Israel Hits Another UN School before Ceasing Fire; On Ethnic and Civic Nationalisms

Israeli war planes stayed home on Sunday morning, sparing densely-populated Gaza the intense aerial bombardment to which it had been daily subjected for the previous three weeks. In the hours leading up to the Israeli decision to stop bombing the defenseless Gazans for the next 10 days, the Israeli military shelled yet a fourth UN school–where 1600 refugees from the vast swathe of destruction wrought by Israeli airstrikes– were huddling. The Israelis killed two little boys and wounded a dozen other refugees.
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As Bob Ostertag perceptively writes at Huffington Post:

‘ Steven Erlanger’s lead on a front page story in the New York Times today . . . went on at great length rationalizing Israeli conduct during their assault on Gaza. It ran the same day that Israel hit a fourth UN school. Four of them. The Times cannot even publish its rationalization of the last UN school bombing before a new one is hit. Reading it made me physically ill. Move the context to, say, Bosnia. Imagine a front page story in the Times sympathizing with the tough calls that had to be made by those poor Serb gunners bearing down on the besieged city. . . ‘

Ostertag put his finger an an important comparison. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s brand of Zionism is a form of ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism differs in important ways from civic nationalism. Civic nationalism is based not on ethnicity but on national ideals. The mainstream of French nationalism since 1789, for instance, has been civic, not ethnic. That is why a Senegalese African like Blaise Diagne could be elected to the French parliament in 1914. Senegal was a colony but a few districts were seen as French soil and so could send representatives to Paris. This would be as though in the same period Tanzanians could serve in the German parliament or Uzbeks in the Tsarist Russian Duma. Obviously, French society is made up of fallible human beings and there is practical discrimination against French of black African heritage, but it isn’t legal discrimination.

Nations characterized by civic nationalism in their legal structures are numerous in the world– all the countries in Latin America, Red China, India, the United States, South Africa, most of Europe, etc. Civic nationalism often coexists with a dominant ethnicity exercising power in the state, but it does not require it. Thus, the United States won’t be a majority North-European Protestant country much longer, and Latinos, African-Americans, Irish-Americans and other non-WASP groups played an essential role in the election of Barack Obama.

In contrast, the Baathist form of Arab nationalism under Saddam Hussein in Iraq actively discriminated against non-Arabs such as Kurds, and many Sunni Arab Iraqis even mischaracterized their Shiite coreligionists as stealth Iranians. Militant Arab nationalists have waged an insurgency since 2003 to fight the new dominance of Kurds and Shiites in Baghdad. Likewise, Apartheid South Africa was ruled by Afrikaner nationalism.

I fear that Zionist nationalism in Israel is most often more like Baathist Iraq than it is like France or Argentina.

Likewise lot of central European nationalism, such as the Serb chauvinism of Slobodan Milosevic, was ethnic. Ethnic nationalism has pathological features, whereas civic nationalism has the potential, at least, to be civilized. Much Zionism suffers this flaw, of having an ethnic core. That is the reason for which Palestinian-Israelis were under martial law for the first few decades of Israeli history, and for which many Palestinian villages in Israel are not legally recognized, being denied building and other permits as a result (some Palestinian villages consistently vote for the rightwing Likud Party as a quid pro quo because a Likud government gave them legal recognition).

It is also the reason for which Israeli election authorities could by fiat simply ban certain Arab parties from running in the next election. There are 12 Arab deputies in the Israeli parliament of Knesset, seven of them from the Arab parties (there are 120 deputies altogether). Israeli ethnic nationalists have found this situation intolerable, though Palestinian-Israelis are under-represented, being 20 percent of the population. Obviously, this Arab representation will be further reduced by the ban.

Those wedded to the supremacy of ethnic nationalism often allege that it is natural. But there are lots of ethnic or ethno-religious groups in the world that are not nation-states. Sikhs, Jains, Afro-Brazilians practicing Condomble, Berbers, the Quechua, Mayans, etc., etc., etc. There are lots of multi-ethnic states. In a modern world of globalization, significant population movements are common (think of all the Italians who went to the US and Argentina). Maintaining a monochrome ethnic nationalism is more and more difficult and therefore requires more and more violence, regimentation and legal legerdemain. Me, I doubt if it is viable in the medium to long term.

If Israel is to flourish, it must recognize itself as a multi-ethnic, civic state. It already has 1.4 million Palestinian-Israelis, and at least 300,000 non-Jewish Russians, according to the 2008 census. It also has a growing population of Thai, Sudanese and other guest workers, who are not citizens but who may never go back home. (Germany’s experience with the Turkish guest workers was that many became citizens in the end). Excluding guest workers condemns a capitalist society to demographic and economic stagnation. Where guest workers are already present, disallowing them citizenship creates enormous social problems. Israel will be a Jewish-majority state for some decades. But it can’t remain that way in the long run without doing some very unpleasant things that will make its leaders really look like Milosevic.

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