History of Nationalism in Israel
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Published: Tue, 13 Feb 2018
Promised Land, Crusader State: The Rise, Fall and Return of the Covenant Nation
A dissertation submitted by 58126 to the Department of Government, the London School of Economics and Political Science, in part completion of the requirements for the MSc in Comparative Politics (Conflict Studies)
September 1st, 2008
Several prominent comparativists claim that Israel is an ‘outlier case’ – a unique case study that generally defies most conventional forms of categorization. Such an allegation naturally assumes Israel to be exceptional and its behavior inexplicable. The assumption of Israel’s uniqueness was born during the marked epistemological shift from behavioral crossnational inquiries to more contextually and historically-derived theories, and has undermined Israel’s place in comparative politics. This dissertation seeks to place Israel and its behavior squarely back into the mix and up against much of the same scrutiny faced by other nation-states. By shifting again from a contextually and historically-derived theory of nationalism towards a more cognitive and tradition-based approach, centered on the ethno-symbolic approach professed by Anthony D. Smith and John Hutchinson, elements of Israel’s nationalism and national identity are analyzed as contributing to its existence as a ‘zone of conflict’ and to its violent behavior. An analysis of the Covenant Nation as a new comparative category that presupposes the idea of; (i) a chosen people, in (ii) a Promised Land, that uses (iii) blood sacrifice in order to fulfill a redemptive destiny and a commitment to worldly salvation, is highlighted. Limited comparisons to other covenant nations are drawn where applicable.
Since 1948, Israel has been regarded by some as an occupying force in the Middle East. That Israel, and Jews in general, could be a conquering and occupying people given their fate in the first half of the twentieth century – as a nation without a home, victims of anti-Semitism and persecution – is confusing to many. For reasons such as this, Israel has long been considered an outlier case by political scientists (Barnett 1996, ch.1). To the point of emphasis, it is argued that Israel defies most categorization, which has become the methodology employed by comparativists in order to understand states and state behavior. Categorizing usually requires classifying a case study under dichotic, or opposite, adjectives; Israel – being neither East nor West, developed nor underdeveloped, capitalist nor socialist, Third World nor First World – therefore, becomes difficult to study (Barnett 1996, 7). Furthermore, Israel has routinely been excluded from geographically specific studies – or regional studies, since it is often considered an alien entity in the Middle East. However, despite Israel’s historical particularity, Israel is not an alien entity in the Middle East and its behavior is not inexplicable. While differences certainly exist categorically between Israel and other states, they both nevertheless share many of the same traits and concerns – characteristics that might have similar origins.
It will be argued that in order to understand Israel, both as a nation-state and as it behaves, one needs to understand Israeli nationalist sentiments. Nationalism in itself is a difficult thing to define. Where does it come from? What does it entail? How deeply is it entrenched? The answers to these questions, and many like them, could explain why a nation-state behaves in the way that it does. There are two major competing schools of thought when it comes to understanding nationalism, (a) the modernists, and (b) the primordialists. The modernists would date nationalism to industrialism, the development of capitalism, or to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The primordialists, on the other hand, see nationalism as dating back much farther – possibly to even before history was recorded. Under this train of thought, Israel might date its nationalism back to the Hebrew Bible. Essentially, it all depends on where in history one chooses to draw the line.
This paper will primarily argue that in order to understand Israel as an inherently violent and conflict-laden nation-state it is necessary to move away from the established contextually-derived theories of nationalism and move to one that is more cognitively based. In so doing, this paper will show that Israel is in fact a state like all others. It is not an anomaly, nor methodologically suspect – its behavior not inexplicable. Regardless of its ancient historic roots, and despite its recent induction as a state among the family of nations, Israel’s nationalism should not be analyzed according to the dates of its borders, citizens, infrastructure, or institutions. In a more cognitive approach, Israel’s nationalism should be understood by the borders, beliefs and people themselves. As such, it will be shown that Israel is the archetypical Covenant Nation – a category that exists free from both time and space. Such a theory of nationalism can thus draw on elements from either modern or pre-modern periods/approaches and need not be based on regional developments or similarities.
