Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tom Segev on 1967

Berkeley's International House, May 2007

The distinguished journalist and historian Tom Segev has been at Berkeley for the past semester as a Diller Family Israeli Visiting Professor, where he has been teaching a seminar on "The Six-Day War, 40 Years Later," and a course about "Reporting on the Middle East."

Yesterday, Segev gave a public lecture on "1967: Israel's Longest Year" at Berkeley's International House. The talk offered a preview of his latest book, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East,* which will appear in English translation at the end of this month. (Another advertised title for the lecture was "Israel's Longest War").

The effects of the Six-Day War can hardly be underestimated. As Segev remarked, "those of you who follow the news will not be surprised to hear that 1967 is not over yet."

Segev's previous books include one of my favorite works of history, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust,** and several other stellar contributions to the historiography on the yishuv, Zionism, and the state of Israel, such as One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate,*** and 1949: The First Israelis.****

The question is - what does Segev add to the history of the Six-Day War? After all, as Segev acknowledged, the "events that led to the 6-day-war have been widely researched and analyzed."

According to Segev, one particular dimension of the war has been ignored hitherto. The 1967 war was "an international Cold War story, an Arab-Israeli story, and a Palestinian story." But, more than anything else, the Six-Day War was an Israeli story. That is, to understand why the war broke out we really need "deep knowledge of the Israelis themselves – not just the diplomatic record."

Segev's greatest strength is his ability as a narrator. His successful books combine probing archival research and sharp, often unsettling analysis, with a great journalist's eye for revealing anecdotes and the masterful storytelling practiced by the best prose stylists. In his lecture, Segev revealed a taste of some of these skills, as he sketched out the atmosphere of Israel in the 1960s, when the country "was emerging as one of the more impressive success stories of the 20th century." According to Segev,
Most Israelis had good reason to be proud of their country and confident of its future. Two million Jewish refugees had been taken in. The economy was booming. There was also a culture boom. The efforts to build a nation around a common national identity had advanced greatly. Israeli high school students reached first place in an international mathematics competition. Shmuel Yosef Agnon received a Nobel Prize for Literature.
In short, in the early 1960s, "Israelis had good reason to believe that their children would live better lives." Then, suddenly, in the one-and-a-half years before the 1967 Six-Day War, all this optimism stopped abruptly. Depression spread across the country. Drawing on press reports and more than 500 letters, many sent by Israelis to their friends and relatives abroad, Segev evokes a world in which citizens' hopes for the future seemed to have vanished overnight.

In 1966, for the first time since 1953, more Jews emigrated from the country than immigrated to it. The years of 12% annual growth gave way to economic depression. And dark jokes circulated about signs at airport asking the "last person leaving the country [to] please turn off the lights."

The Zionist dream appeared to be crumbling for many of the country's citizens. An ordinary politician, Levi Eshkol, had replaced the heroic David Ben Gurion as prime minister. Outside of the political sphere, Israeli society was losing its Ashkenazi character, "which worried no small number," as Jews from Middle Eastern countries began asserting themselves in the public sphere, eventually overtaking the Ashkenazi population in numbers.

Into all this stepped Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who moved his troops to Israel's border, and menaced the country's citizens with incendiary speeches. "It is no wonder," Segev argued,
that many Israelis truly believed that Egypt was about to destroy their country, literally to exterminate Israel. That frequently-used term clearly evoked the Holocaust.
The apocalyptic mood of the country is perhaps best represented by the documented reports of municipal rabbis sanctifying football fields to be used as mass burial grounds for hundreds of thousands people, who were expected to die within hours of the war breaking out. This "genuine Holocaust panic," Segev believes, made war with Egypt inevitable in 1967. In June of that year, Israeli society "was very weak - too weak not to strike at Egypt."

The situation changed completely after Israel's devastating attack on the grounded Egyptian air force, and its subsequent victory over the Egyptian army in Sinai. What happened next - the wars against Jordan and Syria, Segev claims, "expressed a surge of power and messianic passion." More importantly - and this is surely the heart of his message - these conquests contradicted Israel's national interest, not just as it it was perceived in subsequent decades but also as it was imagined immediately before the war.

Segev's evidence for this claim consists of the notes from a January 1967 meeting between the heads of the Mossad, foreign office, and army intelligence branch. "What happened at that meeting," he quipped, "was a rare occurrence. They came together and they thought." The question that they were thinking about was whether Israel should invade East Jerusalem and the West Bank, given a number of scenarios such as the Jordanian King Hussein's death, a Palestinian uprising, or an Iraqi invasion of Jordan. The conclusion on which all of them agreed, and which they presented in a common paper, was that it was not in Israel's interest to take the West Bank because of the Palestinian population there.

