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Hussein Ibish

Fetishizing nationalism

For those in the grip of its authority, a clearheaded understanding of how nationalist ideology actually operates seems extremely difficult.

All contemporary nationalisms are based on constructed and imagined narratives about history, geography, culture, ethnicity and religion.

Such narratives invariably involve a great deal of what can only be described as fiction. In particular, reading the past—whether real or imagined—as a justification for present-day political projects is, by definition, intellectually treacherous territory.

Last week I wrote about a new book tracing the history of Palestinian traditional dress in which I ruminated on the development of contemporary Palestinian national identity. Only a lingering degree of naïveté can account for my genuine surprise at the outpouring of outrage the column produced. I haven't written anything this controversial in years, though all I did was assert that a new book helps demonstrate that Palestinian nationalism—while a contemporary, 20th-century phenomenon—is deeply rooted in broader Arab and ancient traditions and civilizations, and has its own distinctive cultural styles.

I had not taken into account the existential need some nationalists have to deny every aspect of a rival's authenticity. The pro-Israel voices objecting to these virtually self-evident observations seem unconcerned with defending the Israeli national identity, but obsessed with attacking the invocation of any heritage or tradition on which Palestinian nationalism can draw.

The impulse to negate the other seems overwhelming. It appears much more powerful than any imperative to define, defend or interrogate one's own nationalist identity, which is taken for granted.

These critics assume all aspects of Jewish and biblical Hebrew mythology, traditions and history automatically legitimize the Israeli national project. However, such claims were highly controversial among the Jews of the world for many decades, and are again being subjected to significant interrogation.

The traditional Zionist narrative holds that only the present-day Jews of the world are the genetic, religious and cultural heirs of the biblical Hebrews and ancient peoples of the “holy land.” Everyone else is a Johnny-come-lately at best, with the Palestinians usually ascribed no deeper origins than the arrival of Islam in the area (a mere 1,200 years ago)—and in many cases much less than that. The idea that they too, and perhaps even more than Jewish Europeans, might have genetic, ethnic and cultural ties to the ancient and biblical peoples of the land—including the ancient Hebrews—has been rarely considered.

In the decades immediately preceding 1948, the word “Israeli” was totally unknown and meant nothing, and the word "Palestinian” meant many things, but certainly not what it means today. Both of these national identities—the Jewish Israeli and the Arab Palestinian—are contemporary constructs born of recent history. They are largely grounded in their encounter with each other. They also embody deep cultural memories, traditions, myths, legends and tendentious narratives that at least to some extent retrofit the past to privilege their own national projects.

But all of this is entirely beside the point. Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli national identity is more or less "authentic" or “legitimate” than the other because both are self-defined nationalisms adhered to by millions of people. The extent to which they are based on imaginary constructs—as all modern national ideologies ultimately prove largely to be—is meaningless in practice. Objecting to these mythologies is the political equivalent of complaining about the rain.

Systematized discrimination or exclusion is, of course, unacceptable for any decent society. But modernity dictates a healthy respect for both the human rights of individuals inherent to their status as human beings and the rights of self-defining national collectivities to self-determination. Contemporary political and national identities, including the Israeli and Palestinian, are invariably based on a confused mélange of myth, legend and history. But that is politically irrelevant. They are what they are, say what we will.

The deployment of myth, legend, history and tradition in the service of contemporary and modern national projects is, at least at a certain register, intellectually and philosophically invalid. Yet nationalist agendas can help people secure their individual and collective rights, achieve self-determination, overthrow colonial domination and serve other useful purposes.

Indeed, no sizable group of people can function successfully in the world of modernity without participating in some national structure.

Hence the urgent need to end the virtually unique statelessness of the Palestinians, who are not citizens of Israel or any other country.

The analytical challenge is to recognize that while not all nationalist claims are necessarily equally valid (they may speak on behalf of very few people, for example, and not really have the constituency they claim), in some important senses they are, however, all equally invalid. Championing one's own nationalism as self-evidently “authentic” at the expense of a well-established, deeply-rooted and much-cherished rival identity is a particularly lowly form of self-delusion, chauvinism and fetishism.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • ali daoud

    NN, what truce between 195 and 1975? seems you lack lot of info as well as lack of national dignity! back in 1948 and 1949 israel committed lot of mascares against HELPLESS villages in south Lebanon, back in 1968 israel bombed the HELPLESS International Airport in Beirut destroying thirteen passenger planes. seems truce means complete surrender by your means, unless you only care about the number of tourists in Lebanese Night Clubs!

