Not So Fast

by The New Republic | July 1, 2002

Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel

by Tom Segev

translated by Haim Watzman

(Metropolitan Books, 167 pp., $23)

An uncle of mine, the Hebrew poet Simon Halkin, once made a remark to me that I found memorable. "Zionism," he said, "was the only straight idea ever to have passed through the mind of the Jewish people. But when something straight passes through something crooked, it comes out crooked, too." These are crooked times for Israel and for the Jews. The temptation to conclude from them that Zionism was a crooked notion is, in some circles, growing. Zionism needs to be defended against its benders and twisters.

Tom Segev, a journalist and a historian who has published books on the British Mandate period in Palestine, the Holocaust, and the early years of Israeli statehood, is one of these. Though more judicious than some, he belongs to a group of Israeli thinkers and academics--known sometimes as "the post-Zionists," sometimes as "the new historians," and sometimes as the intellectual voice of the ultra-Labor Party left--who have been arguing for years that Zionism was, if not an outright mistake, a misguided movement based on myths. Segev's new book is his first to explore this thesis frontally. It is, though slighter in volume, a more comprehensive statement of his views than his previous works, whose anecdotal style it shares. (Its title refers to a new "Elvis Presley Diner" outside Jerusalem, its "glistening white, mythological, larger-than-life effigy of the singer" symbolizing, for Segev, American culture's grip on Israeli life.)

Segev enumerates five main Zionist "myths":

1. Zionism claimed, in the years in which it was struggling to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, to speak for the needs and the desires of the world's Jews and to be able to mobilize them. And yet in actual fact most of the world's Jews opposed it or were indifferent to it. "Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Israel today," Segev writes, "the Zionist movement's principal opponents were Jews. The movement did not succeed in convincing most of the Jewish people that it was viable." Furthermore, "Most Jews who settled in Israel did not do so because they were Zionists. They came as refugees ... reluctantly."

2. Even had it established a Jewish state in Palestine sooner, Zionism could never have solved the Jewish problem as it aspired to solve it. On the contrary: the worse this problem became in the Hitler years, the more helpless the Zionist movement was revealed to be. The severe British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1930s merely hid the fact that the country could not economically have absorbed large numbers of European Jews anyway. Hence a Jewish state in these years could not have prevented the Holocaust. Indeed, the "tragedy of Zionism" was that, "while it may have foreseen the catastrophe, the solution it offered was irrelevant... The Zionists certainly could not have rescued millions."

3. Israel did not rescue those who reached its shores after the Holocaust either. The million Jews from Arab lands who flocked to it after 1948 were not the beneficiaries of Zionism but its victims. Indeed, it was Zionism's conflict with the Muslim world that forced them to flee their homes. "At this point in its history $(too$)," Segev argues, "the Zionist movement did not serve as a solution to the Jewish problem. On the contrary, it led to the uprooting of entire Jewish communities."

4. Both culturally and economically, Israel has failed utterly to fulfill Zionism's dreams for Jewish independence. Culturally, it has been totally Americanized while at the same time becoming "more $(religiously$) Jewish," so that the Zionist vision of a vibrant Hebrew society, secular yet firmly rooted in the Jewish past, has come to naught. Economically, Israel is so dependent on American aid as to have become "much like the old, pre-Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land, which also lived off charity from the United States." The Zionist project of deurbanizing the Jewish people and returning them to the land has also ended in failure, for whereas "in the mid-1950s, 16 percent of Israelis worked in agriculture, in the mid-1990s only 3 percent did." The new Jew that the Zionist revolution proudly boasted of creating has turned out to be nothing more than a Hebrew-speaking version of any Jew.

5. The most central of all Zionist narratives, the hallowed one according to which Zionism was not a colonial movement but a saga of an ancient people returning to its biblical land, has foundered, too, on the hard rock of modern science. The Bible itself can now be viewed as a mythical document with no basis in historical reality. Segev quotes with approval the Tel Aviv professor of archaeology Ze'ev Herzog, who writes: "Biblical historiography was one of the foundation stones in the construction of Israeli Jewish society's national identity... Challenging the reliability of the Biblical accounts is $(therefore$) shattering the myth of the nation."

