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  1. #1
    Senior Member Platinum Poster
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    Jul 2008

    Default Israel at 70: the dilemma of Nationalism

    I think it fair to say that over the last 70 years, those who believed Israel was weak and would not survive in a hostile region, have had to concede that not only has Israel survived, it is one of the most successful states to emerge from the debris of Empire since 1918. Just as those who considered the creation of Israel in May 1948 a beacon of hope for humanity must concede that in its treatment of Palestinians before and since 1948 has looked increasingly like the death of it. The problem is that both sides are right, and because both sides are also morally compromised, it seems impossible to resolve the needs and rights of Israelis and Palestinians in equal measure. As the failed philosopher Isaiah Berlin once argued, you can have liberty or equality, but you can't have both at the same time (he was wrong).

    I cannot hope to encompass all that has gone right or wrong in Israel since 1948, rather I want to explain my bias (other than my family history which is not relevant to my argument) and argue that the core problem is not anything specifically 'Jewish' but the very ideas embedded in Nationalism, and that this means almost all of the issues people have with Israel can be found in other states founded on a 'National idea'. The First World War, as Christoper Clark argues in the opening chapters of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012) was forged in the crucible of the violent nationalism that convulsed the Balkans in war from the overthrow of the Obrenic dynasty in 1903 to the last Balkan War of 1913. Even before the carnage of the Western Front a staggering number of people died for or against the Serbian cause: where there is a Serb, there is Serbia. And to prove how deadly it can be, the collapse of Yugoslavia was followed by a resurrection of that same old rancid idea and death in a form we had thought Europe would not experience again.

    I am biased against Nationalism because while it has inherent tendencies to Fascism, it may not necessarily morph into anything resembling Mussolini's Italy, which was seen by many at the time -before its alliance with Nazi Germany- as a modernist enterprise.
    But what Nationalism does is to insist that there is such a thing as 'the Nation' and that it can be defined by geography, language, religion, cuisine and dress, to take the most obvious markers. It emerged in its modern form in the aftermath of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo as the victorious Empires found themselves struggling to contain the 'little people' who now resented being ruled from Berlin and Vienna, but whose confidence in their own project was fuelled by capitalism, which is an inherently anti-Nationalist idea. It may not be a coincidence that one of the earliest anti-imperial movements, the National Movement of Hungary that so challenged the Hapsburgs in the 1840s, now in its latest version, Fidesz, threatens to destroy the EU.

    What happens when a Nationalist asks the question: do you belong here? And decides, because of the colour of a person's skin, or their religion, or their mother tongue that the answer is No-? The dilemma it creates is whether to be tolerant and allow the 'other' equal rights in the 'Nation', or deny them those rights, or worse, either expel them from the Nation or indeed, exterminate them. In this context, the closest example to Israel may be Turkey, where the invention of Turkish identity with the foundation of the Republic in 1923 gave millions of people of diverse origin a singular unifying identity, yet at the same time and for the same reason denied it to those with roots in Anatolia thousands of years old who were Armenian, Greek or Kurdish -or, for this Atheist state, Christian or Muslim. That massacre, expulsion and repression were the result long before 1948 could have been a warning to Israel, but Israelis even though their entire project is based on the same 19th century idea of Nationalism, always thought they would be different, and better.

    The dilemma was there from the beginning, not so much with Theodor Herzl's claims -or dreams?- in The Jewish State (1896) but with the reality that the first Zionists met when they arrived in Ottoman territory -the Vilayet of Jerusalem- to establish the first 'settlements' at Rishon LeZion and Petah Tikva. The presence of Arabs in large numbers cultivating the land -as that land has been since the Neolithic era 7,000+ years ago- presented them with the crucial dilemma Israel has failed to solve: who does this land belong to, and can we share it equally? The dilemma is given in its details in Gershon Shafir: Land, Labour and the Origin of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1882-1914 (1989).

