What States Are Made Of

I can see no reason in principle why an ethnostate cannot be a democracy; the devil is in the details.

What States Are Made Of
FYI: this is not really how you make a nation-state

I am clearly doomed to keep writing about this subject in perpetuity, but here I want to say something about this essay from Freddie deBoer, who is one of the smartest left-wing writers around.

There are some characteristically fine points here throughout, but I think the central thesis of the essay is mistaken, though it is mistaken in a way that reflects fairly common assumptions about the modern state. His main argument in a nutshell is that Israel’s status as an ethnostate—that is, a state dedicated to protecting and advancing the interests of a particular ethnic group (in this case, Jews)—is in tension with its claim to be a liberal democracy.

This argument echoes the one made by the liberal (and Jewish) public intellectual Tony Judt some two decades ago: that Israel is a kind of anachronism, having frozen the conditions prevalent at the time of its creation, in which states represented distinctive peoples at the exclusion of others. (For Judt, it was not incidental that these were also the conditions associated with the great power wars of the first half of the 20th century.) Judt’s conclusion—like Freddie’s—is that Israel must dissolve its Jewish self-definition in order to remain a liberal democracy, in conjunction with incorporating some greater number of Palestinians into its citizenry.

Freddie is quite right about Israel’s status as an ethnonationalist state, and about the kind of cognitive dissonance this imposes on its liberal (particularly non-Israeli) Jewish defenders. This status isn’t absolute of course—about 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arab, along with another ~5%... miscellaneous, as The SimpsonsReverend Lovejoy would put it. But it remains the Jewish state, and its majority enjoys certain prerogatives (though also certain obligations) that others do not.

The matter is that I can see no reason in principle why an ethnostate cannot be a democracy; the devil is in the details. Quick ‘Democracy 101’ recap: every democratic government on earth (as well as not a few non-democratic ones), claims to derive its legitimate authority from the people. One way or another, the machinery of government is authorized by the collective body of citizens, aka “the people.” This is also known as “popular sovereignty.” As there is no a priori way of determining what sort of body that will be, you can have a basically civic understanding of it, in which citizens are primarily bound by their living under common laws (e.g., the United States) or a more ethnic one, in which they also enjoy the bonds of a common pre-political ethnicity and way of life (e.g., Japan). One is not necessarily more “legitimate” than the other. And of course even civic nations are going to end up wanting to define themselves in some more specific way than “a random bunch of individuals who happen to reside on a shared territory while claiming similar rights and prerogatives,” etc. Thus, non-Americans have a perhaps-cliched but still reasonably robust idea of what Americans are like.

Conversely, even ethnostates are a kind of imagined community (in the case of Israel, imagining that the descendants of both Iraqi and Polish Jews ultimately share more in common than not—or at least enough to enjoy common citizenship in a state dedicated to that shared identity).

One can say of course (as Freddie does) that ethnic identities are in conflict with the universalist premises of modern liberal democracies, in a way that civic nations aren’t, but I don’t think this is right. If they are to function at all, even civic nations founded on universalist claims still have to make particular discriminations in ways that can seem historically arbitrary. For example, if you trace your family back to the mid-19th century American Southwest, then whether you are today a citizen of the United States or Mexico will have a lot to do with which side of various lines your ancestors found themselves at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. And I am not even getting into all the inevitable ways that civic nations fail to live up to their universalist claims in practice—slavery and institutionalized racial hierarchies plus the general treatment of the First Nations being just the most egregious ones in the U.S. case.

Today, the most obvious sticking point here is immigration, in which our universalist premises (all people are endowed with inalienable rights, and in principle any of them could be or become a U.S. citizen) conflict with reality (there is no practical way the United States can either guarantee those rights to non-citizens abroad or just allow billions of people to immigrate so that they can enjoy that guarantee at home). Now the differences between types of nations is not negligible, but in both principle and practice, all democratic citizenship necessarily involves hard choices about borders, and population, and so on. Refusing to adopt an ethnic identity doesn’t change that. To reply more directly to Freddie’s argument: the tension between the universal and the particular is inherent in modern democratic political life, and you cannot resolve it by becoming the “right kind” of democracy.

Similarly, there is no essential virtue (or lack thereof) in being a civic or an ethnic nation. Japan was as ethnic nation throughout the 1930s, during which time much of its conduct was frankly terrifying, but it has been no less an ethnic nation since 1945, when it has emerged as peaceable and civilized a country as exists in the world. Conversely, the civic nationalism of the United States has not prevented it from spending more years engaged in war or “military operations” than not for nearly a century. And of course, a great deal of these discussions of the superiority of civic over ethnic nationalism tend to be conducted by…citizens of civic nations. It all reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke: sure, my brain is the most important organ in my body, but look what’s telling me that!

