Nationalism in Three Civilizations

Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: from Triumph to Despair, by Adeed Dawisha, tells an engrossing story, and provides much food for thought. Dawisha strikes just the right balance between sympathy for his subject and detachment from it, so that his very interesting book shouldn't raise many hackles on either the pro- or anti-Arab side.

Arab nationalism was problematic from the beginning. Nationalism is, after all, a Western ideology -- the idea that the Arabs are all one people, distinct from all other peoples, was literally foreign to the Arabs themselves. As long as the Ottoman Empire lasted, its Arab subjects were mostly loyal, or at least docile. After it was carved up by the European powers, however, the liberation and unification of the Arabs became an issue.

A profound irony of European imperialism was that it intruded European influence, intellectual as well as political, leading ultimately to anti-imperialist struggles. The most prominent example of this in Dawisha's story is Sati' al-Husri, who studied in Europe and worked in the Ottoman bureaucracy. After World War One, he ended up as head of the public education system in the new state of Iraq. By his own writings and his control of the curriculum in that country, he became the most influential Arab nationalist intellectual.

Husri was a follower of Johann Gottfried Herder's cultural nationalism. As Dawisha quotes him: "language is the soul and the life of the nation; history is its memory and its cognizance" (p. 68). Husri daringly secularized the Arabic word umma, which means the community of all Muslims, by using it to translate the Western concept of the nation. He emphasized the fact that the Arabic umma existed before Islam, and denied the fundamental importance of religious divisions between contemporary Arabs.

These ideas were opposed by some inconvenient historical and even linguistic facts. For one thing, modern Arabic has diverged into regional dialects that are, at their extremes, mutually unintelligible; for another, urban Arabic-speakers did not consider themselves "Arabs," using that term only for tribal nomads. More profound and important was that the nationality principle had to compete with other, older claims to allegiance: local, tribal, and sectarian. Dawisha provides many fascinating details about the various social fissures within (predominantly) Arab countries.

Interestingly, the Arabic language has two words that almost exactly translate the English words "patriotism" and "nationalism": wataniya and qawmiya. The former pertains to each of the Arab countries, the latter to the Arabic-speaking people as a whole. Each was always problematic, but the latter proved to be a complete failure.

It took a generation for Arab nationalism to spread from a handful of Westernized intellectuals to a mass movement. There were two main reasons for its growth: the reaction to Zionism, and rapid modernization. Advancing from an almost medieval level to something remotely resembling European civilization, the Arabs built up secular education systems conveying modern (i.e. Western) ideas, including both nationalism and socialism. In the Arabs' minds the two got mixed up together, as they had already gotten mixed up together in Italian and German minds, and similarly unfortunate results were to ensue.

Arab nationalism's emergence as a major political force was marked by the Egyptian revolution of 1952. Gamel Abdul Nasser and his followers overthrew the British-backed monarchy, which they blamed for the Egyptian Army's humiliating defeat in the Israeli War of Independence. The charismatic dictator now emerged as the symbolic leader of all the Arabs in their struggle against imperialism and Zionism. Egypt was the most populous Arab country, had a geographically central location, and also had the most developed media-industry in the Arabic-speaking world; if any country was to play the role of Prussia or Piedmont in uniting the Arabs, it would be Egypt.

In 1958, a short-lived attempt was made to merge Egypt and Syria into a "United Arab Republic"; in practice, this amounted to the voluntary annexation of the latter to the former. The experiment was a miserable failure, whose main consequence was the elimination of Syria's (relatively) free-market economy and multiparty democracy. This episode epitomizes, in a way, the whole career of Arab nationalism. Operationally a force on the Left, it came to power (when it did) by more or less violent revolutions, establishing more or less odious dictatorships, run by political gangsters. In the rest of the Arab world, traditionalist monarchies clung to power, drawing on tribal loyalties, alternately appeasing and crushing the nationalists.

