Segev, Tom. “1967: Israel, War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East”, Metropolitan Books, 2007.
Bringing Back Memories
I moved to Israel in 1967, three days before the famous and legendary “Six Day War” began. Reading Tom Segev’s monumental 671 page ”1967”, I realized how both I and the country changed as a result of that war. Israel and I were young back then; I had my newly granted Master of Arts degree in my hands and Israel (created in 1948) was beginning to find her place among
the nations of the world. When the war began, Israel was naïve but militarily strong and I had been the “cockeyed optimist” who had emigrated because of idealistic notions of helping to build the Jewish state. We both got slapped across the face and there was no turning back. Both of our naivetes were tested. Israel now knew that her place in the world was insecure and I knew that I had finally found the place I wanted to call home (and home it was for me for the following 30 years). The war made both of us become adults very quickly.
Segev gives us an intimate look at Israel because as a sabra (native born Israeli) he had access to the files and letters about the war and he presents a vivid picture of the country in the years before the war. He examines what led to the war ad spends pages recounting all of the miscalculations that caused the war to break out. The book is not really about the nation of Israel in its entirety. Segev instead writes about the eastern-European settlers who fled war-torn Germany, Austria and Poland and settled on the kibbutzim (communal farms). The problem here is that those settlers only represent a tenth of the population of Israel—those nationalistic Jews who ate, drank and dreamt idealism and socialism and virtually ignores the other 90% of the population which comprise a group of a dozen or so languages and who came from over 50 various countries. Nevertheless this is an intense and readable look at the country biased as it may be. It is an examination of almost every aspect of life and deals with the culture and lifestyles of the citizens of the new country who face war just as we face peace.
The Arab nations who went to war with Israel in 1967 had been begging for a war to break out—their hatred of the Jewish state was that intense. They were sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that they could defeat the tiny country. Segev maintains that the war was not inevitable (the view held by most is that the war had to happen to secure Israel’s place in the world). He states, quite empathically, that if the Ashkenazi Jews (those Eastern European settlers) had just ignored the Egyptian military build-up in the Sinai Peninsula, the blockade and the exit of the United Nations, the war could have been prevented. Looking back now, that is an easy assumption to make. If we look at the time when the war was on the verge of breaking, that does not seem to be the case at all. Segev’s thesis is one-sided and with that said let’s look at what the book is really about.
Segev carefully looks at the way the war changed the cultural ethos of Israel. Many of the taboos of the new nation came into being as a result of the war. The Israeli felt as if he had matured with the end of the war and the brilliant victory brought the country a false sense of security. Israel felt that now she was unbeatable militarily and society began the process of maturation from adolescent to adulthood. New venues opened all over and the people of Israel developed a new cultural awakening and all those aspects of modern life came into being. Some of these included the advent of an automobile industry, the flourishing of coffee houses and the creations of new industries and ways of life. The gay movement began to become visible, music and the other arts flourished and Israel began to develop an entire culture which included the sexual revolution and pornography and prostitution. It was a new age for Israel and all those aspects of life began to emerge, even those that were not particularly wanted.
For this reason the book is a delight. We read about the life of a nation that is a cosmopolitan nation living in an area where other nations rely on religious tradition to develop the culture of their countries. The founder of the concept of Zionism (the nationalistic movement that brought about the creation of the state of Israel) stated once that we would know that Israel was indeed a nation when the mailmen, plumbers, bus drivers and prostitutes were Jewish and could take their places next to the intelligentsia of the nation. Israel indeed came of age in 1967 and although the war brought a lot of pain to the country, it also created a pride that has yet to be duplicated.