Of nations and states and nation-states: A reply to Paul Gross

To be sure, Gross recognizes the unmitigated disaster which followed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Ismail Haniyeh on a chair, looking expressive 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ismail Haniyeh on a chair, looking expressive 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This past Sunday, The Jerusalem Post published an op-ed piece by Paul Gross, who identifies himself as the director of the Israel Government Fellows Program. According to Gross, the impending collapse of the current round of peace negotiations between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority has resurrected the appeal of Israeli unilateralism – forfeiting land to the Palestinian Arabs not in exchange for peace but in exchange for nothing – because there is simply no other viable alternative at this time. The two-state solution has run aground, maintaining the occupation is morally corrupting and annexation is “terribly unappetizing.”
To be sure, Gross recognizes the unmitigated disaster which followed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. And so he hedges his bet by asserting that an Israeli forfeiture of land in the West Bank to the Palestinian Arabs in exchange for nothing does not have to be unilateral. In his fecund imagination, the United States of America and the European Union will not only support Israeli unilateralism – after all, the peace process has failed and in both Washington and Brussels blame has been placed squarely and exclusively on the Palestinian Authority – but will bankroll such unilateralism in order to establish a Palestinian state – a severely truncated Palestinian state – within borders dictated by the State of Israel.
I suppose that when you imagine that you can square the circle, when you believe that unilateralism can masquerade as multilateralism even without a bilateral component, you can also suspend reality for the sake of your illusions. Presumably, in this matter, Paul Gross is animated by the Zionist ideal of “if you will it, it is no dream.”
Unilateralism is simply unworkable, as unworkable today as it was in 2005. And that, of course, is the real legacy of Ariel Sharon, his everlasting bequest to the security of the Jewish state. But without unilateralism, and without bilateralism – the peace process has run aground – there remain only two choices: maintaining the status quo or annexing the territories. And about the status quo Gross and his media cheerleaders, or to paraphrase Pat Buchanan, “little Israel’s amen corner,” is absolutely correct. The occupation is morally corrupting and no Israelis know this better than we who actually live in Jewish settlements – mostly fortified Jewish settlements – on the occupied West Bank. We never forget that the youth of Yitzhar and the Price Tag hoodlums were spawned from our midst.
In other words, the only realistic option to the failed peace process is annexation – establishing Jewish sovereignty throughout the West Bank – and at this stage of the game, annexation is only a realistic option if it comes with a grant of automatic citizenship to the indigenous Arab population.
But Gross rejects the annexation option utterly, and he marshals to his side the ghost of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister and the first giant of Zionism. Gross tells us that in 1949, David Ben-Gurion warned that “an Arab majority would wipe out Israel’s Jewish character.” And despite the fact that Gross provides us with no context for Ben-Gurion’s warning – was our founding prime minister justifying his refusal to consider repatriating the Arabs who left Israel during the war or was he defending his decision to maintain the Arabs of Israel under military rule – his contention is an extremely important one which warrants understanding.
Like most Europeans of his era, David Ben-Gurion was a devotee of what historians call romantic nationalism. Accordingly, Ben-Gurion, like most of his contemporaries, considered nations to be natural or near-natural phenomena whose members were bound to each other by virtue of various commonalities including history, heritage, ethics, culture and language, most especially language. In the modern world, natural nations, which according to the constructs of romantic nationalism already existed at least in some inchoate form during medieval and even ancient times – think of the idea of the Volk – gave full expression to their identity and their autonomy by forming sovereign and independent territorial nation-states. In other words, romantic nationalism asserts, as is implied by the term nation-state, that nations pre-exist states and that, in fact, nations create states.
Under Ben-Gurion’s steady hand – and his considerable socialist aspirations – the ideals of romantic nationalism served Zionism well enough during the pre-state and early poststate periods. But this fact should not obscure romantic nationalism’s disastrous general history.
In Europe, toward the close of the 19th century, the ideals of romantic nationalism set off the ferocious competition between the Great Powers which culminated in World War I.
During the inter-war period, romantic nationalism spawned the “beggar-thy-neighbor” policy which brought ruin to the global economy and laid the foundation for the rise of national racialism – think again of the idea of the Volk.
And as we are all painfully aware, national racialism led to World War II and the destruction of European Jewry.
Following the war, European nations, especially the western and democratic nations of Europe, began the long process of abandoning romantic nationalism in favor of what historians call Enlightenment nationalism. This form of nationalism finds its paradigmatic expression in the United States of America.
According to its ideals, nations do not create states. Rather, states create nations. In other words, nations are utterly artificial constructs which emerge from the territorial boundary lines that delineate one sovereign entity from another.
Thus, in the United States of America, the members of the nation, or more properly the citizens of the state, need not share any commonalities whatsoever beyond living within the boundary lines which encase the nation’s territory. And nothing speaks more vigorously to this point then the following fact: America openly admits that it speaks the language of another nation – English. Meanwhile, the nations of Europe are steadily ceding their sovereignty to the European Union which is well on the way to becoming the United States of Europe: one territorially bounded sovereign entity with multiple sub-national identities.
Enlightenment nationalism is immanently compatible with the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of Israel’s territorial maximalists.
From Menachem Begin to Naftali Bennett to most everyone in between, Israel’s territorial maximalists only seek to establish Jewish sovereignty over the biblical boundary lines of the Land of Israel. Within those boundary lines, that is, at the sub-national level, all citizens of Israel – like all citizens of the United States of America and all members of the European Union – are absolutely free to express to their content their ethnic, cultural and linguistic identities.
Begin was most clear about this matter when he offered at Camp David to provide the Arab residents of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip full autonomy and later pledged to confer upon them full citizenship within five years. Apparently, Menachem Begin knew well what David Ben-Gurion and Paul Gross failed to grasp: Israel’s identity as the sovereign nation-state of the Jewish people does not emerge from the will of the majority but from the authenticity of its boundaries. Everything else is subject to politics.
Avi Berkowitz teaches History at the Hebrew University's Rothberg school and is the Rabbi of Minyan Hama'ayan in the Rimon section of Efrat.