Monday, January 10, 2005

Basque Nationalists Want to Know: Israel and Ethnic Nationalism

In “Ethnic Nationalism and the Basque Challenge”, I suggested that the Basque version of ethnic-nationalism, like every version of ethnic-nationalism, is a form of racism or, in other words, as I put it in a subsequent post, necessarily involves racist premises. This remark inspired a series of seemingly agitated comments from one “Blex” and the repeated demand by him, seconded by an apparent sympathizer of his, that I should answer the following question: if all versions of ethnic-nationalism are forms of racism, then how does this “play when it comes to Zionism or the state of Israel?” Blex added that he was asking me the question “since you seem to be so knowledgable of Israel and the Jewish community.” As I noted in an initial response in the comments section, I am not particularly knowledgeable either of Israel or of the “Jewish community”. Indeed, while I do know that Israel is a state and I also know a bit about its history – on which more later – I am so ignorant of the “Jewish community” that I don’t even know what it is. As I likewise noted, given that nothing in my writings, either on Trans-Int or elsewhere, would suggest the expertise that is here attributed to me, I find this attribution rather curious and can only speculate that it is somehow supposed to follow from my last name. Such an attribution is thus seemingly symptomatic of precisely the sort of racist assumptions that I have claimed underlie ethnic nationalism as an ideology.

Blex would no doubt (I suspect will no doubt) say that this is not the case, since, according to him, “racism” is only “if you think that your ethnic group is better than someone else's”. I, however, do not think I “have” an “ethnic group”. I would submit, moreover, that the ascription of individuals to “ethnic groups” or “communities” is necessarily founded on a myth of “common origins” of the individuals in question – that is to say, their biological descent from common ancestors – and, furthermore (since the use of the term “group” in this context suggests something more than just a numerical set) implies their sharing certain cultural attributes or "values" and experiencing or “feeling” a certain communal solidarity as a result of these “common origins”. The individuals with “common origins” constitute, in short – and whether they like it or not – a “community”. It is this package of assumptions – the linkage of assumed common ancestry, culture and communal solidarity – that I am calling “racism”. If one prefers to reserve the term “racism” just for this set of assumptions plus the assertion of the superiority or inferiority of some “races” or “ethnic groups” vis-à-vis others, then I suppose one could call the basic set of assumptions “racialism” rather than “racism”. But this strikes me as unnecessarily complicated. One should keep in mind, moreover, that, for example, Adolf Eichmann - who persistently maintained that he had nothing against Jews per se but merely thought that inasmuch as a non-Germanic “people” they did not belong in Germany - might not count as a racist according to these criteria.

The very opening sentence of Juan José Ibarretxe’s “Proposal for Coexistence in the Basque Country” provides a classic expression of the sort of racism I have in mind inasmuch as it speaks of a “Basque People or Euskal Herria” that has “its own identity within the community of European peoples, repository of a singular historical, social and cultural heritage”. It is the making of the “people” a “repository” of a “historical, social and cultural” content – and thus, in effect, the subordination of the individual liberty of the persons supposedly comprising said “people” to their collective “identity” – that is so symptomatic here of the racist or “racialist” aspect of ethnic-nationalist thought.

Now to turn to Blex’s question: It may well be that classical Zionist texts express similar assumptions. Contrary to Blex’s expectations, I have no particular expertise in the matter. I would welcome comments from persons who are better informed than I am. However, it is impossible to ignore – or at least ought to be impossible to ignore – the defensive aspect of the historical Zionist movement, i.e. its character as a reaction to European anti-Semitism and the perceived rejection by the larger European societies of which Jews formed a part of Jewish assimilation. Thus, as regards Zionist claims that Jews constitute a distinct “people” or “nation” (i.e. in the “ethnic” or, as I put it, “pre-political” sense), the German scholar of anti-Semitism Thomas Haury cites Theodor Herzl to the effect that: “We are a nation [Volk] – our enemies make us one whether we want it or not.” [1] This could not be much clearer. Even given the incentive provided by ordinary European anti-Semitism, moreover, the historical Zionist movement was a failure. Haury cites a figure of 3-4% support among western European Jews for the Zionist movement. In the 1920s, annual Jewish immigration to Palestine numbered in the low thousands. As Matthias Küntzel has noted in his excellent book Djihad und Judenhass, it was the rise to power of the National Socialists in Germany that provided the first major impulse to Jewish immigration. After WWII, of course, hundreds of thousands of survivors of Nazi Germany’s exterminationist Jewish policy from all across Europe - many of them temporarily “parked” by the occupation authorities in refugee camps in Germany itself - left Europe for Palestine.

This brief historical background suggests the answer to the second part of Blex’s question: namely, how does my observation about ethnic nationalism and racism “play” as concerns Israel? The creation of Israel as a Jewish state was not a result of ethnic nationalism as an ideology. The creation of Israel as a Jewish state was a result of the Nazi persecution of European Jews and its culmination in the Holocaust. To ignore this, frankly, smacks of negationism.

[1] See Samuel Salzborn, ed., Antisemitismus: Geschichte und Gegenwart (Giessen: Netzwerk für politische Bildung, Kultur und Kommunikation, 2004), pp. 129-130.