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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The Problem of Israeli Identity

Let's talk about these recurring themes, because as you just said, and in looking at several of your books, I do get the sense that the same issues about Israel [arise]: Who are the Israelis? What is their relation to the Diaspora? What is their relation to the Holocaust? These questions recur again and again, and as you just said, part of the politics of today is to try to reshape the issues as the debate continues.

There is a debate on who is a Jew, of course, and there's no answer. We don't know who is a Jew. It is very, very difficult to define. There is more than one legal definition, and there are religious definitions, several religious definitions. There are historical definitions, cultural definitions. Who is a Jew? It is very, very difficult, particularly in a country that understands itself as a Jewish country.

We have a great number of debates on very basic existential questions. We really have a cultural war going on in Israel, and it has been going on for a very long time. It's a cultural war in the German sense, a kulturkampf, a conflict between basic values of a society. We have a conflict between basic values of a society. We have not yet decided what kind of a society we want to be.

Originally, we wanted to be a European society. Zionism was born in Europe, and was hoping to establish a European country in the Middle East. It didn't work out, mostly because most of those people who were supposed to come from Europe to live in Israel were killed by the Nazis. So the Zionist movement had to look elsewhere, and found the Jews of the Arab countries. They completely changed the nature of Israel.

Then it turned out that it is much, much more difficult to make peace with the Palestinian Arabs than the founding fathers of the country had believed, so we have problems of being Jewish and democratic.

As I said before, we are a deeply divided country in the sense that we have so many people from so many different countries. People in Israel speak 90 languages, or over 100 languages. It's a very small country, and to have a tremendous diversity of people, it's very, very difficult to shape them into one nation.

As you said yourself, we constantly argue about our relationship with Jews in other countries. According to the Zionist ideology, we want them all to come and live in Israel. So we have a problem: Do we want to protect their rights as Jews living in other countries, or are we interested in anti-Semitism that would make them all come to Israel? It's very difficult.

We tended in the past -- we don't do it anymore, but we tended in the past to understand ourselves as people who are completely different than the traditional Jew. We actually looked down on the traditional Jew. We thought that we were better people: we are biblical heroes; we are not part of the Diaspora. The term used in those days was "a new man," which is a concept that really comes from Soviet Russia, Weimar Germany, Fascist Italy, some kind of combination. We would be the "new man." You know: we are upright and strong and patriotic; we have a country to defend; we have honor; we don't deal in business, small businesses [like] the Jews of the Diaspora. We looked down on the Jews of the Diaspora.

One of the things that happened to us over the years is that we understood that you cannot wipe out 2,000 years of history. And so Israelis became more Jewish over time, in the sense that they learned to identify with Jewish history, with the Jewish tragedy, with the fact that some Jews don't live in Israel. And it's legitimate not to live in Israel. Of course, many, many Israelis don't live in Israel anymore, and they continue to be Israelis. All these are very, very complicated issues of identity.

It all rolls back to the question: Who is an Israeli? Who is a Jew? What is it we want to be? How do we live with a large Arab minority in Israel? Not the Palestinians outside; Israeli Palestinians, how do we live with them? How do we remain a Jewish state and a democratic state? How do we do that? These are all tremendous problems, and they are constantly being discussed, and they are part of our everyday lives -- almost, you might say, of the Israeli identity. It's a very Israeli thing to constantly tackle and argue about issues of identity.

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