IT SOUNDS like an invented story. And indeed it is.
In this tale, an American politician gets up and declares: The United States was founded by British Protestants who were
persecuted in Europe for their Puritan beliefs. Therefore, the United States is an Anglo-Saxon Protestant state.
And he goes on: the United States is also a democratic state. Therefore, people with another background – such as Native
Americans, Africans, Latinos, Asians and Jews – enjoy full equality. But they must know that the United States is an
Anglo-Saxon nation-state, while they belong to other nation-states.
Sounds far-fetched? Indeed it is. No American politician would dream of uttering such a statement, even if he might feel
it in his heart.
Here in Israel one can say such a thing, and nobody gets excited.
THIS WEEK Tzipi Livni did just that. She was speaking to high-school pupils – the audience preferred by our politicians,
who know that the great majority of them are conformists who will listen to anything without protest. Standing in front
of these pupils, boys and girls, who will be called up by the army in a year or two, Tzipi disclosed her inner
Israel, she said, is a Jewish and democratic state. The Arab citizens enjoy full civil rights. But they must know that
this is the Jewish nation-state, while they belong to another nation, and their nation-state will be the putative
This statement did not arouse a storm, not on the spot and not in the media. It does not contradict the convictions of
most Israelis. The public accepts the view that Israel is a Jewish state, and that its Arab citizens are, at most, a
What is special about Tzipi Livni is her emphasis on the two words “nation state”. She has made them into her trademark
and repeats them at every opportunity. They give her statements a certain respectability, the halo of a thought-out
world-view, which makes her sound different from Ehud Olmert, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who, of course, think
exactly the same.
NO ONE denies that the world is divided into nation-states. The nearest thing we have to a world parliament is called
the “United Nations”, meaning “United Nation-States”. The question is only: what is a nation-state?
In historical terms, the nation-state is a relatively recent phenomenon. Only a hundred years ago, large parts of Europe
belonged to multi-national empires. It was the dynasty that united the empire, not the national identity of the
subjects. The Austrian Empire included people of more than a dozen nationalities, and so did the empire of the Russian
Actually, the national idea crystallized only in the 18th century. More and more thinkers adopted the view that a
society with a common origin, a common cultural identity, a common language (mostly), a common territory and (usually) a
common religion should be united in a state of its own, which should belong to them alone, and enjoy national
The timing was not accidental. All over Europe, mass education systems sprang up and all the peoples developed a
national consciousness. Slovaks and Slovenes began to wonder why they should be subject to the Austrian crown,
Lithuanians and Latvians no longer found it natural that they should be oppressed by the Russian Czar. At the same time,
economic and technological advances demanded states big enough to sustain a modern economy and a large enough army to
defend its citizens (and perhaps to attack neighboring countries).
The classic nation-state was France. It developed a French nation with a nationalist world-view and a national pride,
and that imposed its language and culture on the peoples that became part of France either by agreement or by force –
Alsatians in the East, Corsicans in the South, Basques in the West, Bretons in the North. British nationalism absorbed
the Scots, the Welsh and some of the Irish. The people that were swallowed up by the big nations generally accepted this
and developed a pride in their new nations. The Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte was the Frenchman par excellence, and the
Jew Benjamin Disraeli created the British Empire.
That was the heyday of the classical nation-state: a national state, homogenous as far as possible, which at most
tolerated its minorities or persecuted them outright, that demanded national conformism within and made little pretense
of morality in its dealing with other nation-states.
It seems that Tzipi Livni takes such a nation-state as her ideal. But developments have long since left that stage
The nation-state has not died, but it has changed almost beyond recognition.
THE UNITED STATES, too, is a nation-state. But that nation is very different from the one Tzipi Livni is dreaming about.
The American nation is composed of all the citizens of the United States. Lithuanians, Argentinians and Vietnamese
become members of the American nation the moment they receive their citizenship. The heritage of Washington and Lincoln
is conferred on them together with their passport. They are not required to change their religion or skin-color.
The ultimate confirmation of the success of this system has been given by the election of Barack Obama, the grandson of
a Muslim from Kenya. Throughout the stormy election campaign, no one seriously claimed that he was not a complete
The American flag and the American constitution unite this modern nation. The President does not swear loyalty to the
Fatherland, but to the constitution. Not the skin-color is important, not the ethnic origin, nor religion or language.
