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Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel

Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel

5.0 2
by Tom Segev, Haim Watzman

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As the Middle East conflict enters its most violent phase, Tom Segev offers a lively, contentious polemic against cherished and rigid notions of Israel's national unity and culture.

In his many works of history, Tom Segev has challenged the entrenched understanding of crucial moments in Israel's past. Now, in a short, sharp, polemical book, Segev has


As the Middle East conflict enters its most violent phase, Tom Segev offers a lively, contentious polemic against cherished and rigid notions of Israel's national unity and culture.

In his many works of history, Tom Segev has challenged the entrenched understanding of crucial moments in Israel's past. Now, in a short, sharp, polemical book, Segev has turned his sights from Israeli history to confront some revered assumptions about the country today.

Drawing on personal experience as well as all kinds of artifacts from Israeli popular culture -- shopping malls, fast food, public art, television, religious kitsch -- Segev offers a controversial point of view: the sweeping Americanization of the country, rued by most, has had an extraordinarily beneficial influence, bringing not only McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts but the virtues of pragmatism, tolerance, and individualism. And, in the fierce battle over the future of Zionism, Segev welcomes the diffusion of national identity and ideology that has taken place in the last decade as a harbinger of a new spirit of compromise and openness.

At a time of crisis, as Israelis and Palestinians retreat to their most embattled positions, Segev's colorful, provocative book is sure to spark heated debate.

" … this slender book will be indispensable to anyone trying to understand current events in Israel and the Middle East." - Publishers Weekly

Editorial Reviews

How has "Americanization" changed Israel? Although most Middle East scholars deplore the increasing impact of U.S. icons such as Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's, author Tom Segev feels that more good than harm has been done. In addition to U.S. businesses, media, and art, Segev says, Americanization has also brought in "the virtues of pragmatism, tolerance, and individualism."
Publishers Weekly
H Segev's last book, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, was a New York Times best book of 2000 and enjoyed bestseller status after September 11. Now Segev presents a startling and necessary view of contemporary Israel: it is a place so Americanized that the old Zionist collective identity has been replaced by individualism and consumerism; it is a place of ethnic and religious turmoil where traditional Israeli identity has become painfully fractured. It is a place where revisionist New Historians (of whom Segev is one), using documents that became available only in the early 1980s, have shattered cherished Zionist myths, and archeologists, not finding evidence to confirm biblical tales, have shattered others. As a result, Israelis are filled with anger and confusion. For all these reasons, Segev contends, Israel is on the brink of a post-Zionist era. Post-Zionism is a fighting word in Israel, but Segev makes a powerful case for it in reasoned and measured tones. He nonjudgmentally presents long excerpts from voices on both sides of Israel's culture wars, wars as fierce as any the U.S. has experienced—voices that are impassioned and anguished as they discuss whether to include the work of a Palestinian poet in the Israeli curriculum or admitting that they must let go of occupied territory despite strong emotional ties to it. Zionism has been a success, Segev argues, and its time has past. But, he admits sadly, "Palestinian terrorism seems to push Israelis back into the Zionist womb." Indeed, this may not be the best time for Segev to receive a fair hearing, but this slender book will be indispensable to anyone trying to understand current events in Israel and the Middle East. (Apr. 23)
From the Publisher
“Unlike other critics, Segev is not predictable . . . his unconventional viewpoint gives his [writing] interest and freshness.” —Los Angeles Times

“Provocative and elegant.” —Jewish Week

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Elvis in Jerusalem

Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel

By Tom Segev, Haim Watzman

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2001 Tom Segev
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2938-7




"All That Stuff Was Zionism"

On a hill above the Tel Aviv-Haifa highway at the Herzliya junction, there is a statue of Theodor Herzl, the town's namesake. Resembling a silhouette, it is the Herzliya municipality's contribution to raising Zionist consciousness. Uri Lifschitz, the sculptor, turned out a pretty ludicrous Herzl: the image is as flat as a wood shaving; Herzl is dressed in a black frock coat and looms above a water tower. To keep him from tipping over, he's secured in place with steel wire.

A few years after it was erected, the sculpture was repaired, and for the duration of the renovation a sign hung from the water tower, emblazoned with the contractor's name: Mohammed Mahamid, an Israeli-Arab. When the repairs were complete, the original legend reappeared under the sculpture: "Herzliya, a dream of a city," referring to the most famous statement attributed to Herzl, the prophet of Jewish statehood: "If you will it, it is no dream."