    There is now an abundance of evidence that Zionists were only able to realize their project through the tactic of segregation (not apartheid), whereby Jews would do as much as they could not to integrate into existing Arab society, but create networks of production and trade sufficient to sustain Jewish communities with as little connection to the Arabs as possible. This form of segregation not only buttressed the National project, when the Ottoman territory became a British Mandate and a new wave of immigrants arrived, tensions that spilled over into violence took on the form where the dilemma of Nationalism became an existential dilemma, as the classic national liberation slogan puts it: Libro patria o muerte. But if this 'life or death' motif has become the central pillar of the extreme nationalists associated with Mussolini's Italy -one thinks of Avraham Stern- and is found in present day Likudniks like Netanyahu, they did not always dominate the discourse of Israeli politics as a generation of Jews realised the solution to the dilemma is in fact to find a way of living with the Arabs and sharing the benefits of the state.

    It may be that the Lavon Affair and the destruction of Moshe Sharett's career by those (Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon, for example) who saw him as 'soft' on the Arabs paved the way for the war of 1967 and the illegal occupation of the West Bank, either way the War was never going solve the dilemma of Nationalism, compounded by the emergence of a Palestinian nationalism incapable of giving coherent expression to a patch of land that in reality belongs to everyone or no-one.

    For, while it is true that Israel has been able to influence foreign governments, the alternative question is why have the Palestinans failed in the same project? Oddly, just as Palestinians are good at just about everything except politics -if you have a heart attack in the Middle East or need brain surgery, hope your doctor is either Israeli or Palestinian- so in Israel today its peculiar democracy is so corrupt the best minds go into science, engineering, the arts and entertainment leaving politics to an alarming cohort of extremists, racist and outright lunatics who would be at home in HAMAS if they were living in Gaza.

    If the failure to resolve the nationalist dilemma is at the heart of Israel's problems with the Palestinians -and vice versa- there is also the exhibition of the problem of segregation (not apartheid) that enables Israel on the one hand to present itself -justifiably- as a pioneer of environmental progress, while on the West Bank it is little more than a vandal responsible for the destruction of prime farming land: orchards bearing exquisite plums replaced by car parks, olive groves replaced with highways or the 'Berlin Wall' removed from Germany to land stolen from the Palestinians. Thus, you can find the exemplary record on the environment in Israel here-
    and here
    and here

    And shake your head in disbelief that the same 'Nation' turns the West Bank into a 'garbage dump'-
    and here

    Finally, just as one of the least discussed aspects of Israel is also its greatest success -civil society- that civil society is under threat, and from whom? Why, the Nationalists of course!

    Israel's diverse and vibrant civil society has provided the country with the full range of activities in commerce, the arts, sport, entertainment, architecture and so on that sits in stark contrast to the absence of or destruction of civil society across the Middle East. Indeed, without this vibrant society Israel might not have survived, because for all its flaws, life is good for most Israelis and it is the things they enjoy that are not controlled by the State that define their freedom, just as so many Arabs cannot hope to live without the State sitting on their shoulders or lurking behind toilet walls paranoid every form of expression is hostile to their precious power. The mere fact that you can go openly to a gay night club in Tel-Aviv or that some years ago their National representative at the Eurovision song contest was not only a Transexual but won the competition too is an example of what cannot happen in Syria or Saudi Arabia (but not in Russia either).

    And yet, the greatest threat to civil society comes from those Nationalists who feel threatened by the human rights organizations in Israel's civil society that attack Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, or the Orthodox Jews who regard most of Israel's population as atheistic, dope-smoking beach bums where women walk around half-naked and nobody respects the Sabbath. You can read up civil society here-

    Some weeks ago on the BBC-2's Newsnight programme, a supporter of the nationalist Fidesz party in Hungary explained the problem they have with the EU as the problem of the 'post-modern state' where there is no national identity, and politics is subsumed within the broad parameters set by the EU that looks for more integration, but where the Hungarians by contast want to revive the National idea of Hungary as a Christian State and thus find it hard to reconcile themselves with the inherent bias of the EU against Nationalism. A similar problem exists with Poland and, in its extreme form, with those in the Brexit camp like Nigel Farage who are in reality England for the English nationalsts and deeply, deeply racist.

