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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Israel and the World

This touches on another dilemma, another tension, another continuing debate in Israel, which is the debate about Israel's relation to the world community of Jews.


It's as if Israel cannot decide whether it will be saved by the Jewish community of the world, or whether it will be its savior. This is a tension that exists throughout the history of Zionism and into the present. In your book called One Palestine Complete, about Palestine during the British occupation, it's very clear that there was a division within the cabinet that issued the Balfour Declaration about what the position of Jews in England should be about Israel.

There were two Jewish members of the British cabinet, one of them was against the Balfour Declaration, which expressed support for the establish of a Jewish [state].

This is Montague.

Yes, Montague. He was against a policy that would support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the reason being, "I am British. I belong here. How can you tell me that my place is in another country? This is my country." Of course, Zionists had great difficulty recognizing that some Jews are Jews who live in other countries, and it is even the obligation of the Zionist movement to fight for rights of Jews in other countries.

Today, we are very sensitive to anti-Semitism, which is rising, for example, in Europe. But, again, it's difficult to know where is it genuine and where is it manipulation? We tend to say that every criticism of the government of Ariel Sharon is anti-Semitic. We say, "These are anti-Semites, these people in L'Express, or the BBC, or CNN, or whatever. They are criticizing Sharon so they must be anti-Semites." Which is, of course, nonsense, but we manipulate the rise of anti-Semitism for our purposes. When I say "we," I mean the government of Israel.

So, again, it's difficult to know when are we genuinely worried because of instances of anti-Semitism. We are worried. So it is not as if we say, "You have a very simple alternative: Come home to Israel. If you don't want to be persecuted as a Jew in your country, all you need to do is to come to Israel." We don't say that anymore. We recognize that Jews live in other countries, and we feel that we have an obligation to save Jews.

Of course, we like to do dramatic rescue operations, like the rescue operation of the Jews of Ethiopia and things like that. This gives us a very good feeling that we are protecting the Jews everywhere. We also tell ourselves very often -- this is a very frequently used cliché -- if the state of Israel had existed in the thirties the Holocaust would be impossible. I don't think that's true at all, but it is very frequently said in Israel. And, again, it reflects our attitude towards the Jews in the Diaspora, that we are supposed to defend it, to protect it.

So as a journalist/historian, how does one work at bringing light to the confusion that surrounds criticism of the Sharon government and confuses it with anti-Semitism against the Jewish people, on the one hand, versus merely a criticism of the particular policies of this particular government at this particular time in Israel?

If you are a leftist journalist you do it one way, if you are rightist journalist you do it the other way, it all depends. This is all part of Israeli politics.

You're not afraid to talk about it, though, and debate it.

About Israeli politics? I'm not afraid to talk about it.

No. But Israelis, generally, too, right?

Oh, nobody is a Salman Rushdie in Israel. We don't have any Salman Rushdies in Israel. You can say whatever you want; you can talk about it. I also don't buy the distinction some people make that you cannot say things abroad which you say at home. Sometimes you cannot say everything because people won't understand what you mean, so you need to explain what you are actually saying because they don't have enough information. But the world is an open world and a small world, and what you say in Hebrew you can say in any other language. For example, when The Seven Million was about to be translated into German, many people asked me, "Won't you be embarrassed?" I said, "I won't be embarrassed, because if it's true in one language, it's true in another language." So that's the way I talk about Israeli politics. I say abroad whatever I say at home.

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