In an incisive moment of Arthur Koestler’s classic Zionist novel Thieves in the Night, the lead character Joseph, a committed Zionist, has an epiphany: “Nationalism,” he realizes, “is only comic in others – like being seasick or in love.”
I chose this quote as the epigraph of my book on how the Jews became a "nation" at the turn of the twentieth century because it captured an inherent paradox of nationalism and nationhood. Nationalists often recognize the modernity and "constructedness" of nations in general, but equally often insist that their own case is the exception to the rule. You are invented; we are ancient, deeply rooted and eternal.
This week, social media is abuzz about a new "book" entitled A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era that promised to be a "comprehensive and extensive review of some 3,000 years of Palestinian history, with emphasis on the Palestinian people’s unique contribution to the world and to humanity."
The book is blank. [It has since been removed from sale on the site, whether by the publisher or Amazon itself]. In gleeful mockery, hundreds of reviewers on Amazon praised its "insight" while countless others have spread the link on Facebook and Twitter. Opponents are raising the alarm either at its celebration of ignorance – there is in fact a lot of good, dispassionate scholarship on Palestinian history – or at its combative dismissal of the existence of an entire people.
Of course, Palestinian national identity does not go back 3000 years. But this book’s celebrants seem to misunderstand that no nation – as we currently understand and use the term – dates to antiquity, not even the Jews.
Nations are products of modernity, requiring among other things mass literacy and a vibrant print media, industrial transportation, and the secular disruption of pre-modern, largely religious (often local) identities.
Notions of nationhood born in the French Revolution, and developed by philosophers like Johann Fichte and Johann Herder, spread in the nineteenth century through Central and then Eastern Europe, and eventually the world. Only in the twentieth century did the world understand itself as divided up into linguistic national communities that deserved, ideally, national self-determination.
The Palestinian nationalist movement, for example, began like many others at the end of the nineteenth century, when a small cadre of Palestinian intellectuals started working to convince their future constituents that they constituted a nation. Around the same time, a small cadre of Jewish intellectuals started preaching the same message to their future constituents.
In both cases, it was an extremely hard sell. For the Palestinians, it took many decades before the idea grew firmly entrenched. Remarkably, the same is roughly true for Jews.
This does not mean that nations are only imagined. In attempting to transform their constituents into a modern nation, nineteenth-century nationalists drew on real cultural and historical building blocks, now retooled for secular, national purposes.
Zionists, for example, drew deeply on liturgy and symbols associated with the ancient past and the messianic future, as well as holidays and other texts that focused on Jewish peoplehood. Carefully extracting those symbols’ eschatological and rabbinic meanings, and avoiding or downplaying competing texts and traditions that argued against them, they presented these as proof of authenticity for their own vision of Jewish community.
This was a reasonable way to rebuild Jewish identity as Jews lost their pre-modern caste status and became individual members of modern society. But it was not the only way. In fact, the vast majority of Jews initially rejected this notion of Jewishness, either from an Orthodox or an integrationist perspective. The former opposed an identity grounded in secular nationalism rather than fidelity to God and his commandments; the latter insisted that the absence of a common language or territory (the foundation of other national movements) belied the Zionist claim to nationhood.
Jews did share a sense of groupness, but most overwhelmingly denied that this meant nationhood or that they should attempt any secular means to secure national rights in the here-and-now. Zionist publications at the time continuously complained of the apathy and national indifference of most Jews, who denied their central premise that Jews constituted a nation. Indeed, nurturing national "self-awareness" among Jews remained the primary goal of the early Zionist movement. For most Zionists, statehood – whether in Palestine or elsewhere – was secondary, if even that.
It is not clear when Zionists achieved wide success, but scholars generally agree that by the interwar period most East European Jews conceived of themselves as a nation, although there remained plenty of resistance up to the Holocaust. Western Jews, of course, had a more complicated relationship with the idea, since they imagined themselves nationally as a part of their local countries. And Mizrahi Jews still largely maintained a pre-modern sense of Jewish peoplehood that served as a natural, though not seamless, foundation for their post-independence integration.
In short, both the modern Jewish and Palestinian nations – that is, communities that define themselves as nations and demanded political autonomy as such – were constructed around the same time, beginning with intellectuals in the 1880s and growing into a mass movement in the twentieth century.
Like all nations, they are epistemological, not ontological realities. They reflect how people choose to organize their identity, in the face of multiple options. But they are no less real for it.
Yet far too often, both sides of this conflict deny the other side’s national bona fides. Palestinian leaders, for example, still regularly insist on describing Jewishness only as a religion, more than implicitly denying the legitimacy of a Jewish nation-state. The rapturous reception of that empty "book" has exposed the tendency of many Jewish circles to do the same.
I respect readers who remain convinced of the self-evident truth of their own nationalist vision, but urge them to consider Joseph’s epiphany. Both national movements use pre-modern building blocks to prove their own authenticity. This is fine. But insisting on superior legitimacy – or worse, on singular legitimacy – is not only historically problematic; it is a path to irreconcilable conflict.
Palestinians today, whatever their provenance, constitute a modern nation both in their self-identification and by international consensus, including by Israel. Jews today, at least in Israel, obviously do as well.
Attempts by either side to delegitimize the very existence of the other must be fought within each camp. Only Palestinians can change Palestinian discourse regarding Jewish nationhood, and only Jews can fight parallel rhetoric about Palestinians. National myths – whatever their veracity – are important and valuable, but let history help guide us to a better future.
Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, and author of Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia (Cambridge University Press, 2014), among other publications.
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