Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, November 27, 2002
I'm reading an interesting book on the origins of nationalism by Liah Greenfield. It's a study of the development of nationalism in Britain, France, Russia, Germany and the United States. From these, she attempts to create a typology of nationalism. I'm going to blog about this again when I finish the book. Right now, I'm done with only the first section, on Britain.

Her thesis so far, and particularly with respect to Britain, is as follows. The word "nation" went through a transformation over the centuries. In medieval days, it was used to mean a faction of the educated elite, particularly at university. In the medieval consciousness, what prompted self-sacrifice for a larger entity was fealty and faith - one might die for one's liege or for one's religion, but it would be difficult to talk about dying for one's country. (Indeed, "country" meant "county" - the locality of one's origin, not some large, political-geographic entity to which one owed allegiance.) The revolution in consciousness that happened in Britain in the 16th and 17th century transformed the word "nation" such that it fused with the word "people" which had, previously, meant the common people or rabble, but now meant the sovereign people, the source of all legitimate authority. She talks alot about the connections between Protestantism, the specific nature of the new Anglican establishment, the tenuous nature of Tudor rule, the rise of the middle-class, and so forth in the development of this new English nationalism, but her key point is not about the causes of the intellectual change, which she thinks are multiple, but the nature of that change. Nationalism did not mean the English suddenly discovering that they spoke English or lived in England, but their self-understanding as a sovereign people.

This is an important point. Nationalism, originally, was about a community that was already governed as a unity suddenly thinking of itself as sovereign - not about a community coming together and demanding independence of a larger entity on the grounds of ethnic difference. Later on in the book, she talks about how this concept changed in the hands and minds of continental Europeans to mean something different: the emphasis shifted from the concept of sovereignty to the concept of peoplehood. As the sovereignty of "the people" came to be taken for granted, the question now became: how to define "the people"? And the answer, for most continentals, was: on ethnic, racial or linguistic lines. (That this was not the original understanding of nationalism in Britain should be clear to anyone reading Shakespeare's Henry V. Henry's troops are English, Irish and Welsh, and see each other as belonging to different ethnic groups. But they are united into one by Henry, not because they owe him feudal allegiance but because he is the single national symbol of them all.)

I am continually interested in this topic for several reasons. First, I don't think we understand much about nationalism, and it is obviously of great historical importance. Second, nationalism is under massive assault worldwide from the Eurocrats in Brussels, and since we don't understand the importance of nationalism we don't know how to respond. Third, I believe that failed nations - not merely failed states - are the crucial problem of the world today, and the greatest challenge to winning the war on terror - far greater than Islamic religious fundamentalism, which is our principal ideological enemy. Fourth, I am concerned about the future of Israel and in particular its failure to ground its own nationalism in an enduring ideology and a state that is the expression of it.

I'm going to come back to this later, but I wanted to give a little preview of my thinking on the last point. Lots of people - particularly Europeans - are critical of Israel, as if the Jewish state is the only national state in the world to be illegitimate (unlike France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, etc. - you get the idea). This is partly anti-Semitism, and partly a lack of understanding of the importance of nationalism (a lot of people think nationalism per se is a bad thing, without stopping to think about what the alternative might be). But it is partly a legitimate complaint. If Israel is to be a national state in the continental European sense of being identified with an ethnos, then ethnic minorities will need to have their interests protected in some fashion, either by outside powers (Jordan could be the protector of the Palestinians, Russia of the non-Jewish Russians, etc.) or through either partition or some kind of autonomy (which might be independently desireable to Israeli Jews as an alternative to a bi-national state like Belgium or Canada). If Israel wants to avoid this, and remain a unitary state, it behooves Israelis to think about what kind of an ethos could be the expression of the state that goes beyond simple ethnic nationalism. I'm not suggesting that Israel become a "state of all its citizens" - I don't think such a thing exists anywhere on earth, including the U.S. I am saying that Israel needs to think about whether there is a way of constructing the state in such a way that non-Jewish minorities can identify with it and assimilate to its ethos even as they fail to assimilate to the dominant ethnic group that gives it its character. The best analogy I can think of is to the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland into Great Britain. The analogy remains an abstraction without thinking about what concrete, institutional arrangements could underpin such a relationship, and create an ethos that Israeli Druze, Bedouin, Arabs, and non-Jewish Russians could identify with sufficiently - while remaining, at the core, essentially Jewish in character - that the state could rest on secure foundations. We've been distracted from this problem by the security situation, but it won't go away - it's getting worse, specifically with respect to the Israeli Arabs and the rise of exclusivist Jewish nationalism on the right. Like I said, I'm going to come back to this again. Just a preview.