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Being Irish 2

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2014


The case of Israeli identity is a good example of the paradox of national identity and national self-determination. On the one hand Israelis put forwards ‘centripetal’ claims about why they are part of the family of nations. These claims are based on universal arguments and would go hand-in-hand with universal (often liberal) values. On the other hand they maintain ‘centrifugal’ claims, about ‘breaking away’, and about why their nation feels different from other nations. Centrifugal claims emphasize a people's uniqueness and tend to refer to particularistic morality. In the case of Israeli identity, emphasizing the particularistic goes together with chauvinistic attitudes towards other nations.

It is argued that the more vulnerable Israelis feel, the more they define themselves in a centrifugal way, that is, by distinguishing themselves from the rest of humankind. This tendency, I argue, proves a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more a nation defines itself in centrifugal terms, the more paranoid it becomes; this, in turn, serves to fan the flames of suspicion even more, and sustains the nation's self-image as different, unique and detached. The nation enters a vicious circle, which prevents it from becoming a normal member of the family of nations.

Politics of Identity – IV
Copyright © The Author(s) 2004.

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Thanks to Bob Brecher for his comments and criticism. An earlier version was read at the City University of Hong Kong and at Nuffield College, Oxford. I am thankful to the participants for their comments and suggestions. Special thanks to Daniel Bell, Sharon Gilad, David Miller and Zur Shalev.


1 ‘The Politics of Identity’ is an on-going series edited by Richard Bellamy.

3 See De-Shalit, A., ‘National Self-Determination: Political, not Cultural’, Political Studies, 44 (1996), pp. 906–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 I elaborated on this in Avner de-Shalit, ‘Philosophy Gone Urban: Reflections on Urban Restoration’, Journal of Social Philosophy, 34: 1 (spring 2003), pp. 6–28.Google Scholar

5 Notice that by this I limit my discussion of Israeli collective identity to the ethnic aspects of nationality, and especially to the identity of the majority (Jews). Twenty per cent of Israeli citizens (in Israel proper, excluding the occupied territories) are ethnic Palestinians and would probably not adopt the attitude that I describe here. However, part of my argument is that the alternative – a national identity that is based on universal values and citizenship – is indeed regrettably losing popularity in Israel.

6 I must admit that writing this paper has not been at all an easy task. It is rather odd to reflect upon oneself without trying to justify oneself. I also allow myself to write about Israelis as ‘us’ and ‘we’. Having said that, this implies that I feel Israeli in a very profound sense, a feeling which, as I have realized in my fifteen or so years of collaboration with academics from other countries, is not always shared by others in regard to their countries and nations, but which is, I strongly believe, shared by Palestinians. It might be that this feeling of mine has to do with being Jewish rather than Israeli: most Jews have always been communitarians, often (in the past) segregated from other communities, and therefore have developed strong ties to their fellow Jews. It is said that, after he had visited Israel to discuss his Law of Peoples, the late John Rawls, the American philosopher, when asked by a colleague in the USA about his impressions of Israeli society, remarked, ‘I was astonished: they were all communitarians!’

7 This very term is widely used in political debates in Israel.

8 Admittedly, there have been similar events: Biafra, the Armenians, and so on. However, many would claim that what distinguishes the Holocaust is the Nazis’ systematic approach to the extermination of an ethnic group. For the question of the Holocaust and uniqueness see Brecher, Bob, ‘On the Question of Uniqueness’, Radical Philosophy, 96 (1999), pp. 1728.Google Scholar

9 About changes in the kibbutzim see my , ‘Miller's Model of Market-Socialism and the Recent Reforms in the Kibbutz’, Political Studies, 40 (1992), pp. 116–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 To be fair, it should be mentioned that until the early twentieth century most Jews in Europe were not allowed to work on farms, not to mention own land. About the need to excuse the character of the Diaspora Jew, see the writings of many Jewish novelists and leaders, such as A. D. Gordon, Borochov, Achad Haam, and David Ben-Gurion.

11 When in 1945 the Soviet Red Army was about to enter Berlin, the Kibbutz newspaper wrote: ‘Our forces are at Berlin's gates’.

12 The second generation consists of business and high-tech people who travel all over the world. These people tend to support the peace camp in Israel and are rather hostile to nationalistic attitudes and policies.

