Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tony Judt Has a Uniquely Jewish State Problem

Today one of my students handed me an article from the Financial Times by Tony Judt. The student's father thought I would enjoy it as an example of leftist Israel bashing and was kind enough to have his son pass it along to me. The article is titled "Israel Must Unpick its Ethnic Myth." Judt takes as his starting point Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, which attacks the State of Israel and the Zionist enterprise as being based on the false notion of the existence of a Jewish ethnicity, and uses it to attack Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. Judt and Sand are a good example of the sort of selective anti-nationalism so effectively lambasted by Natan Sharansky in his book Defending Identity: its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy. Sharansky attacks Marxists and their ideological descendants in the modern left for being willing to accept nationalism when it served an ideologically expectable purpose such as fighting western capitalist imperialism and rejecting nationalism when it does not serve the cause. It is this sort of thinking that allows someone like Judt to ignore and even indulge Arab and Palestinian nationalism all while villainizing Israel for even the most moderate manifestations of the ideology.

To be clear I have no objection to anyone pointing out that Jewish ethnicity is an artificial construction. All ethnicities are artificial constructions. There is no such thing as a pure race, culture, nation or ethnic group. We are all of mixed stock. That being said this artificial construction of a nation exists, which gives it a political reality, and it is a major pillar of modern politics. It allows us to form the nation-state. Jews have a better claim than most to their nation construct. Jews did not forge their identity to benefit themselves, it was formed by others in order to isolate them and deny them the fruits of the Enlightenment and emancipation and finally to attempt to annihilate them in the Holocaust. Jews should only have to surrender their collective delusions of nationhood when everyone else, including the Palestinians, have done so as well.

What particularly caught my attention about Judt was his comment that "Egypt or Slovakia are not justified in international law by virtue of some theory of deep 'Egyptianness" or 'Slovakness.' Such states are recognized as international actors, with rights and status, simply by virtue of their existence and their capacity to maintain and protect themselves." For a historian Judt demonstrates a remarkable ignorance of history. Egypt existed as a province of the Ottoman Empire, before being a British protectorate and eventually given their independence. The history of Egypt for the past few hundred years does not make any sense unless one accepts the concept of an Egyptian national identity, even if it was an artificial construction of the Egyptians themselves. There were people living in Egypt who themselves as distinct from the people who ran the Ottoman and later the British Empire (I guess a language barrier, and in the case of Britain religion, helped) and wished to be independent. The situation in Slovakia is even better. From the end of World War I until 1992, with the interlude of Nazi rule, Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia. In 1992 the people in Slovakia decided that, since they were "Slovaks," they wished to break away from the "Czechs" to the west of them and form their own country. The Czechs and the rest of the world went along with this and in 1993 there was the "Velvet Divorce" creating the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The legitimacy for all of this rests upon the willingness of everyone involved, particular the Czechs, to willingly participate in this collective delusion of nationhood and accept this artificial construct of a Slovakian people. So the existence of Egyptians or Slovakians is very relevant to the rights of these states to exist. The only difference between them and Israel is that no one is trying to destroy the states of Egypt and Slovakia and there are no academics like Judt to aid them in such a task by questioning the legitimacy of these states.


Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem is that Judaism is a nationality, not just a religion.
In trying to create an Israeli nationality while at the same time defining Israel as a Jewish state, Israelis have created a tension that cannot be satisfactorily resolved. Either Israel, Judaism or both have to go!

Izgad said...

I am not too hung up on the issue since I see all of it benign artificial human constructions which have take on a certain reality because people have chosen to treat them as real. As long as you are not doing direct physical bodily harm to other people I am willing to let you eat your cake and have it to.