Friday, November 19, 2010

"Romantic" nationalism and Israel's future

The late-18th and early-19th century rise of nationalism brought forth different concepts in the Americas and in Europe. For the United States, citizenship in the United States was seen as a choice: People came to the United States because they wanted to be part of America and its democratic system.

In Europe, the sense of nationalism was based on Romantic notions of "the people", each version of which (French, German, Italian) was assumed to have a set of identifiable, characteristic traits that gave them a cultural and spiritual kinship and made them a nation. That notion was reflected throughout the 20th century in citizenship laws that were based on ancestry as opposed to birthplace. So, for instance, a person born in Russia and living there their whole lives but whose grandparents were German, was entitled to claim German citizenship on that basis. While a Turkish person born in Germany to parents born in Germany would have to go through a much longer process to obtain German citizenship. (Americans sometimes wrongly assume that this procedure was particular to Germany. But it was the common approach in Europe since the 19th century.)

Carlo Strenger and Menachem Lorberbaum give us a thought-provoking reminder of that European approach to nationhood in Israel must choose between Enlightenment and Romanticism Haaretz 11/19/2010. They observe that in the much-discussed developments that will increasingly force Israel to choose between being a Jewish state and being a democracy, the Israeli right is increasingly embracing that old European style of Romantic nationalism:

There is nothing "Jewish" about political romanticism - if anything Jews were among its most prominent victims.

After two terrible wars in the first half of the 20th century, Europe came to realize the destructive power of romantic political language. It realized the devastating consequences that understanding sovereignty as the idealized expression of an ethnic group's connection to its land creates. Instead Europe has chosen to make the effort to define sovereignty in purely legal terms. It realized that the only viable alternative is to think about the state as a legal entity that accords all those who are citizens the same rights, no matter their ethnic provenance.

This is why the free world took very unkindly to Serbia's claims that Kosovo had been Serbian in times long gone, and that the time had come to redress the injustice done to Serbs in the Battle of Kosovo in 1983, and that Serbia had to reclaim its ancestral homeland.

This seems to raise the question: Isn't the right of the Jews to their ancestral homeland the foundation of Zionism, and the only justification Jews have for their own state? Is this not the very reason the Israeli right adopts political romanticism, the belief that that there lies some deep connection between land, peoplehood and sovereignty? Otherwise, the argument runs, we have no right to be here.

This is a completely wrong idea. One of the greatest achievements of classical Zionist diplomacy was the recognition accorded by the UN to the creation of Israel in 1947. The UN and indeed the international community realized that Jews have a need and a right for a state which they call their homeland, and in which they can fulfill their need for national self-determination. It did not do so on the ground that Jews had lived in historical Palestine two millennia earlier but looked to the needs and rights of the Jewish people today. Israel is an internationally recognized state, not on the basis of ancient history, but due to the recognition it enjoys as part of the international legal and political order.
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