Posted by: sean | December 4, 2011

Zionism, nationalism and liberalism

An old post that I wrote last year has been slightly edited and put up over at +972, which is a great Israeli blog that you should be reading if you aren’t already.

The piece focuses on the idea that Jewish nationalism is the same sort of thing as, say, French nationalism or any other nationalism, a claim that I take issue with. It focuses on Zionism as a national identity without going into the inescapable fact that regardless of the merits or demerits of Zionism, millions of Palestinians are currently left dispossessed. That’s an obvious, and to my mind the most important, point, and one that can find no liberal justification. In any case, that’s not the issue I wanted to address, especially since my perspective on that is pretty clear.



  1. Zionism is not what caused the dispossession that troubles you so much, if you have even the slightest knowledge of history. It is Arab intolerance that created the refugee problem and that exacerbates it (as well as the Jewish refugee issue, which is somehow no longer a problem). And it is Arab countries, among others, just like Israel, that were drawn from scratch after the world wars based largely on nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. However, it is only Israel that you suggest should dissolve it’s borders in order to lose that self-determination to become yet another Arab state. Perhaps Lebanon, because Syria can’t seem to truly accept its independence, should have its borders dissolved as well? Or are some nations more worthy of national self-determination than other. You don’t seem to realize how your single-minded focus on the only liberal country in the middle east to the exception of all others, detracts from any credibility you may have as a liberal. Instead it shows you as an irrational hater of the world’s only Jewish state, and one who has spent too much time in the Arab world where there is no room for self-reflection, as Israel (and Jews) can always be blamed as the root of all evils. If Israel is indeed like all other nations, why is it the only one that you suggest undoing? Why the Jews and only the Jews? Still no condemnation of Syria, or Hezbollah, or the perpetuation of Palestinian refugeedom… no sense at all of the more pressing problems that a true liberal would have, not least of which would deal with treatment of women and homosexuals. Instead you focus on things like immigration laws (not only Israel has a “right of return” and given the Jewish history of persecution perhaps it is worth considering why you would begrudge them a safe place to go), without looking at actually equality of citizenship to those who are actually citizens of the state. And while Israel is a state that would give citizenship to any Jew, you ignore the Arab countries who would deny a Jew citizenship on that fact alone, or the fact that the Arab world has kicked out every single one of their Jews. Clearly to you, the privilege of refuge to Jews is somehow more of an offece than the ethnic cleansing of Jews which somehow doesn’t require a liberal sniff test. Then you move on to the army and hold it against Israel that it doesn’t force its Arab citizens to enlist. Instead they also have the option of National Service (something that is looked down upon in Arab communities since it would require actual acceptance and integration into their state) which affords all the benefits of army service. Your blind hatred has rendered you not just irrational, but not credible, leaving only to preach to your choir who, by the comments posted, you might notice are pure anti-semites in a way that only the Arab world could see as somehow consistent with liberalism. More importantly, your indulgence of the Arab world in its rejectionism and scapegoatism only promotes that culture’s most illiberal tendencies. Kudos.

  2. BTW, do you also suggest that the Sudan be reunified as some testament to Muslim coexistence? I mean it’ll cause more death, but why not a one state solution there too?

  3. I’ll also point out that the reason for 972’s existence is a)that Israel is a real liberal country where such relentless and ignorant criticism is tolerated, and b)as Israelis it is incumbent upon them to look at their own society first in order to make it better (something, again, that is lacking in the Arab world). This second trait is true of most liberals, although of late it has become a matter of defending and romanticizing the “other” at all costs while invariably laying the blame on whichever side is white or western. This is horribly simplistic, but certainly trendy. As someone who is not Israeli, however, and who has firsthand experience with illiberal societies, your continued obsession and hatred is conspicuous at best and bigoted at worst.

  4. I find the title of your piece misleading – it would be more accurate as ‘How is Zionism different from 21st century Western forms of nationalism.’ I understood why you choose the American and French models as the standard, given that we hear a lot from Israelis about how they’re the only democracy in the region and so on.