In a nutshell, the Jewish state has not delivered on a single one of Zionism's main promises. Segev does not insist, as do some of the more radical "new historians," that Israel was "born in sin" because it was built on the ruin of the Palestinians. In this book, he generally steers clear of the Arab- and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, which he views more as the tragic clash of two nationalisms than as the premeditated dispossession by one of the other. (He is enough a man of the hard left, however, to assert that "as a statesman $(Ehud$) Barak failed $(at Camp David and Taba$) because he tried to force the Palestinians to accept a peace of surrender.") And yet if Segev is right, Israel is something worse than sinful. It is quite simply unnecessary, an incalculable waste of energy, money, sacrifice, and blood that has increased the sum total of human suffering while luring the Jewish people down a side alley of history to create a redundant copy of America in the Middle East.

But segev is not right. The myths are, without exception, not Zionism's myths, but his own. Consider his first proposition. There is no way, of course, to determine exactly what percentage of the world's Jewish population, in the four decades between the first Zionist Congress in 1897 and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, supported Zionism, and what percentage opposed it, and what percentage was ambivalent or indifferent to it. Moreover, among Ashkenazi Jews, who prior to the Holocaust accounted for nine-tenths of world Jewry, these percentages varied greatly from country to country: Zionism was strongest in Eastern Europe, where Jewish populations were the largest, the poorest, the least assimilated, and the most threatened by anti-Semitism; and it declined as one moved westward to Central Europe, and beyond that to France, Britain, and the United States. From its inception, political Zionism was mainly oriented toward Russian and Polish Jewry. Zionism counted most upon the backing of these Jews because it was their plight that the movement most hoped to relieve through emigration to Palestine. One of Theodor Herzl's cardinal moments of illumination came when, a totally Westernized Jew himself, he realized that his real constituency lay in the East.

And it is for the East that we have the best statistics, largely because, in post- World War I Poland and Lithuania, where three million Jews or more than 15 percent of the world's Jewish population lived, ethnic-minority political parties--German, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian--participated in national, local, and communal elections. In nearly all of these elections, the Zionists were the strongest Jewish electoral force. In the balloting for the first Sejm in Poland in 1919, they polled 52 percent of the 400,000 votes cast for Jewish parties. In the Lithuanian elections for the first national Assembly of Jewish Councils in 1920, Zionist lists won 61 seats, religious lists won 54, and socialist lists won 23. Although Zionism certainly did not succeed in mobilizing all the world's Jews, it did impressively well in those places that were crucial to it.

It is true that in the course of the 1920s and 1930s Zionist electoral strength in Eastern Europe dropped. In community council elections held in Warsaw in 1936, for example, Zionist parties, while still winning a plurality, garnered only 30 percent of the vote. But the main reason for this poorer showing was that harsh British immigration quotas in Palestine, in gross violation of the Balfour Declaration, were undercutting the Zionist program. What good was Zionism if Palestine was out of bounds for Jews clamoring to emigrate? The "tragedy of Zionism" was not that it was irrelevant, but that it was betrayed by England at the very moment in history that it had become more relevant than ever.

Which brings us to Segev's second point. Is it correct to say that a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1930s, its gates open to any Jew wishing to enter them, could not have "rescued millions"? It is hard to see on what this assumption is based. Although Segev is right that such a state could not have provided millions of jobs and livelihoods overnight, jobs and livelihoods, which are important considerations for ordinary emigrants, are trivial for desperate ones. The tens of millions of Hindus and Muslims who fled India and Pakistan in 1947-1948, the Tutsis who escaped to Congo in 1996, or the Kosovars who poured into Macedonia in 1999 were not especially concerned with earning their livelihoods. They were concerned with saving their lives. European Jews had similar instincts.

Segev might retort that, by the time Jews were desperate enough to go anywhere, even if this meant living in tents and standing on breadlines, World War II was upon them and the exits from Europe were closed. But this is at best a partial truth. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, particularly in Germany and Poland, were frantic to get out before the war; more than a million more lived in countries such as Vichy France, Italy, Romania, and Hungary that were not occupied by the Germans until late in the war, and whose governments, although pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic, were not exterminationist toward the Jews, whom they would gladly have let go to any place willing to have them.

