How is Zionism different from other forms of nationalism?

Nationalism is inherently illiberal in its distinction between citizens and non-citizens. But are all nationalisms equally illiberal? And should we hold Israel to different standards than other countries that claim to be liberal democracies?

By Sean Lee

Two of my colleagues make the point that it is not only Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, that is illiberal, but rather nationalism in and of itself. I think that there is a lot of truth in this, especially given that much modern nationalism is rooted in 19th century European nationalism, which was decidedly illiberal in the way we define liberalism today. What I take issue with, though, is the assumption that all nationalisms are equal, and equally illiberal.

It’s important to note here that I’m not interested in attacking the veracity of Zionist myths or the idea of Jewry as a nation, as opposed to a religion or an ethnicity. (For those who are interested in that question, though Shlomo Sand’s new book sounds fascinating, and the recent research of Nadia Abu El Haj is particularly interesting. There is also, Ernest Renan’s conference on “Judaism as race and as religion,” in which he discusses Judaism’s historical movement, from a local, national religion, to a proselytizing universal one, to a closed but no longer local religion whose adherents were of many races.) That debate isn’t an important one to me here, because national myths are ubiquitous and, well, mythological, and I’m inclined to believe that all nationalisms are socially constructed, or “imagined communities,” as Benedict Anderson calls them.

What is important to me, however, is analyzing the premise that there can be such a thing as liberal Zionism. Often the argument begins with the implementation of Zionism, which includes the war of 1948 and the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, what the Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. While this is certainly important in terms of the legitimacy of a Jewish state in mandate Palestine, it doesn’t tell us much about the political philosophy of Zionism in and of itself. And for that matter, Zionism would not be the first nationalism to be implemented through ethnic cleansing and dispossession of an enemy Other. (Australian aborigines and the Choctaw on the Trail of Tears come immediately to mind.)

So let’s get to the root of the issue at hand. Nationalism, and even the “political” if we’re to believe Schmitt, implies an in-group and out-group; citizen and non-citizen; us and them. There is no way to avoid this, and I’m sympathetic to the idea that nationalism is inherently illiberal by the very act of creating this distinction. The hitch is that Western 21st century nationalism has come a long way from its 19th century origins. Today, American and French nationalism, despite the wishes of certain teabaggers and Jean-Marie Le Pen, are fundamentally political categories that no longer have an ethnic component. In the United States, the president is the grandson of a Muslim Kenyan goat herder; Miss America is a Shi’a Arab who immigrated as a child from Lebanon; and the Supreme Court will soon be one-third Jewish. America has made a lot of progress concerning religious and ethnic minorities.  This is not to say that the US is post-racial – it’s clearly not – but it does seem to be on the right track. Likewise, while France is behind the US in terms of racial integration, the state is officially secular and color blind. Much to the chagrin of neoconservative doomsayers stateside, Amadou and Amina are just as French as Jean-Luc and Julie.

Again, I stress that this does not mean that racism and discrimination have ceased to exist in these countries. They absolutely haven’t: people still talk about “real Americans” and “les français de souche,” but the point is that as far as the law of the land is concerned, the philosophy of the state, these are categories that have no meaning.

Israel, on the other hand, is explicitly a state for one category of its citizens: Jews. In both theory and practice, the Jewish state accords certain rights and privileges to Jews that it does not to non-Jews. This is seen most dramatically in the right of return, which states that anyone who has one Jewish grandparent (ironically the same criteria used in the Nuremberg laws) is automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship. Conversion is a little more complicated, but generally speaking, converts to Judaism are also accorded the right of “return.” On the flip side, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Haifa or Jaffa, not only cannot give Israeli citizenship to his or her spouse in Ramallah or Bethlehem, but the latter cannot even enter Israel so they can live together.