    But a far more interesting comparison I think would be to compare it to those other nationalisms which arose out of the ruins of the Tsarist, Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires – say, Serbian nationalism or Turkish nationalism. And then explain why you think forcing Jews and Arabs to live together in one state in Palestine is a good idea, but forcing Serbs, Croats and Bosnians to live together in one state in the Balkans, or forcing Turks, Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians to live together in one state in Anatoia, is not (I realize I’m making an assumption here – perhaps you also advocate the return of Yugoslavia, or the return to Anatolia of millions of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians?).

  5. Thanks for the comment, Mel. I didn’t choose the title for the cross post, and if you click on the original, you’ll see I was more concerned with liberalism than nationalism, per se. To answer your question, though, Israelis are constantly comparing themselves to liberal democracies and do their best to gloss over all the reasons why Israel is not, in fact, a liberal democracy.

    The point of the piece is that Israel is, in fact, a lot more like Serbia or, as Judt puts it, post-Habsburg Romania than it is Canada, the US or France. But I do think that Bosniaks or Serbs or Croats, etc. who were forced out of their homes in the Balkan wars should have the right to return (likewise for Armenians who were ethnically cleansed from Anatolia). And while you joke about recreating Yugoslavia, in a way, that’s exactly what the Balkan states are doing, except on an even larger scale by vying for membership in the European Union. Slovenia has already joined, and Croatia and Serbia are both well on their way. And I suspect if that works out, Bosnia won’t want to be the odd man out. So while there’s clearly a difference between Yugoslavia and the EU, the trend is toward more regional integration and shared sovereignty, which is really pretty impressive considering how nasty (and recent) the Balkan wars were.

    Finally, I’m not for forcing anyone to do anything (although I don’t think the US should be enabling the status quo by giving billions of dollars a year to Israel). But the current situation is not tenable in the long run, and rather than a two state “solution” that doesn’t really solve many of the more intractable problems (refugees’ rights, Israeli demography), I think the most logical and just solution would be a democratic, secular state with equal rights for all and and a constitution that guarantees individual rights regardless of ethnicity and creed. And following that, a larger confederation of regional states along the lines of the EU.

    Neither of these ideas seem very likely today, but I suspect that the EU must have sounded equally strange in Paris, Warsaw and East Berlin…

  6. I agree with what you say about Israel being closer to Serbia – I also think it’s a much fairer comparison to compare Israel to those states which arose from a similar context, i.e. those of Eastern Europe and the Near East. Sure Israelis like to compare themselves to the Western states, but on the other hand, their enemies like to compare them to the likes of Saudi Arabia, etc (not saying you have done this). The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between, and there are countless shades of grey between the US and the Saudis.

    I disagree with you on the direction you seem to think the EU is taking, but that’s another issue which only time will settle. As it is, the Balkan states are lucky enough to neighbor some of the more progressive European states, and so have deeper incentives to move in that direction – the Levant today is a different case altogether.

    Agree with you re: US aid, but finally, I’d like to ask a serious question – if you’re against coercing the Israelis into a bi-national state, what other efforts do you think have been made by the one-state advocates (among whom you are included) to persuade Israelis that a better future for them lies with one-state? As it stands, Israelis are dead-set against a one-state solution (I’m sure you realize that +972 is not in any way representative of Israeli opinion right now), and they see movements such as BDS as a form of coercion. How do you see this changing? What have the one-staters done to sell the idea to the Israelis? Because let’s be honest, it’s a very tough sell, for reasons which I haven’t seen you acknowledge to any major degree (these reasons would of course include the reality of becoming a minority in an Arab majority state, of millions of hostile refugees turning up looking for their homes back, etc.)

