Sunday, October 30, 2005

Review of Tom Segev's Elvis in Jerusalem

One gets the feeling that when Tom Segev came to his English-speaking publisher with a book called A Post-Zionist Manifesto she looked at him and said it would never sell, better rename it something that will get the attention of at least some demographic who might enjoy the book. So they somehow came up with Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel.

The book is however a post-Zionist manifesto - but in a scary way. There are a number of reflections on the history of Israel and how its Americanization has led to taking Israel out of its Zionist roots and into post-Zionism.

The book also, however much a contradiction this might be, argues that most of Israel's roots were always post-Zionist. Though there is something very Fahrenheit 451 about the claim that Herzl was the first post-Zionist (p15) (like Ben Franklin was the first fireman). The book goes on to talk about how all of early Israel was really designed as a post-Zionist enterprise. And those things that did not start out post-Zionist like, say, Rav Kook-Style religious patriotism, was responsible for dragging the country in to post-Zionism (p91).

To be completely honest, the book managed to completely piss me off by page 6. There he divides Israelis in to two broad categories: the first is the separatist, hateful, bunch which wants to spitefully wallow in the memories of all the evil done to it. This is obviously an allusion to the right and to a large extent the religious, and certainly the religious right. The second group is simply characterized as those who follow the old adage of loving thy neighbor as thyself - the "Judaism of love and forgiveness". This is supposed to reflect the left.

But this is actually the biggest load of crap for so many obvious reasons. The Judaism that is the right can be construed in many ways that are not nearly as disingenuous self-righteous or inaccurate as this. (Not to mention the amount of logical fallacies here, eg, the false dichotomy, the well-poisoning, . . .)

Then there is the pervasive blame-Israel strand that is just typical of unreflective liberal thinkers. Take the following quote "But war is inevitable. Israelis have looked back a thousand times in an effort to figure out where they erred and what should be done in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past." (p37) So war is inevitable, but naturally Israel could have prevented it. That makes sense.

The book goes on to laud the new history and the new historians because of their wonderful achievements in discovering some facts in the Zionist archives. These facts shed light on the fact that Polish Jews were treated better than Sefardic Jews as immigrants (p129) and other such unknown facts. And of course we are told that the new historians are motivated by the purist of goals, namely truth, as opposed to the old historians whose work was meant "not only to prove the justice of the cause to the non-Jewish world but also to reinforce Zionism's somewhat tenuous position among the Jews themselves."(p 128) I find this somewhat hard to swallow. Not the latter part, mind you. There is no doubt that the early Zionist historians might have been motivated by patriotic ideals, but the plain fact is that the New Historians are as much motivated by their versions of left-wing (anti-)Zionism as the old were motivated by patriotism. Like E.H. Carr said about history: Historians come in with some a priori view of what they think and then they make the facts fit their version. This is more true here than anywhere else.

The book does have some points that are worth taking seriously. The dilemma that Israelis have been talking about almost since the inception of the state is stated as THE problem for Israel: that is how can one reconcile being a Jewish state with being a democracy. When there are too many Arabs, it will be impossible to have a Jewish democratic state. Personally I suspect that when it comes down to it, Israel will go for staying Jewish rather than staying a democracy. That is not necessarily what I want, but what I suspect will happen.

But is there a better way? Can this be resolved? Segev, as any typical left winger, has no real solution. Naturally the old solutions of Avineri and Buber are dumb. A binational state cannot make any sense without the full cooperation of the other nation, and this presupposes some common ground upon which to forge this. There is none. The type of bi-national suggestion of Sami Smooha is discussed at the very end, and rather pessimistically. (I personally find it intriguing, or at least on to something.)

Post-Zionism would seem to advocate that one drop the Jewish and just be a democratic state, and post-Zionists seem to think they are fighting against those who would choose their Jewish identity over their democratic identity.

In reality it seems like a sort of Sophie's choice, asking yourself which part of your identity you are willing to give up. This is a choice that no people I can think of have ever been asked to do. Either choice is a kind of spiritual suicide. It is incumbent on anyone who wants to deal with Israel on any fair level to appreciate the nature of the dilemma. I'd bet your average Israeli sees it this way. They want the comfort of preserving their Jewish identity and their personaly safety, but also the satisfaction of living a liberal life with the democratic values that they cherish.

Overall I was not impressed by the book. It told me little I didn't know, except that somehow there emerged a new-kind of Israeli left that sees itself in the right because it too knows how to rewrite history.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I think this book would piss me off. He sounds like Marc Ellis. Who is Sami Smooha and what has he written?

Karl said...

Smooha is a Sociologicst at the University in Haifa. If I'm understanding his proposal it vaguely resembles a proposal that give the Arabs in Israel, at least initially, something resembling what the French Quebec people want from Canada.

If that is not what he is saying, then I think that might be a good idea anyway. It is a very good kind of autonomy that might make a lot of people very happy, or at least as happy as they can be under the circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Israel has no Constitution, it would be hard to give arabs distinct society or distinct peoples status without an overarching document that deals with rights in general in some way. Or do you mean what French separatists want-like continuing to use Canadian currency and take advantage of Canadian government handouts while not giving back to Canada by way of taxes and such? Arabs with this idea will likely be told to go to hell by Israelis, just like the french are told to do so by english Canada. But if I take a deep breath and chill, I can kind of see how something like this may actually work in Israel. It's a very different situation and both sides actually want separateness there, where as in Canada we tend to want unification. I'll look Smooha up. Thanks.