TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Nationalism—and Nationalisms

A very cogent point of departure for assessing the competing nationalisms of the Israelis and the Palestinians is provided by two of the key architects of philosophical liberalism—Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. Both Hobbes and Hume emphasize that linking the legitimacy of nations to the circumstances of their origin will not bear critical scrutiny. Most nations are born in the throes of engagement in acts of violence against other people—indigenous populations, neighboring states, distant powers with imperialistic ambitions, etc. If the group seeking to establish hegemony over a certain territory emerges triumphant in its confrontation with any one of these (or similar) adversarial forces, it immediately dresses-up its successful assertion of “might” as “right,” and begins to see itself and to address others in the idiom of national self-determination. It rationalizes conquest and suppression as justice—and re-starts its history under the auspices of a transformed national identity.

This schematization of the emergence of nationalisms fits not only the creation of the American nation and its accompanying ideology in the wake of the consistent and systematic sequestering of Native Americans—but captures key ingredients of Palestinian and Israeli nationalism as well. The Arab population residing in Palestine periodically massacred portions of the clusters of East European Jews who had emigrated there under the banner of the various Aliyot before the establishment of the state of Israel. When Israeli statehood was achieved, a considerable number of Palestinians either fled or were driven into neighboring Arab lands. During the course of Israel’s fifty-eight year history as an independent nation, the Arab world made several concerted attempts to obliterate it and restore the relatively judenrein Middle Eastern environment of the status quo ante. During the course of Israel’s history, extremists on both the Palestinian and Arab and Israeli sides have sought to make their positions so militarily impregnable that they could blatantly impose their will on the other side. This illusion has been punctured on the Israeli side by the long, dark years of military confrontation and intifada—and is now beginning to be nurtured more broadly and fervently on the Arab side, as they assess the heavy losses in life, limb, and property that Hezbollah has been able to impose on Israel in the course of the recent fighting. The military option of guerilla warfare and a rationed and piecemeal military devastation of Israel is beginning to seem alluring and compelling to more and more Arabs. This is only likely to provoke more intense military planning on the Israeli side.

Given the context of ever-escalating spirals of extremism and violence on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it behooves Western liberals to remind Arab and Israeli combatants alike that most of the rhetoric of confrontation is beside the point. A domestic liberal political order is predicated upon the givenness and ultimacy of the individual members of society clamoring for protection and opportunities to maximize their life chances under the dispensation of the social contract. Correspondingly, a liberal international order (and a liberal regional order) concedes the givenness and ultimacy of existing state groupings—and merely works to mitigate conflicts between them, so as to maximize prospects for flourishing among all of the contending parties. A cardinal principle of liberal international morality and politics should be that a nation (which consists in a collection of individuals)—just like an individual housed within a social contract society—is just brutely there, and therefore needs to be respected. Contra the manifesto of “Jews for Justice for Palestinians,” nationalism is not a banner and a political program to be awarded to morally worthy candidates—and to be withheld from the rest. All of the practitioners of nationalism have dirty hands to a greater or lesser degree—and the morality that should inform international politics should counsel nations to devise strategies and pursue goals that enable as many of them as possible to stay morally above water and to promote their survivability.

Copyright 2006 by Aryeh Botwinick

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