The career of Arab nationalism ended with the utterly and completely devastating defeat of the Arabs by the Israelis in 1967, which proved that a revolutionary dictatorship was no more effective than a traditionalist monarchy. Nasser and his successor Sadat turned from qawmiya to wataniya, which again epitomizes the whole career of Arab nationalism. Although most Arab countries were creatures of European imperialism, the "nationalist" gangsters who seized control of these artificial domains were entirely unready, unwilling, and unprepared for the kind of power-sharing necessary to subsume their several States into a common Union. (On the bright side, their newfound dedication to Egypt's own interests led them to stop beating the Egyptian Army's head against the IDF's brick wall.) The region's malcontents and agitators also deserted Arab nationalism for good, and went looking for other causes. The lesson for us, I think, is that you can get Arabs to come to terms, but you have to hit them pretty damn hard first.

With the Islamist revolution in Iran, religion returned to its primary place in (what passes for) Islamic civilization -- Arabic as well as Persian. Arab nationalism had always been regarded skeptically by the Shiites of Iraq and the Maronites of Lebanon, and with hostility by the precursors of contemporary Islamism. Traditionally, the real equivalent of the "nation" in the Islamic world is the umma or raya -- the religious community.

In the West, religion (before the Protestant Reformation) was the primary unifying force. Medieval people divided the world, basically, into Christendom and heathendom (though the schism between Latin and Greek Christians did complicate this somewhat). After the gradual conversion of the Roman Empire, Christendom mainly expanded by converting whole pagan nations at a time (starting with their kings, to be sure) through peaceful missionary activity.

In the Islamic world, to the contrary, religion has been the primary dividing force. Islam was spread out of Arabia mainly by conquest, and while the Muslim umma has been the dominant group, it has never entirely absorbed or stamped out all the stubborn remnants of pre-Muslim ethnoreligious groups (Zoroastrians, Jews, Mandaeans, Syriac Christians, etc.), while Islam itself produced such offshoots as Shiites and Druzes.

If the nationality principle is validly applicable to the Middle East, then, it is to such ethnoreligious groups that it must be applied. Israel, of course, is the perfect example (though the fragile republic of Lebanon broke down into several de facto ethnoreligious states, before becoming a de facto province of Syria).

The Jewish State: the Struggle for Israel's Soul, by Yoram Hazony, is a fascinating counterpart to Dawisha's story. Obviously, the story of Zionism is going to be radically different from that of the losers in all those wars. Unlike Dawisha, Hazony is whole-heartedly and frankly partisan; but like Dawisha, he tells the story of a lost cause. The Jewish state survives -- for now -- but Zionism is dead.

Hazony begins at the end, with a survey of contemporary Israeli life that is all too similar to America: nearly every cultural institution is controlled by anti-Zionists relentlessly denouncing and eradicating every trace of the country's religious and national character. How did this come to be? To answer this question, Hazony set out to re-write the history of Zionism, adding to it the history of the Israeli section of international nihilism.

The Jews in traditional Christendom were subject to constant discrimination and intermittent persecution; yet, they always had the option of converting to Christianity. Some did, but a remnant always stubbornly remained a people apart -- a unique people (a point that Hazony oddly overlooks) who "referred to themselves as am israel ('the people of Israel'), a nation living in galut ('exile'), and whose only real homeland was eretz israel ('the land of Israel')" (p. 87).

This changed with the emergence of liberalism: the modern regime in which, theoretically, free and equal individuals are united by a "social contract" -- i.e., abstract and universal principles -- instead of particularistic attachments (to the person of a monarch, or to an ethnic group or religious community). The new regime emancipated the Jews as individuals -- but with a catch: they had to abandon their attachment to the Jews as a people. Unlike their situation in traditional Christendom, they did not have to apostasize completely (though as before, many did). Instead, they would try to square the circle by redefining themselves as a denomination like any other. In the end, this amounted to de-Judaizing their religion, and proved a halfway-house to apostacy.

