Bibi’s nation-state

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

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