The perilous encounter between modern nationalism and ancient history

Mr. Mileikowsky and the “seal of Netanyahu”: the perilous encounter between modern nationalism and ancient history

by Hussein Ibish

I may be trying people’s patience a little with my recent riff on nationalism in general, and particularly the Israeli and Palestinian versions, but further exchanges with some of my interlocutors, particularly Jewish ones, prompt me to make one final point. I’d like to illustrate how nationalist discourses use sleight-of-hand to create illusions of historical continuity between ancient history, myths, legends and traditions and contemporary national political programs.

Of course that continuity does actually exist, insofar as all presently existing political agendas are the consequence of the great sweep of human history. But the nationalist identities of Egypt or China are not more authentic or legitimate because they claim direct descent from ancient civilizations and kingdoms than is the American one which celebrates its non-ethnic, sui generis (at the time of its founding anyway), and ideological self-definition. All three are equally the products of a set of developments in global history that produced them in their present form at the current moment. The American version of nationalism based on adherence to political principles and a kind of US civic religion can’t be privileged over ethnic nationalisms either, and is also very much grounded in myth, legend and historical fantasy.

But some of my Jewish interlocutors who ought to know better seem absolutely convinced that there is a hierarchy of legitimacy of nationalist claims and that the Israeli one is simply and obviously superior, older, more “authentic” and more deeply rooted than the Palestinian one. This is even true among those who acknowledge a legitimate Palestinian nationalism, but simply assert that there’s something more ancient or authentic about the Israeli one. Assurances that there are innumerable Arab and Palestinian arguments that reverse this, casting grave doubts on the legitimacy and authenticity of Israeli nationalism and Zionism, and the idea that the Jewish people are in any meaningful sense a national or ethnic group as opposed to a religious affiliation, don’t seem to dent these deep convictions. So, as a last effort to try to demonstrate the ideological processes I have been describing, let me use a pertinent example from Israel.

Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in his office what might charitably be described as a relic and uncharitably as a kind of political fetish. It is a 2000-year-old seal in ancient Hebrew bearing the name “Netanyahu.” Here’s how Mr. Netanyahu described its political significance to the European Friends of Israel in February of this year:

Now people say, well, you don’t really have an attachment to this land. We are new interlopers. We are neo-crusaders. If I could I would invite each of you into my office. You would see a display of antiquities from the Department of Antiquities. It’s in a little stand like this. And from the place next to the Temple wall, the Western Wall, from around the time of the Jewish kings, they found a signet ring, a seal of a Jewish official from 2700 years ago, and it has a name on it in Hebrew. You know what that name is? Netanyahu. Now, that’s my last name.

What he didn’t mention is how, precisely, Netanyahu came to be his last name. His father was not born with it, nor were any other of his identifiable ancestors. His father was born Benzion Mileikowsky in Warsaw in 1910. The Prime Minister’s grandfather, Nathan Mileikowsky, was an ardent Zionist who used the name “Netanyahu” as a pen name for political writing. Sometime after moving to British mandatory Palestine, Benzion abandoned the name Mileikowsky altogether in favor of Netanyahu. It was common practice among early Zionists to dispense with European and especially Yiddish names in favor of Hebrew ones.

(It’s probably worth mentioning that Benzion X is not a run-of-the-mill Zionist, but one of the most extreme in the history of the movement. He has many times expressed the view that Arabs are by nature and by definition virtually subhuman, and can and should only be dealt with through extreme forms of force. He also adheres to a greater Israel movement which holds the present borders, including occupied territories, to be entirely unsatisfactory. He was unable to establish a viable political career in Israel because his views were considered beyond the limits of respectability even by the extreme right. So, the specific version of the nationalist political agenda actually being expressed in that act of changing the name Mileikowsky to Netanyahu isn’t a normal form of nationalism or a normal form of Zionism, but a program of institutionalized racism and regional aggression of a particularly vicious variety. But, of course, the son is not the father.)

So, Netanyahu’s father adopted this name as a political act but it has no traceable connection to his family history which as far as can be historically determined seems to be entirely an Eastern European one. While there can be no doubting the deep attachment present day Israelis and Jews from around the world feel towards the land, I’d like to call attention to the series of diversionary gestures in this process designed to not only legitimate Israeli nationalism and Zionism, but to privilege it.