The history of Zionism proves that statement. In one hundred years of activity the Zionist movement led a part of the Jewish people to partial independence in a part of the Land of Israel, and for all the downside, it's a success story.

A yearning for the Land of Israel has attended the Jews always. It's a central subject in their writings from the Bible onward and a component of Jewish identity. In every country and at every time Jews have believed in the Exodus from Egypt to the land of Israel and the giving of the Torah. They knew of the kingdom of Israel, the Babylonian exile, and the oath of those exiles: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her cunning." Year after year they vowed, "Next year in Jerusalem." Most Jews didn't actually try to return to the Land of Israel; it was a religious object of desire, often an abstract spiritual concept, not a geographical destination they would actually consider moving to.

The first Zionist colonies were established in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century, but only a handful of Jews settled in them. The Zionist enterprise received a big push forward when the movement succeeded in obtaining the support of the British Empire. Britain gained Palestine during World War I and ruled it for thirty years. Israel's collective memory tends to emphasize the struggle against the British regime. Among other things, the British are remembered for the restrictions they placed on Jewish immigration and land purchases. They are accused of support for the Arabs and animosity toward the Jews. Jewish terrorist actions against the British are depicted as a war of liberation.

A larger view gives a different picture. The British opened Palestine to mass Jewish immigration, and the Jewish population increased more than tenfold. The Zionist movement was allowed to purchase land, engage in agriculture, and establish hundreds of new settlements, including several cities — Herzliya was one of them. Palestine's Jews established elected political institutions, an army, and an economic infrastructure, including industrial plants and banks. The Zionist movement was allowed to establish an independent school system. These schools, and a large number of other public institutions, promoted Hebrew culture and a local national identity. All these helped the Jews defeat the Arabs and establish the State of Israel.

Israel is one of the great accomplishments of the twentieth century, despite its imperfections. During its early years, to live in Israel was to live in a state of gnawing anxiety. There was a pervasive feeling that everything was transitory and who knew whether two years from now there would even be a country. That's the explanation for the odd custom that Israeli passengers on El Al flights adopted: when an airplane landed in Tel Aviv, they would all break out in applause. The working assumption was that the plane would crash. Landing safely was cause for celebration.

The difficulties were in fact enormous. Israel overcame most of them. Very few people still applaud El Al pilots when the plane lands. There are third- and fourth-generation Israelis; they speak Hebrew with their parents, go to the same schools their parents went to, serve in the same army units, have the same experiences. They have a common way of life, a common sense of humor, common expectations. Today's Israeli children have something their parents and parents' parents often didn't have: living and proximate grandparents. That this ostensibly simple fact has become banal is the country's greatest achievement.

Israel defends its citizens. From time to time there are terrorist attacks, but generally the state provides its inhabitants with personal security. The Web sites of the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, and UNESCO show that most Israelis are far better off than most of the people in the world. The data tables generally include about 150 countries; they compare measures such as GNPs, infant mortality rates, life expectancies, and literacy. Israel is in the top twenty on all such indexes. The standard and quality of life granted its citizens places it alongside several European countries. Most Israelis are better off each year, and this trend is continuing despite the widening gap between rich and poor. Most Israelis can thus assume that their children will have better lives than they have had, just as their own lives have been better than those of their parents.

Theodor Herzl's statue at the entrance to the city that bears his name looks out over an array of tall glass-and-steel office buildings. They are breathtakingly ostentatious, exuding success and luxury. Most of their tenants are giant high-tech companies, both Israeli and international, all in the spirit of the prophet: he dreamed of a flourishing urban culture. Herzliya has fancy stores and exclusive restaurants of the kind that Herzl himself craved. The stores have names like Tophouse, Columbus, and Beverly Hills, and there's a McDonald's as well. It's all in the spirit of the American century that Herzl heralded, including the Mizra Delicatessen, which sells pork-based cold cuts produced by a northern kibbutz. Its spacious salesroom is a kind of Shrine of Bacon offering imported tidbits from all over the world. Huge crowds of Israelis shop there; on Saturdays every parking place in the vicinity is taken. Herzl would have been thrilled. Actually, if Herzl lived in Israel today, he too might be attacked as a post-Zionist. In many ways, in fact, Herzl was the first post-Zionist.

Herzl believed that the Jews needed their own country because most of them could not live in their countries of residence as equal citizens. He saw persecution of and discrimination against the Jews as an immutable fact. So long as Jews lived in the Diaspora, they would be the victims of anti-Semitism. That is the Jewish problem. Herzl described two possible solutions: assimilation or emigration to another country where the Jews could establish a state of their own. Herzl did not believe in assimilation. So he called for a Jewish state.

