Zionism and the Nation-State

Palestinians Are Not the Only Victims

In “Memory Voids and Role Reversals,” Palestinian political science professor Dana El Kurd writes of her jarring experience, hearing of the October 7th massacres by Hamas while visiting the Holocaust Tower at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. She notes the historic irony of Holocaust survivors seeking security from future oppression by expelling another people from their homeland by the hundreds of thousands, ghettoizing them in enclaves enforced by military checkpoints, and controlling them with collective punishment.

The irony of a state formed as the “antithesis” to the ghetto using ghettoization as a strategy of control is not lost on Palestinians. This infrastructure of coercion went hand in hand, of course, with ever-present physical violence — imprisonment, home demolitions, air strikes and more.

She quotes Aristide Zolberg’s observation that “formation of a new state can be a ‘refugee-generating process.’”

This is not only true of Palestinians. The Westphalian nation-state, which has been the normative component of the international system since the Treaty of Westphalia, necessarily entails (especially since the post-1789 identification of nationalism with the nation-state) the suppression of ethnic identity to a far greater extent than the expression of any such identity. Every constructed national identity associated with a “State of the X People” has necessarily involved the suppression and homogenization of countless ethnicities present in the territory claimed by that state. At the time of the French Revolution, barely half the “French” population spoke any of the many langue d’oil dialects of northern France, let alone the dialect of the Ile de France (the basis for the official “French” language). The rest spoke Occitan dialects like Provençal, or non-Romance languages like Breton (whose closest living relative is Welsh). The same is true of Catalan, Aragonese, Basque, and Galician in Spain, the low-German languages and now-extinct Wendish in Germany, the non-Javanese ethnicities of Indonesia, and so on. Heads of state issue sonorous pronouncements concerning the “Nigerian People” or “Zimbabwean People,” in reference to multi-ethnic populations whose entire “identity” centers on lines drawn on a map at the Berlin Conference.

When I say official national languages were established through the suppression of their rivals, I mean things like the residential schools of the United States and Canada punishing Native children for using their own languages. Or schools around the world shaming students with signs reading “I Spoke Welsh (or Breton, or Provencal, or Catalan, or Basque, or Ainu, or an African vernacular instead of the English, French, etc., lingua franca). And so on.

And when we consider the range of artificial national identities that were constructed by suppressing other real ethnicities, we can’t forget the “Jewish People” of Israel. Its construction occurred part and parcel with the suppression of diasporic Jewish ethnic identities all over Europe and the Middle East. The “New Jewish” identity constructed by modern Zionism was associated with the artificial revival of Hebrew, which had been almost entirely a liturgical language for 2300 years, as an official national language. And this, in turn, was associated with the suppression — both official and unofficial — of the actually existing Jewish ethnicities associated with the Yiddish, Ladino, and Arabic languages.

The centuries-old languages and cultures of actual Jewish ethnicities throughout Europe were treated as shameful relics of the past, to be submerged and amalgamated into a new artificially constructed Jewish identity centered on the Hebrew language. 

Yiddish, the language spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe — derived from an archaic German dialect and written in the Hebrew alphabet — was stigmatized by Zionist leaders in Palestine and by the early Israeli government. According to Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language, the “very making of Hebrew into a spoken language derives from the will to separate from the Diaspora.” Diasporic Jewish identities, as viewed by Zionist settlers, were “a cultural morass to be purged.” The “New Jew” was an idealized superhuman construct, almost completely divorced from centuries worth of culture and traditions of actual Jews: “Yiddish began to represent diaspora and feebleness, said linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann. ‘And Zionists wanted to be Dionysian: wild, strong, muscular and independent.’” 

This “contempt for the Diaspora” was “manifested . . .  in the fierce campaign against Yiddish in Palestine, which led not only to the banning of Yiddish newspapers and theaters but even to physical attacks against Yiddish speakers.” From the 1920s on, anyone in Palestine with the temerity to publish in Yiddish risked having their printing press destroyed by organizations with names like the “Battalion of the Defenders of the Hebrew Language,” “Organization for the Enforcement of Hebrew,” and “Central Council for the Enforcement of Hebrew.” The showing of the Yiddish-language film Mayn Yidishe Mame (“My Yiddish Mama”), in Tel Aviv in 1930, provoked a riot led by the above-mentioned Battalion. After the foundation of Israel, “every immigrant was required to study Hebrew and often to adopt a Hebrew surname.” In its early days Israel legally prohibited plays and periodicals in the Yiddish language. A recent defender of the early suppression of Yiddish, in the Jerusalem Post, argued that Diasporic languages threatened to “undermine the Zionist project”; in other words, an admission that actually existing ethnic identities threatened an identity manufactured by a nationalist ideology.

If this is true of Yiddish — the native language of the Ashkenazi Jews who dominated the Zionist settlement of Palestine — it’s even more so of the suppression of Jewish ethnic identities outside the dominant Sephardic minority. Golda Meir once dismissed Jews of non-Ashkenazi or non-Yiddish descent as “not Jews.” 

Consider the roughly half of the Israeli population comprised of Mizrahi Jews from Middle Eastern communities (including those living in Palestine itself before European settlement). Although the Mizrahim are trotted out as worthy victims when they are convenient for purposes of Israeli propaganda — the majority of them were expelled from Arab countries like Iraq after 1948, in what was an undeniable atrocity — they are treated the rest of the time as an embarrassment or a joke, and have been heavily discriminated against, by the descendants of Ashkenazi settlers. For example former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion described Mizrahim 

as lacking even “the most elementary knowledge” and “without a trace of Jewish or human education.” Ben Gurion repeatedly expressed contempt for the culture of the Oriental Jews: “We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are in duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve the authentic Jewish values as they crystallized in the Diaspora.”

Current Prime Minister Netanyahu once joked about a “Mizrahi gene” as his excuse for tardiness. And an Israeli realtor ran a commercial appealing to “there goes the neighborhood” sentiments by depicting a light-skinned family having their Passover celebration disrupted by uncouth Mizrahi neighbors.

Nationalism and the nation-state are the enemies of true ethnicity and culture, and built on their graves. There’s no better illustration of this principle than the Zionist project itself.

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