How Israel helped to revive Europe’s ugly ethnic nationalisms
Polarisation within western societies on issues relating to migration and human rights has been intensifying over recent weeks and months. To many observers, it looks suspiciously as if an international order in place since the end of the second world – one that emphasised universal rights as a way to prevent dehumanisation and conflict – is rapidly unravelling in Europe and the United States.
In the past few weeks in Donald Trump’s America, it has emerged that thousands of migrant children have been snatched from their parents while trying to enter at the southern border, with some held in cages; the US Supreme Court has upheld the right of border officials to bar entry to Muslims from proscribed countries; and the Trump administration has quit the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, a key institution for monitoring human rights violations.
Meanwhile, far-right parties across Europe have ridden to electoral success on the back of mounting fears at a wave of migrants displaced from North Africa and the Middle East by wars and famines. Joining the trenchant anti-immigration stances of governments in Hungary and Poland, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini has turned away boatloads of migrants from his country’s ports. He called last month for the European Union to “defend its border” and deny access to human rights groups, while also threatening to cut his country’s budget to Europe unless action was taken against migrants. Salvini is among the Italian politicians demanding the expulsion of the Roma minority.
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Other European governments led by Germany, fearful of internal political instability that might undermine their continuing rule, called a hasty summit to consider options for dealing with the “migrant crisis”.
And casting a long shadow over the proceedings is Britain’s efforts to negotiate its exit from the EU, a blow that might eventually lead to the whole edifice of the European project crumbling.
Two ideas of citizenship
These are not random events. They are part of a quickening trend, and one that signals how an international order built up over the past 70 years and represented by pan-national institutions like the United Nations and the EU is gradually breaking down.
While the evidence suggests that there is no particular migration crisis at the moment, there are long-term factors that readily provoke populist fears and can be readily exploited, especially over the depletion of key global resources like oil, and environmental changes caused by climate breakdown. Together they have stoked resource conflicts and begun to shrink world economies. The effects are ideological and political shockwaves that have put a system of long-standing international agreements and norms under unprecedented strain.
The emerging struggle faced today is one that was fought out a century ago in western Europe, and relates to differing conceptions of citizenship. In the early 20th century, Europe was riven by ethnic nationalisms: each state was seen as representing a separate biological people – or in the terminology of the time, a race or Volk. And each believed it needed territory in which to express its distinct heritage, identity, language and culture. In the space of a few decades, these antagonistic nationalisms tore Europe apart in two “world wars”.
At the time, ethnic nationalism was pitted against an alternative vision of citizenship: civic nationalism. It is worth briefly outlining how the two differed.
Civic nationalists draw on long-standing liberal ideas that prioritise a shared political identity based on citizenship inside the stable territorial unit of a democratic state. The state should aspire – at least in theory – to be neutral towards ethnic minorities, and their languages and cultures.
Civic nationalism is premised on individual rights, social equality and tolerance. Its downside is an inherent tendency to atomise societies into individuals, and cultivate consumption over other social values. That has made it easier for powerful corporations to capture the political system, leading to the emergence of neoliberal capitalist economies.
Ethnic nationalists, by contrast, believe in distinct peoples, with a shared heritage and ancestry. Such nationalists not only resist the idea that other groups can integrate or assimilate, but fear that they might weaken or dissolve the ties binding the nation together.
Ethnic nationalists therefore accentuate an imagined collective will belonging to the dominant ethnic group that guides its destiny; emphasise threats from external enemies and subversion from within by those opposed to the values of the core group; encourage the militarisation of the society to cope with such threats; and anxiously guard existing territory and aggressively seek to expand borders to increase the nation’s resilience.
Even before Europe’s two great wars, most western states were a hybrid of civic and ethnic nationalist impulses. But in a political climate of competition over resources and paranoid vigilance against rivals that prevailed before the second world war, especially fears among western elites about how best to counter the growing threat of Soviet Communism, ideas associated with ethnic nationalism tended to dominate.
It was for this reason that ethnic minorities – especially those, such as Jews and Roma, whose loyalties to the core nation were considered suspect – found themselves scapegoated and faced rampant discrimination. This took different forms.
In Britain, ethnic nationalism contributed to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a document proposing that British Jews be transplanted to the Middle East. In part this was a colonial project to create an outpost of Jews in the Middle East dependent on British favour for their security. But as noted by Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the British cabinet at the time, the Balfour Declaration had strong anti-semitic overtones, reinforcing the idea that Jews did not belong and should be relocated elsewhere.
Ethnic nationalism in France was evidenced by the notorious Dreyfus Affair. A Jewish captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason in 1894 for leaking military secrets to Germany. In fact, as it later emerged, another French officer was responsible for the leak, but the military preferred to falsify documents to ensure that blame rested with Dreyfus.
And in Germany, racism towards minorities like Jews and Roma culminated in the Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s and a short time later a policy of mass extermination that claimed the lives of many millions.
