, his mind is on Israel. Shai worries that Iran is “quickly developing, I mean quickly developing, into a major threat to Israel. Not in a position to destroy Israel, but still.”

Israel’s economy also concerns Shai. “The government hardly functions for the past year. It’s time to raise taxes. The deficit in the budget is growing all the time,” he says. “We live in a dream. But it cannot continue forever. One day it will cost us.”

Having left a country where the prime minister is under indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust to spend the academic year in a country facing the impeachment of the president, Shai sees Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump as “similar and different at the same time.”

He mentions their similar behavior “to the media, the way they treat the other party, the other leaders,” and he notes that the Hebrew word smol (“left”) has “become a curse” under Netanyahu.

“In general,” Shai says of Israel, “the country and the people are moving to the right,” an observation that echoes something historian Tom Segev wrote in 2017: “Nearly seven in 10 young Israelis identify as supporters of the right.” That shift, Shai says, leads some Israelis to consider those on the political left, including his own Labor Party, as enemies of the state, which he calls “nonsense.”

“Many Israelis, many more Israelis than ever, would like to see a different person, a different style, someone that would behave differently” than Netanyahu as prime minister, Shai says.

Shai was there at the start of Netanyahu’s political career more than 40 years ago. “I had a call from Binyamin Netanyahu. I was military correspondent of Israel Television, and he was the brother of Yoni, who was in my class in school in Jerusalem. I had already my own reputation. He was new… He wanted to see me. Why? Because his brother had just been killed in Entebbe, and he was on his way to be the second in line in the Netanyahu family. He brought his papers, his materials and so on.”

By 1981, Shai and Netanyahu were both working for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “So here I am, watching a guy who is 27 when I met him, going up on the scale of becoming prime minister. And he built himself for that position… U.N. ambassador, deputy foreign minister… and in between also in the political circles in Israel he gained support.”

The lesson Shai takes from Netanyahu’s path to the top: “It takes time… You are not born prime minister.”

Netanyahu’s top rival through two elections in 2019, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, “has potential to be prime minister,” Shai says. “Whether he is ready or not, I don’t know. No one knows.”

He says Gantz’s experience as the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff brings knowledge of Israeli society and social issues, and the retired general has the “foundations” to be a good prime minister: “Very honest, open gentleman. His language is very moderate. He doesn’t incite.”

Shai knows about the military and calming the public. He was the chief IDF spokesman when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fired 42 Scud missiles at Israel during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Amid concerns that the Scuds would carry poison gas, Israelis were given gas masks and instructed on taking shelter.

“This funny face appeared once in a while on television, telling us to drink water,” Shai says, acknowledging that he was the funny face. “I was much younger.”

To preserve the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, Israel for the first time did not respond when attacked. The perspective of more than a quarter-century shows how important that period was, Shai says. “Our territory was penetrated by the enemy, and this represented a major change in the way we looked at our strategic principles of our security… The borders didn’t matter.”

Israelis remember Shai for those Gulf War TV appearances because, he says, it was “a national trauma.” Sitting up in his chair, he says: “You don’t really have to destroy Israel. But if you penetrate the air defense and you hit Tel Aviv, or you hit Jerusalem, or you hit the Lod airport, first of all you cause direct damage, but it goes much beyond. Because the Israelis will lose their confidence in the army, in the government, in the prime minister, in the state.”

This, Shai says, “is the new war. And the new war is on hearts and minds,” the very thing he wrote a book about and the focus of one of two classes he will teach at Emory in the spring. It’s a topic he has worked on for years: “Israel’s public diplomacy — the history, the present, what has changed, what we can do better. I treat this issue, not just the Israeli case, but also about other Western liberal democracies.”

Rather than lecture, he intends to develop a dialogue with his students in that class and in his second course, a case study on nation building. “Only a few nations have… achieved their national goal of being a state,” Shai says. His class will look at how Israel came into being and developed into “one people, one state.” He hopes that students will gain a “basic understanding of Israel, how it works.”

He wants to spread that understanding beyond the college campus by meeting with community groups.

“You see what we learned in the course of the years. I can say this because I am an old man,” Shai says. “It’s never black and white. It is always gray, a little bit gray.”

Born and raised in Houston, Brett Kleiman is an Emory University senior studying political science and international relations. He served as the president of Emory’s Young Democrats during the 2018-19 school year and has worked as an intern for the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel since January 2019.

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