Brief Review: Tom Segev’s 1949: The First Israelis

1949-tom-segevTaking some time between interviews, today I finished reading Tom Segev’s first encyclopedic historical work: 1949: The First Israelis. The book explores the rich and complex history of Israel in the year which followed the Israeli War of Independence.

Primarily, it emphasizes 4 themes: the relationships which developed between Jews and Arabs, veteran Israeli citizens and new immigrants, the secular and orthodox, and the new vision of Israeli national identity juxtaposed to the political and economic turmoil of the time. Segev has never been shy to challenge the classical Zionist narrative, and 1949 is no exception. As with his much later work, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East, the author presents the internal Israeli political and social context of the period, warts and all.

This book was a quite important read for my research in that it offers a virtual treasure trove of source material on Israeli territorial claims both immediately preceding and immediately following the establishment of the state. Through Knesset records, government committee minutes, and personal journals, Segev presents the thinking of key Israeli decision makers on the state’s necessary borders, the possibility of peace and compromise with Israel’s neighbors, and the value which they assigned to different portions of the emergent state and those areas of the former British Mandate conquered by Jordan and Egypt.

At this incredibly tenuous point in Israel’s history, he reveals a state and government struggling to define its relationship with the world, the region, and its own citizenry. He also offers a rare glimpse into the strategic, ideological, and often pragmatic decisions of the new state. With regard to its borders, Israeli policymakers are depicted as caught between real security fears of annihilation and defensible borders and ideological considerations regarding Jewish control over an undivided Land of Israel.

Segev’s close attention to policy debates, diplomatic exchanges, and personal records highlight how divided Israel’s leadership was on issues of critical security concern. For instance, the complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was seen by many as a dangerous concession to Egypt to which Israel agreed only to prevent the collapse of diplomatic talks. Transjordan’s annexation of the West Bank was seen alternatively as an unacceptable partition of the Land of Israel and strategic risk or as a means to keep the country weak, saddled by regional economic underdevelopment.

Even the issue of Jerusalem lacked clear national consensus. While almost no one disputed the cultural centrality of the holy city to the Jewish state, a minority were quite opposed to transferring the Israeli capital there. They feared that such a move, following the UN General Assembly’s December 1949 declaration that the city should be under international control, would prompt international military intervention. Supporters of the move too shared this concern but feared that the loss of Jerusalem would be even worse. Argued David Ben Gurion, “From the moment they remove Jerusalem from the jurisdiction of the State of Israel we’ll be without hope and there will be war… We must challenge the UN.”

The rest of the book too are certainly worth the read if you have any interest in the history of the State of Israel. Segev’s description of the rocky relations between Israel and its remaining Arab citizenry pulls no punches in exploring policies of land expropriation and Arab emigration. The conflict between Ashkenazi elite and new immigrants from North Africa and the Arab Middle East is similarly critical, exploring the cultural power dynamics by which the new olim were both absorbed into the vision of Zionist reclamation of the land while in many ways excluded from avenues of power. These dynamics are paralleled by challenges posed by the demands of the haredim on the operations of the secular-dominated state, and the many foundational compromises which followed.

The final section is by far the least developed. It does offer some analysis of ideological and material conflicts between the original Israeli political parties, the political establishment’s intentional ostracization of Herut (which later became Likud), and between the state and diaspora Jewry. The final chapter feels much more out of place, exploring the economic hardships felt by the whole of the population after the state’s founding. As far as offering a complete story of the year under examination, it surely is an important inclusion, but it does not fit well with the tone of the rest of the book.  That said, those interested in the micropolitics and microeconomics of Israeli society at the time will surely relish this segment.

As with Segev’s 1967, I would certainly recommend this book, but as a supplement to more traditional readings about the period. As a critical narrative, it is surely interesting and indispensible to telling the whole story, but it is not the whole story alone.

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