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Israel: A refuge or a colonial project Pt.3 Israeli historian Tom Segev

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re joined again by Tom Segev. He’s the author of 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East. Thanks for joining us again. So let’s pick up from where we were. What happens in ’47-48 and why?

TOM SEGEV, AUTHOR AND HISTORIAN: By 1947 the tension between Jews and Arabs has really reached very catastrophic dimensions. The Arabs have been fighting ever since 1917—so this is a long time now—against the Jewish presence. More Jews are in need of a place to be. These are tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors. And the British are about to leave. So there is a vacuum. And the question is: so, how do Jews and Arabs rule this country or live together or whatever? And I think that by 1947 it was no longer possible to make any rational decision. The only way to solve the situation was by war. It was inevitable by 1947 that it will be somehow determined by violence. And as your viewers may know, in November 1947 the UN had decided to divide Palestine in two states. But the Arabs, there was no way the Arabs could accept that. They had rejected that idea in 1937 when the conditions were even better, and by 1947—. We always accuse them—you know, this is a very, very common argument, to say, if you had only agreed to the partition of Palestine in 1947, you will have two states. I don’t think that the Jewish side was content to deal with that small parts of the country which were allocated to it by the Jews, although, you know, during the proceedings in the UN we said yes, let’s divide it. But I think this was more of a tactical position, and in reality, war had to come.

JAY: Now, Palestinians I’ve talked to say that the Jews that lived here, you know, in the ’20s, maybe even the early ’30s, they call them Jewish Palestinians. But afterwards they say this is more like a Jewish colonial project, this—I’m talking before World War II—the growing amount of Jews coming from Europe [inaudible] part of a project to create a Jewish state, which is essentially like a Jewish colonialism.

SEGEV: Using the word colonialism doesn’t advance our historical knowledge, okay, just as using the word ethnic cleansing or apartheid or anything else. The Jews were obviously not a colonial power. Jews were people in need of some place to live, okay? So the idea that somehow, early in time, it would have worked is really irrelevant, because more Jews needed a place to live and so on.

JAY: But you know their argument: but why there?

SEGEV: Why here? For two reasons: (A) because, as I told you, Palestine, Jerusalem had been part of the Jewish identity for thousands of years, and (B) because very few countries, including the United States, was open for Jewish refugees. So where would they have gone? Yes, as from a Palestinian point of view, why here? But this is precisely the point. This is what they said back in 1917. This is even what they said before 1917, during the days of Theodore Herzl, who was founder of the Zionist movement. He received a letter from an Arab Palestinian, a note that was saying, why are you coming to Palestine, don’t come to Palestine. So from the very beginning. And you can understand them. And this is precisely a conflict which was, even back then, so difficult to solve. And this is how we reached war. I mean, what I’m telling you is an historical analysis. It’s not saying who was right or who was wrong or this is a colonialist action or not. It doesn’t advance us. The fact is that by 1947-48, the only way to go ahead with anything was by violence, unfortunately. Violence was inevitable. And historically, yes, the Arab countries combined, attacked the state of Israel, the young state of Israel, as soon as independence was declared on May 15, 1948.

JAY: The rationale for attacking the state of Israel was?

SEGEV: To prevent its establishment, to destroy it.

JAY: The premise being that—.

SEGEV: You don’t attack anybody in order to make peace with him, right?

JAY: No, but the premise being that there was no rational legitimacy to create the state here. That’s the premise they have.

SEGEV: My experience as an historian is that whenever you get into legal arguments, it’s really unproductive, because I will give you 200 legal arguments why it was legal, the Arabs will give you 200 arguments why it wasn’t legal. Legal arguments don’t really help us to understand what happened, and for me it’s more about understanding what happened and why it happened, rather than trying to find who was right and who was wrong. If you go on the Internet site of the Israeli foreign office, you will find so many good legal arguments that would really convince you. But then if you talk to a Palestinian, even a Palestinian lawyer, he will give you so many. It’s not about law, really. It’s not important what—it’s legal or not legal. But for us I think it’s more important to try and understand what happened and why did it happen and what, if anything, we learned from what happened, to create a better future.

JAY: The fundamental Palestinian argument about ’48 is thousands of Palestinians were expelled—

SEGEV: That’s right.

JAY: —from their own lands.

SEGEV: That’s right.

JAY: So this much is a fact [inaudible]

SEGEV: [inaudible] we’re talking about. Again, don’t approach it from a legal point of view, okay? Approach it from a humanistic point of view. It’s a human tragedy.

JAY: But why doesn’t international law matter?

SEGEV: Let’s assume that you can prove to me that it was legal. I would still tell you, so what if it was legal? It is something that haunts us to the present day. It’s an open wound. It’s something we have to deal with. It’s something we have a responsibility, at least an historical responsibility for, that tragedy. This is a tragedy that determines everyday news to the present day. This is what it’s all about. So let’s assume it’s legal. So what? The Israeli foreign office will tell you it’s not legal, Israeli official historiography will tell you it was legal, and the Palestinians will tell you that it was not legal. So what difference does it make? This is my attitude to international law. We have a human tragedy that is still with us today. It’s an open wound. This is the important thing about it. This is why we need to know how did it happen. Now, you will find, I think, very few official Israelis, Israeli officials, or official history, even in textbooks, Israeli textbooks, you will find very few who will tell you, yes, half of them were expelled. We have all kinds of historical lies and historical mythology to justify this tragedy and explain how it happened. No. They were expelled. Hundreds of thousands of people were expelled. So this is not such a long time ago. Some of these people are still alive. There is a second generation and a third generation and a fourth generation of people who suffer from that tragedy. These are not professional refugees, people who gain, who have something to gain—let’s say they get UN support or whatever. No. These are people, and you’ve seen them. You are coming from Beirut. Some people are living in refugee camps, where the alleys between the houses are so narrow that two people can’t walk next to each other [inaudible] So the problem is open, and that’s the important thing.

JAY: In the next segment of the interview, let’s jump ahead to 1967. Please join us for the next segment of our interview on The Real News Network with Tom Segev.

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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,