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Segev, Tom (1945–)

Segev, Tom
(1945–)

Tom Segev is an Israeli journalist and historian who achieved prominence in both fields by the early twenty-first century. He is best known for his weekly column in Ha'aretz, Israel's liberal daily newspaper, and a series of widely read and critically acclaimed books on topics central to Israeli history.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Segev was born in Jerusalem in 1945. His parents were German immigrants who settled in mandatory Palestine after fleeing Nazi Germany ten years earlier. In 1948, when Segev was three years old, his father was killed in the first of many Israeli-Arab wars over Palestine. During the 1948 War, the Zionist Yishuv (pre-state organized Jewish community) established the state of Israel in most of what had been mandatory Palestine.

Segev's experience as a child of immigrants, whose first language was not Hebrew (but rather German) and whose father died in the war, was not wholly uncommon in 1950s Israel. As did thousands of other immigrant children, he quickly learned Hebrew and was rapidly integrated into Jewish-Israeli society. The Israeli-Jordanian border established in 1948–1949 divided Jerusalem, and Segev spent his childhood in the Israeli-controlled section of the city. After graduating from the Hebrew University High School, Segev fulfilled his military service, which is compulsory for Jewish citizens of Israel, as a librarian at the National Defense College between 1963 and 1966. Also in 1963, at the age of eighteen, Segev began his journalism career as a news editor for Israeli national radio.

Upon his discharge from the military, Segev trained his sights on academic pursuits. In 1966, he began studying history and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, receiving his BA in 1970. In 1971, intrigued by the then-popular subdiscipline of psychohistory, Segev left Israel to undertake graduate work at Boston University. He received his Ph.D. in history in 1975, and his doctoral dissertation, which explored the background and motivations of Nazi concentration camp commanders, served as the basis of one of his earlier and lesser-known books, Soldiers of Evil: The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps (1988).

In 1977, Segev began a two-year stint as political advisor to Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, and in 1979 began writing for Ha'aretz, which remained his long-term professional home as a journalist. In the decades that followed, Segev emerged as a prominent journalist and one of the country's best-known and most influential historians. Despite his success as an historian and his acceptance of a large number of senior fellowships and visiting professorships in the United States and Israel, Segev has chosen to remain an independent scholar.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

The subjects about which Segev writes, and the way he writes about them, reflect a deep engagement with his society, a tireless curiosity about its evolution, and a sense of obligation to critically examine its present and past. Similar to many other critical commentators in Israel, Segev is identified with the left wing of Jewish-Israeli politics, which calls for increased democracy, civil rights, and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; good governance; Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory; and a land-for-peace negotiating strategy aimed at achieving peace with the Palestinians and the Arab countries that have not yet signed treaties with Israel. Segev's critical approach to Israeli society permeates his weekly column in Ha'aretz, which deals primarily with the politics of culture and human rights, and can also be detected in his historical studies.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Tom Segev

Birth: 1945, Jerusalem

Family: Unmarried

Nationality: Israeli

Education: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1970, BA, history and political science; Boston University, 1975, Ph.D., history

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1963: Begins journalism career at Israel Radio
  • 1963–1966: Serves in Israel Defense Forces as a librarian
  • 1971–1975: Pursues advanced studies in United States
  • 1977–1979: Serves as political advisor to Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek
  • 1979–present: Columnist for Ha'aretz newspaper, Tel Aviv

As an historian, Segev has made important contributions to modern Israeli historiography in content, methodology, and style. Most of his books have been broad in scope and have tackled decisively underexplored issues that are central to Israeli history and identity. 1949: The First Israelis (1986), one of the first books to make use of declassified archival material relating to the period surrounding the establishment of the state of Israel, offers a sober and relatively unflattering view of the first few years of Israeli statehood. 1949 was one of a handful of archive-based works appearing in the mid- to late 1980s which adopted a much more critical approach to Zionist and Israeli actions than previous Israeli histories had. For this reason, Segev came to be associated with the "new historians," the epithet by which authors of such critical histories quickly came to be known. While, at the time, many Israeli historians considered this "new" or "revisionist" history to be "anti-Zionist" or "pro-Palestinian" propaganda, much of it gradually became accepted by most mainstream scholars of Israeli history and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Segev's subsequent works also focus on major topics in Israeli history. In The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (1991), Segev examines how the Yishuv dealt with the challenges presented by Nazi Germany, the politics of Zionism during the Second World War, and the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli society. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate (2000) explores the history of the Zionist project during the three-decade period during which the British ruled Palestine (1918–1948). And 1967 provides a fascinating account of the 1967 War—widely considered to be a watershed in the history of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict—and the beginning of Israel's occupation of the territories it conquered from Syria, Egypt, and Jordan during the war.

THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE

Segev's contributions to Israeli historiography in methodology and style have also been notable. Methodologically, Segev's works have increasingly incorporated broad strokes of social history, a feature which is especially evident in his book on 1967. Stylistically, Segev simply writes like a good journalist, and this makes his books clear, riveting, and difficult to put down. As Segev himself explained in a 2004 interview, "History and journalism are very much the same thing for me. I think the best journalism is historic journalism and the best history is journalistic history" (Kreisler).

LEGACY

Segev's books have been published in Hebrew, English, and a variety of other languages, including Arabic. On an international level, therefore, his work as an historian is better known than his work as a journalist. In Israel, perceptions of Segev's work often depend on readers' ideology regarding the nature of the state of Israel and the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Left-leaning Israelis tend to appreciate his work more, and right-leaning Israelis less. While this dynamic also exists to a certain degree in some circles outside of Israel, most international students and scholars regard Segev as a thorough and insightful historian whose writing has greatly expanded their knowledge and understanding of the complex history of Israel, Zionism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kreisler, Harry. "Israeli National Identity: Conversation with Tom Segev, Columnist, Ha'aretz, April 8, 2004." Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Available from http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people4/Segev/segev-con0.html.

Segev, Tom. 1949: The First Israelis. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1986.

―――――――. Soldiers of Evil: The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.

―――――――. The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1991.

―――――――. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000.

―――――――. Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002.

―――――――. 1967. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.

                                        Geremy Forman

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