Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Israel’s sixtieth birthday should be celebrated with open eyes

Happy sixtieth birthday, Israel ! It should not be necessary to explain why today, formally the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s independence, is worth celebrating for those of us who are not Israelis. The survival of a nation that has been threatened with destruction is cause for celebration. The fact that nationally conscious Jews have been able to exercise their right to self-determination, and establish a homeland that has successfully provided a safe haven for members of the long-persecuted Jewish people, is cause for celebration. And the fact that an Israeli nation exists at all is cause for celebration. This is not to say that the process by which the Jewish state came into being, or its actions since its birth, are without their moral ambiguities – far from it. But these moral ambiguities are not reasons why Israeli independence should not be celebrated; merely why Israeli policy needs to change. One day, it should be possible to celebrate Israel’s anniversary in the knowledge that the moral ambiguities are all in the past.

Israel’s critics point out that the establishment of the State of Israel involved the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – for Palestinians, the ‘nakba’. This is true, but frequently taken out of context: Israel is no different from most of the world’s other nation-states, which are founded upon the oppression and ethnic cleansing of other peoples. Beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the emergence of a modern nation-state of England, Britain and the United Kingdom and their evolution over hundreds of years involved the colonisation, dispossession and forcible assimilation of the Irish, as well as an almost unrivalled programme of imperial aggression and expansion overseas. But there is no way that our English and British nationhood can be divorced from this heritage. The modern French nation-state was founded with the Great Revolution of 1789, an event that is widely viewed as marking the birth of modern politics, yet it quickly involved the genocidal or proto-genocidal persecution of the people of the Vendee, acts of massive territorial conquest and, under Napoleon, a failed genocidal project directed against the black population of Haiti. The US is founded upon the genocide of the Native Americans, without which it would not exist. Yet one could not expect the French not to celebrate the Revolution, or Americans not to celebrate Independence Day.

Israelis may feel it is unfair of me to compare them with great imperial powers. So it is – I cite these examples to dispense with the myth of ‘good’ Western nations vis-a-vis ‘bad’ others. In the moral ambiguities of its creation, Israel more closely resembles the nation-states of Central Europe and the Balkans – appropriately, since Israel is itself a post-Ottoman state many of whose citizens originated in Central Europe. Where these nation-states are concerned, who was the ethnic-cleanser and who was the victim largely depended upon who happened to win the war. This was the case with Israel and the Palestinians: had the Arabs won in the 1940s, the extermination and explusion of the Jewish population of Palestine would have resulted. Throughout the region of Greater Europe, the question of which nation was dispossessed was open to question; the fact that dispossession would take place was not.

Today’s relatively ethnically homogenous states of Poland and the Czech Republic are founded upon the massive ethnic-cleansing of ethnic Germans after World War II, involving millions of victims. The Balkan states – Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey – are all in their present forms, to varying degrees, products of ethnic cleansing. The Orthodox Christian states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece were founded upon the slaughter and expulsion of a large part of their Ottoman Muslim inhabitants, and ideed upon the slaughter and expulsion of other Orthodox Christians. Romania had a large Jewish population and an exceptionally anti-Semitic political culture that culminated in massive Romanian participation in the Holocaust and the post-war emigration of Romanian Jews. The establishment of the Turkish nation-state involved the genocide of the Armenians, followed by the expulsion of at least one and a quarter million Greeks (or Turkish-speaking Christians) – which parallelled the Greek expulsion of a smaller number of largely Greek-speaking Muslims. Most recently, the establishment of independent Croatia involved the exodus of 150,000 Serb civilians from the ‘Krajina’ region and the slaughter of hundreds of them. I am leaving aside here the question of the respective rights and wrongs of these cases, or of how blame should be apportioned – that the formation of modern nation-states involves a process of ethnic homogenisation accompanied by real horrors should be indisputable.

There is no point pretending, therefore, that the establishment of modern nation-states – Israel included – is without its profound moral ambiguities. Yet it is the modern system of nation-states upon which our system of world politics is built – we can no more abolish nation-states than we can abolish modern politics. Indeed, nation-statehood is the prerequisite for liberal democracy: dynastic states such as the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and multinational ‘socialist’ federations such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had to give way to sovereign nation-states for Europe to become a continent of democracies. Perhaps even more importantly, the people of the world love their nation-states, which they consider part of themselves. Asking the Israelis or anyone else to renounce their national identity is a violation of the most dearly felt feelings of ordinary people.

