Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part Three)

[See the introduction before reading this. Also, Part One and Part Two of this article]

Second, from a contemporary point of view, the argument regarding the anachronism of 19th century European nationalism (which, as I said, was characterized by a combination of ethnic and civilian elements in the definition of the nation) is inaccurate, to say the least. Let us look at the present map of Europe. The similarity between it and the European map in 1919 (when the principle of nationalism was recognized as a central principle in the new order) is greater than the similarity between the European map of 1919 and that of 1900. The major changes which took place since then (in the region of Czechoslovakia and the Balkans) point precisely to the continued implementation of the [national – AW] principles established after World War One. Indeed, today there are more independent nation-states in Europe than any other time in history. Not bad for an anachronism! The main thing which has changed is the ethnic composition in a number of states which became more homogenous, largely due to the acts of genocide during the Second World War and the ethnic purges immediately after its end. In such a situation – of a lack of large ethnic minorities – it is easier for many states to pretend that their conception of nationality is purely civilian (in other words, that ostensibly the nation and the residential civilian population are one and the same), but when major ethnic friction occurs, it immediately turns out that this is not the case.

Here are two examples. First, Kosovo. The abolition of the autonomy of the Kosovo province in 1990 created a dynamic which lead to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and ethnic wars in the region. Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian leadership were the ones who bore primary responsibility for these wars. But the Serbian nationalism they espoused was closer to what the authors call enlightenment politics, while the demand for autonomy by Kosovo, as well as the demands for independence of Slovenia and Croatia were characterized much more by ethnic considerations. The reason for this is clear. Milosevic wanted a multi-ethnic but not federal Yugoslavia. In such a Yugoslavia the Serbs had an advantage. But even so this required recognizing the rights of all Yugoslavian citizens, and Milosevic did precisely that. Here are parts of his speech in Gazimestan from 1989, the same speech which is considered a central event in rallying Serbian nationalism:

‘Serbia of today is united and equal in rights to other republics and it is willing to do everything in order to improve the economic and social conditions of all its citizens…Serbia was never inhabited solely by Serbians. Today, more than ever, citizens which belong to other peoples and nations live in it. This is not a disadvantage for Serbia. I truly believe it is an advantage…[A society base on – AW] Socialism being an advanced, just and democratic society cannot allow people to be separated ethnically and religiously…Therefore, all people living in Serbia through work, decency and with respect towards other people and peoples – live in a republic of their own…”

This part of Milosevic’s speech fits perfectly with the self-same ‘politics of the enlightenment’ which Profs. Strenger and Loberboim advocate and which grants ‘all its citizens the same rights, regardless of their ethnic origin’. Many leaders in the Western world thought the same thing, including the US which actually supported Serbia (Yugoslavia) in the beginning of the war,and saw those in Slovenia, Croatia and the Albanians as ones who stressed the ethnic principle (Even in the last stages of the war, when only Greater Serbia was spoken of, the Serbians didn’t deny Serbian citizenship from the Kosovar Albanians). However the results of this “enlightenment” were a blood-soaked war and ethnic slaughter. Having learned from their experience the Western states intervened in 1998 on the side of the Albanians. This intervention stemmed of course from the commitment to the principle of human rights. However, it turned out that in this specific case it was precisely support of the ethnic Albanian logic which was the most reasonable solution to promote the universal principles of human rights in the Balkans, even if it lead in the beginning to the expulsion of most of the Serbs and gypsies from the province and a rather miserable existence for those who stayed. Were the Europeans wrong in doin this and did they thus stray from the principles of ‘enlightenment’? Np, in my opinion their policy was justified. As it turned out that in the complex ethnic circumstances it was precisely the attempt of Milosevic the socialist to fulfill the vision of Serbia as ‘a state of all its citizens’ without ethnic autonomy which lead to horrible tragedies and the strengthening of his semi-dictatorial rule. Meanwhile it was precisely the ethnic approach which contributed more to the promotion of European ideals and the democratization of Serbia itself after the war.

Another example – Estonia. If there is a case which is entirely opposite to ‘enlightenment’ as per the authors’ definition (the same enlightenment, which according to them sees ‘the state as a legal entity which grants all its citizens the same rights, regardless of their ethnic origins) it is the Citizenship Law in Estonia, which did not grant automatic citizenship to the ethnic Russian minority and established a conditional process of naturalization. Did Europe see this as an anachronism? Not really. Estonia was accepted into the European Union and NATO. In my opinion, also here Europe did not retreat from its enlightened principles, but rather they simply understood the specific circumstances which led to the adoption of the Citizenship Law and the dangers to democracy that were embedded in a refusal of Estonia’s request to join Europe.

However even those who disagree with the European states in these two cases, must recognize that when it turned out that the continent had to deal with ethnic problems in its backyard, the considerations of ethnic nationalism were not foreign to it. This is not only in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe (as is made clear, for instance, I the granting of political autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque province or to Scotland and Wales, or the complex structure of the Belgian state, a structure which derives directly from ethnic considerations). In any event, Israel does not emerge as an ‘anachronism’! After all in comparison to the two examples stated above Israel is a model for moderate and enlightened ethnic politics. The situation of the Arab minority in Israel is much better than that of the Serbian ethnic minority in Kosovo, and as opposed to Estonia Israel granted automatic citizenship to all residents in its sovereign territory (except for East Jerusalem, where even there naturalization involves less conditions than in Estonia).

When the authors use the term ‘anachronism’, they fall into a rather common trap among Israeli intellectuals: They interpret literally what their European counterparts are telling them. Indeed, it is customary in certain European circles to warn Israel about becoming an ‘anachronism’. However behind this statement lies hypocrisy (sometimes conscious). These Europeans are fully aware of the national-ethnic logic that stands at the foundations of the structure of their society. They simply aren’t willing to apply to this principle to the Jews out of a cultural tradition with anti-semitic roots which is not prepared to see the Jews as a national group with the same rights given to other national groups. Therefore people who tend to speak of Israel as an anachronism do not object to this or that policy of the state of Israel, but rather they object entirely to the existence of Israel as a Jewish nation-state. It is a shame that many Israeli intellectuals are not really aware of the nuances in this European discourse.

Next: Epilogue




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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One Response to Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part Three)

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

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