    But this is why the EU is right, and Nationalism is wrong, because Nationalism is a desperate attempt to revive a mythical past and create a present and a future based on the claim that 'only we, alone' can succeed. But Nationalism can only succeed through the exclusion of others, and it this dilemma of belonging that is the threat to Israel as its own citizens make competing demands of the benefits of the State they cannot all have at the same time. Capitalism is the greater triumph, as it has been since it emerged in the city-states of Italy in the 12th century for capitalism has no fidelity to national borders or ideas, and the future is global not patriotic, for even with the worst aspects of capitalism, it offers the prospect of change that Nationalism cannot maintain. Thus, I dont know if Israel will survive in its present form, but the same can also be said of Iraq and Syria, the Middle East is a volatile region for a reason or ten. But just as we wish it were different and that people would put aside the National idea for something more positive and inclusive, Auden's chilling lines from the Sonnets he wrote in China in the 1930s may be closer to the truth:

    History opposes its grief to our buoyant song,
    to our hope its warning.

  2. #2
    Junior Poster nitron's Avatar
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    Oct 2007

    Default Re: Israel at 70: the dilemma of Nationalism

    "...closer to the truth..."
    I don't know.
    One can argue that,
    nations are experiments in human diversity, just like ecosystems that nature is messing around with. More diversity seems to be the way of the natural world.Probably for very good reasons .
    As an analogy,I think nations as experiments on societal variation, as crucibles for variation.And similar to why bio diversity in the global ecology matters, just in case of problems down the road.
    .Maybe its wise
    not put all your eggs in one basket..
    ..i don't know .

  3. #3
    Banned for Life Rookie Poster
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    Feb 2017

    Default Re: Israel at 70: the dilemma of Nationalism

    Why would anybody think Isreal would fail? They pretty much run the world with almost every countries resources at it's disposal. lol

  4. #4
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    Jul 2008

    Default Re: Israel at 70: the dilemma of Nationalism

    Quote Originally Posted by DaphneCruz View Post
    Why would anybody think Isreal would fail? They pretty much run the world with almost every countries resources at it's disposal. lol
    When States fail, internal causes are mostly to blame. External pressure on a state can normally be dealt with if the state is strong in itself. By contrast, weak states often fail to develop precisely because the internal structure of the state is composed of groups competing with each other, rather than co-operating in the development of the state, in what Joel Migdal refers to as 'strong societies, weak states' -an African country on independence where the British favoured one ethnic group over another may be weak from the start if many of the country's new citizens do not think the party that inherited power from the British deserved it, and if their own interests are not addressed. Internal division from the start can obstruct the development of the state no matter what resources it has.

    One of my key points was that Israel is both a strong state, with a strong society, although its greatest weakness may be the division between religious fanatics, most of whom live in the Occupied Territories, and those Israelis for whom religion does not shape their everyday lives. It could be argued that the Palestinians never had a chance to develop a state, that twice, in 1948 and 1967 their demographic base was convulsed by expulsion and flight, but Palestinians as I also argued are clever people, but have not been very clever at politics. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, they alienated all of the people they needed support from through their adoption of the 'armed struggle' which attacked Arabs as well as Jews, whether they were in the Middle East or elsewhere.

    Israel has been successful at building political support across the world, and developing a 'high tech' industry in communications that means just about anyone with a smart phone has technology in it developed in Israel, but many of us also use computers, and wear clothes made in China, but that doesn't mean China runs the world. It is called international trade. Israel produces Dates that are on sale in a supermarket near me, in another supermarket near me, the dates are from Algeria. I have a choice. But the ones I really want to buy, unavailable in the UK, are from Oman, as I used to know an Omani who brought them over for me. International trade helps make the world go round to the benefit of most of us, don't knock it.

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