Israel, like all covenant nations, is inherently conflict-laden. As will be laid out in much greater detail, covenant nations have a strategic culture born of three identifying features/beliefs that make them violent and militaristic in nature. Covenant nations are under a seemingly contractual obligation to defend and secure the idea of; (i) a chosen people, in (ii) a Promised Land, using (iii) blood sacrifice. When the covenant nation theory is highlighted as the root cause of violence, it becomes clear that a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict becomes much more difficult to ascertain. Conflict becomes unrelated to geopolitical realities or existing/imagined security dilemmas, but to an embedded sense of national superiority, a contractual obligation to fulfill the prophecy of the covenant and, derivatively, a commitment to worldly salvation.
Thus, while many scholars claim Israel is an outlier case like no other, they are wrong from the outset by trying to assign Israel to conventional and contextual comparativist categories. Israel and its behavior can and should be understood much the same as other states – as reactive to its nationalist sentiments, wherever derived. As will be shown, Israel has always been a conquering and occupying nation. It was true of Israel’s ancient past, it is true of its present and unless a drastic change occurs deep within the embedded (and sacred) structure of Zionism, it will be true of its distant future.
The Nation – General Definitions and Theories
Qu’est ce-qu’une nation? Renan’s question still echoes after more than a century. In recent decades – throughout the historical milieu referred to as the post-colonial era – a copious amount of interest and attention has been dedicated to the study of nationalism. While no singular definition is agreed on by scholars, for the purpose of this paper a nation will be defined generally as a group that defines itself or is defined by others as sharing common descent and culture […] that also has political consciousness, claiming collective political rights in a given territory (Mann 2005, 11). A nation-state can thus be defined as an entity wherein a nation has its own sovereign state, situated within enunciated and politically defined territorial borders – be they universally recognized or not.
Scholars of various disciplines have attempted to provide an explanation for the rise, meaning and development of nationalism in human history and societies. The phenomenon of the constitution of nations and national identities, the emergence of national sentiments, the construction of nationhood and nationalist ideologies, appear to all be interrelated constituents of a single phenomenon. Nevertheless, competing theories of nationalism exist – the major schism existing between modernists and primordialists.
Modernists, such as Gellner and Anderson, assume that the origins of nations and nationalism lie in the structural changes that affected economic and social systems during the industrial revolution at the end of the eighteenth century (Gellner 2006, 48-49), implicitly denying cultural factors. In the opinion of the modernists, the introduction of new means of production and the division of labor caused a restructuring of social relations and the polarization of class interests. Nationalism emerged as a means to promote and direct change through the creation of a popular solidarity as well as a means to protect and promote class interests (Anderson 1991, 113-114). The prevalence of one intention over another brings about the constitution of different political organizations depending on the nature the political system. So to speak, nationalism is identified by the modernists with the process of nation-building – a nation being a mere artificial construction fuelled by class interests.
The primordialist notion of nationalism contrasts with that proposed by the modernists. Scholars such as Hastings, Smith and Geertz, believe that nations are natural givens (Hastings 1997, 5). Consequently, it is possible to find traces of nationalism and nationhood in ancient times. The feeling of belonging, the acknowledgement among a group of people sharing common cultural, racial, linguistic traits, a common ancestry, history or religion, is a documented fact in history (Smith 1994, 40). Groups tended to bind together by these ties. The proclivity to coalesce around these shared traits, or focal points, brought about the rise of politically and socially organized nations claiming sovereignty over a territory.
In fact, it is Anthony D. Smith’s many contributions to the theory of ethnosymbolism in particular that figure most prominently in a discussion of Israeli nationalism, and upon which I have based my initial observations and thesis. Ethnosymbolism is founded on the historical origins of nations – particularly to their roots in premodern times – and focuses its attention on perceptions, beliefs, symbols, rituals, and shared myths and memories. Although the ethnosymbolic approach focuses on subjective cultural and symbolic rudiments, their long term patterning produces a structure of relations and processes […] which can provide a framework for the socialization of successive generations of ethnic and national members (Smith 1999, 14). In more basic terms, the origin and descent of the community are recollected and transmitted to new members of the group by memory – as interpreted by earlier generations. This subjective version of a nation’s origins is understood through ethnohistory rather than any official historian’s lens (Coughlan 2001, 160).
