Tom Segev

A Hundred-year Ceasefire among Enemies

Speaking at an event in Berlin, the Israeli historian and Haaretz journalist Tom Segev explained that most Israelis are in favour of "pragmatic talks with the enemy". Ariana Mirza met up with the "New Historian" and introduces his work

Tom Segev (photo: Stephan Schmidt)
Dialogue with the enemy? Tom Segev says Israel should talk to Hamas, despite the fact that the organisation denies Israel's right to exist (photo: Stephan Schmidt)

​​When Tom Segev began his historical research in the mid 1980s, the written history of the state of Israel was dominated by legends of heroic Zionist deeds. Together with other so-called "New Historians", Segev delved deep into the country's national archives and uncovered documents that sometimes told a very different, less glorious story. For the first time, a variety of chapters in the history of the young state were scientifically examined, including the expulsion of parts of the Arab population from Palestine.

The "New Historians" shattered many of the myths surrounding the establishment of the state and painted a very different picture of the political and military strategies pursued at the time.

Shattering myths

In his 1986 book, "The First Israelis", which has only now been published in German, Segev corrects some of the dogmatic assumptions dating from this time, including the one that claims that all Jews were equally welcome in the new Israeli state. He backs up his claim with references to documents that prove that Yemeni Jews were forced to live in tents while Polish Jews were given preferential treatment and housed in the homes of displaced Arabs or even in hotels.

Segev's research also shatters the myth that all Jews voluntarily and happily returned to Israel after 2,000 years among the diaspora: "Most of the first Israelis did not want to come to Palestine at all." He explains in his book that the Jewish victims of pogroms and persecution had no choice but to emigrate to Palestine or subsequently to Israel.

​​"It is more healthy to know how things really were than to cling to legends," says the historian. Twenty years have passed since he and the other "New Historians" set out to change the Israelis' understanding of their history. Because a number of television programmes in the 1990s focussed on the results of their research, their findings have since found their way into Israeli schoolbooks. "Things that are shown on television carry more weight than the written word," says Segev with a wry grin.

The 62-year-old son of German emigrants who fled to Palestine to escape the Nazis in 1935 has held on to his sense of humour even though so much of what he and other Israeli intellectuals hoped would be achieved in the past two decades has not actually come about.

Legitimised hate

Long-term peace in the region currently seems impossible; the two-state solution is a long way off. Like many people in Israel, Segev is disappointed by the way things have progressed since withdrawal from the West Bank: "My expectations are much more modest today than they were 20 years ago." According to Segev, there is daily evidence of the fact that positions are becoming more entrenched and opportunities for rapprochement are fading. He reports that it is now considered legitimate to hate the Palestinians.

The attrition of terror - which is not in any way a threat to the state of Israel, but which instead poses a daily threat to Israeli individuals - has fed the personal hate that is felt by large parts of the Jewish population for all things Arab.

A modest preliminary step to peace

Nevertheless, Segev goes on to say that the Israelis are much more pragmatic than their current leaders. "Like myself, about 70 per cent of the population are in favour of talks with Hamas." Speaking at an event organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin, Segev said that successful negotiations could put an end to the campaign of terror.

According to Segev, a "hundred-year ceasefire among enemies" would certainly not go against Islamic traditions. In order to achieve this modest preliminary step to peace, however, the "conflict management" practiced by both sides needs to improve drastically.

Segev's dialogue partner in Berlin, Prof. Hanns Jürgen Küsters of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, emphasised, however, that he shared Chancellor Merkel's categorical rejection of all negotiations with forces whose declared intent it is to destroy the state of Israel. In this regard, the recent news that Israel and Syria have been conducting secret negotiations since 2007 and that these negotiations are now beginning to bear first fruits is certainly food for thought for all involved. The historian Tom Segev certainly sees this historic development in a positive light.

Ariana Mirza

© 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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