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 United States

One of your books is called Elvis in Jerusalem, and it focuses on the very special relationship between the United States and Israel. Let's talk about that a little. What impact has this relationship had on Israeli culture, for example?

One of the things that happened to Israel is that it has become very Americanized, and it is still in a process of Americanization. It stems from the overall geostrategic situation. We are being supported by the United States. We belong to the sphere of influence of the United States. We get financial support, military support, political support, and over the years we have learned to identify very much with the American culture. We used to be very much part of the European culture, at one point even of the Eastern European, of the socialist world. We have learned to become part of the American culture, which means that we have small lunches and big dinners; and we walk around with these buttons on our shirts. Even the Hebrew language is heavily influenced by the American language. We use to say "shalom" when we come. We don't say that anymore, we say "hi." We used to say "shalom" when we go. We don't say that anymore, we say "bye." We are very Americanized today, and I think it's a good thing, because Americanization for Israel brings constitutionalism and pluralism and democracy, accountability of government, more efficiency, and so on.

It also brings one thing which I think we have overdone, and that's the free market economy, which has led to a situation where the gap between rich and poor in Israel is deeper, in fact, than it is in this country. We have a real problem there. We have taken our economy too fast in the American direction. We have become, in a way, a very cruel society. The concept of social-democratic solidarity belongs in the past. If you talk to a man like Benjamin Netanyahu, who is one of the symbols of the Israeli Americanization, you don't hear the same voice of Israel that you would hear twenty years ago. You hear the voice of America coming from him.

In your book One Palestine, Whole and Complete, you mention the debate within British and Zionist circles [suggesting] that the Jews should get a homeland in Palestine because it would be an outpost for the West. book coverThis is an argument that one hears here in the United States in the debate about American policy toward Israel. What should we make of that argument? Was it valid in the period with the British, and is it valid today?

I don't know if you have an interest to keep an outpost, a Western outpost in the Middle East in the culture sense. The British definitely had that interest, and the Zionist movement had that interest. The Zionist movement thought of itself as a European movement, and the country would be a European country. So I don't know that you really care for that, but the fact is that Israel has become Americanized also in the sense that all elites in Israel today are people who have an American chapter in their biography, so the economy, the academics, the science, business, the army, politics, the media, of course -- the elites are people who studied in America. I don't know that the United States is still pursuing that policy, but at the time, the United States actively supported that. There were funds to support that, as they do for developing countries.

This would be [during] the Cold War?

For example. Yes, for example, just the way you would support American movies, and American books, and American music.

But the book is called Elvis in Jerusalem because on the way to Jerusalem, there is a big statute, over life-size, of Elvis Presley standing there. There is, in fact, a sign -- if you turn right you go to Elvis; turn left you go to Jerusalem. What can be more American than that? Some people resent that -- not many. One of the things that it is unique about Israel is that we never had a strong anti-American sentiment.

Some people resent, particularly, [the American corruption of] the Hebrew language. To me the Hebrew language is being enriched by it. There are whole grammatical constructions that come to us from the English, and I feel that Hebrew has become a more sophisticated language as a result of the American influence. But, of course, we have some purists, like in France, or in other countries in Europe, who resent the Americanization of the Hebrew language. I feel that so far, the English language has had a good effect on the Hebrew language.

What do you think your books of history about Israel might contribute to the American debate about its relations with Israel, and, in particular, the Jewish debate within the United States?

What debate do you mean?

The level of support, the uncritical [stance]. Should American Jews be more critical of particular Israeli policies? Should American foreign policy be more critical of the policies of a particular Israeli government?

Yes. I'll answer both questions. First of all, one of the things which I find difficult to understand about the attitude of American Jews to Israel is that they tend to support every government, even if it's an evil government. The government we have today, the Sharon government, is really an evil government. But they support it because they say it's been democratically elected, and it's not for us to decide who is ruling the Israelis. They also very often identify Israel with the government of Israel. They say, "This is an anti-Israeli statement." Why? Because it is criticizing Sharon. And I'm saying, "No, it's a very pro-Israeli statement if it criticizes Sharon."

