Elvis in Jerusalem

The blaming of Israel from within

By Tom Gross
May 14, 2002

Tom Segev has a significant
international following.
Above, his book in German.


The Intifada of guns, bombs and rockets launched by Yasser Arafat in September 2000 in response to a wide-ranging peace offer by Israel at Camp David, caused some of Israel’s “new historians” to distance themselves from the unyielding extremism of the Palestinian leadership. Benny Morris, for example, said he now felt “like one of those western fellow travelers rudely awakened by the trundle of Russian tanks crashing through Budapest in 1956.”

But not Tom Segev, who continued to attack Israel forcibly on the international stage even as its women and children were being murdered without mercy on the direct orders or with the tacit approval of the Palestinian leadership.

This is a book review of Segev’s latest work, “Elvis in Jerusalem,” written and published in the midst of the Intifada.

-- Tom Gross


The Elvis restaurant on the outskirts of
Jerusalem after which the book is named

THE past 19 months of orchestrated Palestinian violence against civilians, coupled with the incitement to kill Jews that permeates the official Palestinian media, have led some of Israel’s “new historians” to take a less indulgent view of Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.

For some years now, the new historians have attempted to rewrite Israeli history to show that at almost every stage the Zionist movement was at fault as much as, if not more than, other parties, such as Arab despots and intransigent Palestinian nationalists. This argument is not so easy to make now. Prof. Benny Morris, one of the leaders of the new-historian group, recently wrote that he now feels “like one of those western fellow travelers rudely awakened by the trundle of Russian tanks crashing through Budapest in 1956.”

Apparently Tom Segev has not been so “rudely awakened.” Mr. Segev, a columnist for Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, is perhaps the foremost journalist among the new historians – or “post-Zionists,” as many of this clique have styled themselves.

His latest book, “Elvis in Jerusalem,” repeats many of the arguments of other “new historians,” albeit in a more guarded manner than out and out revisionists like Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim. Mr. Segev begins by describing how the communal, socialist ideals of Israel’s Zionist pioneers have given way to an American-style society where trips to McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts are commonplace.

Mr. Segev welcomes this dilution of national identity, pointing to examples wherever he can find them, from the growth of cable television to the spread of the Internet. He believes the Americanization that has taken place in the past decade has had an extraordinarily beneficial effect on Israeli society, offering not only “normalization” but increased tolerance, individualism and liberalism on an American-style model.


Naturally, he forgets to mention the many ways in which Israel has been ahead of Western societies with liberal breakthroughs, from the election of a female prime minister some three decades ago to the awarding of spousal benefits to the partners of homosexual soldiers long before countries like Britain and America would contemplate even allowing openly practicing gays in their military.

Elvis never actually went to Jerusalem

It turns out, however, that “Elvis in Jerusalem” is less a series of anecdotes about Israel’s Americanization than another critique of Israel and Israelis in general. Mr. Segev writes of Israeli “war crimes,” repeatedly refers to “the Zionist enterprise,” as if the state of Israel might be only an experiment, and slips in many dubious claims, such as that in Israel today “once again it is acceptable to hate the Palestinians openly.”

I can only comment that, however much Israelis may fear Mr. Arafat and his suicide bombers, in my many years of living in Israel I have rarely heard an Israeli express hatred for ordinary Palestinians, either openly or in private. This despite the fact that unbridled expressions of hatred from the Palestinian side, toward Jews in general, are all too frequent.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Segev has next to nothing to say about this Palestinian hatred, let alone about the outrages of those engaged in “the Palestinian enterprise.” Instead, at times he seems to side with the most hardline PLO positions, for example calling Ehud Barak’s sweeping concessions at Camp David “a peace of surrender” for the Palestinians.


Tom Segev repeatedly writes of
“the Zionist enterprise” – as if
Israel might only be an experiment

The movement now known as post-Zionism gained considerable public attention in the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of a small group of academics and journalists like Mr. Segev and the eagerness of Israel’s many enemies abroad to give prominence to their works.

In fact, as Mr. Segev notes, it is not new. In the 1920s the Tel Aviv poet Uriel Halperin famously declared: “I’m not Jewish.” Halperin and his colleagues – as Mr. Segev explains – believed that Muslims, Druze and Christians could be members of the Hebrew nation. And in 1985, Ha’aretz’s chief editor, Gershon Schocken, called on Israel to encourage mixed marriages between Jews and Arabs to create “a true Israeli nation.” (In fact, Jews have always “married out”; it is an Arab girl who puts her life at risk from her own family if she does so.)

The generation of revisionist historians that came to prominence in the 1990s believed that they were performing a valuable service by making Israel even more self-critical than it already was. Their own critics, on the other hand, believed that the post-Zionist campaign was dangerous, aiming to bring about what the enemies of Israel have so far been unable to do by force: to destroy the Jewish state spiritually from within, under the banner of liberalism.

Prof. Benny Morris has changed his mind

Even if Mr. Segev sympathizes with the aspirations of the post-Zionists, there are moments in his book when he appears to display the kind of pride associated with more traditional Israelis. At one point he calls Israel “one of the great success stories of the twentieth century,” and he acknowledges that, unlike the British who previously governed Jerusalem, Israelis “have nowhere else to go.”

He also recognizes at the end of his book that, thanks to a new wave of Palestinian terror that has “pushed Israelis back into the Zionist womb,” the age of post-Zionism seems to be over, at least for now. He quotes Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, saying that Israel has moved on to an age of “post-post-Zionism.” Calling this “a retreat into the past,” Mr. Segev adds that “regrettably, Netanyahu may be right.” Most Israelis, by contrast, wanting their country to survive as a Jewish state, may not regret this at all.

(Mr. Gross has reported from Israel for the Sunday Telegraph of London and for the New York Daily News.)