    August 22, 2011

  • NN

    misaacm... if we had lost the war as us said... then palestinians in lebanon would have been called lebanese... so far they are still living in camps and called palestinians ;) ... and you're welcome to join them... Majd... the golden age of lebanon was between 1945 and 1975.. it was the period when we had truce with israel... before the palestinians burnt lebanon... so why not try it again ????

    August 22, 2011

  • ali daoud

    Hassan, the Palestinians will never reach something tangible through negotiations, meen jarrab lemjarrab bkoon 3a2lo mkharrab, israel will never compromise on one house in East Jerusalem if not by force, not one building in one settlement in west bank, so we should base our strategies and tactics based on that principle, and that will lead us to be prepared more and more for war. israel will never negotiate with a palestinian who is ready to compromise more than mahmoud Abbas, and yet they failed. about Iran, iran is doing its best, iran is helping the palestinians and the Lebanese who are willing to resist israel, what should iran do more?! iran is doing so at time most arabs are fighting the resistance, should iran fihgt a direct war for some to acknowledge its important role? at the end, we arabs should do the job, it`s our job, and iran has the duty to support us not to do our job, and iran is bearing a high burden for its support, the blocade iran is facing is not easy to cope wit

    August 21, 2011

  • Hassan

    Majoud.. I agree with you. It took a long time to come on agreement on Statehood. This of course is not finalized yet. Still things may change from one day to another. And yes they did drag them, settlements etc. all that I agree with you. But if in 42 some powerful countries decided on that and had an agreement. By then we couldn’t do anything except to get Palestine by war and no one did. Well they tried allegedly. Who knows, may be in this agreement expired. Because all of the sudden they started talking about statehood in 2010. The Palestinians waited for the Arabs and Iran who promised to make them vanish from earth but they didn’t do anything. The Palestinians decided something is better than nothing. Good for them. But don’t just blame the US; there is Britain, Russia and others.

    August 21, 2011

  • leo

    I wonder if they get the fertilizers from majd he's one of the largest distributors.

    August 20, 2011

  • ali daoud

    to all smart fellows, all those shiite, sunni, maronites and druze living in Dearborn or Toledo or Denver have settled there legally, peacefully, and without sophisticating others land and houses. if israelis want to live in peace, they only have to return back to their true homes in America, europe, australia, and africa, Palestine is for the Palestinians.

    August 20, 2011

  • ali daoud

    Hassan, the issue is not that i love Palestine more than the Palestinians, sure not, hassoun, issue is israel itself will not let us live in peace, israel is a nation that is nourrished through wars and aggression, the problem is israel not us, are you here to blame the victims?! take the example of palestinians, for how long should they negotiate in order to have a state that enjoys nothing but the name?! israel is dragging palestinians from one retreat to another, from one agreement to a lesser one, even those who bet on a peace with israel have already discovered there is no way to reach peace with israel, and if any one is now talking about peace with israel that person would be one of those who never cared about Palestine or the palestinians. where is Abbas now?! could anyone even those pro-american palestinians talk about real peace now? please show it to me. habibi, israel understands nothing but force, our prisonners stayed for 30 years in israel, we had them back by force.

    August 20, 2011

  • Hassan

    Majd.. I never said peace, I always use the word treaty where you can negotiate major issues then decide on a peace. And why impossible? Are you trying to tell me that you love Palestine more than the Palestinians who finally accepted statehood? Even your Bashar was ready for negotiations. Do you think in 81 Iran didn’t negotiate with Israel on how much they will pay for the weapons shipped to Iran. I agree with you, the Jews were treated well by the Arabs in Spain although some were forced to convert or expelled. But that’s not why they managed to stay. They stayed because of Moses. They believe in God and they believe in the last day (Read Sura Al-Imran). Nothing is impossible, and it is the best solution to start a treaty with Israel, know our borders, and be protected. We will then focus on internal issues. And to MN, I agree completely with you. Many should just leave us alone.

    August 20, 2011

  • misaac

    I have a name for descendants of the people who fled the Arab attack on Israel in 1948 and settled in Lebanon over 60 years ago; Lebanese. In the US, we have a name for Arabs who have lived here for 60+ years; US citizens. You lost the war, move on.