Before turning to the difference between history and historical traditions on Israeli national identity and behavior in the following section, allow me to first part ways with Anthony D. Smith and highlight our major difference. In War and Ethnicity: the Role of Warfare in the Formation, Self-Images and Cohesion of Ethnic Identities, Smith argues in sum that war has been a powerful factor in shaping certain crucial aspects of ethnic communities and nationhood. He points to Georg Simmel’s ‘cohesion’ thesis, which asserts that external armed conflict – or the imminent threat thereof – produces all internal group solidarity (Smith 1981, XX). In so doing, Smith turns war and its variations into an independent variable that moulds the ethnic community, and invariably the nation. Though I do agree that war and conflict certainly have the ability to accentuate and exacerbate group identity and cohesion, I contend to the contrary that group cohesion is the primary cause of war and conflict. As such, war is the dependent variable that finds its existence and explanation in the more common ‘group aggression’ theory. Thus, it is not war that creates a sense of belonging and community, but a sense of community and belonging that leads to war and conflict – and the sense of belonging and community within the Covenant Nation typifies that.
The Rise of the Nation-State: Context vs. Cognition
To suggest that Israel is in fact an inherently violent nation-state on account of the Covenant, it is necessary to first dispel the myth that all nation-states are violent, and to trace Israel’s legacy back beyond its establishment. A long-standing assumption among several prominent political theorists suggests that all nation-states are inherently violent because they are forged in warfare. Richard Bean, in War and the Nation State, argues that beginning in the fourteenth century changes in the art of war inextricably led to the rise of centralized states for the purpose of raising taxes (Bean 1973, 220). It is possible, however, that the nation-state – by general concept, if not by definition – predates medieval changes in the art of war, and certainly Westphalia. Greek city-states, like Sparta, can be seen as examples of very homogeneous societies with developed political structures, taxation, and mutual obligations between government and citizens. Regardless, ancient historical cases such as these would likely only serve to highlight the linkage between warfare and the birth of the nation-state. On the other end of the spectrum, what can be said about nation-states that have emerged contemporarily? Taking Israel as an example, a state that came into being by means of a vote in the United Nations, it is easy to suggest that the Arab-Israeli wars following its establishment have played a prominent role in the shaping of modern-day Israel. However, shaping by definition is not synonymous with forging.
In the first instance, it is my intention to show that nation-states are not forged explicitly in warfare, but on traditions of warfare – wherever derived. The purpose is to rephrase the hypothesis that nation-states are forged in warfare into one more universally applicable. For this, it is necessary to first presume that the nation, with its sense of community and belonging, existed prior. It will be shown that; from (i) a nation’s strategic culture, come (ii) traditions of warfare, which (iii) lead to a greater sense of national identity, on which (iv) nation-states have been forged. In so doing, I move the discourse away from a contextually derived theory of nationalism to a more cognitive-based approach, in which Anthony D. Smith’s contributions to ethnosymbolism (as outlined above) figure prominently.
A nation-state’s strategic culture is the obvious place to look for evidence of a war-born society. Strategic culture is defined by Alistair Iain Johnston as an ideational milieu which limits behavior choices. This milieu consists of shared assumption and decision rules that impose a degree of order on individual and group conceptions of their relationship to their social, organizational or political environment (Johnston 1995, 34). Essentially, it all comes down to security. A strategic culture is shaped from a shared sense of self-perception and threat perception of a specific group of people. It is necessary to assume that if a national group has a strong historical sense of war, aggressiveness, victimization, and/or persecution, that these sentiments would play out in their strategic culture, and would limit behavior choice and influence decision-making. Once forged into nation-states these strategic cultures continue to exist, and therefore become good indicators of how groups view warfare – and how their states came into being.
In order to analyze a nation-state’s strategic culture properly, it is important to consider that the study of strategic culture itself has two distinct epistemological approaches – context and cognition. Those that believe a strategic culture is based in context would claim that the historical record of the nation, even before its conception as a nation-state, is important to study. Basically, the nation-state expresses its national identity based on its national character. Therefore, a state’s strategic culture is based on its past – it is path dependent.
