The theoretical research philosophy of Prof. Shlomo Sand, which he has laid out in his three most recent books and also in an interview and op-ed in Haaretz, does not meet the empirical reality test of the phenomena of nations and nationalism. Sand denies the descriptor “nation” to human groups that are not congruent with sovereign national units, for example the Jews, while at the same time reserving it for “human groups who live under joint sovereignty.” But for years there has been broad agreement in historical, sociological and anthropological research on nationalism on the existence of a much wider range of collective national identities, both territorial and extraterritorial.
- On Israeli Identity, Jewish Democracy and Oxymorons - A Response to Carlo Strenger
- The Gospel According to Sand: We Are Not Jews
- Modern Jewish Identity Is Not Racist or Nationalist: A Letter to Shlomo Sand
- Israel's Right to Choose Its Migrants
- My False Illusion of an Israeli-Palestinian Federation
- Michael Chabon Is Raising a Superhero
No major scholar of nationalism today would accept as a national group only the French in France, the Americans in the United States or the Filipinos in the Philippines, while at the same time denying the existence of members of the Russian people in Ukraine, of the Jewish people in Belarus, or the Palestinian-Arab people in Israel. This is for the simple reason that the members of these groups identify themselves as such and/or are identified as such by the states in which they live.
While Sands’ research insights have the most dubious scientific standing, his declared political intentions − undermining the exclusive reservation of sovereignty in Israel for one group of its citizens and endeavoring to transfer sovereignty to all the state’s citizens − are very admirable. The problem is the stubborn propensity to ignore the complex, multidimensional nature of the concrete, human manifestations of nations and nationalism, which thwarts Sand’s academic objectives and causes inestimable harm to promoting the advancing the idea of Israel as a state for all of its citizens.
It is folly to think that “Israeliness” does not exist as a concrete category of civil belonging. But what does this “Israeliness” consist of? No deep scientific study is needed to conclude that Israel’s civil community is composed of two very distinct national groups, Jewish Israelis and Palestinian-Arab Israelis. In terms of many aspects of sociology and consciousness, members of the Jewish people within Israel are not identical with members of the Jewish people outside of Israel, but the great majority of them identify with the members of the Jewish people outside Israel and view this identification as a central component of their collective national identity.
The vast majority of members of the Arab-Palestinian nation in Israel, too, are not identical in terms of sociology and consciousness with members of the Palestinian-Arab nation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip or the Palestinian diaspora abroad. But the vast majority identify with the Palestinian-Arab nation outside Israel and view this identification as a central component of their own collective national identity.
Israel’s civil community thus includes both the “individual” Jewish national community and the “individual” Palestinian national community. As such, the only realistic step that could further the building of the joint Israeli civil-political entity in practice is to validate, as part of the basic human rights of Israelis, the collective national rights of Jewish Israelis and of Palestinian Israelis.
But Sand, similar to the 20th-century Caananites, wants just the opposite. He completely severs Israeliness from its concrete, human manifestations − the Jewish and Palestinian national groups − thus leaving the concept “Israeli people” an empty category, detached from the concrete Israeli experience.
It is difficult to avoid coming away with the impression that Sand and his followers do not really want to try to realize the concept of an Israeli state from the perspective of practical politics, in other words based on the existing sociocultural components of Israeli society, and would rather surround themselves in a virtual, universalist community of a very few, which takes pride in the righteousness off its progressive opinions without any possibility to advance them.
In the binational reality of Israeli society the vision of a single Israeli nation-state based on the French model, which purports to inherit the unique identities of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis, is delusional.
But there is a practical way to advance the idea of Israeli sovereignty of all citizens, and that is to strive to establish an Israeli federation. Representatives of the two national groups in Israel will meet, the Jewish Israelis and the Palestinian Israelis, around the internal Israeli negotiating table, and will agree to a covenant on the basis of joint Israeli citizenship, and out of the mutual recognition of the unique collective national rights of each group.
As one of the necessary parts of the overall collective national rights of Jewish Israelis, their affiliation to the members of the Jewish people around the world will be recognized along with their constitutional right to join them to the construction of Israeli citizenship via aliyah, a foundational principle in the national Jewish-Zionist ethos.
As one of the necessary parts of the overall collective national rights of the Palestinian Israelis, their connection to the members of the Palestinian people around the world and their constitutional right to join them to the construction of the Israeli citizenship via return − a foundational principle in the national Arab-Palestinian ethos. In the middle, as a connecting super-identity, will be the joint territorial affiliation to the federative Israeli state.
Will this put an end to the “Jewish state?” Absolutely not, if only because the idea of “Israeliness” carries with it the baggage of clear Jewish ethnic-religiousness. It is clear that the Palestinian citizens of the state, who join together in a covenant with the Jewish citizens within the framework of the “Israeli federation,” will be required to yield a much larger emotional concession than the Jews.
There is no doubt that the road to the Israeli federation − the only option for full civil-individual and national-collective equality between Israeli citizens − is a long and difficult one. But in order to take that road it is first necessary to abandon Sand’s false illusion, in which the idea of the Israeli state can be advanced only by wiping out the concrete national identities that compose Israeli society.
The writer is director of the Cherrick Center for the Study of Zionism, the Yishuv and the State of Israel at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.