'The Nation-state Is Increasingly Losing Its Relevance'

'Fast talk' with historian Irad Malkin: On the insecurities driving Israel's need to define itself.

Ayelett Shani
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Irad Malkin. May 14, 2014.
Irad Malkin. May 14, 2014.Credit: Gali Eytan
Ayelett Shani

Much of your research is devoted to the way in which identity is formed and shaped.

An overlap between blood, language and territory has been created in the modern world, as though territory is a basic condition for the formation of a collective identity. But when we examine Greek civilization, we see that the Greeks established almost 1,200 city-states. Each of them was sovereign and independent, with its own calendar and currency. Yet despite this, a Greek who lived near Georgia on the Black Sea felt an affinity to a Greek who lived in Marseille or Libya – even more than to the neighbor living in the house opposite. Why? After all, there is no territorial contiguity, not even a coastline connecting those states. This is an example of dispersion which, in large measure and perhaps paradoxically – by the very fact of being a dispersion – preserved more conventions and other shared phenomena than if they had all been crowded together.

That would seem to be proof that territory is not a necessary condition for the formation of a common identity.

Indeed. Even in the Jewish Diaspora, when one examines letters that rabbis sent one another across the Mediterranean, one finds the same framework of values and outlooks. But put them all together, as happened here in Israel, and there is an explosion of differences. If you go to the United States and enter an Italian restaurant, you are in a kind of place that does not exist in Italy. Because in Italy no one would conceive of, say, using tablecloths that come from Sicily and serving food from Naples. But when it happens extra-territorially, collective identities become more comprehensive.

So perhaps territory, in many senses, actually restricts flexibility and tolerance.

Just so, and therefore the dispersion idea is not necessarily a bad one. The classical Greeks achieved something of a very interesting balance between unity and distinctiveness, with the aid of mechanisms that brought people together, such as the Olympiads. But when a common enemy was added to this equation – for example, when the Persians invaded the Mediterranean region – identity became far more contrarian: An identity of “us against them” emerged.

Like in Israel.

I personally think it is very unhealthy to shape identity through a prism of “what I am not,” but I am afraid we have reached that situation, because it’s convenient to adopt that kind of bipolar approach. Territory is not a condition for personal identity. We need to remember that whenever someone defines his ethnic identity, he’s not doing it just for fun. Something external has confronted him with the question, “Who are you, actually?”

And only then does he stop to think.

Yes. In all my studies on myth and territory and group identity, I noticed that the myth becomes increasingly explicit as insecurity about national identity increases. In the whole Greek world, the only ones who possessed the myth of a promised land – the “Zeus gave us this land” myth – were the Spartans. And the fact is that of the whole Greek world, they were the only ones who “sat” on an occupied people, trampled it, extracted all its resources, were in the minority vis-a-vis a big, dangerous world, but consistently evoked these justifications.

Well, we all know how that ended.

Just so. It’s as if you will not explain to me that the telephone on the table is yours, for the simple reason that I did not question it. It’s obvious to us both that it’s yours. But if I were to question it, you would explain to me why you think it’s yours. As soon as the idea of historical possession is questioned, people create things like the legislation [i.e., for a proposed new Basic Law on the Jewish State] to establish Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people. A people certain of its identity does not need a “nationhood” law.

How do you think a settler perceives his identity? Someone from the Jewish settlement in Hebron, from the hardcore. He is paying a very steep price to cling to that identity.

I would think that a person like that views his attachment in terms of romantic nationalism, and the connection to the land itself “speaks” to him more than the lateral connection to the greater society. I am not sure to what extent, for example, a person like that views me as an interlocutor, even though I am a member of his people. As a whole, I think that a people, a nation, a group, a city-state, whatever it may be, should concentrate on the positive elements of the identity it possesses – language, culture, heritage – and not in a contrary manner to the “other.” Sociologist Erik Erikson talks about “us identity” vs. “we identity.” “We identity” refers to what we did together – we left Egypt, say, we wrote the Bible, whereas “us identity” is us as an object, how we are seen.

How we are seen from the outside.

Yes. We are constantly referring to the external point of view of “us,” and responding to it. As a Jew, or as an Israeli, I don’t need take an interest in how my identity is perceived from the outside, because that renders me passive. But paradoxically, that is exactly what the new cultural strategy, which is always trying to enact identity-related legislation, is doing. It’s a frightened strategy, insecure about the rightness of its path. And to think that those who are spearheading it are perceived as ideologues.