Rebuilding a post-war Europe
After the devastation of the second world war, western Europe had to be rebuilt, both physically and ideologically. With the dangers of ethnic nationalisms now apparent, greater emphasis was placed on civic nationalism.
This trend was encouraged by the US through its Marshall Plan, an economic recovery programme to reconstruct western Europe. The US wanted a united, peaceful Europe – its ethnic antagonisms a thing of the past – so that a culture of individualism and consumerism could be fostered, guaranteeing an export market for American goods. A US-dependent Europe could also be relied on as a bulwark against Washington’s chief ideological rival, Soviet communism.
By the end of the 20th century, these developments would lead to the emergence of a common market, later the European Union, a single currency and the dropping of border controls.
At the same time, in the immediate post-war period, it was decided to put safeguards in place against the recent slaughter. The Nuremberg Trials helped to define the rules of war, and classed their violations as war crimes, while the UN’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions began the process of formalising international law and the concept of universal human rights.
All of that post-war order is now unravelling.
Bucking the trend
Israel was established in 1948, the year of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, which was itself intended to prevent any return to the horrors of the Holocaust. Israel was presented as a sanctuary for Jews from a depraved Europe that had been overrun by aggressive racial ideologies. And Israel was extolled as a “light unto the nations”, the political fruit of the new international legal order to promote the rights of minorities.
But paradoxically, the “western” state that most visibly bucked the trend towards civic nationalism in the post-war period was Israel. It stuck rigidly with a political model of ethnic nationalism that had just been discredited in Europe. Today Israel embodies a political alternative to civic nationalism – one that is slowly and increasingly helping to rehabilitate ethnic nationalism.
From the outset, Israel was not what it appeared to most outsiders. It had been sponsored as a colonial settler project by western patrons that variously included Britain, the Soviet Union, France and, latterly, the US. Set up to be an explicitly “Jewish state”, it was built on the ruins of the native Palestinian people’s homeland after a campaign of expulsions historians have characterised as “ethnic cleansing”.
Israel was not the liberal democracy claimed in its campaigns of self-promotion, known as hasbara. In fact, far from being an antidote to ethnic nationalism, Israel was decisively a product – or more specifically, a mirroring – of this form of nationalism.
Israel’s tribal ideology
Its founding ideology, Zionism, was deeply opposed to civic nationalism and attendant ideas of a common political identity. Rather, it was a tribal ideology – one based on blood ties and religious heritage – that spoke the same language as Europe’s earlier ethnic nationalisms. It agreed with the racists of Europe that “the Jews” could not be assimilated or integrated because they were a people apart.
It was this shared ground with the ethnic nationalists that made the Zionist movement deeply unpopular among the vast majority of European Jews until the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. After the horrors of the Nazis, however, growing numbers of Jews concluded that, if you could not beat the ethnic nationalists, it was better to join them. A highly militarised, nuclear-armed Israel – sponsored by Europe and belligerent towards its new, relatively weak Arab neighbours – appeared the best solution available.
It is that shared ground that today makes Israel an ally and friend to Trump and his political constituency in the US and to Europe’s far-right parties.
In fact, Israel is revered by a new breed of white supremacists and anti-semites in the US known as the alt-right. Their leader, Richard Spencer, has termed himself a “white Zionist”, saying he wants the US to become a “secure homeland” to prevent “the demographic dispossession of white people in the United States and around the world” in the same way Israel achieved for Jews.
Making racism respectable
Israel preserved the model of ethnic nationalism and is now seeking to help make it respectable again among sections of western public opinion.
Just as historically there were different varieties of ethnic nationalisms in Europe, so there are among the popular and political movements in Israel.
At the most disturbing extreme of the spectrum are the religious settlers who have actively taken up the task of once again uprooting the native Palestinian population, this time in the occupied territories. Such settlers now dominate the middle ranks of the Israeli army.
In a handbook for further dispossession known as the King’s Torah, influential settler rabbis have justified the pre-emptive killing of Palestinians as terrorists, and their babies as “future terrorists”. This worldview explains why settlers massed outside a court in Israel last month taunting a Palestinian, Hussein Dawabshe, whose 18-month-old grandson, Ali, was among family members burnt alive by settlers in 2015. As the grandfather arrived, the settlers jeered “Where is Ali, Ali’s dead” and “Ali’s on the grill.”
Even more common, to the extent that it passes almost unnoticed in Israel, is the structural racism that keeps the fifth of the population belonging to a Palestinian minority apart from the Jewish majority. For decades, for example, Israeli hospitals have been separating women in maternity wards based on their ethnicity. Last month, in a familiar pattern, it was revealedthat a municipal swimming pool in the Negev was quietly segregating Jewish and Palestinian bathers – all citizens of the same state – by offering different hours.
At least the pool accepted Palestinian citizens. Almost all communities in Israel are segregated, with many hundreds using admissions committees to ensure they bar Palestinian citizens and remain exclusively Jewish.