Now, it must be said that these labels of “civic” and “ethnic” are ideal types, and in practice things inevitably get messier. Such is life. So the reality of even ethnic peoplehood is rarely binary, but rather exhibits what we might call clinal variation. Italians, for example, are not all one thing (hence tourists enjoy the variety between the Alpine Dolomites and the Mediterranean coasts), but they are also not just anything under the sun (hence Lecce still has more in common with Turin than either do with Hanoi). On top of this, within all kinds of nations, there is a good deal of historical randomness and drift. For example, there is no necessary reason why Houston has the largest population of Nigerians and Washington, DC the largest population of Ethiopians (respectively) in America, but they do.

It is because of this basic messiness in the majority of instances that Israel's situation may appear unique, when in fact it’s just more starkly apparent in Israel’s case. It's true that relatively few countries have written their ethnic status into their constitutions, and yet we and they possess a certain understanding of countries like Ireland, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, et very much cetera existing for their eponymous peoples.

Now, many countries for situational reasons do not much need to put that national identity to the test, thus the particular character of their nationalism remains more tacit than explicit. It is only with the substantial rise in human migration that began to take place after 1945, that such tests have seriously emerged. Which is not to say that ethnic nationalism cannot accommodate any immigration of outsiders. When it comes to any of this, as the much-maligned Enoch Powell put it, “numbers are of the essence.” This point I think is unavoidable. For example, every year the kinds of people who care about such things release their lists of Paris’ finest boulangeries, and one now routinely finds bakers of Algerian or Vietnamese descent at or around the top. I think only a raving chauvinist could possibly be upset by this, and the attitude of the average person—and even the average Frenchman—would be to happily frequent any establishment that produced delicious crusty baguettes, regardless of the provenance of its owner.

On the other hand, one would not have to be such a chauvinist to look at this picture and think there’s something happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you? I refer specifically not to the protests themselves, which are as French as berets and Comte cheese (yes, even violent ones), but to the demonstrated attachment to foreign national and religious causes. Moreover, while there is plenty of universal sympathy for the Palestinian cause on both radical and humanitarian grounds, this exhibits something more particular: support for a specific cause by co-ethnics and co-religionists residing in France, whose passion for that cause exceeds any loyalty they might have to the French state itself, and even extends in many cases to violent opposition to it. (This is compounded by the ongoing threat this population has posed to French Jews, operating on similarly tribal logic.)

Now, this is all complicated in the French case by the fact of their own universalist tradition. After all, they had their own revolution and their own universal declaration of rights. And if you don’t think they mean it, just go visit their Pantheon in Paris, where Toussaint L’Ouverture enjoys full honors for his role in applying the cause of the revolution to Haiti—notwithstanding the fact that in practice that meant killing quite a lot of Frenchmen(!).

Nonetheless, I think in the end that there is an essential Frenchness—francité—that is not reducible to an idea. I have been to and quite love France, and yet I am always conscious of my not being French, while Parisians and Bordelais and Provençals somehow all are; as Rebecca West said of her diverse Yugoslav friends, they “are all cut from the same primary stuff, though in very dissimilar shapes.” And I know all this, even as I know very well that la France éternelle is hardly eternal but instead an historical creation—indeed a surprisingly recent one. As Eugene Weber famously argued, as late as 1900 only half the population residing in France itself actually spoke French.

And yet, there is just a certain quality or qualities that are distinctively French, and while ten men of whatever original nationality can be readily incorporated into the overall compound, a million probably cannot. Similarly, while I suspect many of us liberals would insist that one could somehow totally replace the extant population of France with French-speaking others from around the world—Ship of Theseus-style—and it would still be France, I also suspect that deep down they are lying to themselves. And by the way this same logic inevitably applies just as well in reverse. Almost nobody really believes the British sahibs were, in the end, “Indian,” even if it were just about the only country many of them had ever known. Paul Scott’s marvelous Staying On offers a poignant depiction of one couple coming to terms with that reality. This was not a political problem under the undemocratic management of the imperial Raj, but in the age of nations, things are rather different.

What Is to Be Done

What does any of this mean for Israel and Palestine? Nothing necessarily, for the simple reason that this is in many ways a practical more than a theoretical problem. I bring up all of the above, however, to illustrate that a) contrary to widespread opinion, ethnic nationalism is perfectly compatible with democracy, and b) because of the plausible claims that ethnic groups have to stand in for the “people,” any attempt to merge robust group identities into a common civic democratic body is going to face real practical challenges.