Only citizenship. Even the requirement that the citizen should know at least basic English is not enforced as strictly
as it once was.
The term WASP – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – has long since been reduced to a half-jocular appellation. Demographic
experts predict that in not so many years, the Whites of European origin will be a minority in the American
nation-state. But it seems that this piece of news did not arouse a storm of alarm and anger.
Everybody understands that the future and robustness of the US-American nation do not depend on the religion and race of
the American people. Therefore, there is no “demographic problem” in America. Neurotic demographers like our Arnon Sofer
would be considered cranks over there.
AS IN several other areas, the United States is a model for the rest of the world in this respect, too.
In Europe, the old nation-states persist. Even after World War II, when the Europeans woke up from their fatal
nationalist intoxication and came to the conclusion that they had to create a united Europe, they rejected the idea of a
unified European nation on the American model. They did not establish the “United States of Europe”, but rather a
“European Union”, which is composed of a large number of nation-states. Yet a German or a Frenchman of 200 years ago
would not believe their eyes if they were to walk down Unter den Linden or the Champs Elisee today.
The European nations are changing. They are opening up to the world. The idea of a homogenous nation, based on a common
origin, is fading. Slowly, perhaps too slowly, tolerance towards “the stranger in our midst” is growing, and citizenship
is granted to inhabitants with a different ethnic origin and religion, like Turks in Germany and Africans in France. It
is a difficult process that does not always advance smoothly, but that is the direction.
It is also necessary for the very survival of the European nations. Their birth-rate is decreasing, there are fewer and
fewer local workers to sustain the economy and pay the taxes to cover the pensions of an aging population. Europe needs
a steady stream of new immigrants, and these will join the European nations.
Angela Merkel will not tell her Turkish citizens: “You can enjoy equality here, but you belong to the Turkish
nation-state”. One can hardly imagine Gordon Brown telling the British citizens of Pakistani extraction: “Your
nation-state is Pakistan.”
The Arab citizens of Israel can be compared to the Swedish citizens of Finland. These constitute about 6% of the
population, but they play an important role in the economy and other spheres of life. All signs in Finland are
bilingual. Finland belongs to all its citizens. Ariel Sharon’s advisor, Dov Weisglas, once said that “peace will come
only when the Palestinians become Finns”. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that peace will come only when we
ourselves “become Finns”.
The Israeli Arab citizens in Kafr Kassem and Um-al-Fahm, near the Green Line, can be compared to the Alsatians in
France, who have been living there for untold generations. Several times in history they have belonged to Germany. The
last time was when Adolf Hitler annexed them to the Third Reich. Nowadays, the Alsatians are as French as any, with
equal rights and obligations, and other aspects do not interest anybody. Would the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy,
the son of a Hungarian nobleman, declare that “the nation-state of the Alsatians is Germany?”
I KNOW, I know, all these examples do not apply to us. We Jews are special. Fact is, God chose us.
But with all due respect to God and Tzipi Livni, I must tell the Kadima candidate: ”Madam, what you are saying is
already a little obsolete.” Since Vladimir Jabotinsky was born 128 years ago into the Jewish minority in Odessa, much
water has flown down the Dniester river, and I am not sure that even he would have signed Tzipi’s statement. When he
wrote that in our future state “the son of the Arab, the son of Nazareth and my son” would live happily together, did he
mean that the Jewish state he was dreaming about would not be the state of its Arab citizens, too?
I believe that nation-states will continue to exist for a long time to come. It seems that this is the social structure
contemporary people prefer for the time being. A person feels a need for national identity.
But it will not be a narrow, closed nation-state, compulsively homogenous, based on nationalist-religious-linguistic
conformity, hostile to its neighbors. The new nation-state will be open and cosmopolitan, respectful of minorities, a
state of all its citizens, integrated in a regional partnership, a part of the global economy, a partner in the joint
struggle for the preservation of this little planet.
That may be the future. And when does the future begin if not today?
Uri Avnery is a journalist, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom
. He is a regular contributor to Scoop
. You can email correspondence to correspondence @ gush - shalom . org (without the spaces)