- Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel
Elvis in Jerusalem, the American title of Ha’aretz columnist Tom Segev’s 2001 book Hatzionim Hahadashim, is a cruel come-on. This Israeli “new historian” deals with “post-Zionism,” not “rock ‘n roll.”
This book is of special interest to American readers because Segev argues that U.S. influence has turned Israel into a more open and democratic society. This is an unusual position for any foreigner to assume—ask any citizen of France or Canada. If a resident of a developed country were to advocate the Americanization of his (or her) nation, he (or she) might be viewed as the sociopolitical equivalent of Ben Affleck exchanging his Hollywood wardrobe for ex-Congressman James Traficant’s retro outfits. If Snoop Dogg did the same thing, his choice might be viewed as an improvement. Does that mean that Israeli adoption of American ways is the equivalent of a hard-core rapper’s switch to denim leisure suits? Perhaps—too many people view the Jewish state as the “gangsta” of the Middle East.
Segev is not one of them. He is not an anti-Zionist who views Israel as a geopolitical mistake, but a post-Zionist who exposes the Jewish state’s errors. According to him, one of its greatest faults is its packaging of idealistic hagiography as history. He asserts that “real” history began when “. . . the government began declassifying documents from the state’s early years.”
For Israelis, this historical legacy is a double-edged sword. These “new historians” opened a Pandora’s Box of revelations that challenged popular assumptions about Israel, creating controversies and sowing divisions between Zionists and post-Zionists. However, the fact that the archives were opened is the mark of a democratic society. Segev himself writes that “Israel is relatively liberal in this regard—there are countries that don’t open their archives at all.” He does not give any examples—is he being subtle, or merely negligent? [End Page 182]
Traditional Zionists may view him as worse than negligent, concerning the most sensitive subject of all—the Holocaust. He charges that “. . . the Jewish independent administration in Palestine . . . preferred to prevent the arrival of the elderly and ill. In a few cases it even sent people back to Nazi Germany because they had become a burden on the community in Palestine.” This is a very grave charge against Israel’s founding fathers, which suggests a willingness to skim off the cream of German Jewry and discard the rest. Segev may have promised Zionism without propaganda, but instead offers “Judaism without embellishment.” This last phrase is not just a figure of speech—it is also the title of a notorious 1960s antisemitic book by Soviet professor Trofim Kichko. Segev is no apostate, but some readers may be too furious to distinguish between the two.
The author surreptitiously discredits traditional Orthodoxy. He divides this book into sections, centered around the statues of four individuals: Theodor Herzl, Elvis Presley, fallen Israeli soldier Gadi Manella, and Sephardic spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Of this group, only the rabbi is still alive. The fact that he is honored in this manner suggests a personality cult, alienating intelligent readers.
The author realizes that post-Zionism is a non-starter in the age of the suicide bomber. Unfortunately, his realism is that of the outlaw who realizes that he is surrounded by the sheriff’s posse. Jews face cultural boycotts, purges of Israeli academics, and violent outbursts that recall frightening historical events; the smart post-Zionist does not state that “Commentators have reverted to condemning criticism from the outside world, particularly from Europe, as anti-Israeli, even as disguised anti-Semitism.”
These days, perhaps the only option available to post-Zionists is to explain their ideology to foreigners. If that is the case, then Segev is probably the movement’s most qualified advocate. He may not be able to convert American readers, but he deals with this...