Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Zionism: just ethnic nationalism

I often see Zionism being denounced, which puzzles me a little because Zionism, as far as I can make out, is just Jewish nationalism. I wonder why Zionism is attacked in particular, even by people who are open to other forms of ethnic nationalism. Norman Davies describes early Zionism in Europe: A History:

Political Zionism differed from other manifestations of European mainly in the fact that its sacred national soil lay outside Europe. Otherwise, it possessed all the characteristics of the other national movements of the day - a dedicated, visionary elite; a complex ideology based on nationalist interpretations of history and culture; a wide spectrum of political opinions; a mass clintele that still needed to be convinced; a full panoply of enemies; and, at the outset, no obvious chance of practical success.

The formation of ethnic nation states in Europe often involved war, forced migration and mass murder. The modern borders of Germany, for example, were decided by the victorious Allies at the end of World War II, and 12-14 million Germans were expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, USSR and other East European countries. Over 500,000 Germans were killed in the migrations, yet today there is little sympathy or controversy over these atrocities.

Some of these Germans were Nazi-era colonists established in Eastern Europe after Nazis ethnically-cleansed the region of native Slavs. Many others, though, were essentially natives, living on territory long belonging to Germany or Prussia:

Polish communist leader Władysław Gomułka supported the expulsion of Germans from Poland's new land on the grounds that 'countries are built on national lines and not multinational ones', and massive sections of German territory were seized and repopulated by Poles. New Germany would be greatly reduced in size.

The forced migration of Germans dwarfs the mass-migration of Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Casualties in European migrations were far greater than those in Palestine. Today, though, the various nationalisms of Poland, Russia, former Czechoslovakia and other countries are uncontroversial, while Zionism is highly controversial. I do not see outsiders complain about Polish or Czech imperialism, I do hear this about Israel

Perhaps a more useful discussion would explore Zionism in terms of ethnic nationalism instead of as a discrete movement. The idea that some kinds of ethnic nationalism are good while others are bad seems misleading.


  1. I guess Zionism has suffered through being looked with the conspiracy theory angle. From an ethnic nationalism angle it makes just as much sense as poland or bulgaria does.

  2. Perhaps, yes. Also the perception that Zionism involves Europeans seizing Asian land might be more emotive than conflicts between European Slavs and Germans. The former could play into a kind of simplistic imperialism narrative, seeming to be a continuation of centuries of European imperial aggression on non-European soil.

    I have been thinking lately about radical Irish nationalists who demand the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic. This, where it is pursued with terrorism, seems also to be a kind of imperialism as the Real IRA and other groups try to override the democratic will of the people with violence. Yet I've NEVER heard of it described in those terms! Often the British were portrayed as imperialists, the Irish nationalists as freedom fighters, as if British nationalism is less legitimate than Irish.

    ...Might have another post coming up on that soon :)

  3. Jews are not an ethnic group, they are a religious community. Ethnic groups are mono-racial.

  4. Well to a large extent ethnic groups are imagined, really. The British of today, for example, are mongrel descendents of Saxon, Angle, Celt, Jute, Roman and Norman, along with smaller groups of European immigrants. So ethnicity may have more to do with their abandonment of earlier cultures and gradual assimilation into a particular culture.

    I think Bosnian, Croat and Serb are usually considered one Slavic ethnicity, divided mainly by religion. So I don't really see that Jewish nationalism is much different. If you disagree, let me know why, thanks! :)

  5. I agree, ethnic groups are imagined. No one is born with a cultural idenity. It is a value they and society place on themselves. Our genes are not aware of borders, ideologies or political arrangements.

  6. A better comparison might be that the Jewish people -- who despite being genetically more diverse than some other ethnic groups, still share a cultural identity -- have no less of a right to desire or try to create a national homeland than, say, the "Palestinian" people -- a group lumped together by the world community and, since the formation of the PLO, by each other, despite comprising Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, and other sub-groups.

  7. You have to rembember that it was Stalins idea to move Poland from east to west. Poland gained a lot of land from Nazi germany but lost much more land in the east, including Lvov and Wilno which were polish cities. So Poland ruled by the Russia, in fact had nothing to say about losing vast pre-war territory in the east and lots polish people had to leave their homes to.

    Poland 1939

  8. You can compare how much land was taken from Poland and how much was given in 1945.

    We hear all the time about how many germans were forced to exile. But nobody speaks about Poles who were exilled from Polish territories and moved west.

  9. Hey thanks for the comment Michał! Ah well I'm not trying to pick on the Poles! Really the German example is just one of a great many I could have picked.

    "We hear all the time about how many germans were forced to exile."

    Interesting, I see you're based in Poland. Here (in Ireland) we almost never hear about the movement of borders and forced migrations after World War II. I think the general feeling is that Germans got what was coming to them. I've heard the argument that during and after WWII the atrocities of the USSR tended to be downplayed in the West to bolster support for a simplistic view of the conflict as "good" Allies versus "bad" Nazis.

  10. You can look at my blog but it's in polish. I suppose you don't know it :) But maybe i will switch to English soon.

    Another think about memory about WWII in the west is the fact that UK did nothing to help Poland in the end of war. Polish fighter pilots fought in the Battle for England(with big succes), Monte Cassino, Tobruk, Narvik, D-Day, Falaise, Market-Garden and many more. On the V-day in London Polish soldiers were even not allowed to march on the Victory Parade because Churchill didn't want to offend Stalin and his new "polish governament". Poland was left behind the iron curtain.


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