Unfortunately, in the years between 1939 and 1945, there was no such place. Had one existed in the form of a Jewish state in Palestine, large numbers most certainly could have been saved. Moreover, it is hardly a criticism of Zionism to point out that many of these people would have come to such a state, as many Jews did later, as refugees rather than as Zionists. After all, it was a classical Zionist contention that Jews would be forced by objective circumstances to emigrate to Palestine, whether they originally wished to or not. And had Hitler had the option of dumping millions of European Jews in Palestine rather than murdering them, as there was talk of doing at one point in Madagascar, who can swear that he might not have chosen it? While perhaps unable to prevent the Holocaust, even a territorially truncated Jewish state, such as that proposed by the British Peel Commission in 1936 and adamantly opposed by the Arabs, might have significantly mitigated the Holocaust's consequences.

Even wider of the mark is Segev's thesis regarding the Jews of the Arab lands who emigrated to Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s. No one can disagree that the panicked nature of this emigration was a response to anti-Jewish agitation and violence triggered by the Palestine conflict and Israel's victory in its war of independence in 1948. It is absurd, however, to believe that, had such violence not broken out, the Jewishly traditional communities of Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia would have preferred living as second-class citizens (always the lot of Jews in Muslim lands apart from the brief interregnum of Western colonialism), under dictatorial and economically backward Arab regimes, when they were welcome in a democratic and dynamic Jewish state. Morocco is a case in point. The one Arab country in which an appreciable number of Jews remained until the mid-1960s, it has almost no Jews left today, not because those who stayed on felt physically threatened, but because they were eventually attracted to greater affluence and freedom elsewhere.

One would never know from Elvis in Jerusalem that Israel--a hopeless charity case, according to Segev--is, despite a current economic downturn largely caused by the Palestinian intifada, one of the world's twenty-five most affluent societies as ranked by standard of living, per capita income, and productivity, infant mortality and longevity rates, and overall quality of life. Nor would one know that it boasts, after the United States, the world's highest number of annual high-tech start-ups (in which many billions of dollars of foreign venture capital have been invested, often with spectacular returns). Moreover, as its economy has grown and American aid has not, Israel has become progressively less dependent on the latter, which today forms a tiny fraction of its gross national product and could easily be--American military assistance excepted--dispensed with. Far from a story of failure, Israel's development in fifty years from an insolvent postcolonial state with few natural resources to an international technological power has been, under conditions of economic siege and intermittent warfare, a remarkable tale of success.

Nor could Israel have reached this level of development without a high degree of "Americanization." Here it is not so much Segev's facts that are incorrect--with its many shopping malls, sprawling commuter suburbs, and television and computer culture, today's Israel is indeed much more like America than it once was--as it is his analysis of them. Indeed, Segev simply ignores two of the three obvious dimensions in which these facts need to be viewed. The first is that, far from being peculiarly Israeli, "Americanization" is a universal trend. (Has Segev not heard of globalization?) The second is that this trend, if thought of in terms not of Big Macs and rap music but of the constantly accelerating symbiosis of corporate capitalism and scientific technology, would exist even if America did not exist. In many respects, the "Americanization" of Israel (including the attainment of once undreamed-of agricultural efficiencies that have drastically reduced farming populations all over the world) could just as well be called its Europeanization, its Japanization, or simply its modernization.

The threat posed to native cultures by modernization is similar everywhere. Since its impact has been greater on the lives of non-religious Israelis than on the lives of religious ones, Israel has indeed become "more Jewish" and less secularly "Israeli." But although this has led--as elsewhere--to much soul-searching about national identity, it represents no lack of foresight on the part of Zionism, which aspired precisely to a situation in which Jews would face the same problems, and within the same framework of the nation-state, as other peoples face.

