Perhaps only out of Italian Jewry and at rare intervals can such colorful personalities emerge like Prof.
Dan Vittorio Segre, who passed away recently at the age of 92.
Segre grew up in an assimilated and fascist Italian environment, but fled to Palestine after racist laws were enacted in his country of birth in 1938. He almost did not make it, as he was accidentally nearly shot dead by his father at the tender age of five.
Segre marched on from soldier in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army to officer in the fledgling IDF, became an ambassador of Israel, and was suspected and later cleared of treason because of his contacts with a Russian diplomat. He went on to become an academic at Oxford and a professor of political science at the University of Haifa, Stanford, MIT and Bocconi University in Milan.
Already at an advanced age, Segre founded the Department of Mediterranean Studies at the University of Lugano, Switzerland, of which he became the first director. He was, for decades, a journalist for major French and Italian papers such as Le Figaro, Corriere della Sera and Il Giornale.
All of the above represent but a very incomplete curriculum vitae.
His three-part autobiography only covers a small selection of what he lived through. The first part, Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, was translated into many languages; it is beautifully written and full of incredible stories. One small example illustrates the breadth of his personal journey: in World War II, the British did not provide pork for meals to their Jewish Brigade, to which Segre belonged. The Jewish soldiers then went on strike, as they were denied “equal rights.”
They asked and succeeded in being given bacon for breakfast like all others. Segre would later become Modern Orthodox, and remained so his whole life.
Whenever Segre would sit at the Friday night table at our home, the other guests – whether they had known him for years or had just met him – were amazed and fascinated by the stories he told. In some way, he embodied serendipity itself. Segre indeed enabled others to continuously make “accidental” surprising discoveries.
One of these, among many, was when he told me – quite casually – that he had been the very last person in Palestine to talk to Enzo Sereni, the leader of the Palestinian Jewish parachutists who went to their death in the Second World War.
In recent years, when he was suffering from many health problems, he related stories about his treatments by a French miracle doctor, Cohen, who alleviated many of his painful symptoms. Despite this, Segre regretted that he could not get well enough to go horseback riding again; he had been riding since he was a child. It is difficult to imagine that in pre-state Palestine, Segre, together with another future Israeli ambassador, went regularly to the major British army base in Sarafand to ride.
As he lived through so many adventures, no obituary can encompass more than a fraction of them, so it is probably best to share some personal memories.
Segre told me that after he had been cleared of treason charges, prime minister Golda Meir offered him a diplomatic post of his choosing.
He told her he wanted to leave the diplomatic service.
With the help of internationally renowned philosopher Josef Agassi, who had been a soldier under his command in the War of Independence, Segre entered St. Anthony’s at Oxford. One of the lessons Agassi taught Segre was that before he started to research a project, he should write whatever he thought the conclusions would be. That would help him to focus on the research to be done, even if the final conclusions were radically different from what he had initially written. Later, when I hesitated over the quality of my PhD thesis to be presented, Segre introduced me to Agassi and said, “if you can answer his criticisms, nobody can destroy your thesis.”
Segre and I were both involved in promoting an ambitious project which never got off the ground, although not for lack of trying.
Each of us had different contacts among the top management of Silvio Berlusconi’s business interests.
One day, Segre told me he had been informed by one of his contacts that the Italian government considered Berlusconi to be too powerful, since he controlled three Italian television channels, as many as the Italian public broadcasting system. The government wanted to take away one of Berlusconi’s channels, under the pretense that these channels broadcast nothing but entertainment.
I suggested that Segre and I carry out interviews with the best brains in the world within various fields, and that these interviews be broadcast late at night by Berlusconi’s TV channels. This would have a double advantage: With such a prestigious program, no longer could anyone claim there was only entertainment on the channels. In addition, not much advertising revenue would be lost on such programming at late evening hours.
Our contacts liked the proposal very much and set up a meeting for the two of us with Berlusconi. One day before the meeting was to take place, the Italian police came to see Berlusconi in order to investigate major corruption charges. Our meeting was canceled. Berlusconi decided to go into politics, which would protect him from the Justice Department officials. It was both the beginning of Berlusconi’s path to becoming the prime minister of Italy, and the end of our project, which would have been extremely interesting to implement.
In 1994 I interviewed Segre for my post-Oslo Accords book, Israel’s New Future. Rereading the text 20 years later, it shows his extraordinary insight. To quote one paragraph: “Europe does not seem to have renounced some aspects of its Shylock policy. It wants from Israel a pound of flesh in territorial concessions, without paying attention to the damage these may cause to the whole body as far as the defense capabilities of Israel are concerned. To insist on unilateral concessions after the Yugoslav experience would look comic – if it was not so tragic.”
In the last years of his life, Segre carried on as if he had no health problems. He spent much of his time in his new apartment in Jerusalem.
He brought with him an excellent Italian cook, who had previously wasted her great skills on the assembly line of the Fiat car company in Turin. On his balcony, Segre entertained his friends with fine meals and stories, as if he were decades younger.
Despite all his experiences, Segre remained a modest man. He did not think of himself as much of an academic, even though some of the universities he taught at were among the most prestigious in the world.
Any obituary can provide but a mere glimpse into the fascinating life of such a unique personality as Segre. May his memory be blessed.The writer is a former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, of which Prof. Segre was a fellow.