In contrast, I cannot convert to American or French. And as an American or a Frenchman, no matter your race or creed, you have the same rights (at least in theory) as a citizen. The same cannot be said about Israel. Many of the inequalities (in education, for example) are not unique to Israel. If we look at education rates of young Arabs in France or Hispanics and Blacks in the US, we’ll find similar inequalities in situation and even opportunity. Likewise, for infrastructure. But citizenship, which is really the crux of a state, is the most glaring inequality. The state automatically gives citizenship to non-Israeli Jews but refuses to do so for non-Israeli Arabs. Military service is also sectarian, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if employment weren’t tied so tightly to military service in Israel. Jews are obliged to perform military service, whereas non-Jews (with the exception of the Druze, Circassians and some Bedouins) are discouraged from service.  Finally, Israel is defined as a state for all Jews, so one might imagine how frustrating it would feel to be a Palestinian from Nazareth who knows that Israel belongs more to a Polish Jew in Brooklyn who’s never left the state of New York than it does to you. (For more on Israeli Arabs, I highly recommend David Grossman’s touching book, Sleeping on a Wire.)

The long and the short of it is that a liberal democracy is a democracy for all of its citizens equally. It does not accord privileges or rights based on race or religion. Israel is not that kind of a democracy. Instead it is explicitly an ethno-religious democracy, which is a direct consequence of the logic of Zionism, the logic of a Jewish state, as opposed to that of a state of its citizens.

So while it’s true that Jewish nationalism has mirrored 19th century European nationalism. The difference is that most of the Western countries built on that logic have moved on to evolve into multi-cultural liberal democracies. And the horrors of the first half of the 20th century should be enough to show us why such has been so necessary. What’s frustrating is that when it comes to Israel, self-labeled liberal Zionists, especially in the United States, still aim for the roots of European nationalism instead of the more liberal multi-culturalism that it has given a painful birth to. Tony Judt put it best, when he wrote:

[T]he founders of the Jewish state had been influenced by the same concepts and categories as their fin-de-siècle contemporaries back in Warsaw, or Odessa, or Bucharest; not surprisingly, Israel’s ethno-religious self-definition, and its discrimination against internal “foreigners,” has always had more in common with, say, the practices of post-Habsburg Romania than either party might care to acknowledge.

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

Spencer Ackerman, for example, makes excuses for this anachronism by describing Israel’s faults as “the bellicosity that emerges when a culture is under constant outside danger.” As someone who reads Ackerman pretty much every day, I can safely say that these are not the same standards to which he holds American democracy. When Washington tries to use “outside danger” to justify torture, indefinite detention, illegal rendition or homophobia, Spencer, as a thoughtful and devoted liberal, consistently calls such justifications bullshit. And to his credit, he also does so when it comes to the more egregious illiberalism of Likud hawks and their American allies. But where he falls short, I’m afraid, is questioning the fundamental illiberalism of the tenets of Zionism – tenets he would never support in an American context.

In conclusion, I’d like to do an imperfect thought experiment. The US is roughly 79% Christian (in comparison to Israel, which is roughly 79% Jewish). Would Spencer or other liberal Zionists support the institutionalization of the United States as a Christian State, one in which Christians were granted privileges in attaining citizenship, buying land, etc. over non-Christians?

Neither would I.

Now one can say that the analogy doesn’t work because of Judaism’s unique history of persecution, and in particular, the Shoah, or Holocaust. But that line of reasoning directly contradicts the idea that Jewish nationalism is just like any other nationalism and leaves us to ask the question: should we hold Israel to different standards than other countries that claim to be liberal democracies? And if so, doesn’t that directly contradict the underpinnings of universal liberalism and lead us to a cultural relativism in which liberals can no longer decry the lack of women’s rights in Afghanistan or human rights in Zimbabwe? As liberals, we cannot have it both ways. And that, in a nutshell, is why I am for a one-state solution with equal rights for Jews and Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians and secularists.

Sean Lee is an American blogger and academic. He lives in Beirut. This is an edited version of a post he published on his blog.

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