    August 19, 2011

  • Abbas son of Mo

    Answering majd would you tell this to the Shiite settlers in Dearborn MI. majd pack your family and leave.

    August 19, 2011

  • ali daoud

    hassan, peace is impossible with israel, you cannot build peace based on sophisticating others land, the only solution is for israelis who originate from europe and america and africa to go back there, therefore, the Resistance is a must. it`s not an issue of hate, it`s a principle, why should Arabs accept israel`s occupation and aggression? remember, during the old days, jews used to be harrassed in europe and it was when Muslims ruled spain that jews lived there in peace. even in palestine, how did the jews manage to stay all these years hadn`t the Muslims been good ot them?

    August 19, 2011

  • NN

    hassan it would be great if palestinians could go back... actually it would be great if they only just left lebanon ... as for the hate... well i respect palestinians in palestine... but palestinains in lebanon are simply terrorsts who killed lebanese... they came as refugees and then wanted to kick the christians out to take their land (remember the: tarik al kouds tamourrou fi jounieh..?).. instead we kicked their ... ;) ... our recations against them were self defense after they went over their borders... and Sabra & chatila should have been in all camps... what the israelis did to you in the south and beirut...palestinians and syrians did to us in our regions... so the point here is leave feelings behind and think of your country's interest... israel, syria palestine are all the same...let's treat them the same...I do not give a ... about the palestinian israelei conflict... i want to get out of it... and let them ... each other for all i care...

    August 19, 2011

  • Hassan

    I can’t believe there is this strong hate based on religion or even sect. I hate because you are ruthless and not because your Buddhist or other. The Palestinians should make decisions and not us. We should be happy for them and respect their decision and wish them luck with the new statehood. If we are going to go back in History, we are going no where. Who cares what they were called. I am Lebanese now and not a Phenecian. We must put all that behind us and start with what’s given and improve things. I am not asking for heaven on earth, naturally, there is always going to be wicked people. A treaty with Israel is a great concept. No resistance is required. Although I mentioned not to go back to the past but I believe a good example is when The Muslims sought refuge in Habasha, on the Prophet’s request, and were provided asylum by the Christians.

    August 19, 2011

  • ali daoud

    how sad! you see, had those dead israelis today been living in New York or Russia or Poland or Ethiopia, they would have been enjoying summer these days, well, they chose to come and settle in others land and they paid the reasonnable price.

    August 18, 2011

  • ali daoud

    NN, if you truly are a Lebanese, i can`t see how you see no reason not to have peace with israel, seems you are indifferent to all the atrocities and invasions and killings and masacres israel committed against your "fellow" Lebanese. any way, the israelis whose grandparents were born in Palestine could stay in Palestine, while those whose grandparents or themselves have migrated from europe and america and elsewhere, they all have to go back, Palestine if for the Palestinians, all other talk is bs.

    August 18, 2011

  • NN

    simply said... the people back in israel in the bible were NOT palestinians.. they were filistins... which is different than palestinains... the filistins were kananites... and there was peace between the land of kanan (byblos, Beryte...) and Israel,, they were allies that king soleiman built the ceiling of its temple from cedar wood bough from Lebanon... palestinians on the other hand were tribes brought from the arab peninsula by the Iberian Roman general Palestino... and who gave them the land of israel to settle down in after kicking out the Jews... so historically the land is for Israel... I am lebanese and convinced that peace is a must and needs to be done ... except for syria interference and palestinian presence there is no reason why lebanon and israel cannot have peace... the syria reason will soon be gone... the palestinian reason.... well i guess a deal can be made with KSA or EGYPT or Jordan to move them there... cheers for peace...

    August 17, 2011

  • wilypagan

    We all know that the filistinis have been around since King David used his slingshot to down one. The problem with the filistinis is that they have been brought up to hate the Jews and to believe that they are entitled to unending handouts from the world while they do nothing to improve their own lives. If filistini rule is so great, why did Gaza turn into a backward, 7th century hellhole, where women are oppressed after the IDF left. The real question is whatever happened to good old Arab hospitality? Egypt and Jordan should take their "brothers" in. That is not happening because no one wants a bunch of lazy haters run amock. You really think "statehood" will change anything? Whatever you have, keep smoking it.

    August 16, 2011