Building a Nation: America, Israel, and the Sins of History

Modern Israel suffers from the fact it started too late.

Israel, the Zionist project, was created as homeland for the Jewish people. Otherwise known as Israeli nationalism, it reflects the primary concept upon which modern international relations are built. Mostly homogenous populations in a given territory live within agreed upon borders.

There are messy points on the world map, but for the most part, the nation-state system has worked very well.

The messiest point, unfortunately, is Israel.

The problem with the nation-state system is that it was designed and enforced by the established powers of the world. These nations moved through a long evolution of subduing native populations, often by force. They forged borders through wars against the ‘other’, and instilled a master narrative of identity grounded in the togetherness of ‘us’.

Africa was outside this system, as its borders were drawn by colonial powers who exploited tribal identities. Once independent, these new nations rushed headlong into the effort to create a broader sense of nationalism. In some cases it worked, in others, it still does not even today.

More important with Israel, however, is the case of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans were an Islamic empire ruled by Turkish blood. They presided over a vast swath of land; to preserve their dominance they allowed local communities a great degree of self-rule. These were not on the whole territorially-defined communities, however, they were ethnic groups living here and there, often inter-mixed with the local population of whatever area they dwelled in. It was, especially in the cities, a diverse and cosmopolitan system. It was an empire, and it attracted businessmen and craftsmen from around the world.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire ushered in the already developing but not yet codified nation-state system. Following World War I the various ethnic communities lost their system of sponsorship, as newly freed lands adopted the ways of nationalism, stressing homogenous population.

The modern state of Turkey was attacked by Greece; having failed, Greeks in Turkey repatriated, and Turks in Greece did the same. This is also the era of the Armenian massacres; minority populations around the region suddenly found themselves without a home.

The unsettledness continued in the interwar period, and began afresh when regional states acquired greater degrees of independence following World War II. Nasser’s nationalism – well suited for displacing the last vestiges of British imperialism – also resulted in the exodus of Egypt’s Greeks and Jews. Egypt became for the Egyptians (Copts included) just as France was for the French and Germany for the Germans.

Egypt became like the nations of the world.

Israel, however, only began its national project at this time.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire emigration of Jews to Palestine increased steadily, as Zionism became a political concept. Aided by the horrors of the Holocaust, the world acceded to the concept of a Jewish homeland. Between the two world wars the tension of Jewish immigration was mitigated somewhat by colonial control. After WWII, however, the British wiped their hands of the problem and gave it to the United Nations.

The UN sought a partition plan, but amid Arab objections sanctioned Israel as a nation in 1948. It was only then that Israel could begin the process of entering the world system – crafting a mostly homogenous state in a given territory with agreed upon borders.

Only the territory was not homogenous – Arabs outnumbered Jews in the land as a whole. And today, post-1967, the territory has no agreed upon borders.

Though the nation-state system has been largely successful, this is why Israel is one of its messiest challenges.

The United States of America, meanwhile, is one of its top successes. Borders are well defined. There is little colonial baggage. Not only is the population mostly homogenous, but minorities within have adopted the overarching national narrative and identity. All are Americans, equal in rights and duties.

Except it is not true; the narrative blinds many to the historical reality of how America became a nation-state.

It is not true because Indians, Native Americans, can live within special jurisdictions scattered throughout the fifty states. This provision is part of assuaging the national guilt which systematically appropriated their lands for a rapidly growing native and immigrant population. Many Americans realize this, of course, but it is too late to change anything, and it is best not talked about much. Why bring up the sins of the past?

But with Israel, these are the sins of the present.

Americans might be able to ask themselves what they would have done differently if they lived in the days of Manifest Destiny and ‘Westward Ho!’ The moral compass presently lauded might have made a difference in securing justice for Native American peoples, if history could be revisited.

Israel is not America, of course. Americans have no right to lecture, let alone interfere, in Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Yet given the great groundswell of American support for Israel, especially among those who consider themselves moral, it is fair to ask if a review is in order.

Again, Israel suffers only from timing.

The United States and other great countries in the nation-state system were not hampered by thorny issues of human rights and UN resolutions. These countries formed their states far from the eye of a critical press and universal declarations. Today, reformed, they issue their moral pronouncements on the conduct of others.

Hypocrisy aside, Israel’s conduct is worthy of question. Israel proper, largely, can lay claim to having built its nation. Arabs will cry foul over the historical process of native displacement, but today Israel is a mostly homogenous population in a given territory. As such, it is a member in good standing of the international community.

Except for its borders.

In contravention to the rules of the international community, Israel maintains its firm control of the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. In contravention to the rules of the international community, Israel maintains its policy of transferring settlers into these territories and appropriating land.

Both Jews and Palestinians, as people, should have the right to a secure life and self-governance.

At issue is that the system of the nation-state has now outlawed the means of creating a nation. Israel is only imitating those who have gone before; perhaps Palestinians would do similarly if given the chance. Certainly some Arabs wish for the Jews to all go back to where they came from.

But for those watching of moral compass, these are the days of Manifest Destiny and ‘Westward Ho!’ If we can imagine what we would have done differently then, we must consider what we will do differently now.

Otherwise, history will repeat itself. Native Americans and Palestinians will weep together.

Note: This essay was written following the viewing of the documentary ‘With God on our Side’. Click here to watch a three minute clip from the film exposing the Separation Barrier. It was built ostensibly to prevent terrorism, and perhaps it did. Yet it was built not on the border, but on occupied territory, nudging the still-undefined boundaries of Israel further to the east. Produced mostly for Christians, the film is highly recommended.

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One reply on “Building a Nation: America, Israel, and the Sins of History”

Good entry. However, most people with a “moral compass” that I know back in our homeland would have no idea why this is analogous to the USA and Native Americans. There is a startling lack of knowledge that stands in the way of any moral/ethical reflection.


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