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 Holocaust

Your book on the Holocaust, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, is an account of the Israelis's evolving view of that event and its meaning. I have a quote from the book where you're talking about the Zionist movement and its decision about how to deal, or whether to deal, with the Nazi regime. This would be in the thirties. The question was, would they negotiate haavara ("transfer") agreements, that is, the agreements for transferring Jews to Israel [which also had the effect of weakening a boycott of German goods]. book coverYou write: "Ben-Gurion saw the debate between rescue and boycott of Nazis as a debate between Zionism and assimilation, between national interest of Jewish settlement in Palestine and the international war against anti-Semitism." So the same [debate] existed back then.

Not in the same intensity. That was, of course, a unique moment in history, and it's very tragic. It's more than embarrassing, it's actually a very tragic moment for the Zionist movement, because the Zionist movement should have rescued the Jews, but it couldn't. It was too weak. And so the Zionist movement just had to watch as 6 million Jews were being slaughtered. They knew what was going on, they knew what was happening. They actually talked about 7 million Jews who would be killed, while most of the Holocaust [victims] were still alive. So they knew that they had lost all this, and they were helpless to do anything. It was a very, very tragic moment for a national movement whose whole existence was based on the assumption that it would rescue the Jews.

So that's a question somebody had to ask. Some people have asked themselves after the Holocaust, "Are we still Jewish?" But, obviously, many people have asked themselves, "Are we still Zionists?" The Zionist movement had a lot of explaining to do. "How come we didn't rescue the Jews?" It became a very, very central, and very, very painful issue in Israeli politics, because some of the opposition parties accused the ruling parties -- this is all pre-state, but it was really the same -- they accused them, "You have not done enough to save the Jews."

I really wrote the book about that. In my book, my answer is that they really couldn't. It's a story of helplessness of the Zionist movement. But it's a very, very painful issue.

It was a painful issue. It was more than an historical issue. It was a question of people coming out of the Holocaust, arriving in Palestine, and facing the leadership, and asking them, "Why didn't you do something for us?" What do you say? I mean, it was a terrible moment.

This is one of the reasons why in the fifties, Israelis tended to ignore the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a taboo. People wouldn't talk about it to their children; children wouldn't dare to ask. This was a period of the big silence. The Holocaust almost didn't exist. It's only gradually, over the years, the beginning of the sixties, that people began to dare to talk about their own experiences, and also the historical issues. Gradually, over the years, Israelis learned to identify with the tragedy of the Holocaust, the victims of the Holocaust. Again, I think this is part of becoming more Jewish.

A key turning point in this was the trial about Adolf Eichmann.

Yes, in the 1960s. The trial of Adolf Eichmann worked as collective therapy for an entire nation, because for the first time, the state was interested in the stories of the survivors. The survivors had stories to tell which nobody wanted to listen to before. But during the trial, the state and the people became interested, and there was a demand for accounts. The Eichmann trial started a very slow process for Israelis learning to live with the Holocaust.

I guess this change involved making the Holocaust part of Israel's national story, as an account that had to be addressed. Somehow Israel was, through the trial -- the kidnapping of Eichmann, through its presentation of his conviction and hanging -- presenting that to the world, making clear that it was through Israel that justice was being implemented.

Yes.

That was a turning point for Israel, wasn't it?

That was a turning point. Also, the ability to do so. The victim who discovers his ability to, if you want, to avenge, to punish, to do justice. There was even some debate on whether or not to execute him in Israel. That deeply divided we are, some people even said, "Let's not execute him."

But over the years, the Holocaust became a very central element of the Israeli identity. If you ask somebody today what it is to be an Israeli, the first thing is to speak Hebrew. The language is very important. To me, it's more important than actually living in Israel. As long as you speak the language, which is spoken nowhere else, as long as your language is Hebrew, you're an Israeli. The second thing is a feeling for Jewish history, and that would mean the Holocaust. For many, many Israelis, the Holocaust has become a very central element of identity. There's not a single day without at least some newspaper mentioning the Holocaust.

Israeli high school kids go to Poland today to visit the extermination camps. When I grew up, we wouldn't talk about the Holocaust. We wouldn't even dream of going anywhere to look at ... you know, the ... And, today, tens of thousands of Israeli high school kids go to Poland to visit the extermination camps. The interesting thing about it is that the families have to pay for it. It's not the schools taking the kids to Poland. No, it cost a lot of money. It costs maybe $1,500 for each family to send their son or daughter to Poland. They feel a need to do that. This is quite amazing if you look at it historically.

What are the implications for that as Israel deals with its strategic environment? Bringing the Holocaust to the center of Israeli national identity must impact, feed upon, the insecurity that Israel feels being in a part of the world where it is threatened by all of its neighbors. Talk a little about that dynamic.

It's difficult. It's difficult, because everybody uses the Holocaust for every purpose, in every argument. The government uses the Holocaust to prove that Israel is in danger and that the whole world has a responsibility to help us and stand by us. Some governments, for example, the government headed by Menachem Begin, Prime Minister Begin, went so far as to say, "You, the world, you can't tell us what's right and wrong. We can't do wrong because we are victims. Even if we kill Palestinians, it's not for you to tell us, because you didn't prevent the Holocaust." "You" -- it can be you, a government, or it can be you, a newspaper, it can be the Times of London, it can be CNN, BBC -- "don't tell us what to do. We are the victims, and we will continue to be the victims."

Of course, there are people on the left who use the Holocaust. They say, "I don't go to serve in the occupied territories, because this is what I learned from the Holocaust." So people on the left and people on the right use it.

The difficult thing is to distinguish between genuine Holocaust feelings and manipulated Holocaust arguments. I sometimes think that if you develop the ability to make that distinction then you hold in your hand a key to understanding Israeli society. You have both: You have Prime Minister Begin writing a letter to President Reagan saying, "I am sending the Israeli army to capture Adolph Hitler in his bunker in Beirut," meaning Yasser Arafat. That would be clear manipulation. But you have a small country like Israel making a historic decision to build an atomic bomb. Why? Why do we need an atomic bomb? There is only one explanation. The explanation is there must never be a second Holocaust. Otherwise, you cannot understand why Israel needs an atomic bomb. It really doesn't, but this is why we started to build one. So this is genuine.

And you have genuine feelings in the population. I am writing now a book on 1967. On the eve of the Six-Day War, the municipality of Tel Aviv sent rabbis out to public parks to sanctify them, expecting thousands and thousands of victims in the war that was only a few days away. Only a country that has experienced a previous Holocaust can prepare so meticulously for the next Holocaust. That's true. That's genuine. That's not manipulation. And it's very difficult to know when do we manipulate the Holocaust and when it's genuine.

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