Tom Segev Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Israeli National Identity: Conversation with Tom Segev, Columnist, Haaretz, April 8, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Tom, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Jerusalem, and I grew up in Jerusalem. My parents came from Germany to what was then Palestine. They were refugees from Nazi Germany. My father was killed in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 when I was three years old.

Your parents came from Germany, your father died when you were very young; how did that background shape your thinking about the world as you were growing up?

First of all, I was like most Israelis in those days: a child of immigrants. Immigration is never easy. So, for example, my first language was German. I spoke German with my mother at home. Only at the age of three, or five or six, or whenever you start going out to the street, I learned Hebrew.

Interestingly enough, my mother never learned Hebrew, because many, perhaps most Jews who came from Germany never learned Hebrew properly. She really couldn't read what I was writing in the newspapers or my books. I have an dedication to my mother in the English edition of one of my books. It says, "Finally, she can read it." Like many of the first Israelis, she never learned to read Hebrew.

In addition to the war of independence, which you may or may not have remembered, what events that Israel went through stick in your mind?

The first war I can remember is the war of 1956, the Sinai campaign, or the Suez campaign. I can remember that. I can remember a number of times, fear of war. I can remember, obviously, the Six-Day war, and the Yom Kippur war, and everything that came after that. I served in the army, but I never [had] to kill anybody. I served at the National Defense Corps in my compulsory army service.

But I can remember fear, and I know now what I didn't know then, that it was a very European fear. People bring with them their culture and their fear, and I grew up to believe that we had lost a better life in Europe. I think that's typical of many immigrants. They will also tell you that life abroad was a better life. Many Israelis never wanted to live in Israel, they'd much rather stayed at home. My parents would have much rather stayed in Germany, but they couldn't. So many Israelis were raised with a feeling that life abroad is actually a better life. At times my mother would radiate some kind of fear of the war, which really wasn't our war, it was a European war, like she would buy foodstuffs and things which are really unnecessary in Israel. The [Israeli] wars are very short, and there's no need to buy rice and sugar, and she would do that, because she kind of lived the previous war. And I didn't know that.

Had they come to Israel after World War II, or when ... ?

No, they came in 1935. So they actually experienced the World War II scare in Palestine. There was a time when the people in Palestine, the Jews of Palestine, feared that the Nazi army might invade Palestine. So war to her was a very ... I would almost say was part of her identity. That's probably a very Israeli thing. War for us is very much a part of our identity, so somebody like me grew up from war to war. And to me, the most important war is the Six-Day War, 1967. To some other people, it's 1973. In fact, you can sometimes detect a person's age by what they mean when they say "the war." When they say, "This was during the war," you ask them -- we had seven or eight wars, and you ask them exactly what war, and then you know how old they are.

Before we talk about Israel and its self-conception, let's trace your background a little more. Where were you educated, and why did you decide to go into history?

I was educated in Israel. I went to elementary school in the Hebrew University High School, and I studied history at the Hebrew University, and then I went to Boston University to do my Ph.D., mostly because I wanted to be in America for a while. I was also fascinated by something which was then called psychohistory, which is "out," I think. But in the seventies it was very, very much "in."

Erik Erikson?

Right. Right. In Boston, of course, it was very much in. [You had] the feeling that you might be able to understand Nazi Germany just by crossing the hall and asking somebody at the Psychology Department, "Excuse me, why did they kill the Jews?" And they would say, "Oh, because their mothers and ...." No.

So we tried psychohistory, and it was a very exciting thing to do.

I always wanted to be a journalist, and I'm very skeptical about the possibility of being a journalist, because a journalist never, almost never, goes to the final details of the truth. If you do history you know so much more. I have the documents. If I do journalism, I can ask the foreign minister, "What did you say in that conference, and what did Mr. Arafat say in that conference?" They will tell you the truth or not, probably not. If you have the documents, you feel that you have the story. History and journalism are very much the same thing for me. The best journalism is historic journalism and the best history is journalistic history.

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