In the euphoria of the victory against Egypt - perceived as a moment of messianic redemption - strategic considerations, Segev argues, suddenly went out the window. We have been living with the consequences ever since.

Next post - some of the questions Segev received and his answers, including his dressing-down of Jimmy Carter, as well his take on Berkeley and its students (positive and also funny).

* 2005. 1967: ‏ ‏והארץ שינתה את פניה
**1991. המיליון השביעי :הישראלים והשואה
ימי הכלניות : ארץ ישראל בתקופת המנדט
1999 ***
1949: הישראלים הראשונים 1984. ****


Aardvark EF-111B said...

[In June of that year, Israeli society "was very weak - took weak not to strike at Egypt."]

1/ is Segev pointing that the war was an exit from some sort of Local Stalemate?, is he talking about ethnic-cultural or political or economic crisis??

2/ you spoke about a (stroke) in the state progress at 1965, what do you mean? can you give further details??

*I have growing interest in following your posts!!

Amos said...

Thanks for reading.

He was talking about a larger cultural crisis - a moment of profound despair that could not be explained fully by developments outside of Israeli society. He did not really explain the causes of this crisis in the talk. I guess we'll have to check out the book soon.

Segev certainly was not implying that the war was started to "resolve" this crisis. Rather, he meant that Israelis really did experience a genuine sense of despair that made them feel as if they had no choice but to go on the offensive against Egypt.

[BTW, question for Asaf, if you're reading this, does this mean that the decision to go to war against Egypt was also made "from the heart"?].

I am not sure I understood your second question. Could you tell me which part of the post you were asking about?

Jeha said...

Great book recommendation; my hebrew is too rusty, and an english version would be welcome.

From the Arab side, there has been some work that discuss this key period of our history. But since Lebanon did not get involved in the war, few Lebanese were interested in approaching the topic. Too bad; the die for our own civil war was cast during the events of 1964-1967.

Lisa said...

I'm waiting eagerly for part two.

Rebecca said...

Jeha - can you recommend a good book or books on the history of Lebanon? I have a student who I would like to suggest some to.

Jeha said...


Long answer to a short question.

The trouble with the history of Lebanon is that have more "histories" as communities. I personally feel that a "linear" or "rational" reading of our history would only confuse matters.

Because context matters so much, and because we are so "layered" in our identity, I will make 5 recommendations, not all related to history books.

First, keep in mind the Levantine mindset that have in Lebanon is eerily similar to the one you may encounter in Israel. But we do have a unique affinity to the Italian passion for "farniente".

Second, the "communitarian layer".
a good place to start reading is "A House of Many Mansions", even though I feel that Salibi oversimplifies and can lose objectivity. I loved Kamal Jumblat's "Testament", but a non-Lebanese could be easily mislead by an otherwise great man's anti-Maronite hangups. K. Dib's "Warlods and Merchants" is also very good, with a lot of data, but the author is blind to Syria and the PLO, with not a single mention of their nefarious role.

A third recommendation is a novel for the "village" layer, the heart of Lebanon. There is an excellent novel by Amin Maalouf, "Le Rocher de Tanios", which must have an english version; it does give a great perspective as to the pecular "village" mindset.

My fourth recommendation is the "Beirut" layer... It is a fun movie; "West Beirut". If there was ever a movie made about Lebanon's recent war, this is THE one. Basically, me and my friends all felt we were that kid, and we all had more or less the same adventures. Avoid Maroun Baghdadi's movies; great acting, great cinema, wrong country. His movies have nothing to do with Lebanon except for the name. Under an apparently frivolous package, "West Beirut" gives a uniquely deep adn thoughful analysis about the "City" mindset.

My fifth recommendation is the actual history. After you get the "flavours", you can detect what is not being said when you peruse anything by A. Hourani and P. Hitti; they give a decent and thoughtful analysis.

Bear in mind that the key is to get more a "feel" than a "cartesian" reading about the facts. In Lebanon, Angels, Demons, and Humans change roles constantly, and the victims are never the ones you think.

Hope this helps. We're having trouble making sense of our own identity and history, so I could not recommend a single book.

Aardvark EF-111B said...

My Second question is refering to the script

[[In short, in the early 1960s, "Israelis had good reason to believe that their children would live better lives." Then, suddenly, in the one-and-a-half years before the 1967 Six-Day War, all this optimism stopped abruptly. Depression spread across the country. Drawing on press reports and more than 500 letters, many sent by Israelis to their friends and relatives abroad, Segev evokes a world in which citizens' hopes for the future seemed to have vanished overnight.]]