There is, it is true, a special bond between Israel and the United States. It is one that Israelis feel, and are grateful for, today more than ever because of strong American political support at a time when Europe has turned against them. This bond is composed of many strands: America's large and politically active Jewish population; the fact that the two countries share an immigrant history that has led to a high degree of social egalitarianism and little in the way of class structure or distinctions; a restless dynamism and dissatisfaction with letting things stay as they are that is indigenous to both societies; and still other things. One of them is religion, a powerful force in the life of Christian America and Jewish Israel, but not in that of post-Christian Europe. Few Europeans, as opposed to many Americans and Israelis, take the biblical roots of modern Israel seriously.

Segev seems to think that biblical history has been debunked as a foundation upon which Jews can build a national identity. It is too bad that he is not better acquainted with the archaeological literature on the subject, which shows the "biblical minimalists" like Herzog to belong to a small but lately very vocal group that has on the whole been getting the worse of the debate with its opponents. If some biblical accounts, such as the stories of the Patriarchs, or of the exodus from Egypt, have not been corroborated by archaeology, and probably never can or will be corroborated, many others have proven to have a factual basis. At bottom, the notion that the Jewish people did not have a real biblical past in the historic land of Israel is today more a tool of anti-Israel propaganda than a proposition taken seriously by responsible scholars. It certainly has "shattered" no Zionist "myths." Zionism remains in this respect what it was and always purported to be: the extraordinary adventure of a people that, doing what no people ever did before, sought to save itself from extinction by returning to live an independent life in the home it grew up in and from which it was dispersed long ago.

Why are so many Israeli intellectuals, like Tom Segev, blind to this adventure? Why are they unmoved by it? What makes them feel that they are living in a provincial satrapy embroiled in pointless neighborhood quarrels rather than in the stupendous human drama that Israel represents?

The answer, I think, is that for decades now Israel has been living in a growing state of cognitive dissonance. For the first half of the twentieth century, Zionism was in harmony with the rest of the Western world. This was a time of great collective movements and struggles-- nationalism, socialism, communism, fascism, anti-colonialism, two terrible wars in which the world's democracies fought together--of which Zionism was one, and was also often associated with some of the others. The necessary allegiance of the individual to something greater than himself was an axiom of the ideological age. Although Zionism did not lack its intellectual enemies--many of them, as Segev rightly points out, were Jews--it was part and parcel of the spirit of its time.

This spirit began to wane in the 1950s, and it was dead by the mid-1970s. All the great "isms" of twentieth-century history now seem as distant as white gloves and gray fedoras. Collective allegiances have gone out of style, in Paris as in New York, in Moscow as in London. Even after September 11, European and American societies function well without them. Indeed, in an age of consumer capitalism they function even better without them. There is only one small corner of the Western world in which such allegiances are still needed for survival. If they erode there too, as they show worrisome signs of doing, Israel may one day lack the will to defend itself against enemies who do not belong to the Western world.

One feels in the writing of an Israeli intellectual such as Segev the (probably unconscious) preparation for that day. This is where the cognitive dissonance comes in. To say that "Israel is a special and wondrous achievement for which I am no longer willing to bear my share of the burden" is a difficult, if honest, thing to do. It is easier to write a book saying, "Israel? A poor man's America on the Mediterranean! It will be sad if it goes under--after all, it too has a right to live--but the Jewish people, let alone the rest of humanity, will manage quite nicely without it. It's certainly nothing that a Western intellectual like myself would let himself be pushed back into the Zionist womb for." The words that I have italicized are taken from Segev's book.

About one thing Segev is right. Not only is Israel, as he would like it to be, a part of Western civilization, but it cannot survive unless it adheres to the ways of the West: individual freedom, human rights, rational thought, scientific inquiry, technological innovation, economic opportunity. These alone are the things that give it a competitive edge over the Arabs. Yet they also place it in a paradoxical position. For the same Western world to whose basic values Israel must cling if it is to stand a fighting chance has spawned other values that threaten to sap its will to fight. The "Americanization" that can safeguard Israel the most is not the one that Segev has in mind. It is to be found in the fact that, of all the world's free countries, Israel and America alone still stand today for an idea--and that this idea, although it is not the same in each case, holds in both cases that history has tasks for peoples that it is their responsibility to shoulder. Whether this task, in the case of the Jewish people, is called Zionism or something else is not important. What matters is that it not be shirked.

By Hillel Halkin

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