This country has been in existence for 66 years, and now we have to enact identity laws? What happened? To this day, no constitution has been framed here, because agreement has not been reached on the definition of Judaism. You know, at the Israel Prize ceremony, [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands with me. When he shakes hands, he says something to each person – either to ask how he is, or to start a conversation, or just to get the camera to linger on him. In any event, he shook my hand and said, “Prof. Malkin, I want to ask you a question. How is it that Greece declined, and we didn’t?”

My jaw simply dropped in astonishment. I didn’t answer, just kept shaking his hand, and then he grabbed me and said again, “You owe me an answer.” Well, really! It’s hard to enumerate the number of erroneous assumptions underlying his question. To begin with, Israel would not exist were it not for modern Greece, which was the first nation-state in Europe, and arose on the foundations of the connection to its classical past and its contribution to European culture. If Europe had not recognized the right of the Greeks to a state of their own, by virtue of their classical past, it’s doubtful whether it would have recognized the right to establish the State of Israel. [Greece] too was established on the basis of parallel patterns – the Greek national effort resembled the Hebrew national effort – including revival of the classical language and culture, and changing the names of places in order to make them more biblical or classical.

Why did Netanyahu ask you that question?

I think he was asking about the eternity of the people of Israel, as though we were in some sort of competition between nations.

It’s a type of rhetoric that he invokes frequently. When talking about the economy, he says, “We will not be like Spain,” and when talking about national unity, he says, “We will not be like Syria.”

The problem is that Netanyahu’s comparisons are synchronic – [related to] what’s happened in the past five years. But historical comparisons are always diachronic, along the axis of time. He is inadvertently touching here on one of the most fundamental questions: the relationship between continuity and change. History is consciousness of the constantly changing relationship between continuity and change. Modern Israel is a wonderful example of this. On the one hand, it is totally immersed in forging a connection to the ancient past and its continuity, but on the other hand, it fought ferociously against what came between: ghetto Jewry, the shtetl.

How do you think Israeli identity should be shaped, here and now?

I don’t think it should be shaped. It should be left alone to shape itself and do so by allowing freedom of choice. Expose the children to a broad spectrum and let them choose.

But Israeli society consists of many branches and streams, each of which claims to possess the truth.

The question “Who is a Jew” refers to Judaism as a culture, as a civilization. I was born in 1951 and grew up in a Hebrew culture – from street signs to values such as “Hebrew labor,” the “Hebrew people.” I never heard the word “Jew.” And then, after 1967, Hebrew-ness disappeared. Suddenly we were all Jews. It is simply not correct that Jewish discourse is dominant here. There was a Hebrew culture and a feeling of renaissance. I saw this passage from Hebrew-ness to Judaism in my lifetime. After 1967, there was a sudden return to the sources. Instead of building the future, we are resurrecting the past.

I would be happy to return to an integration that connects Hebrew culture and Jewish culture. One of the cardinal problems we face as a collective entity is that historically, the nation and the religion have the same name. That’s quite distinctive in the world. After all, there is no problem in being an Italian and converting to Islam. But I, for example, as a secular Jew, even as an atheist, cannot become a Muslim.

The solution is to separate religion from state.

That is the condition for every democracy.

Is Israel in fact a democratic state?

The democratic framework of a democratic regime is constantly undergoing processes of democratization and regression from democratization. In this sense, Israel is a democratic society, although we are witnessing extremely worrisome and significant processes of erosion and corruption – some in the Knesset want to enact legislation that would restrict the courts, for example. But this is still a democracy. The question is what kind of democracy. We are already seeing genuinely fascist elements.

In my opinion, the consistent and fundamental position of Likud not to annex Judea and Samaria touches on this question, too, because the moment you do that you cease to be democratic, unless you enfranchise everyone. Democracy is a constant struggle over the continuing emergence of a democratic society.

Every democratic regime contains elements that will bring about its collapse. Every democratic society will ultimately spawn an oligarchy.

It’s true that democracy existed for about 200 years in the ancient world and has existed for about 200 years in the modern world, and other than that there has been no democracy in the whole of human history. Oligarchies have always existed. In Venice, for example, there was a small, rich oligarchy for almost a thousand years, which maintained a government but chose the rulers by lottery.

The Athenians, too, used a lottery. They had a very strong, rich economy, defeated the Persians and maintained an empire that managed 300 states for 80 years, with the president of the parliament rotating every day by lottery, the whole parliament being replaced every year, all the members chosen by lottery, as well as the ministers. Only the generals were chosen in elections.

Aristotle said that in democracy there is a lottery, and in an oligarchy there are elections. It was all done precisely to prevent the emergence of pressure groups and power centers. A lottery eliminates the possibility of influencing people who will hold a powerful position tomorrow. The head of the municipal planning committee is rotated every year. It’s clear he will come under unrelenting pressure. So replace him; there will be no one to wield pressure. It’s a mechanism that structurally breaks down the closed networks of the power centers. That’s something I would like to see here, in all fields.