On the other hand, cognitivists see strategic culture as an integrated system of symbols (Johnston 1995, 35). Included in this integrated system of symbols are structures, languages, analogies, myths, metaphors, etc. In this approach national identity, as related to strategic culture, is more easily discernable through the study of a nation-state’s wartime symbols than a nation state’s wartime history. Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, in their book Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, also argue that symbols (like a flag) can be very telling indicators that lead one to uncover the nature of nationalism that exists within a state. In Fallen Soldiers, George Mosse looks to nation-states’ war memorials: cemeteries, songs, poems and commemorations, for clues. Essentially, a nation’s sentiments regarding warfare might differ from its experience; they might have been shaped or molded. When trying to find the link between the birth of a nation-state and warfare, symbols offer yet another variable to consider.
Due to the fact that there are two different ways to approach the study of strategic culture, and by association an element of a nation-state’s national identity, a clear distinction can be made between proper warfare and traditions of warfare. Traditions, like symbols, need not be based on truth or historical accuracy. There is a tradition of Santa Clause bringing presents to nice children despite there being no assumption of truth behind such a practice – and certainly no historical record to legitimize it. Traditions are sometimes developed more because they serve a purpose, than because they truly commemorate something.
When considering nation-state formation it is important to properly choose which traditions are worth investigating. Relating to strategic culture, or any issue that shapes a nation-state’s identity, it is important that a tradition have; (i) solid national support, (ii) outlived the era that gave it birth, (iii) entered the permanent lexicon of national discourse, and (iv) continued to resonate with a portion of public opinion even at a time when it was not directly affecting public policy (McDougall, Ch.1). As will be shown with the case of Israel, traditions of warfare that have passed the scrutiny of the limitations listed above have played a role in developing national identity, and ultimately forging a nation-state.
Modern day Israel is a good example of a nation-state forged on traditions of warfare, and not explicitly in warfare. As suggested above the first place to look for evidence of the link between warfare and state formation would be in a nation-state’s strategic culture. Israel’s strategic culture has long been dominated by the realist tradition (Dowty 1998, 84). The realist view of security has solid national support in Israel, it has outlived the era that gave it birth, it has entered the permanent lexicon of national discourse, and even during times of relative peace it continues to resonate with a portion of public opinion. Israel’s strategic culture is not only realist with regards to self-defense, but also in its offense.
The leftist scholars who would date Zionism to Theodor Herzl’s avowedly socialist ideals of establishing a free, humanitarian and egalitarian state in the Jewish homeland to escape the increasing anti-Semitism of late-nineteenth century Europe (Avineri, 1981, 88-89) are shortsighted in their efforts. There is no such thing as nineteenth and twentieth century Zionism – it is only Zionism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The bleak and destructive history of the Jews in Europe plays little significance in Israeli mamlachtiyut, or statism. The traditions that have forged the Israeli nation-state and limit its behavior choices can and should be dated back to the Hebrew Bible. For example, one might choose to examine the myth of the Covenant Nation, and how that played out during the Hebrews first experiment with forging a state following Joshua’s invasion of Canaan, as evidence. The invasion represents a realist tradition of conquering and occupying. Whether or not the Hebrew Bible represents an accurate historical rendition – or whether it has any academic merit at all – is outside the scope of discussion. After all, when providing an account for Israel’s strategic culture, the scriptures can be analyzed as being contextually historical or as a symbol of cognition. Either way – fact or fiction – they provide a tradition from which to inherit a strategic culture from, and on which to forge a nation-state.
Thus, the argument that Richard Bean makes; that nation-states developed out of the need for a strong central authority to levy taxes due to changes in the art of war, is unconvincing. To the point of emphasis, most modern economic-dependent nationalist arguments are limited when one considers ancient examples of national groups coming together to forge polities within defined and enunciated borders. Cases such as these simply highlight the fact that the forging of a nation-state draws more on myths, sentiments and symbols of collective fear, threat, pride, angst, aspiration, victimization, xenophobia and so forth when grouping together to organize politically. The above sentiments combine to form a strategic culture, from which traditions, national identity and greater cohesiveness are born. The nation-state was born as a response to a need for security; the traditions that transmit that feeling – be they contextually or cognitively derived – are what inevitably forge nation-states and determine how violently they will behave. Though it may be true that many nation-states are forged explicitly in warfare (and are established using means of warfare), it is not a universal truth. Instead, it should be argued that nation-states are forged on traditions of warfare – traditions that once were prescriptive and later become predictive.