What is essential for the transition to full, post-nationalist democracy, however, is for members of every nation to face up to the moral ambiguities involved in the creation of their national state. This is not a question merely of assuaging liberal guilt. The crimes involved in the creation of a nation-state poison the functioning of its democracy and its relations with its neighbours. This poison can only be purged from its body politic by a recognition of its crimes. Turkey’s difficulty in functioning as a democracy is closely related to its unwillingness to face up to the Armenian Genocide or to the existence of a Kurdish people within its borders – hence it cannot fully permit freedom of speech, as this would result in open discussion of the Armenian Genocide and open expressions of Kurdish national politics. Greece’s imperialistic policy toward the Republic of Macedonia today is not based on any genuine national interest, but is a product of a nationalist ideology that guided a century of Greek colonisation, ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation in Greek Macedonia, of which the denial of the existence of a Macedonian nationality was a necessary part. The US’s record remains far from perfect, but in the US there is at least full freedom of speech – hence the possibility for films such as ‘Dances with Wolves’, that portray Native Americans sensitively and as victims of white oppression, to reach a mass audience. The American public still needs to face up to the genocide of the Native Americans, something that would produce a healthier American democracy and more politically aware citizenry. But we are still a long way off from the day when mass popular Turkish audiences will watch films of the ‘Dances with Wolves’ variety about the Armenian Genocide, or Greek audiences about the colonisation of Greek Macedonia, or Israeli audiences about the nakba.

So far as Israel is concerned, its record of democracy and human rights concerning its own citizens compares very favourably with most other Middle Eastern countries, but very badly with just about any West European country, because its stage of national development more closely resembles Turkey or Greece than France or the Netherlands. The two deformations resulting from the nature of Israel’s birth are, firstly, a failure to embrace the concept of a multi-ethnic citizenry and accord equal rights to all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, resulting in suffering and injustice for Israeli Arabs; and, secondly, a continued policy of colonisation in the West Bank, resulting in massive suffering for the occupied Palestinians. These deformations are, of course, linked to the behaviour of the Arab states and the refusal of most of them to recognise Israel, as well as to the Palestinians’ own behaviour – but this is not ultimately a question of apportioning blame. Like every nation-state, Israel needs to develop a post-nationalist national ideology if it is to complete its national and democratic development. This means becoming a genuinely Israeli nation-state, i.e. a state of the Israeli nation; a state of the citizens of Israel – rather than simply a Jewish state in which non-Jews are second-class citizens. Jews would still form a comfortable majority in Israel, thereby guaranteeing Jewish national self-determination. But a Jewish ethnic majority can comfortably exist with a concept of citizenship blind to ethnicity – as all concepts of citizenship should be, from the US and France to Israel and the Arab states. And as the American and French models show, a concept of citizenship blind to ethnicity rests upon identification with the state’s legal borders – hence no colonisation projects directed against neighbouring peoples.

As a Croat, I am very pleased that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is forcing Croats to face up to the crimes carried out in the course of their War of Independence. All Croatian children should celebrate this War of Independence, but they should also learn about its moral ambiguities – the crimes against Serb civilians and the parallel attempt, which thankfully was defeated, to expand into Bosnia. They should learn about Croatian resistance to the Nazis in the form of the Partisan movement, of which they should rightfully feel proud, but also about the Croatian Ustasha genocide of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies – and, of course, about Partisan atrocities. Above all, they should be taught that theirs is a multiethnic nation that encompasses Serbs, Bosniaks and others, who do not cease thereby to be Serbs or Bosniaks. One should be able to be an ethnic Serb and at the same time belong to the Croatian nation as fully as an ethnic Croat, without abandoning one’s Serb identity, just as one should be able to be an ethnic Arab or Palestinian and belong to the Israeli nation as fully as an ethnic Jew, without abandoning one’s ethnic Arab or Palestinian identiy.

When this happens, a national anniversary becomes something that everyone, regardless of ethnic background, can celebrate without reservation.

Thursday, 8 May 2008 - Posted by | Balkans, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, France, Greece, Israel, Kurds, Macedonia, Middle East, Palestine, Serbia, Turkey

1 Comment

  1. […] by Matt Zeitlin on May 8, 2008 They come from historian Marko Attila Hoare: So far as Israel is concerned, its record of democracy and […]

    Pingback by The Best Two Paragraphs On the 60th Anniversary of the State of Israel « Matt Zeitlin: Impetuous Young Whippersnapper | Friday, 9 May 2008

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