As for bi-nationalism, it too can certainly be done, but again the devil is in the details. Canada’s experience with it has been not without its difficulties, including a secession crisis in the mid-90s, and its own versions of terrorism and an official state of emergency in the 70s. And incidentally, while Canada’s current population is approximately 2.75 times that of the combined population of Israel and Palestine, its surface area is something like 450 times larger (no, I don’t understand how they managed to create a housing crisis, either).

In the end Freddie acknowledges the real obstacles here with his heavily qualified position: “I think the obvious (if incredibly difficult) solution is for Israelis and Palestinians to share the land of Canaan with an absolute commitment to peace and absolute political and legal equality.” Well. This reminds me rather of the political philosopher Jeremy Waldron’s critique of (another political philosopher) John Rawls: his project is primarily concerned with the question ‘What would institutions look like if they were designed by people who were already agreed on a set of principles of justice?”

In other words, yes, one can imagine a binational or multinational state in the Levant that accommodated Jewish life along with other ways of life—indeed, such a thing was imagined by some early Zionists like Ahad Ha’am. The matter, of course, is that this also requires mutual toleration and respect for the rule of law as a condition and not just the effect of such an arrangement. It is true for example that we have in principle such an arrangement here, but the United States (and this goes for nearly all of today’s most multicultural/multiethnic states) was not in practice founded as a multicultural utopia. And indeed, its founders worried a great deal about the ability of the nascent republic to accommodate diverse peoples and that the arrival of increasingly foreign types would unduly strain the bonds of civic harmony.

Meanwhile, one can say with reason that this is ultimately just a matter of prejudice. But to return to the obvious obstacles with the one-state option, the central problem is one of trust—viz. trust that your elected leaders possess a reasonable claim to represent you and your interests, as well as trust that your fellow citizens are playing by the rules of the game and not employing legitimate political mechanisms on behalf of exclusive tribal goals. Even before the attacks of 10/7, it is pretty clear that there was something less than a surfeit of the mutual trust that’s pretty much a prerequisite of any sort of binational settlement. Needless to say, a great deal hinges on these conditions, and my strong impression is that none of the advocates for this solution have really worked out how to get there from here.

Here I should emphasize that the Palestinians too are humans with agency, and though they have far fewer capabilities than the Israelis (hence part of the reason that so much commentary focuses on what the Israelis could or should do to alleviate this situation), their assent is surely a necessary component of any binational solution. And here I find many of the proposals issued by well-meaning liberal, Western types to be curiously heartless—heartless insofar as they evince little interest in the preferences of actual Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. Such proposals tend mainly to flatter the cosmopolitan sensibilities of those doing the issuing. (The word for this, by the way, is "imperialism.")

As it happens, there is little evidence of widespread Palestinian enthusiasm for a durable binational solution to their present situation. This should surprise no one who thinks about it for a moment. The decades of suffering and homelessness—beginning with the Nakba itself—enshrined within Palestinian nationalism can only be vindicated by a redemptive moment of reconquest. And as that moment recedes further into the future, how much less willing will people be to accept less, especially as their numbers only continue to grow?

How can the dull and unsatisfying reality of compromise compare to the promise held out by “the river to the sea”? How will both Israelis (a designation that presently includes Israeli Arabs) and Palestinians manage the problem of economic inequality—something that bedevils even otherwise homogenous societies? And how will they contain future political and ethnic factionalism in such a way as to avoid the terrible experiences of Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s (events that, if we’re being honest, continue to the present day)?

This is not to say that there aren’t some Palestinians (both in the Territories and elsewhere) who sincerely hope for a binational solution (and the same is true of both Jews and Israelis); it is just that theirs isn’t the wish that will likely carry the day. I am not even saying that this is because they constitute a minority (though they do); I am saying this because even if they were to constitute a majority across both societies, a dedicated minority of holdouts is sufficient to act as spoilers. And, to be clear, the the Israeli settlers also have among them plenty of candidates for potential spoilers.

I have returned time and again to the Israel-Palestine issue, both because it attracts no small amount of attention already and because it so clearly reveals the basic contours of our dilemma with nationalism; the issue itself, with all its sturm und drang only appears unique. The compressed timespan (within that of a single human life) and the constricted geography (about the surface area of the state of New Jersey) in which so many of the key events have taken place allow it to function as a kind of high-pressure laboratory in which we may observe general processes of state and nation-building.

We want, I think, a clear theoretical blueprint for an equitable settlement in cases like these, but no such thing exists, because—as I said above—the tensions in the modern state are inherent. As for how they work out in practice, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes: time, chance, and geography happeneth to them all.