Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Nineteenth-Century Nationalism Still Alive, and Deadly, in Mideast

Nov 23, 2012

Nineteenth-Century Nationalism Still Alive, and Deadly, in Mideast


IDF brass in a briefing about the conflict in Gaza, November 17, 2012. Credit: Flickr.

Ask most Americans why Israel went to war in Gaza again and they’ll give you a simple answer: Palestinians were shooting rockets into Israel, and, as President Obama said, “there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”

To name those rockets as the root cause of the war is like saying my fever caused my flu. But why shouldn’t the public identify a symptom as the cause of the conflict? They hear and read the same misleading explanation in their news media over and over again. So they see no reason to dig any deeper.

Historians, of course, will dig deeper. They’ll be be suspicious of explanations of any war that go back no further than the last few days, or even few months. A barrage of rockets may have been the “precipitating” event, as Obama put it, with what must have been a carefully chosen word. It can equally be said that Israel's assassination of a high-ranking Hamas official involved in negotiating a truce was the precipitating spark.

But the fuel has been building up for two centuries.

I’m not talking about the wrong-headed cliché, “Oh, those Jews and Arabs. They’ve hated each other for centuries. They’ll go on fighting forever.” The long history of Jewish-Arab relations runs the gamut from bitter enmity to tolerant co-existence to cordial friendship. When Jews and Arabs meet, anything is possible.

Yet the historical circumstances of any particular meeting set limits to the possibilities. Since the nineteenth century, the overwhelming historical circumstance has been a passionate embrace, on both sides, of modern secular nationalism.

I emphasize “secular” to dismiss the other common but wrong-headed cliché, “It’s a religious war, and those never end.” Religion is the tail that may occasionally wag the dog in Jewish-Arab relations. But the dog -- the beast itself -- is the core innovation of nineteenth-century nationalism: one’s personal identity, worth, and dignity come from full membership in a nation-state.    

By the end of the nineteenth century, most Jews who met Arabs were Zionists. Zionism was, and still is, the Jewish form of modern secular nationalism. Nineteenth-century Zionist writing is rife with expressions of anger over the indignities suffered by Jews in the preceding centuries -- but even more with expressions of shame, implying (and often stating outright) that Jews have themselves to blame, that they allowed themselves to become powerless victims. In the canon of modern nationalism, that is perhaps the gravest of sins. 

Zionism was, above all, an effort to use modern nationalism to prove that Jews could achieve personal worth and dignity only by escaping the shameful sin of powerlessness. To that end, Zionists had to enact a script in which they confronted and (unlike their ancestors) successfully overcame enemies who were persecuting them for no other reason than being Jewish. That was the Zionists’ way of proving their right to have a proud, self-respecting nation-state, entitled to an equal place alongside all the modern nation-states.

But here was the Catch-22: Zionists could never feel like a proud nation unless they were actively dispelling the pall of the shameful Jewish past. So they had to be constantly enacting their script, in which innocent Jews struggle to overcome oppressive enemies.  

The need for constant enemies produced a Jewish myth of constant insecurity, which shaped the Zionist view of history at every step. (I make this case in much more detail in my essay “The Myth of Israel’s Insecurity.”) 

Of course the script required some real people to play the role of the anti-Semitic enemy. Before 1947, when the British ruled Palestine, they played that role, along with the Palestinian Arabs. Once the state of Israel was born, a long (but narrowing) list of actors played the role: the Arabs, the Nasserites, the Palestinians, the PLO, and now Hamas.

Certainly not all Israelis view the world through the myth of insecurity. But so many do that no successful Israeli political leader has dared (or perhaps wanted to) question it. So the myth became the guiding light of policy.

In the case of Gaza, the myth dictates that Hamas must be treated as an irrational gang of anti-Semites determined to destroy Israel. All the evidence to the contrary (including the most recent CNN interview with the head of Hamas) must be dismissed as merely the devious lies one would expect from such a diabolical crew.

More specifically, the myth dictates that Hamas must be smuggling into Gaza the weapons it needs to mount an all-out assault on Israel. So it makes perfect sense, from the Israeli perspective, to demand that Gaza be blockaded, to prevent Hamas from getting those weapons -- even though that means Gazans also can’t get food, medicine, building materials, and other necessities of life. 

Some Israelis may find that an unfortunate side effect of the blockade. Others may see it as the main effect, like the prominent Israeli official who said that the point of the blockade is “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."

In either case, the blockade has the effect of proving Israel’s power over an enemy, which in turns proves (according to the mythic script) that the Jewish nation can hold its head up high, that Jews need no longer feel ashamed and blame themselves for powerlessness.   

Thus the blockade has continued, provoking the only kind of resistance that Gazans have managed to come up with: sporadic rocket fire into Israel. Those who fire the rockets have said repeatedly that they will cease when the blockade ceases. But Israel’s nationalism demands that it dismiss these promises as deceit.

Of course those who fire the rockets know that their weapons are far too weak to influence Israeli policy directly. Perhaps they harbor some theories of indirect influence. In any case, they appear to be moved by the same nineteenth-century nationalist values that shaped Zionism: To remain passive, to accept and exhibit powerlessness, would be a mortal blow to their sense of dignity and self-respect. Rather than risk this gravest sin, they must show Israel, and the whole world, whatever power they have. So they risk the terrible retaliation that Israel periodically mounts.

Ultimately, then, it is the legacy of nineteenth-century nationalism that has kept the two sides locked in this ongoing conflict. Perhaps right now we are seeing the glimmer of a new kind of nationalism taking over, where pragmatic self-interest gets precedence over old-fashioned notions of national pride. But we should not underestimate the reach of the long shadow of the nineteenth century.

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