13 As a teenager, when I used to visit my step-grandparents, my step-grandfather, who had lived in a kibbutz for some years before his wife dragged him out of it, used to tell me stories about the good old days when he was in the kibbutz; how Avrasha, who had been a musician in Russia, left his violin behind and became a farmer in the kibbutz, and how Lattek, who had been a mathematician in Poland, built roads with his bare hands. But then my step-grandmother would murmur: ‘Yes, and then they could not face the hard work and committed suicide.’ My grandfather would ignore her to go on and tell me about this brilliant lawyer who became a socialist, came to Israel and joined the kibbutz, and my grandmother would note, ‘Ah, isn’t he the man who got so frustrated that he later became mentally ill?’

14 For more about this see De-Shalit, A., ‘The Dialectics of Zionism and the Environment’, Environmental Politics, 4 (1995), pp. 7087.Google Scholar There are many examples of this attitude. Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, visited the Jezrael valley, where the pioneers, as they were called, were struggling to drain swamps, transforming them into lands that could be cultivated, and he was deeply impressed. So much so, that one of his most well-known and controversial policies was to drain the Chula swamp. In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the young state of Israel faced huge waves of immigration. The policy was not to adjust to it gradually. The solution was to transform the immigrants into locals. Although immigrants were coming from 30 or more countries and cultures, the policy was called the ‘melting pot’: make them one nation with a single cultural and political identity; manipulate them so that they become a single coherent society. Reality, so we learnt in school, was something for us to change. This is the Zionist revolution: take the Diaspora Jew and make him/her into a new type of Jew.

15 Many Israelis compare the standard of living of Israeli Arabs with those living in neighbouring countries and on this basis claim that Israel has brought the Arabs progress, health and wealth. This approach can also partly explain Ariel Sharon's 1982 plans to occupy the south of Lebanon and Beirut. Since the Christians in Lebanon were at that time rather sympathetic to Israel, his idea was to re-establish Lebanon as a Christian state. His solution to the threat to Israel from the north, as he saw it, was not based on coming to terms with what Lebanon was, but on transforming it into something new. This attitude is an obstacle to making peace; in fact it is by definition the opposite of making peace, of coming to terms with reality.

16 Take, for example, the village of Abu-Gush. Three times a year, during the Jewish festivals of Sukot, Passover and Shavu’ot, concerts are held in old Byzantine churches that lie at the centre of this mostly Muslim village. This phenomenon of a Muslim population hosting concerts in its churches during Jewish holidays says more clearly than a thousand words that Israel is not only a multicultural state, but that people with centripetal attitudes to identity can learn to function in surroundings of impossible contrasts.

17 See Yo’av Peled, ‘Ethnic Democracy and the Legal Construction of Citizenship’, American Political Science Review, 86 (1992), pp. 432–43. He argues that Israeli Palestinians benefit from liberal rights but lack republican rights: to wit, they do not participate in the collective determination of Israeli public life. No government in the past – with the possible exception of Rabin's government in 1992 – allowed itself to rely on parties that represented Arab voters. Until 1999 no prime minister saw fit to nominate an Arab minister.

18 Until ten or so years ago a very popular ‘national’ and cheap dish.

19 The elections of 28 January 2003 revealed a strong swing among the younger generation towards right-wing nationalistic parties.

20 As in the case of Kibbutz Lochamey Hageta’ot, I find this combination fascinating: a shopping mall, perhaps the most Western, or most cosmopolitan symbol of consumerism, has a name that is familiar only to Israelis and refers to a crucial event in the country's history.

21 Which, arguably, is another myth, but a very different kind.

22 I should admit that in recent years singing when the plane has landed has become less common. However, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s it happened on every flight.

23 I follow here G. A. Cohen's most interesting analysis of how people on the left react in different ways when they ‘have concluded that no progress towards the idea which they once thought the Soviet Union was realizing will occur there in the foreseeable future’. See G. A. Cohen, ‘The Future of Disillusion’ in his Self Ownership, Freedom and Equality, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 245–65; 253.

24 Research shows that decline in toleration towards Arabs is rapid and consistent among those who already feel either physically threatened or a threat to the Jewish character of Israel. See Michal Shamir and Tami Sagir Israel as a Laboratory for Research on Political Toleration, Tel-Aviv, The B. I. and Lucille Cohen Institute for Public Opinion Research, Tel-Aviv University, 2002 (in Hebrew).

25 For example, several British academics argue that the boycott will force Israeli academics to put more pressure on the Israeli government to withdraw from the occupied territories. As well as being empirically baseless, this argument reveals an attitude which any Kantian must dismiss: it treats Israeli academics only as means and fails to treat them as ends.

26 This is the current legal definition. For a brilliant critique of it, see Dan Avnon, ‘The A-democratic Aspect of Human Rights Laws in Israel’, Politika, 2 (1998), pp. 53–71 (in Hebrew).

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Being Irish 2
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