In Global Agenda, journalist looks at Israel
Israeli journalist, historian and author Tom Segev addresses the Global Agenda audience.
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1:39 p.m., April 23, 2009----Journalist Tom Segev understood he had a daunting task in discussing the topic “Understanding Israel” - his native country - as the latest guest in the University of Delaware's Global Agenda 2009 series.

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Segev, a well-respected and prolific Israeli historian and author, and a weekly columnist for Ha'aretz, Israel's leading newspaper, spoke before an attentive audience Wednesday night, April 22, in Mitchell Hall.

The journalist told those attending that, in jest, his son informed him that doing a discussion about understanding Israel would be a “very short talk,” and Segev conceded that his task would be quite a challenge. “It is very difficult [for people] to understand the Israelis, because we don't really understand ourselves,” he said.

According to Segev, Israel is a diverse and deeply divided society. The country is divided on multiple levels -- religious, economic, and political. Despite this deep-seeded division, however, most Israelis share a common identity. The Israeli identity remained a constant theme throughout Segev's presentation.

Segev sees Israel as “one of the most fantastic success stories of the 20th century.” In its 60 years of independence, Israel has endured war and has suffered traumatic outbreaks of extreme violence, yet it has survived against all odds. However, he said it is difficult for some to stay optimistic in light of the dramatic changes seen in Israel over the past 15 years.

“A lot of people do not hold the same heroic image of Israel as in the past,” said Segev. “In reality, Israel is not the same country it used to be.”

One of the greatest challenges facing Israel today is the people's declining faith in the political system and in the prospect of peace. “[Israel is] a society that was once very proud of [the people's] democratic awareness and hope for peace, but much of this awareness has subsided to political cynicism,” said Segev.

Segev remembered a time where people would walk about with portable transistor radios in order to hear the news every hour. But, these people are now tuning into a more entertainment-laden media and paying less attention to politics than before.

“[Israelis], especially the young, are now less involved in politics because they no longer believe in the democratic system,” said Segev. “Unfortunately, they have no reason to believe.”

Just as many young Israelis no longer believe in politics and the democratic system, most no longer believe in peace. That is not to say that Israelis do not want or hope for peace. Segev acknowledges that Israelis still want peace, and are still willing to take risks for the chance of peace, but they no longer see it as possible.

“I grew up in a generation believing very strongly and realistically in the possibility of peace. But if you asked young people today if they can foresee peace in the future, they would say 'no,'” said Segev. “[The] reason is not that they don't want to believe, but that they have lost faith in the possibility of peace. Young people now are growing up knowing that their children may have to fight another war.”

This is a sobering message -- one that is bred from years of trying for peace and being disappointed and from continuing acts of terrorism. Repeated bombings and memories of the Holocaust plague Israelis to this day, he said.

Segev noted that April 21 was Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, a day devoted to remembering the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

“It is truly impressive the way our country commemorates this moment in our history. Sirens blow throughout the day and everyone freezes -- pedestrians, cars, everyone who hears the sirens. Life stops for two minutes,” said Segev.

The Holocaust is one of the essential elements of the Israeli identity, according to Segev. One cannot understand Israel without understanding the Holocaust and its role in the Israeli psyche. Israelis live in constant, genuine fear that another Holocaust could happen.

The Holocaust has influenced Israelis so strongly that even youths consider themselves Holocaust survivors. It is not rational thinking, acknowledged Segev, but he added there are many things Israelis are not particularly rational about.

“Israelis believe they are the chosen people. They think the whole world is against them. And their daily existential belief is that the more they are tormented, the stronger they will become,” said Segev. “These beliefs are essential to the Israeli identity. We are a passionate people that do not always think rationally.”

According to Segev, one of the reasons why it is so difficult to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically, is because this is not merely a disagreement about land, or security, or recognition; it is about identity.

Both Israelis and Palestinians define their identities by their countries. Therefore any compromise means one nation or the other will be giving up part of its identity.

So, where does this leave the chance for peace? This was the moment where Segev had to decide whether or not to leave the audience optimistic or pessimistic.

“At this point,” said Segev, “I believe we should not look for a final peace agreement, but a more simple aim of making life more livable for both Israelis and Palestinians. What we need at the moment is not a formula, but a more fair and decent management of the problem.”

Segev ended on a rather hopeful note, saying that Americans and friends of Israel can help Israelis by distinguishing between the government of Israel and Israel the country. Segev sees Israel not as merely a country of political unrest, but as “the result of a dream that has lasted over 2,000 years.”

The Segev talk was part of the 2009 Global Agenda series, “Tinderbox: Understanding the Middle East.” The next presentation will take place at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 6, in Mitchell Hall, and the speaker will be Daniel Kutner, Israel's consul general in Philadelphia. Kutner has been a member of Israel's Foreign Ministry since 1983.

Article by Blair Lee
Photo by Duane Perry