Herzl recognized that the Land of Israel was the ancient and inalienable historical homeland of the Jews, but he seems to have stressed its merits largely as a way of marketing his Zionist idea and capturing the hearts of the Jewish public. For his part, he didn't think the State of Israel necessarily had to be established in the Land of Israel. As far as he was concerned, Argentina was a definite possibility; he lauded it as one of the world's richest countries, with a huge territory, a sparse population, and a temperate climate. Late in his life, Herzl's diplomatic activity led the British Empire to offer the Jewish people national autonomy in East Africa — the territory under offer was mistakenly identified as Uganda. Herzl favored accepting the offer, at least as a temporary arrangement.

The first Arab protests against Zionism's aspirations were voiced while Herzl was still alive. Given his worldview, he might well have taken the view that the Land of Israel was not worth the price of war — Argentina might have been much simpler. He was also aware of the opposition the Zionist idea aroused in the Christian world and agreed that Jerusalem should not be included in the territory of the Jewish state. Herzl did not even place much value on the Hebrew language. "Who among us knows Hebrew well enough to use the language to ask for a train ticket?" he wrote. He supposed that the Jews in Israel would all speak their native languages. Switzerland was his example. He imagined his Jewish state as a nation of Jewish immigrants: "In the Land of Israel, too, we will remain what we are now, just as we will never cease to love, with regret and longing, the countries of our birth from which we were expelled," he wrote. That's exactly what happened, to the disgruntlement of some of the founding fathers of Israeli Zionism.

Menachem Begin wrote that the Jewish state was established thanks to Herzl's book The Jewish State, but this fundamental text of the Zionist movement articulates a Zionism that many Israelis have not adopted. One the whole, the founding fathers who settled in Palestine cultivated a local breed of Zionism that was very different from Herzl's. The most important difference between this homegrown ideology and Herzl's is that at a certain point the Zionists in Palestine ceased to view the establishment of the state as a means for solving the world Jewish problem and began to see it as an independent, and local, goal.

In comparison with Israeli Zionism, then, Herzl's Zionism comes out looking somewhat dim, pale, moderate, and compromising, really not at all patriotic — exactly what the Israeli political right now identifies as post-Zionist. Herzl would probably not have been surprised by this. From the start, most of the people who attacked his Zionist creed were Jews: religious Jews, liberals, and Marxists. Jewish opposition to Zionism is hardly a new Israeli invention; it has dogged the Zionist movement from its very beginnings. Until Israel was established, in fact, most Jews were not Zionists. And after its establishment, Israelis agreed to compromise on a fairly fuzzy, almost post-Zionist definition of their identity.

Zionism's first enemies were ultra-Orthodox Jews. Their rabbis viewed Zionism as heresy, feared that it endangered the Jews, and estimated that it was liable to challenge their position as the primary communal leaders. On the eve of the first Zionist Congress in 1897, the national organization of German rabbis condemned Zionism and stated that it ran counter to the messianic destiny of Judaism as expressed in the Holy Scriptures and other religious texts. The principal theological argument against Zionism was that the political effort to lead the Jews out of their Exile was "forcing the end." In other words, it created an artificial replacement for God and the true redemption. In doing so, they said, it violated the Jewish people's vow to wait patiently for the complete redemption that would come in the days of the Messiah, which depended entirely on the will of God. The Exile had acquired a halo of sanctity. Making frequent references to false messiahs of the past, the rabbis described Zionism as "the war of the evil urge," nothing but deception. "God forbid we should follow those sinners," they warned with a vehemence that had until then been reserved solely for Jews who had converted to Christianity.

Alongside the Talmudic injunction not to "mount the wall" — which was taken to mean a prohibition against organizing mass immigration to the Holy Land — ultra-Orthodox leaders also cited the injunction against violating any law of the lands of the Jewish Diaspora. The demand that Jews wait passively, while maintaining a low public profile, was founded not only in the rabbis' religious views but also in their responsibility for the safety of a small, weak religious minority that was always and everywhere confronted with discrimination, deportation, and violence. In the rabbis' opinion, Zionism was liable to be viewed as rebellion and nationalist agitation against the supreme authority of the countries in which the Jews resided. Such a perception, they feared, would endanger the entire Jewish community, both Zionism's supporters and its opponents.

