Yes, Israel’s getting Americanized -- but don't step on my blue-and-white suede shoes.
There are questions, Martin Buber tells us, that even when asked seriously, constitute “no genuine question but merely a form of controversy.” This formulation describes much of Elvis in Jerusalem, Tom Segev’s slender and ultimately slight consideration of Israel’s Americanization in the post-Zionist era.
Much of Segev’s book is devoted to reporting, without evaluation, public controversies over what the author terms “innovative ideas.” One such was contained in Ha’aretz
editor-in-chief Gershom Schocken’s 1985 call for intermarriage between Jews and Arabs in order to create a “true Israeli nation” (Segev’s phrase). Another was Hebrew University professor Israel Yuval's 1993 article comparing Christian Jew-hatred with so-called Jewish “anti-Christianism” and Jews burning effigies of Haman, the villain of the Purim story, to Christians burning actual Jews.
In 1994, Segev continues, the proposal by yet another Ha’aretz
editor, Hanoch Marmari, to repeal the Law of Return created yet another public outcry, and in 1999 archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University caused a noisy stir with an article in the Ha’aretz
weekly magazine claiming, in Segev’s words, that “seventy years of energetic excavation had failed to turn up any archeological proof of many of the foundational stories of the Bible, the Jewish people’s ‘title deed’ to its land.”
Segev devotes several pages to Herzog’s claim, which he acknowledges is not new, without ever assessing its validity or providing any context for it within the field of archaeology, where it remains a subject of controversy.
In addition to an openness to “innovative” ideas for their own sake, Segev identifies Americanization with a deemphasis of ethnicity and the overall secularizing and universalizing of Israeli culture. Ironically, his unsatisfactory book is, in some ways, itself an artifact of the imported American style – irreverent, breezy, charming, full of interesting facts and factoids, not deep.
His approach is selectively anecdotal and fragmentary, with stories strung together disproportionately to suit a polemical intent. Thus Segev recounts this tale. After Shimon Peres narrowly lost the 1996 election to Benjamin Netanyahu, an interviewer asked him, “What happened?” “We lost,” Peres responded. “Who is we?” the interviewer pressed. “We,” explained Peres, “is the Israelis.” And who won? “Those who don’t have an Israeli mentality,” Peres said. “Call them the Jews.”
And off we go into one of the post-Zionists’ favorite paranoid fantasies, in which too-Jewish Jews take the country away from those who want only to lavish all the blessings of Western secularism on this benighted land. Segev marks various signposts on Israel's worrisome “road to Judaism.” These include a provision for judges to consult “Hebrew law” rather than English Common Law when the existing Israeli statute book offers them no guidance on a legal question; elective Yiddish courses in high schools and what he sees as an overemphasis on ethnic bonding implicit in Israel mandating Holocaust education in schools. One might ask, So what's the problem?
Americanization has indeed wrought tremendous changes on Israel’s inner and outer landscape. Its “centerpoint,” Segev says correctly, is its emphasis on individualism, as contrasted with, say, Zionism’s tradition of self-fulfillment through service to the collectivity. Along with individualism comes an added emphasis on political rights, democratic norms, free investigation and expression, multiculturalism – social boons, indeed.
But, as Segev is aware, an erosion of communal and personal discipline comes along with individualism. He knows that Americanization also seems to encourage materialism, consumerism, pointless leisure activities, entertainment, “lifestyles,” ennui, a potential for economic exploitation and cynical image-making in place of truth-telling. He laments, as well, secular Israel’s obvious failure to create a home-grown alternative to “Jewish culture.”
Despite all this, he’s bullish on Americanization and salutes it everywhere. Perhaps most far-reaching, Segev says, has been the influence of the US Constitution on the creation of Israel’s foundational Basic Laws; he lavishly praises Chief Justice Aharon Barak for “working for a more American Israel,” though chiding him for being, he believes, still too concerned about preserving the state’s Jewish-Zionist foundations.
Another large part of Elvis in Jerusalem
– the title refers to a statue erected at a Presley theme restaurant off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway – forms a spirited defense of the post-Zionist “new historians,” among whom Segev, the author of four previous books and a regular columnist for Ha’aretz
, can be numbered. The new historians, by replacing “mythology” with “historiography,” have indeed usefully punctured some of the mythic certainties of Zionism’s first half century – in Segev’s view proving that Israel’s history was “less beautiful, less noble, less innocent, less just and less wise than the country had always claimed.”
Segev and his colleagues have demonstrated, for example, that Israel may have missed or rejected some early possibilities for peace with the neighbors; they publicized that voluntary or forced “transfer” may have been considered by some Zionist leaders, beginning with Herzl. More important, they uncovered “explicit expulsion orders” and other documents that, according to Segev, suggest that about half of the original Palestinian refugees were driven from their homes.
Yet even here, on what should be his firmest home ground, as a historian, Segev’s presentation is elusive and contradictory. He does not inquire how military considerations in a war of annihilation against the fledgling Jewish state might have driven the strategic choices of local and national commanders. Then he acknowledges that “most of the inhabitants who left their homes did so as war loomed or fled in fear from battle.” Finally, he admits that “the fundamental and absolute refusal of the Arabs to acquiesce in the Zionist enterprise itself” meant that
“[r]esolution could only be achieved by force.” If so, why imply that Israel’s treatment of the Arabs in 1948 represents a moral problem?
This breezy combination of historical investigation with Monday-morning quarterbacking undermines the trustworthiness of his presentation as a whole. Segev also seems nearly blind to the idea that historical facts are not the same as truth and that myths are not the same as lies. An army travels on its mind and heart, after all, not just on its belly. One can welcome the new historians’ correction of the historical record while still understanding the birth of the Jewish state as no less a marvel just because we know more precisely how it happened.
Segev is correct in saying that the two greatest influences on Israel now are Judaism and America. He hopes that one is the past, the other the future. But post-Zionists dreaming of a Midwest in the Mideast are as likely to be disappointed as traditionalists envisioning the golden arches of McDonald’s morphing into the two Tablets of the Law.
In fact, we don’t yet know, as Maoz Azaryahu of Ben-Gurion University wrote recently in the Ben-Gurion Research Center journal Israel Studies
, whether what we’re seeing is cultural conflict, cultural fusion or simply cultural confusion. Unfortunately, Elvis in Jerusalem, while a fun read, doesn’t greatly help to clarify our situation.