Zionism’s Compatriots

By Amnon Rubinstein

A growing number of European states look a lot like Israel.

For many years it has been taken for granted that Zionism, as a nationalist movement, is something of an anomaly. And indeed, when Theodor Herzl declared that the Jews were a nation with the right to a state of its own, there were many who thought he had taken leave of his senses. Herzl himself recognized the audacity of his position, writing in his diary, “In Basel I founded the Jewish state,” but then adding that he dare not say it aloud for fear of being ridiculed. His concern was not unwarranted: When he returned from the first Zionist Congress to his office at the Neue Freie Presse, his friends and colleagues mocked him, dubbing him the “future head of state.”1 Herzl’s vision—that the Jews, dispersed throughout the nations without a culture, language, or land in common, would be accepted as a nation deserving of a state—was revolutionary at the time.
Nevertheless, despite Zionism’s anomalous nature, or perhaps because of it, one of the movement’s central objectives was to make the Jews into a nation like any other. This goal was uppermost in the minds of Zionist leaders and thinkers from a variety of political perspectives, and it resonated in the writings of Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and others. From this perspective, even the appearance of the first Jewish thief in Tel Aviv was considered an encouraging sign of a new “normalcy.” So we are left with a certain paradox in Zionist thinking: The extraordinary transformation of the Jews into a unified, sovereign nation was in fact intended to achieve “normalcy”—that is, the opposite of the extraordinary.
Today, after more than a hundred years of Zionism, we can declare the effort a success. Unfortunately, however, we have still not freed ourselves of the perception that the State of Israel and the idea on which it was founded are politically, legally, and morally anomalous. This way of thinking, which has taken root both in Israel and abroad, does continuous harm to Israels image, turning it into the black sheep of the family of enlightened nations.
This attitude, however, is in fact almost completely without foundation. For in truth, some of the most important aspects of Jewish nationalism, which at first glance appear unique, are in fact shared by many countries around the world. Moreover, Israels similarity to other countries is only increasing with time, as the nations of the West, and particularly Europe, are taking a more positive approach to elements of nationalism that not long ago were a source of dissent and suspicion. Thus, for example, it is increasingly accepted that the connections some states maintain with their ethnic or ancestral brethren abroad are legitimateׁconnections that bear a striking resemblance to Israels relations with the Jewish diaspora. Comparisons of this sort are now not only possible, but even necessary and beneficial. They confirm, both in our own eyes and in those of the world, that Israel deserves an uncontested place among the democratic nations, one that justifies neither delusions of grandeur nor gratuitous feelings of inferiority.
Until just a few years ago, many people considered nationalism out-dated, a party at which the Zionists had arrived too late. In the new Western world of multi- and supra-national states, immigrant states with a dominant Christian culture and an official language but no dominant nationality, the nation state appeared to be irrelevant. The United States, for example, is not a nation state. Its citizens are of different nationalities, and enjoy complete constitutional equality. Europe, too, has undergone a process of great historical importance: Countries that once made much of the fact that they were independent nation states have moved towards unification with others, and the borders between them have become increasingly blurred. Thus we saw France, which had no concept of an “unconstitutional” law, and the British Parliament, which had never agreed to put its laws to a constitutional test, suddenly required to defend themselves before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Such developments were simply unimaginable at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Two very recent developments, however, have changed matters significantly. First, new national entities have appeared on the Western European scene. The blurring of the border between France and Spain, for example, strengthened immensely the national spirit of the Basques, who boast not only their own language and culture, but also their own region. In a similar fashion do the Catalans and the Corsicans, and now even the Scots, see themselves as separate nations. Of course, this kind of nationalist sentiment, which was born in Europe and long flourished there, has also rekindled old animosities. In Belgium, for instance, an emerging divide between the French- and Flemish-speaking populations threatens to end a long period of relative tranquility. It seems that eliminating the borders between old national entities has not only failed to suppress nationalism, but has actually given it new life.
The second development occurred as a result of the collapse of Communism. The Soviet bloc was replaced by some thirty new states or regimes, which adopted—at least as far as the outside world was concerned—most of the trappings of democracy. These countries, the most prominent of which is the Russian Federation, are nation states in every sense of the term. Moreover, most of them are members of the Council of Europe, and some will soon become members of the European Union. Thus while Europe may have believed that it succeeded in ridding itself of nationalism, it has nonetheless had to accept a large number of new members that are not only democracies, but also nation states.
One of the clearest signs of the change in attitude towards nationalism is a growing recognition of the existence of national minorities. There was very little real debate on the subject before the Eastern European countries joined the Council of Europe, although Western Europe itself is home to several known national minorities (such as the Basques, Catalans, and Corsicans mentioned above). Yet in the 1990s, the Council of Europe enacted two treaties: The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which took effect on February 1, 1998, and granted national minorities collective rights for the first time; and the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which took effect one month later. France, the longtime champion of civic nationalism, rejected the Framework Convention, but was one of just three dissenters.2 All the other European countries—including Great Britain, which has a long tradition of denying collective rights—signed both of these agreements, and in so doing gave recognition to the principles on which they were based.
These new sentiments in Europe have also meant an increased willingness to re-evaluate the idea of a diaspora. As Israelis, we have a special stake in this re-evaluation, since the word “diaspora” tends to be associated with the Jewish people. The most authoritative dictionaries offer ample proof of this fact: One prominent dictionary, for example, gives three definitions of “diaspora” the first of which is“the dispersal of Jews outside Palestine since the sixth century A.D.” In fact, at the end of the nineteenth century, when the Zionist movement was still in its infancy, the term “diaspora” was identified almost exclusively with the Jewish dispersion. Yet there are obviously other diasporas. The Irish are an outstanding example: There are about 70 million people of Irish descent in the world today, the great majority of whom live outside Ireland. Indeed, when Ireland gained its independence in 1937, its prime minister was Eamon de Valera, an American citizen born in New York. The link between a diaspora and its members country of origin has therefore long been recognized, and while this issue did not attract much attention in the twentieth century, it has now become a focus of increased interest around the world, particularly with regard to the vital role diasporas have played in the development of modern nationalism.
The British scholar Anthony D. Smith has identified three nations whose nationhood was deeply influenced by a diaspora: The Israelis, the Armenians, and the Greeks.3 It is worth noting that historically, only the Jews had no territorial base for their resurgent nationalism; most Greeks continued to live in Greece, and most Armenians in Armenia. Nevertheless, the responsibility of the Greek and Armenian diasporas for the emergence of their national movements was immeasurably greater than that of the indigenous population. Similarly, it was actually the diasporas of the Baltic peoplesׁthe Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians—who continued to maintain “virtual” embassies while their homelands were under Soviet domination. During the entire period, these diasporas exerted enormous political and diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union, demanding independence for their homelands. Clearly, then, the Jewish example is far from the only case of nationalism developing in the diaspora, and of a nations struggle being waged outside the borders of its ancestral land.

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