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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Journalist and Historian

How does this synergy work between these two crafts [of history and journalism]? Does what's going on in today's world, in Israel, what you're reporting as a Haaretz writer, does that affect or influence you when you go back into the archives, the kinds of problems you [choose] to work with?

It influences in the sense that it dictates the questions to me. The situation today is so complicated and so difficult to understand that you need to go back to the origins of the conflict in order to understand what is this all about, why are we killing each other? You might understand it better if you go back to the origins of the conflict.

Now, Israel is, of course, a very, very complex society, a very, very deeply divided society, and it's a very exciting society. It's a very exciting country to be a journalist in, and it's also a very exiting country to study. The history of it is very, very exciting and challenging. That's why I like doing both things. I sometimes think that I would have loved to be older and cover 1949, the establishment of Israel, and 1948, to cover that story. Wow, that would be a great story to cover. So I couldn't, but I could write a book about it. So I felt as if I'm covering it as a journalist.

You are called one of the "new historians" in Israel. Who are the new historians, and how do they contribute to the dialogue in Israel?

Most of the new historians are elderly gentlemen by now, because it's an old story. It started fifteen years ago, or perhaps even before that.

That doesn't make you old!

No, it's old stuff they're doing; Israel started to open official archives.

Israel has a relatively liberal policy of opening archives; it's more liberal than other countries. Not liberal enough for my taste, but more liberal than other countries. Twenty or fifteen years ago it became possible to write Israeli history. Before that we didn't have Israeli history, we had mythology, we had ideology, we had a lot of official indoctrination, but we didn't really know what happened.

The new historians are really the first historians. They are people who go to the archives, take out the file, look at the document, and say, "Wow! This is not the way I learned it at school! It's all different! They lied to me!" This is why fifteen years ago all these books had such a shocking effect, because many people said, "This is not what we learned at school." This is typical for a young nation, and it's part of nation-building that the establishment would try to shape history and dictate history, and provide some kind of national mythology; but once you go to the documents to see what they really talked about in closed sessions you say, "This is completely different."

A group of us started to look at those documents and write these books. Some of them are connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some deal with other subjects. But it all turned out to be very relevant for today, because the problems are the same.

When you talk about the discrimination of people who came from Arab countries to Israel, for example, the non-Ashkenazi Jews, this is still very relevant today. When you talk about corruption in government, when you talk about a government that lies to the people, it's about the same subjects we are dealing with today. So it's all very relevant, and that's why it is so shocking.

History in Israel is politics, and history in Israel has an increased tension and importance. That's why these people were called "new historians," but I think they were really the first historians. In the meantime, we have new historians. These are the ones who proved that we, the first historians, were wrong, or argue with us, or say, "Well, it's really not that bad." They have more documents, and so on.

Next page: The Problem of Israeli Identity

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