Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part One)

[See the introduction before reading this]

How Not To Discuss Nationalism by Efraim Podoksik

Profs. Carlo Strenger and Menahem Loberboim did well in attacking the false dichotomy between a Jewish state and a democratic state (19.11.2010 ‘Zionism Without Ethnic Romanticism’).  Unfortunately, they immediately built a different and no less problematic dichotomy in its place – the dichotomy between ‘the enlightenment tradition’ and ‘the romantic tradition’ in politics.

The line of argument of the authors is as follows. Two traditions exist in European politics. One is the romantic tradition which ’emphasizes the connection between the entity called the “nation” and the land’. The second is the enlightenment tradition ‘which emphasizes universal human rights’. The politics of romantic nationalism dominated Europe in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and led to disastrous results.  As a result of the bitter experience, Europe came to the conclusion that the only way is ‘to see the state as a legal entity which grants all its citizens the same rights, irrespective of their ethnic origin’. When the United Nations recognized Israel, they did so on the basis of this outlook and ‘not on the grounds of ancient history’. But the ‘Israeli right’ tends more and more to adopt the anachronistic romantic outlook and thus threatens to turn Israel itself into an anachronism.

The authors are correct about one thing. Indeed, there are today trends in the Israeli right (although, not exclusively on the right) which adopt an ethnocratic approach. These trends can be identified, for instance, in the campaign slogans of ‘Israel Beiteinu’ in the last elections or in the argument of the leaders of ‘Im Tirtzu’ that modernist theories of nationalism necessarily negate the Zionist world-view. These trends are indeed dangerous and worthy of severe criticism.

However, in all other aspects the article suffers from many flaws, including simplistic arguments and use of clichés whose persuasive potential lies in being common in internal Israeli discourse. The same goes with their mixture of correct criticisms with a schematic structure so biased, it borders on caricature. All these are known characteristics of Israeli opinion journalism which are leading our public discourse into a dead end.

Even the justified negation of the ethnocratic approach is formulated in a stereotypical fashion which blurs the true picture. The romantic outlook is defined simplistically as adherence to ‘the land’. Irrespective of the correctness of this definition (and as will be explained later, this definition is lacking), it does not accurately portray the ethnocratic politics of today’s Israeli right. The only reason to use this definition is the context of Israeli politics between the 1970s and the 1990s, when the ‘land’ issue ostensibly distinguished ‘right’ from ‘left’. However, there is no necessary connection between the ethnocratic approach and sanctification of the land. Indeed it seems that the ‘Im Tirtzu’ people combine the two, but in high politics the force most identified with the spreading of the ethnocratic trend – ‘Israel Beiteinu’ – is indifferent to the value of the land (and one can say the same thing about Shas to a lesser degree). On the other hand, among the self-same minority of settlers for whom the land has indeed become a supreme value and not a rhetorical tool, the attitude that all Arab-Palestinian residents should be given citizenship or alternatively, a readiness to stay in Judaea and Samaria under Palestinian sovereignty is spreading (at least on a declarative level).

Another example of the article’s problematic nature is the sloppy use of historical comparisons. For instance, in the context of romantic politics, the authors write the following: ‘Germans, Russians and Serbs used the exact same language to argue that they have some ephemeral right superior to the principle of political sovereignty, and that in any event that right is superior to any demand of the international community’.

The authors had innumerable examples at their disposal which could have illustrated the use of ethnic romanticism in politics past and present, such as certain national movements in Croatia, Hungary, Georgia, Ukraine, Ireland, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, India, Sri Lanka &c. Of all these possible examples, the authors chose to mention in their article three countries that didn’t base their policies on purely ethnocratic considerations. This is due to the fact that these three examples are of imperialist, expansionist states (including Serbia, since it was not the yearning for Kosovo which motivated the Serbian leadership in the 1990s but rather the aspiration to control the multi-ethnic territory of all of Yugoslavia or at least most of what was left of it – but I’ll get to that later on). By their very nature, states which aim toward unlimited expansion cannot be based on the outlook which ties nation to land. After all, imperialism is based on the constant adding of territories, and an over-emphasis on any particular piece of territory can actually impede imperialist expansion (see, for instance, the old Israeli right, for whom it was easier to separate from enormous areas in the Sinai peninsula, as opposed to the very small area of Judea and Samaria). In addition, the imperialist venture goes hand-in-hand with creating a multi-ethnic reality, something which requires creating a super-ethnic concept of citizenship – as total preference of one ethnic group could destroy the ethnic balance which usually exists in empires.

Let’s take Russia, for example. To which Russia do the authors refer? The Russia of the 16th century which formulated the ideology of ‘the third Rome’, at which basis stood not the connection to land, but rather the outlook that Russia is the last defender of the true Christianity in the days after the fall of Constantinople, as well as the universal messianic aspiration to redeem the whole world in the future (and not ancient history)? Or the Russian Empire of the end of the 19th century which justified its expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire with the help of a super-national pan-Slavism? Or the USSR which from the outset was conceived as a federation of many nations on the basis of a universalist ideology, on the basis of which demanded for itself ‘some ephemeral right superior to the principle of political sovereignty’? Or today’s nationalist Russia which suppressed the rebellion in Chechnya? Unfortunately for the authors, it is precisely bellicose and aggressive Russia which supports the outlook which sees ‘the state as a legal entity which grants all its citizens the same rights, irrespective of their ethnic origin’. Russia has no problem recognizing the rights of ethnic Chechens as individuals (Ethnic Chechens hold senior positions in Putin’s Russian government), or even to agree to grant broad Chechen political autonomy, as long as it takes place under Russian patronage.

Germany is of course a more logical example. Indeed the intellectual language of ‘romanticism’ is very largely a German phenomenon, and the ‘romantic’ label which is often used for ethnic nationalism in general is no more than a transference of the specific German intellectual circumstances onto a much more varied phenomenon. However, even this case is not so clear-cut. First, in spite of rhetorical sayings like ‘blood and soil’, at the foundation of German romantic nationalism stood the language and not the land (since as opposed to the French, English and Spanish, it was less clear to the Germans what exactly is the ancient German area to which the German nation can be tied). Second, Germany’s behavior prior to World War One and the rhetoric it used had less to do with romantic nationalism and more to power plays between empires and the struggle for distant colonies. Third, the spread of Nazi Germany was justified by a more universalist and less limiting world-view than ethnic nationalism – namely, the racist outlook.

It seems to me, then, that there is no reason to necessarily bring Russia, Germany and Serbia as examples unless you want to use the scariest historical examples, perhaps due to the justified concern that more relevant examples (Ireland, Greece, Slovakia?) won’t make much impression on the reader.

Next: Is the equation: (All) Ethnic Nationalism = Nazi Germany really valid?


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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3 Responses to Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part Two) | QED

  2. Pingback: Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part Three) | QED

  3. Pingback: Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Epilogue) | QED

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