There have been weeks of angry protests among Jewish residents of the northern city of Afula, after the first Palestinian family managed to buy a home in a neighbourhood. Deputy mayor Shlomo Malihi observed: “I hope that the house sale will be cancelled so that this city won’t begin to be mixed.”
The ‘danger’ of intermarriage
Last month Miki Zohar, a legislator in the ruling Likud party, observed not only that there is a “Jewish race”, but that it represents “the highest human capital, the smartest, the most comprehending”.
At the same time, the government’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, noted that the future of the Jewish people in countries like the US kept him awake at night. “If we don’t act urgently, we’re going to be losing millions of Jews to assimilation,” he told a conference in Jerusalem.
This is a common refrain on the Israeli left too. Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the supposedly socialist Labour party and the new chair of the Jewish Agency, shares Bennett’s tribal impulse. Last month he warned that Jews outside Israel were falling victim to a “plague” of intermarriage with non-Jews. He bewailed that on a visit to the US last year: “I saw the children of my friends marrying or living with non-Jewish partners”. He concluded: “We have to rack our brains over how to solve this great challenge.”
An ethnic fortress
But the problem is not restricted to the prejudices of individuals and communities. It has state sanction, just as in Europe a century ago.
That can be seen not only in rampant institutional racism in Israel – some 70 laws that explicitly discriminate based on ethnic belonging – but in Israel’s obsession with wall-building. There are walls sealing off Gaza, and the densely Palestinian-populated parts of occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In another indication of the ethnic fortress mentality, Israel has built a wall to block the entry of African asylum seekers through the Sinai peninsula as they flee wars. Israel has been deporting these refugees back to Africa – in violation of international conventions it has ratified – putting their lives in danger.
And while western liberals have grown exercised at the separation of children from their parents by the Trump administration, they have ignored decades of similarly brutal Israeli policies. In that time, thousands of Palestinian children have been seized from their homes, often in night-time raids, and jailed in trials with a near-100 per cent conviction rate.
Throughout its history, Israel has glorified in its military prowess and brazenly celebrated a tradition of extrajudicial violence against opponents. That has included practices such as torture and political assassinations that international law seeks to prohibit. The sophistry used by Israel to defend these actions has been enthusiastically taken up in Washington – in particular, when the US began its own programmes of torture and extrajudicial murder after the Iraq invasion of 2003.
Israel has readymade rationalisations and specious soundbites that have made it much easier to sell to western publics the dismantling of international norms.
The upending of international law – and, with it, a reversal of the trend towards civic nationalism – has intensified with Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza over the past decade. Israel has subverted the key principles of international law – proportionality, distinction and necessity – by hugely widening the circle of potential targets of military action to include swaths of civilians, and using massive force beyond any possible justification.
That has been graphically illustrated of late in its maiming and killing of thousands of unarmed Palestinian protesters for being supposedly too close to the perimeter fence Israel has built to encage Gaza. That fence simply delimits the Palestinian land occupied by Israel. But in another success for Israeli hasbara, western reporting has almost universally suggested that the fence is a border Israel is entitled to defend.
Israeli expertise in demand
Israel’s expertise is increasingly in demand in a west where ethnic nationalisms are again taking root. Israel’s weapons have been tested on the battlefield, against Palestinians. Its homeland security systems have proven they can surveill and control Palestinian populations, just as western elites think about their own protection inside gated communities.
Israel’s paramilitary police train and militarise western police forces needed to repress internal dissent. Israel has developed sophisticated cyberwarfare techniques based on its efforts to remain a regional superpower that now satisfy the west’s politically paranoid atmosphere.
With an abiding aversion to the Communist ideology of their former Soviet rulers, central and east European states have led the move towards a renewal of ethnic nationalism. Civic nationalism, by contrast, is seen as dangerously exposing the nation to outside influences.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is among the new brand of eastern European leader brazenly stoking an ethnic politics at home through anti-semitism. He has targeted the Hungarian Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros for promoting a civic nationalism, suggesting Soros represents a wider Jewish threat to Hungary. Under a recent law, popularly known as “STOP Soros”, anyone helping migrants enter Hungary risks a prison sentence. Orban has lauded Miklos Horthy, a long-time Hungarian leader who was a close ally of Hitler’s.
Nonetheless, Orban is being feted by Benjamin Netanyahu, in the same way the Israeli prime minister has closely identified with Trump. Netanyahu called to congratulate Orban shortly after he was re-elected in April, and will welcome him in a state visit this month. Ultimately, Netanyahu is angling to host the next meeting of the Visegrad group, four central European countries in the grip of far-right ethnic politics Israel wishes to develop closer ties with.
For leaders like Orban, Israel has led the way. It has shown that ethnic politics is not discredited after all, that it can work. For Europe and America’s new ethnic nationalists, Israel has proven that some peoples are destined for greatness, if they are allowed to triumph over those who stand in their way.
It will be a darker, far more divided and frightening world if this logic prevails. It is time to recognise what Israel represents, and how it does not offer solutions – only far greater problems.
Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001.He is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict