Archive for February, 2014

Bibi’s nation-state

February 23, 2014

Once again we hear that the so-called peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have stalled over some intransigent demand by one side or the other. This time it’s Bibi Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “the Jewish nation-state.”

A demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not unreasonable, if Jewish is meant as an ethnic and not a religious designation (I’ve discussed this recently), analogous to Arab. All of Israel’s neighbors are, explicitly or implicitly, Arab states: all are members of the Arab League, and Egypt and Syria both have Arab Republic as part of their official names, though both have significant non-Arab minorities (Copts and Nubians in Egypt, Assyrians and Kurds in Syria).

The problem is that Bibi can’t have it both ways: Israel can’t be simultaneously a Jewish state and a nation-state. The concept of nation-state is a Western one, originating with the French revolution; it is based on the definition by Abbé Sieyès, the Revolution’s premier theoretician, of the nation as “a legal entity (personne juridique) constituted by all the individuals constituting the state.” In the purest model, represented by France, “it is repugnant for there to be a society of non-citizens within the state, and a nation within the nation” (Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre). In Corsica one often finds posters and graffiti proclaiming the nationhood of Corsica, as seen below, but the notion they represent is taboo in official French discourse. Even a reference to “the Corsican people” (le peuple corse) was enough to make the Socialist politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement resign from the government of Lionel Jospin.


Other Western nation-states don’t necessarily follow the strict French model. While in the United States’ Pledge of Allegiance proclaims “one nation, indivisible,” several indigenous tribes are still called “nations,” as are the First Nations of Canada (where Quebec also claims nation status within the Canadian nation). Most notably, in the United Kingdom, home of the British nation, the constituent members (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) also house their respective nations (the Home Nations). If an institution based in, say, Cardiff or Edinburgh is called national, it can be assumed that the reference is to Wales or Scotland. But with London-based institutions (the National Gallery, for example) one can’t be sure. London has been home to both the British National Opera Company (in the past) and the English National Opera (at present).  The Home Nations compete individually in international soccer, but only the British nation is allowed in the Olympic Games (which are, not by coincidence, a French creation).

None of this applies to Israel. There is no such thing as the Israeli nation, and hardly any Israel-wide institutions are called national. While the central bank of Israel was once called the National Bank of Israel, this was in the early days of the state, and it was soon replaced by the Bank of Israel (the National Bank, or Bank Leumi, has remained as a private bank). Israel is not a nation-state but, as I have explained before, a national state, that is, the “national homeland” (or one of several such homelands) of an ethnic nation, whose members usually form a majority but not the totality of the state’s citizens; the remainder belong to one or more national minorities (or minority nationalities), each of which may, in turn, be a part of an ethnic nation having its homeland elsewhere.

The Balfour Declaration promised Britain’s “best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of” … “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” but recognized “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Such a state — one occupied by a primary nation but with recognized national minorities that are defined culturally and not territorially — is in fact the norm to the east of what I have called the Seipel line.

In many cases the term for citizens of a national state is the same as for the members as its primary ethnic nation, and therefore the qualifier ethnic is generally used in English for the latter; we therefore speak of ethnic Hungarians, ethnic Germans and so on in, for example, Slovakia or Romania. Sometimes the language provides variants that allow for the distinction explicitly; we can thus speak of Croatians (citizens of Croatia) and Croats (members of the Croat ethnicity who may be citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria, Slovenia etc.). Most conveniently, the designations of  a state’s citizens and of the members of its primary nation are different, as with Iranian and Persian, Chinese and Han, and, of course, Israeli and Jew.

None of this, in turn, applies to Western nation-states. Nobody refers to the Romands of Switzerland, the Valdôtains of Italy or the Walloons of Belgium as ethnic French. While the German-speakers of Switzerland form a numerical majority (two-thirds to three-quarters), the other language communities are by no means national minorities; all citizens belong to the Swiss nation on an equal footing.

Bibi Netanyahu got much of his education in the West, the United States to be specific, but doesn’t seem to have studied any history or political science. He needs to learn that Israel may be a Jewish state but is in no way a nation-state

The y-word

February 19, 2014

There is a curious, if incomplete, parallelism between the words yid and nigger. In both cases, their use as an exonym is pejorative, while use as an endonym (or autonym) is acceptable. English-speaking Jews don’t normally refer to themselves as “yids” when speaking ordinary (“parastandard“) English, but they often do so when speaking Yinglish (as defined here and not in Wikipedia), that is, English peppered with Yiddish words. By the same token, African-Americans are far more likely to use “nigger” when speaking AAVE (“Black English”) than when using the common language. In fact, in the latter case they are likely to overuse African-American, as when a black journalist was heard on the radio to refer to Nelson Mandela as “the first African-American president of South Africa.”

Until the 19th century, the words nigger and negro were interchangeable designations for (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) “a dark-skinned person of sub-Saharan African origin or descent.” The former was usually spelled niger, which is simply the Latin word for ‘black’; the second g seems to have been added around the end of the 18th century to maintain the Latin “short i“, that is, to ensure that the words rhymes with bigger and not with tiger.  The first unmistakably pejorative citation dates from about 1850. Negro (Spanish and Portuguese for ‘black’) remained the polite form until the mid-20th century. But while in most forms of English the two words have quite distinct sounds, in the vernacular of the Southern US negro comes out sounding like nigra and therefore differs only slightly from nigger (which may sound like nigga). Common usage in English therefore decided to forgo the Romance borrowings and stick to English terms like black or African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-British or even just plain African.

Yid is simply the Yiddish word for ‘Jew’. But this word is in turn derived from the German Jüde, not the standard Jude. Jüde is probably a back-formation from the derived forms jüdisch (‘Jewish’) and Jüdin (‘Jewess’). I have heard Jüde used in Bavaria (pronounced as though written Jid) with a distinctly pejorative tone, and in southern Germany only Jude is the polite variant; the Jewish streets there are called Judengasse or Judenstraße. In northern and central Germany, on the other hand, one finds frequent examples of Jüdenstraße (in Göttingen, for example) or Jüdengasse (in Naumburg, Altenburg and elsewhere), so that the pejorative connotation does not seem to have been there; otherwise the Jewish communities there would have insisted on a change. The Low German equivalents of Jude and Jüde are Jode and Jöde, respectively, and the Low German Wikipedia gives them as equivalent. On the other hand, the only (High) German references to Jüde are as a Middle High German form, belying its survival in street names to the present day. The Jewish Museum in Berlin houses a collection of signs designating Jewish streets in Germany, as seen in this picture.Juden

What seems mysterious is why Jews speaking Yiddish, which is closer to Bavarian than to any other German dialect, chose Jüde and not Jude as the etymon of their endonym. Perhaps in Middle High German (and even Early Modern German) one was no more pejorative than the other, just like negro and nigger until 1850.