Catalonia, a pristine land of snow-capped summits, majestic vineyards, caressing Mediterranean beaches and one perplexed metropolis, watched in bewilderment as its plastic liberator fled abroad this week, lest the absurd cause he incited land him in jail.
Jail time once was part of a self-respecting national liberator’s resume. Hungarian national hero Lajos Kossuth sat in a jail in Buda in 1837-1840 for demanding freedom of the press, Italian independence fighter Giuseppe Mazzini was jailed in 1827-1831 in Savona for having joined the Carbonari underground, and Kenyan freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta spent 1952-1959 in remote Lokitaung for having allegedly conspired the Mau Mau Uprising.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, by contrast, fled to Belgium, a testament to the shallowness of his cause that has already injured hundreds on Barcelona’s streets, while rattling a nation that fewer than 80 years ago lost a million people in a civil war.
The entire affair, an anachronism which feels like a Sasha Baron Cohen comedy, seems remote from us. The official Israeli response to Spain’s crisis – that it is an internal affair in which it won’t take a stand – is understandable diplomatically.
Morally, however, Catalonia’s secessionists have no cause, and in fact are perverting the noble idea of liberal nationalism that makes Middle Israelis tick.
The Catalan crisis raises a simple question: What is a nation? A nation is a society with a shared history, land, language, culture, and conscience. There are two general types of nations: the biological – like the Japanese, the Serbs or the Finns – and the civic, like the Americans, Canadians, or Australians.
The former share history and also ancestry, while the latter’s citizens, rather than share a distant past, choose to share the future, based on certain rules. The result in both cases is a civic readiness to care, give, and also sacrifice for the rest of the citizenry.
Spain combines the Japanese and American situations. Its people shares a rich history, but its land has often been disjointed, thus giving regions like Catalonia a stronger local identity than, say, South Dakota’s. That is why the Catalans have a parliament and some autonomy.
Whether that autonomy is sufficient is not for foreigners to judge.
What foreigners can evaluate is the separatists’ economic rationale, which is that, as Spain’s industrial locomotive, Catalonia should abandon Spain’s poorer majority to its devices. That’s not nationalism. It’s egoism.
Nationalism has been hijacked before. What started off as the belief that all nations should be liberated in order to collectively form what Mazzini called the Concert of Nations, was later crushed by Mussolini’s “sacred egoism.” This was the fascist belief that nations were created not to harmonize but to clash, and that the strong were destined not to help the weak, but to defeat them. Appalled by this perversion, many liberals went to the other extreme.
“Nationalism is our era’s nightmare,” said philosopher George Steiner in a memorable lecture in Israel in 1968. Speaking at the Weizmann Institute, the great French-British-American Jewish thinker and literary critic set out that day to temper Israelis’ nationalist euphoria following the previous year’s Six Day War.
“Nationalism and with it tribalism,” he observed, “make humans bring in their name horrific destruction on each other. Because of a colorful piece of cloth attached to a stick, concerning ownership of several square kilometers, people who ordinarily behave rationally are prepared to perform any violence.”
Wondering whether human existence can be viable if mankind is not “freed from national myths,” Steiner turned to Jewish nationalism and asked rhetorically: “What has the offspring of Spinoza and Heine to do with flags and with oaths of national allegiance?” Such a banalization of the national sentiment is common among ultra-liberals, who think humanity can be governed as one big hodgepodge, regardless of culture, heritage, and locale.
There is a common denominator between the ultra-liberal dismissal of nationalism and its perversion by the Catalan separatists, as well as by the fascists who preceded them: They all come at someone else’s expense.
An intellectual post-nationalist, Steiner ignored the Jewish masses who are not geniuses like his heroes Heine and Spinoza. We liberal nationalists don’t ignore them; we care for them.
We care for the shoemaker, tailor, grocer, and cook, for the immigrant from Argentina, Syria, Siberia, or Kush, for the penniless Hassidic family of nine in Bnei Brak, for the cursing soccer fan in Teddy Stadium, and for the settlers we evicted from the Gaza Strip.
Looking at every distressed member of our nation, we ask: Who will care for them if not we? It is this natural, familial compassion, not the worship of “a piece of cloth attached to a stick,” that liberal nationalism is all about.
That quest for social solidarity at home also feeds our belief in a concert of nations abroad, the attitude that made us hand water from the Kinneret to Jordan, oil wells in the Sinai to Egypt, and medical treatment for Syrian war victims in the Golan.
The Catalans would have had a cause had they been oppressed, like the Irish who were starved by the British, or the Kurds whose language was banned by the Turks. Yet the Catalans are not hungry – they are the rich, and they are free to cultivate their language, though it is but a version of Spanish. What they want is not liberation and solidarity, as liberal nationalists do, but to abandon the weak, as fascists would.
This is the sad aftermath to the European Union’s post-nationalist experiment. Europe told Europeans to cease to be Frenchmen, Brits, Italians or Spaniards and to become Europeans instead. Now this borderless utopia is falling apart.
The Hungarians, Greeks, and Bulgarians are raising border fences; the Czechs, the Poles and the Slovaks are resisting Brussels’ immigration quotas; the Brits have elected to altogether jump ship; and the rich Catalans, Scots, Flemings and Lombards are seeking egotistical alternatives to the nationalism they have been conditioned to revile.
Europe’s pretension to make so many vouch for so many has produced a Tower of Babel where no one cares for anyone. People need identity, and when robbed of it they do very stupid things. Look at Spain.