At the same time, we Gentiles had our own problems with the new dispensation. One reaction to the uprooting of old loyalties was the creation of new ones: this was the age when the various European peoples became self-aware and began to assert themselves culturally and politically. Unfortunately, towards the end of the 19th century some muddled thinkers came up the idea that race, not nationality, defines a people: to the Jews, this denied the possibility of conversion or assimilation. The term "anti-Semite" was coined at this time, precisely to emphasize the "Semitic" racial character of the Jews, as opposed to their "Judaic" denominational character.

Emancipationist Jews responded to this challenge by trying ever harder to appease their antagonists; other Jews, most prominently Theodore Herzl, responded by declaring emancipation a failure and reasserting themselves as a people. The Zionist Organization was founded in 1897 to promote Jewish resettlement of Palestine with the ultimate goal of founding a Jewish state.

Zionism was a very factious political movement. The main story typically told is that of the struggle between the Labor-Zionist Left and the Revisionist Right. Hazony, however, points out that both sides were loyal Herzlians, and in retrospect their similarities seem far greater than their differences. He sees more significance in an early dispute between Herzl and Ahad Ha'am. Herzl and his followers were chiefly devoted to the material and political task of building up the Jewish state; Ha'am was chiefly devoted to the spiritual and cultural side of Jewish nationalism. As with the dispute between Labor-Zionism and Revisionism, it was a matter of priorities rather than principles, though on a more fundamental level. While Hazony naturally celebrates Herzl's victory, he laments Ha'am's loss, which left an intellectual void in Zionism and, subsequently, the Jewish state -- with dire consequences.

This brings us round again to the main thread of Hazony's narrative: the most fundamental conflict of all, between the Zionists and Jewish anti-Zionists. From the beginning, those who embraced emancipation were bitterly opposed to the idea of Jewish statehood, though some did participate in the resettlement. In 1925, a clique of German-Jewish intellectuals founded both the first university in Palestine, and the first peace movement. Politically they were a flop -- at first -- but, by dominating the educational system of the rising nation, they gradually took over its entire intellectual and cultural life. Frustrated by the creation of the State of Israel, they got their revenge by turning the next generations of educated Israelis against their own country.

This little country, in this short span of time, is a microcosm of the whole history of modern and post-modern thought. The intellectuals promoted a universalist, i.e. un-Jewish, interpretation of Judaism, compatible with the universalist principles of liberalism; accordingly, they rejected the particularist claims of the Jewish people to a state of its own; turning all their efforts to opposing these claims, and then attacking the actual Jewish state itself, their universalism degenerated into nihilism. At the same time, they advocated friendship with the Arabs, blaming the Zionists for Arab pogroms. These ethnophobic and xenocentric attitudes were most grotesquely displayed by Martin Buber, who compared Israel to Nazi Germany -- then turned around and pleaded for clemency when Adolf Eichmann was captured and put on trial in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Israelis were dedicating themselves to the practical enterprise of building up a modern, civilized nation in the wilderness. They succeeded, but in the single-mindedness of their effort they ceased to be mindful of the reasons for the whole enterprise, and so they became vulnerable to the insidious subversion of the anti-Zionist professors. Zionism's only foothold in the university was in the professional, technical and scientific fields; the humanities and social sciences were left in the hands of the nihilists, free to shape the minds of new generations, unchallenged by alternative points of view. Only the Orthodox religious schools formed an organized intellectual counterforce, but religious Zionism devoted itself only to the "gravel and cement" kind of nation-building that was being undermined as the anti-culture spread through secular society.

In the end, Hazony offers the hope of a cultural-Zionist renaissance, like that advocated by Ahad Ha'am, to restore a sense of the meaning, purpose, and value of the Jewish state. The lesson he draws from the story he tells, is that ideas are powerful indeed: Herzl's ultimately brought a new nation into being; those of maggots like Martin Buber, brought that nation to the brink of suicide. May that nation yet be saved -- and may we men of the West, too (and we Americans, above all), draw the right lessons from its history.

2003 by Karl Jahn

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