Nationalism and the Problems of the Middle East
One of the books I’ve been reading off and on over the last year has been Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. Shlaim is a one of the Israeli New Historians, which is essentially a “post-Zionist” revisionist school of Israeli history, who criticize the “old historians” of Israel of being too personally involved in the 1948 war and its aftermath, and thus writing history which is essentially apologetics for Israel.
There are places where I get the feeling Shlaim is leaning too hard in the other direction (for instance he spends a good deal of time on the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in 1948, but glosses over the expulsion of Jews from surrounding Arab countries.) However, given that you know where his leanings are, it’s a fascinating read because it’s closely based on documented sources, and it focuses on the very real problem of Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. Among the things it made me realize, however, was how alien the modern sense of nationalism is to citizens of the US.
This may seem a strange conclusion at first,
as it’s become a commonplace of a certain kind of rhetoric to accuse the US of being highly nationalistic. This determination is generally made through the simple equation which many modern commentators (especially, it often seems, of a progressive variety) that “patriotic” = “nationalist”. So if you think well of your country for any reason at all, you’re a nationalist. However nationalism has a definition other than “being fond of your country”, and knowing that definition is important because nationalism has played such an important role in the last 150 years of world history.
Nationalism might be defined as that way of thinking according to which regional, cultural, racial or religious groups have a right to political self determination and/or statehood based upon that shared sense of identity. Nationalism seemed a particularly attractive way of thinking to freedom advocates and reformers in the late 19th and early 20ths centuries, confronted as they were with a number of gradually weakening empires with extensive colonial holdings. Italy and Germany had unified in the middle of the 19th century, movements which were given force by a nationalistic sense that there was “One Italy” and “One Germany” in some powerful cultural sense. The Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, old rivals which each held dominion over many disparate cultures and regions most of which had at various points in the past been independant countries, were faced with numerous regional independence movements, many of them fuelled by a nationalistic sense that each regional people (Greeks, Bosnians, Serbs, Coatians, etc) should rule itself. In the more robust colonial empires of France and Britain, local populations were also increasingly demanding independence based on a sense of national identity and desire for self determination.
As people placed an ever greater emphasis on those cultural elements which were seen as providing a unifying nationality, it is hardly surprising that Jewish intellectuals, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, began to feel that the Jewish people would be perpetually out of place. Significant Jewish minorities were present throughout Europe, yet nowhere did they form a majority, and they had no homeland to congregate in. As the countries in which they lived placed ever greater emphasis on national identity, they naturally felt ever more the outsiders.
In 1896 Theodor Herzl, a secular Jewish intellectual living in Vienna, published a book titled The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat) in which he argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland and made two suggestions as to where it could be done: either in Palestine, because of its historic associations with the Jewish people, or in a vacant area of Argentina. Herzl went on to organize the First Zionist Congress which met in Basil, Switzerland in 1897 and produced the resolution: “The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by law.”
With this aim set, Herzl embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activity, meeting with the Ottoman Sultan, the German Emperor and representatives of the Russian and British governments in an attempt to achieve state sponsorship for creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was then a loosely controlled province of the Ottoman Empire. The looming difficulty with the Zionist project, however, was expressed by a group of rabbis from Vienna who went on an exploratory trip to Palestine and cabled back, “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.”
Seeing as by 1900 most attractively habitable (to European culture) parts of the world were already occupied by one people or another, this was the great difficulty for a people in search of a homeland. (The British in 1903 made the Zionist Congress an offer referred to as The Uganda Programme, suggesting that they take a 5,000sq/mi region of modern-day Kenya as a Jewish homeland, but among other difficulties, that region too was populated by other people who had no desire for an influx of outsiders.)
Thus, while encouraging both piecemeal Jewish immigration into Palestine and diplomatic attempts to secure sponsorship of a Jewish homeland in Palestine from one of the great powers, the early Zionists mostly attempted to assure themselves that the sparse Arab population in the area would be glad to see them. Herzl published a speculative novel entitled The Old New Land in 1903 charting out the way in which the founding of a Jewish state might go, and in it presented a local Arab character who said of the new state, “The Jews have made us prosperous, why should we be angry with them? They live with us as brothers, why should we not love them?” In the novel, political rights of Jews and non-Jews were the same, and local Arabs gladly adopted the hybrid Jewish-European culture of the new country.
Of course, as increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine and started making concrete moves towards achieving their own state, things did not work out like this — to a great extent because the local Arab population was undergoing its own birth of national identity, vastly accellerated by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War, and aided by the thought of European Orientalists such as T. E. Lawrence. There was a Syrian-Palestinian Congress in 1921 which issued a demand for national self-determination by Arabs in the region.
Here we find the source of the intractibility in the conflicts of the Middle East: Arab nationalists want the region of Palestine to be ruled by a country that is specifically Arabic in culture and population. Jewish nationalists want a homeland for Jews in Palestine which is of a politically viable size. And arguably, the 1947 UN-proposed boarders of Israel and the Arab-Palestinian state did not provide either with a viable territory. The map as originally proposed bears a certain resemblance to two squid locked in mortal struggle.
The 1949 armistice map does, arguably, provide Israel with a viable territory, but does not really do so for the Palestinians — at least, not as Palestinians qua Palestinians. Here we run into nationalism yet again. According to the 1949 armistace, what are now the “occupied territories” in the West Bank were made part of Jordan (itself a new country resulting from the partitioning of former Ottoman lands by the British in 1946).
Jordan was among the countries that attacked Isreal in the 1967 War, and after the war Isreal kept the West Bank, which was strategically positioned and contained both water resources and important historical sites in the history of ancient Isreal. Thus, a large population of Arab-Palestinians (some of them in turn people who had been expelled from Isreali territory back in 1948) found themselves under Israeli control for forty years — providing plenty of time for fostering a sense of nationality and grievance.
As I said, I think modern Americans are often peculiarly ill-suited to understand these long-simmering (and at times outright flaming) conflicts fed by nationalism, because we are ourselves quite explicitly a large country made up of many diverse ethnic and cultural groups. Certainly, there is a unifying American culture, and attachment to that is one of the characteristics that it at times labeled as American nationalism. But we clearly lack any sense in our national experience that it is necessary for one to live in a country which is defined both by one’s cultural and regional identity.
To me, with my American background, it seems obvious that the Palestinians should either seek to re-unify with Jordan and simply be happy as Jordanians, or else seek full integration into Israel and enjoy being Israeli-Arab citizens. And if those in that part of the world could somehow be cleansed of nationalism, those would seem to be the two options that would most lend themselves to peace. (A two state solution could potentially work as well — but given the small size and strategic importance of the West Bank, not to mention its recent history, it seems hard to imagine a stable, prosperous and friendly government coming into being there.) But short of that there is an intractible situation with no obvious solution. The Israelis (not surprisingly given what the Jewish people has suffered in the last century) want to have a state they can call home in Palestine, and the Palestinian Arabs want to have a state which is a Palestinian Arab state in precisely the same place. There is not a way to reconcile those two desires.