As mentioned above, a strategic culture is shaped from a shared sense of self-perception and threat perception of a specific group of people. It is my assertion (to the contrary of international relations theorists) that Israel’s strategic culture has nothing to do with threat perception; geopolitical realities and security dilemmas are but moot points. Israel has adopted and further developed a strategic culture based solely on a particular tradition of self-perception – that of the Covenant Nation.
Defining the term Covenant Nation is not as simple as it may appear; its definition is hard to come by because it involves describing a process more than an entity. Simply put, the covenant is a tradition of ethnic election. The process of ethnic election is a multi-staged process requiring; (i) a sense of being singled out – or chosen – for a special purpose, (ii) a divine promise – whether absolute or conditional – made to the chosen people, and (iii) a belief that fulfillment of the covenant leads to worldly salvation (Smith 2003, 48-49). In short, the covenant is a tradition of a contractual agreement between God and His people. Simply put, the Covenant Nation, therefore, is the nation that enters and embodies the covenant. As stated above, traditions need not be based on historical truth or reality; in the ethnosymbolic approach traditions, myths and metaphors offer much the same credence to a debate on nationalism and national identity – and thus can serve as an explanation for how nation-states behave.
Let me begin by acknowledging that although the term Covenant Nation is rife with religious connotation, I do not intentionally seek to obscure the already blurred lines between religion and nationalism. In fact, I seek to avoid entering the scholarly debate about their ambivalent relationship entirely; I steer clear from scholars like Mark Juergensmeyer, whose work – albeit fascinating – seeks to compare and contrast the two phenomena and chart their historical interplay (Juergensmeyer 2006, 182). Instead, I point to a recent trend in thinking that sees nationalism itself as a form of belief-system – or as a new religion of the people (Smith 2003, 42). George Mosse, in Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, discusses how during the interwar period in Europe a civic religion of nationalism was born based on the cult of the fallen soldier (Mosse 1990, 104). If in Germany, for example, a civic religion of nationalism was born based on ‘the cult of the fallen soldier’, it can be said that for Israel a civic religion of nationalism is born based on ‘the cult of the chosen people’ and ‘the cult of the Promised Land’.
The Covenant has always been the cornerstone of Israel’s national identity dating back to primordial times. The Hebrew Bible first marks the covenant that God makes with Abram in Genesis 12:2: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. It is important to note that this verse not only represents the birth of the covenant, but at the same time the birth of the nation – highlighting their interconnectedness. The nation and the covenant are thus co-determining and mutually implicating; the two entities are defined by their internal relationship, such that the two entities derive their meaning through their relationship and have no meaning or basis without the other. No reason is given as to why Abram (later Abraham) is selected to head the nation that will come to be known as the chosen people, but we are told that his progeny shall; (i) inherit the land of Canaan, and (ii) outnumber the dust of the earth (Gen. 12:7 and 13:6) – outlining the divine promise.
In return the covenant nation is obliged to circumcise their children (Gen. 17:7-10) and – post-exodus – to keep the laws and commandments that God gives unto his chosen people, the holy nation, at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:4-6). Such are the terms of the covenantal contract; if the Chosen People follow Yahweh’s rules, he will give them virtue, peace and prosperity [in the Promised Land]. If they are his holy servants, the scriptures say, he will bless them (Akenson 1992, 16). Furthermore, not only do God’s chosen people benefit from fulfillment of the covenant – the whole world does. By fulfilling the covenant it is believed that God’s plan of salvation is advanced; so to speak, the salvation of all hinge[s] on the conduct of a special few (Smith 2003, 51).