  7. One-staters couldn’t care less about convincing Israelis that it is in their best interest, because they know that it is not. But seeing Israelis as evil western implants, they don’t feel their interests need to be considered. So while the Palestinians say they don’t want Jews in their state because separation is necessary after all of the violence (of course, ridding an area of Jews that pre-48 had plenty of Jews is not a liberal enough concern by Sean’s anti-Jew standard), the idea of bringing in hostile refugees who have only been taught to hate Jews and cheer their deaths since birth is somehow seen as congruent with a liberal democracy. This double-standard is just more proof, of course, that the Israelis don’t need to be sold their destruction, but must just be forced into it. While every other refugee population of the time integrated and resettled in new countries, Sean feels that the Palestinians’ refusal to do so (with the help of the Arab world) and continued insistence on violent terrorism should somehow be rewarded – and not rewarded with some compromise, but rather with complete victory whereby Jewish self-determination is given up for the creation of another Arab state (and one that is expected to act somehow differently from every other Arab state in its treatment of minorities). Of course, Israel was create not as a superemacist theocracy, but as a state of refuge and homecoming. How likely is it that if Jews were threatened once more (as they were by Europeans and Arabs alike in the past) an Arab-majority Palestine would open its doors to those descendants of pigs and apes? But hey, why concern ourselves with Arab hatred of Jews when those Jews don’t deserve to be there anyway? And why would a purported liberal care about bigotry in the first place?
    Of course, the goal posts are being moved a bit where Israel is concerned (as they are in the opposite direction for Arabs, right Sean? How’s that Syria thing going, BTW?). It’s immigration laws are enough to decide whether it is a liberal democracy, whereas in most cases, a liberal democracy is judged by how it treats its actual citizens… and I’m not sure in what way Israel doesn’t measure up in this regard and what similarities to Romania or Serbia you are refering to, but let’s not pretend that any liberal democracy is the picture perfect embodiment of that title. Is Switzerland not a liberal democracy because they won’t allow the building of minarets (which Israel does)? No, but for Israel, any law that falls short of your ideal, even when it is done as a response to repeated genocidal attacks, is enough to write it off despite the many ways that it is superior even to western countries (unless you didn’t see the US as a democracy when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was in force on those grounds alone).
    I’ll also point out that whenever people like you are shown examples of how Israel gives equal opportunity to all its citizens, and is not therefore a state for Jews only, you point out that most of those who have risen in the ranks are either Druze or Christian as though that somehow proves your point when instead it is only proof that if a non-Jewish citizen is willing to integrate into the state, they can achieve great heights which are indeed unreachable for minorities in the rest of the middle east.

  8. “what other efforts do you think have been made by the one-state advocates (among whom you are included) to persuade Israelis that a better future for them lies with one-state?”

    Mel: I think asking an ethnic elite to give up its dominant role in a country or society is a really difficult thing to do. It didn’t come easily in the Jim Crow South or in South Africa. On the eve of the 1994 elections, man Afrikaners were still absolutely convinced that the first thing the black South Africans would do would be to murder as many whites as they could. In the end, though, that’s not what happened. I think a lot of how a long-oppressed group behaves once the situation changes has to do with how that change in power comes about. The difference between the transitions from all-white rule in South Africa and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe are very good examples of that. Another example in the Zimbabwe column would be brutal war in Algeria and the consequent expulsion of the pieds noirs.

  9. Ethnic elite? How bout the actual citizens of the country? This is a pretty false and faulty parallel. Then again apartheid does sound so deliciously evil… You know… Like israelis

  10. Sean: I see your frame of reference is not actually late 19th c./early 20th c. eastern Europe, but rather Apartheid South Africa. Therefore it seems safe to assume that you view Zionism not as a genuine national movement, every bit as flawed/invented as all the others, but rather purely as a European-style colonial movement. IMO this betrays a real lack of understanding of the roots of Zionism and what drove people to Palestine at the time, and I’m not sure any more fruitful discussion is possible here. However, I would urge you to consider the differences between, say, the Freedom Charter and the Palestinian National Covenant or Hamas Charter when pushing the Apartheid analogy in the future. Have a good day.

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