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Israeli historian Tom Segev on the founding of the state of Israel

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to To the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you today from Jerusalem. I’m now joined by Tom Segev. He’s a renowned Israeli historian, contributor to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. He’s the author of the book 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So, as we travel around the Middle East, we’ve been in Beirut and we’ve talked to Palestinian refugees, we’ve talked to historians and other people, and we get two basic narratives about where Israel came from. First narrative is persecuted Jews in Europe [inaudible] came to the Middle East. Some Jews were already living in the Middle East, persecuted by Arabs, and they needed a state to defend themselves from anti-Semitism, more or less on all sides. The other narrative which we hear as we travel, amongst some of the Arab historians and others, that Israel is a colonial project, began early in the 20th century, and this colonial project took advantage of the fact that Jews have been persecuted in Europe and some other places. So as a historian, what does the evidence—which version, which narrative does the evidence support?

SEGEV: You will hear both these narratives also in Israel [inaudible] Israelis. We argue about everything, and we also argue a lot about our history. I think that both these narratives are true and untrue at the same time. They don’t really contradict as much as it seems when you pose the question. Jews for thousands of years cherished a hope to return to the land of Israel. That was the essence of Jewish religion and Jewish identity all over the world. The Zionist movement, which began sometime in the 19th century and transformed that age-long aspiration into a political ideology, and then actually into a political movement, was based on these ancient hopes. So that’s no invention. Also, Jews had been persecuted wherever they lived. So that’s no problem in history. When the Zionist movement looked for support, it looked for support among countries which [were], as most world powers were at that time, colonial powers. They looked for support in Germany and didn’t get it, in Russia and didn’t get it. They looked for support in France and didn’t get it. Eventually they got support in England, which, of course, was the colonial power at the beginning of the 20th century, and the British supported the Zionist movement. That lasted for about 20 years.

JAY: And this is the Balfour Declaration.

SEGEV: This is the Balfour Declaration of 1917 stating that the British government views with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, meaning, really, a Jewish state.

JAY: And why was it in the British interest to declare such a thing?

SEGEV: Many people thought that it wasn’t, even then. Actually, when you go to the archives, you see that they abound with letters and reports and memos and telegrams, all coming from the British military stationed in Egypt, warning the British government: stay out of Palestine; Palestine means trouble; don’t move into Palestine. And the politicians in London, the decision-makers in London, overruled the army and decided to support Zionism in spite of these warnings.

JAY: Now, for viewers that may not know this history—I hope I’m correct—at this time, the Ottoman Empire had broken up and the British had a mandate to—.

SEGEV: This was before the mandate. This was actually in World War I when the British had to decide: do we want to take Palestine and take upon ourselves the mandate to rule Palestine? They decided that they do. But then you would still wonder, well, let’s assume that they have different views and they decided, yes, we do want to take Palestine. Why then support the Jews? Why support the weaker side? Why not support the Arabs? What the British did was to pretend that they’re supporting both. In a way, they sold Palestine twice, once to the Arabs and once to the Jews. But still it is quite astonishing that they supported Zionism. And the reason why they did was out of a peculiar combination of very warm feelings for the Jews, very pro-Jewish feelings, religious feelings. These people in England, they were Christian Zionists. And at the same time, they feared the Jews and they despised the Jews, and they thought that it’s better to have the Jews as allies than as enemies. So it’s a combination between pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish.

JAY: To what extent do some of the more powerful Jewish families in Europe, like the Rothschilds, how much are they a part of what happened?

SEGEV: Many of the powerful families in Europe did not support Zionism at the time. In fact, most Jews never supported Zionism. And today most Jews support Zionism only because Zionism has reformulated its goals and nature. It no longer requires Jews to leave their countries and come to live in Israel. So we have accommodated, we have compromised the Zionist ideology, so that we don’t lose the support of the Jews. But most Jews would rather stay in their countries.

JAY: But there’s kind of a popular notion, at least, that the Rothschild family in particular helped finance a lot of early Zionism. Is that true?

SEGEV: Some of the Rothschilds did, yes. The Rothschild family is a large family, and some of the Rothschilds did support the early 19th century Jewish settlements, which were not necessarily Zionist settlements and were not necessarily or not consciously leading towards a Jewish state in Palestine.

JAY: I guess part of what I’m asking is, during this first part of the 20th century, is the Zionist conception project more from a Jewish elite or more from some socialist movement, working-class movement?

SEGEV: It is a very small movement. It is supported by masses of Jews in Eastern Europe and not so much by many Jews in Western Europe. So it’s more a poor man’s ideology, and also less—the people who supported Zionism were less assimilated into liberal modern society as they were in the West. So in Eastern Europe it had massive support, and in Western not so much. But most Jews—this is interesting—most Israelis are either people who have themselves or are the descendents of people who had never wanted to come to this country. They did not come out of Zionist ideology; they came as refugees. If you take my parents, for example, they came from Germany in 1935. They would have loved to stay in Germany, only they couldn’t. The only reason why they stayed alive, the only reason why I am alive, is because they left Germany, Nazi Germany, in time. And where would they have gone? So, unwillingly, they chose a remote, primitive spot in Asia called Israel, called Palestine.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what your parents found when they got here in 1935 and how they were treated. Please join us for the next segment of our interview on The Real News Network.

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Tom Segev (Hebrew: תום שגב‎) is an Israeli historian, author and journalist. He is associated with Israel's New Historians, a group challenging many of the country's traditional narratives.

He worked during the 1970s as a correspondent for Maariv in Bonn. and he was has been a visiting professor at Rutgers University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Northeastern University,