I sometimes say to Jews in America, "Give us the benefit you require for yourself. You don't identify the United States with Mr. Bush. Tomorrow you will have another president." The government and the country are not the same thing. You can consider yourself a friend of Israel, a supporter of Israel, but be very critical of policies which you would criticize in your own government. Israel now has a policy of systematically violating the human rights of the Palestinians. If you are for it, be for it. But if you are against it, don't hide your criticism because it is Israel doing it, or because other people are criticizing it. It's okay to criticize the government of Israel. It's not the same thing as saying Israel should not exist. And that's something which many American Jews hesitate to do.

Now, as to the U.S. government, I really feel that the U.S. government should not let Israel do whatever it wants to do. Right? For the last three years, we have a situation where President Bush lets Sharon do whatever he wants. Of course, it's more difficult nowadays to require that the United States protect human rights. You have invaded Iraq. You have a concentration camp in Guantanamo. So who are you to talk about human rights? But I still feel that we won't get anywhere in the Middle East unless the United States actively intervenes and doesn't support whatever the government of Israel wants to do.

How do you account for this lack of refinement, the poor quality of the analysis, which, I agree, the Jewish community is guilty of? (Of course, American foreign policy is different because that's more of a political problem.) Is it this confusion about Israel as a state in the Middle East versus Israel as the Jewish state in the Middle East? This confusion always revolves around Israel as a state versus being the center of world Jewry in its own eyes.

Basically, there is a certain amount of laziness here. People don't want to take responsibility. They don't want to be involved. They want to support Israel the easiest way. It's not easy to support Israel, but they want an easy way support it. I think that's the basic attitude. They don't want to be part of Israeli politics, they don't want to be part of Israeli debates, they don't want to say, "I support the dismantlement of settlements because I am for Israel." They feel guilty about their wish to see Israel withdraw from the territory. So it has become an anti-Israeli [accusation], but of course, it isn't. It's the most supportive thing of Israel to say, "Get out of these territories." But they don't see it that way, because it contradicts the politics of the government of Israel.

The easiest way is to say, this is a democratically elected government and so we support Israel and we support its government. But I think it's wrong. I understand it -- it's the easy way, it's more difficult [to separate the issues]. People in American have enough problems about deciding about whether to elect this president or that president; they don't want to be part of the politics of another country. They may also be afraid of the famous issue of dual loyalty. If they feel too strongly about the politics of another country, somebody might say, "Well, you don't really belong here. You are not fully American."

This is all very, very complicated for American Jews, and I understand that. I very often feel that with more support of Americans for the right issues in Israel, Israel might be a better country than it is now, if you wouldn't let us do whatever we feel we want to do. I mean, restrain us. We need America to restrain us.

What is the way to help that happen? Is it through works of history? Is it through reading Haaretz, your paper? Because it seems to be a real bottleneck that ...

You're making me a paper boy now, I'm distributing my newspaper ...

I'm not trying to give you free advertising, but as somebody who is interested in U.S. foreign policy and who has come to follow the internal dynamics of Israel, I find Haaretz informative in a way that one doesn't find in the American press or in the American Jewish press about the dynamics, the tensions, the conflicts, the possibilities ...

Haaretz is actually a unique journalistic creation. It's a quality newspaper. Many countries don't have that kind of newspaper; many large countries have only one. You have the New York Times, and most other newspapers are trying to follow that example. So it's quite surprising that a small country like Israel, a country that is increasingly becoming less European and more Americanized, still has this very European, very quality daily newspaper, which doesn't go for sensations, doesn't go for emotions, really tries to analyze.

It's very difficult to edit and publish a newspaper like that in these days of television, because you constantly have to decide, "What do I add to what the people already saw last night on television?" It's not easy. But it is surviving. It is not making a lot of money, but it is surviving. It is a unique cultural creation, among other cultural creations of Israel. We still have a lot of things to be proud of in Israeli culture, and Haaretz is definitely one of them.

How do you bring the dynamic that's present in that paper to inform the understanding of the Jewish debate within the United States about Israel?

You can just read Haaretz. You can read it on the Internet.

Yes, which I do.

Lots and lots of people do read it. Form your opinion, and dare to make the distinction between the government of Israel and the state of Israel. It is not impossible. It is not something you don't do for your own country. Do it for us as well. We are not the same. Israel is not Ariel Sharon. It's terribly important that you make that distinction.

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