Therefore, it is to the conduct of the special few that we now shift our attention. If the renowned ‘modernist’ scholar on nationalism Elie Kedourie is correct when he asserts that nationalism produces a kind of religious fanaticism that lends to conflict (Kedourie 1971, XX), the same must certainly hold true of covenantal nationalism – and likely to an even greater degree. As stated earlier, covenant nations come under a seemingly contractual obligation to defend and secure the idea of; (i) a chosen people, in (ii) a Promised Land, using (iii) regular blood sacrifice. Furthermore, the fulfillment of the covenant sets the chosen people apart from other peoples both ethically and ritually: Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy (Lev. 19:2). If fulfillment of the covenant – that is following the laws and commandments within the Promised Land – makes one holy and will lead to worldly salvation for all, than any/all efforts to attain that credo become morally indisputable. A self-righteous and realist strategic culture develops whereby any actions taken in fulfillment of the covenant become necessary, justified and self-vindicating.
The strategic culture associated with the covenant has thus permeated throughout time in much the same way it was born – manifested from a belief in choseness, holiness, and obligation. The Jewish nation has always found its grounding in the covenant whether in the times of Elijah or Hezekiah, Josiah or Nehemiah, the Maccabees or the Talmudic Sages […] all of these looked back to the founding charter of the covenant, not just as legitimation but as the grounding for their conception of the community of Israel and the unity of the Jewish people, which they sought to restore or deepen (Smith 2003, 63).
It is on this sacred foundation that modern day Israel was also established. Nineteenth century political Zionism can be broken down into three competing schools of thought; (i) the Revisionist Zionists, (ii) the Labor Zionists, and (iii) the Religious Zionists. In many ways revisionist Zionism epitomizes what it means to be a covenant nation. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism, believed that people are naturally born into nations and inherit its cultures and values. So to speak, individuals have very little choice regarding which nationalities they belong to. It was Jabotinsky’s belief that the Jews represent a particularly strong nation because – despite the pressures of the Diaspora – they always maintained their originality and distinctness(Dowty, 37). Furthermore, he insisted that the Jewish state be established in Palestine and trans-Jordan because it was the historical legacy of the Jews.
On the other hand, Labor Zionism – the most influential branch of Zionism at the time – considered itself to be totally secular in nature. Aaron David Gordon, founder of Hapoel Hatzair, saw the Jewish life in the Diaspora as dependence and a lack of self-reliance. Building on German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou, he sought to create a new covenant by reconnecting with the land using the religion of labor (Dowty, 39), and by replacing the old exiled Jew with a new self-reliant Jew. However, under the secular garb of Labor Zionism the language and intent of the original Abrahamic Covenant can be discerned (Smith 2003, 93). Ber Borochov, ideological founder of the Poalei Zion labor movement wrote that class struggles exist within national groups as well as between them, clearly acknowledging a difference between the Jewish nation and other peoples, and advocating an ‘ethnic’ nationalism, rather than the more open and tolerant ‘civic’ kind (Howe 2000, 236). For reasons such as this he sought to establish a Jewish socialist state. It is important to note, however, that not any state would do for Labor Zionists – the state was to be established in the Jewish homeland. To the point of emphasis, upon establishment of the state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, the first Labor Prime Minister of Israel declared the uniqueness of the Hebrew people and the redemptive destiny of Israel on its own soil (Smith 2003, 92-93). In so doing he acknowledged Labor and Religious Zionism to be not only compatible, but complimentary.
Religious Zionism was headed by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. While it is the usual view that Zionism is a sin and alien culture, a non-Jewish way of life, and that Jews should only return to the Promised Land after messianic redemption, Kook claimed that enhancing attachment to the land is an obligation (Dowty, 44). Essentially, Kook is advocating preparing the land for redemption and salvation and suggests that the secular Zionists are doing holy work by settling the Promised Land.
Clearly in all three branches of Zionism the tradition of the covenant remains critical – the four deep seated cultural resources that define the covenant nation, namely; community, territory, history and destiny, permeate all of their raisons d’être. By 1948, the underlying dimensions of the covenant nation return to fruition and again form a unifying and legitimizing tradition – like in times past. From this tradition a realist strategic culture was born that has; (i) solid national support, (ii) outlived the era that gave it birth, (iii) entered the permanent lexicon of national discourse, and (iv) continued to resonate with a portion of public opinion even during times of relative peace. Biblically, historically and contemporarily – time and again – the covenant h
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