But Zionism was also perceived as a competitor to religion, as subversion against rabbinical authority, because it promoted a new, secular Jewish identity. Zionism did not invent national Jewish secularism; that had emerged under the influence of changes in the societies in which the Jews of Europe lived. Nor did the Jewish identity fostered by the Zionist movement necessarily require a rejection of religious principles. But the political organizational activity of the Zionist movement threatened the religious establishment's monopoly. A number of rabbis overcame this ostensible contradiction between Judaism and Zionism, founding the religious Zionist movement.

The Zionism that Herzl represented was anchored in the liberal nationalism then blossoming in Europe, which quite naturally attracted many Jews. But this same perspective led many Jews to the conclusion that the only way for them to be recognized as citizens with equal rights was to integrate into the liberal national society taking shape around them. Jewish liberalism thus offered its own solution to the Jewish problem, one opposed to the Zionist solution. The desire to become integrated as equals into the countries of the Diaspora, yet still to preserve religious identity, encouraged a "reform" of Judaism that was expressed principally in forms of worship. Many Reform Jews also saw Zionism as a threat to their status in the countries in which they lived.

At the dedication of a Reform synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina in 1841 one of the speakers declared, "The United States is our Land of Israel, this city is our Jerusalem, and this house of God is our Temple." There were those who gave up religion entirely or even accepted Christianity. Their goal was to eliminate the difference between them and their neighbors. Zionist ideology imposed otherness on them, labeling them as Jewish nationals. One of the high points of this dispute was the confrontation between two ministers in the British government, both of them Jewish: Herbert Samuel, a Zionist, and Edwin Montagu, his cousin.

Samuel served as postmaster general and later home secretary and was the first British high commissioner in Palestine. In 1917 he was among the driving forces behind the British declaration of support for the Zionist movement, known as the Balfour Declaration. Montagu, minister of munitions and then secretary of state for India, did his best to prevent the declaration from being issued. He rejected the claim that the Jews are a nation. The demand that they be recognized as having a distinct national identity threatened to hinder their struggle to become equal citizens of the countries in which they resided. In an emotional and touching letter Montagu sent to his prime minister, David Lloyd-George, he wrote that if the Land of Israel were declared the national home of the Jewish people, every antisemitic organization and newspaper would ask by what right a Jew served as a minister in the British government.

"The country for which I have worked ever since I left the University — England — the country for which my family have fought," Montagu wrote, "tells me that my national home, if I desire to go there, therefore my natural home, is Palestine." He presumed that the non-Jewish world would support Zionism in the hope of getting rid of all its Jews. Theodor Herzl also thought of this possibility but, unlike Montagu, welcomed it: "The anti-Semites will be our most loyal friends; the anti-Semitic countries will be our allies," he wrote in his diary. There were those who denied that the Jews were a nation, and there were those who assigned the Jews a historic mission as exiles and saw their dispersal among the peoples of the world as a cultural and ethical ideal.


Excerpted from Elvis in Jerusalem by Tom Segev, Haim Watzman. Copyright © 2001 Tom Segev. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Tom Segev is a columnist for Ha'aretz, Israel's leading newspaper. He is the author of three now-classic works on the history of Israel, among them One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, which received the National Jewish Book Award and was one of The New York Times's nine best books of 2000. He lives in Jerusalem.

Tom Segev is a columnist for Ha'aretz, Israel's leading newspaper, and author of three works on the history of Israel, 1949: The First Israelis, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, and One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate. He lives in Jerusalem.

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Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read the Jer. Post and Haaretz regularly, but they don't capture this trend as well as this book does. Is VAPID Americanization bad for Israel? Is national unity a pejorative? According to Segev, social collectivism is dead, Americanism is thriving in Israel. Private parties now supplant group celebrations. If Paul Newman were to reprise his role as Ari Ben Canaan from the 1961 film, 'Exodus,' he might portray a capitalist in Ramat Aviv Gimmel, and not a committed Kibbutznik. Segev feels that more Israeli's pay homage to the Elvis statue at an Elvis Diner on the road to Jerusalem, than to a Herzl statue that stands outside of Herzliya, that beachside bastion of prosperous capitalism. Personally, aside from this post-Zionist's thesis, the book is worth reading if only for the bounty of tidbits of Israeli social history and the voices of Israel's scholars that are included. Segev smartly uses a recurring theme of statues, and the reader is left with a fresh look at the future of Israeli society.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My Hebrew teachersays that McDonald's is also called McDavid's in Yisrael :)