One of the reasons you received the Israel Prize is a new methodology you created: the application of network theory to historical research.

Network theory is universal in character and is applicable to the way the nerves in the brain work and also to the configurations of galaxies.

You use it to explain how the hundreds of Greek city-states that were spread across the ancient world were able to create a civilization with a coherent identity.

I started to think about history not only in the context of Greece, but in broader contexts as well. I saw the work done by the physicist Duncan Watts, who dealt with questions of synchronization – why crickets chirp in unison, why women who live together menstruate at the same time – how self-organization exists to create complex systems. And I said, wait a minute: That’s my question, too. I look at the [ancient] Greek world and they’re all scattered like atoms. From Georgia to Spain, there is nobody that organizes them, yet they are one entity. A completely decentralized world – in terms of today’s technology, as distant from one another as we are from New Zealand – and yet they are one unit. How does it work? What brought it about? Around the same time, I also read a great deal about the philosophy of the Internet, and I encountered the term “six degrees of separation,” [Stanley] Milgram’s famous experiment.

According to which every person is connected to every other person on the planet by, at most, six degrees of separation.

Yes, and the basic insight is that, if you take a few points that are generally linked only to their neighbors, and make a connection between them even randomly, the level of connectedness increases by more than 90 percent.

How does this work in the context of history?

Generally, the agent doesn’t know he is contributing to the creation of a whole system. Let’s say you load a ship with a few jugs of wine, in order to sell them on another island. But just a minute – someone built that ship, so there is technology involved; an architect may board the ship, bringing a model from the southern Mediterranean to its northern area, and on the ship is the poet Pindar, who trains choruses to sing at the Olympiad every four years – he does it in Italy, Libya and Asia Minor. Very quickly these connections begin to ramify and transmit content between them.

Like bees that carry pollen from one flower to another and create all manner of hybrids.

Correct. More and more ties and connections are created to become communities, and at a certain moment people became aware of the question “Who is a Greek?” – it’s not certain that this was always a relevant issue. There is a tipping point at which the accumulation of all those connections creates a system that is aware of itself. The question of how a civilization is born is so large that most historians don’t deal with it. They say, “Well done to the Greeks who, despite the distance between them succeeded in overcoming that and in preserving a distinctive character.” They did not overcome it. On the contrary: It was the distance that created them. And one more thing about network theory: The traditional relationship between cause and effect, between before and after, becomes completely mixed up.

There are so many connections of so many types. The cause-effect relationship becomes quantum.

Exactly. You send the ship. You generate cause and effect all the time. The network empowers itself. But these networks are not mathematical, they are connected to reality and to many other factors, and there are networks that fall apart and disappear, while there are others that grow stronger. This approach is causing reverberations in the field. That’s because generally, when a historian writes a book that puts forward a new hypothesis, part of it is to obliterate the previous hypotheses. That one was wrong, this one was inaccurate, the others were misguided. But I don’t say that my hypothesis comes in place of something else: I am offering a new way of looking, a different perspective, which contains an insight about how to see the future, because the world is becoming decentralized.

And we, for the sake of illustration, are living in an age that symbolizes the transition from territory to network, with the Internet being actually an abstraction of the metaphor, with the world undergoing accelerated processes of globalization. The question is really whether in another few decades the issue of nationality will even be relevant.

I look at the European Union as a model. Today’s EU is very similar to the ancient Greek city states. There is vast geographical dispersion, an abundance of local dialects and lifestyles, with a superstructure that organizes everything. The cantonization of the world – that’s the trend. The nation-state is increasingly losing its relevance.

Do you see this also happening in the Middle East?

It’s clear to me that in the Middle East, too, the solution will be a federation. Maybe a federative network. After all, most of the states in the region are national frameworks that were imposed from the outside by European imperialism. If we think far ahead, the vision is that each person will realize himself in his territory, with the addition of the right to move and subsist throughout the region.

The ideal conception is for you to have a passport of the world, and beyond that, belong to your country. When all is said and done, national countries are a relatively new invention in history. I don’t know how long that form can last. The future will tell whether it’s been beneficial to humanity or not.

Irad Malkin. May 14, 2014.Credit: Gali Eytan
"A people [...] should concentrate on the positive elements of the identity it possesses – language, culture, heritage – and not in a contrary manner to the 'other."'Credit: Gali Eytan
"One of the cardinal problems we face as a collective entity is that historically, the nation and the religion have the same name."Credit: Gali Eytan

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