In the first stage, we are presented with the seal bearing the name Netanyahu, from 2000 years ago which confirms what no one denies: there was an ancient Hebrew culture, among many other communities, in this land. But it implicitly foregrounds and privileges that historical moment and that particular culture and community as opposed to all others that existed before, during and after that time.

In the second stage, it is pointed out that this name “Netanyahu” uncannily links some ancient official with the current prime minister. But the prime minister only bears that name because his father adopted it as a 20th-century political act based on 20th-century ideology and nationalism in what can only be described as an appropriation of the past. One could hardly posit a direct connection between a Mr. Mileikowsky of Warsaw and an ancient official called “Netanyahu” based on those two names.

Prime Minister Netanyahu may feel that he is demonstrating some profound historical evidence of the continuity between contemporary Israeli nationalism and ancient history, but in fact what he’s doing is demonstrating the extent to which an ancient history in another place and time was consciously and politically appropriated by Jewish Europeans to legitimize their political agenda of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. To those who know his family history, this ring actually calls attention not to the authentic, natural and unbroken continuity between ancient history and contemporary Zionism but rather the usually underappreciated artificiality, or at very least consciously constructed nature, of that connection.

Here we have two synecdoches—parts that stand in for the whole—that are designed to tell a tale about the political legitimacy of the Israeli state based on two separate sleights-of-hand that are combined to create the total effect. First, this ancient seal is meant to stand in for the entirety of the ancient history of the land, and posit a dominant, unified, coherent Jewish culture and civilization which alone has contemporary political relevance. All other aspects of the history of the region are implicitly elided, downplayed or at very least certainly not accorded equal stature as this seal and all it supposedly implies. Every aspect of this implicit narrative, like all contemporary political appropriations of ancient history, is extremely dubious at best and misleading at worst.

The second synecdoche is the fact that the current Israeli Prime Minister’s last name is the same as the one on the seal. The seal stands in for all the (at least politically relevant) history of the area between the river and sea, and the Prime Minister for all of the Jewish Israelis. The apparent organic connection between the two is hence presented as proof positive of the great authenticity and legitimacy of the Israeli national project and implicitly the primacy of its claims over all others. It also implicitly posits that contemporary Jews are the sole and only legitimate heirs of the biblical Hebrews, and that Palestinians and others cannot claim any portion of this heritage. It privileges biblical Hebrew history over all others in the land, and privileges the Israeli claim to being the sole heir of that privileged history. Both of these claims, of course, are exceptionally dubious.

Even if the Prime Minister’s last name in terms of his family history actually were Netanyahu rather than Mileikowsky, it still wouldn’t demonstrate any direct connection between ancient history and contemporary politics (which are almost always strained to the breaking point). But of course it isn’t. Neither of these synecdoches work on their own except as reductive and crude generalizations, of the history of the land and of the nature of contemporary Jewish Israeli society and other groups. When put together, they demonstrate perfectly how nationalist discourses that deploy ancient history, myths and traditions are almost invariably engaged in a kind of intellectual shell game: the pea which actually connects ancient cultures and civilizations with contemporary nationalist agendas can never be found, because it does not exist. But of course the shells are impressive, and even more so is the mesmerizing motion of the huckster spinning them around the board so fast almost everyone loses track of the original, core claim.

I cite this example to try, for one final time, to demonstrate to my Jewish readers how this process works, but not to suggest that this is in any sense unique or particular to Jewish nationalism or Israeli identity. On the contrary, it is a universal characteristic of all nationalisms that try to root their present-day claims in appeals to ancient history. Saddam Hussein tried to do just this with Babylon. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been trying to do so as well with pre-Islamic Persian history, Cyrus the Great and so forth, in his losing battle with the Iranian power structure that prefers to cast Iran as an “Islamic” state with the natural leadership of a huge portion of the world rather than simply a “Persian” national project. Palestinians deploy ancient history all the time as well, with equal desperation and fatuousness as everyone else.

I’d say if you want to find the most extraordinary version of this tendency outside the Middle East, the first stop would probably be the Indian subcontinent, where ancient history, traditions, myths and legends are fought over passionately and sometimes to the point of madness. Who were the peoples of the Indus Valley civilization? Was there really an Aryan invasion? What’s the relationship between Sanskritic and Dravidian languages and culture, and are they related to that deep past? Where does the caste system fit into it? How should the prolonged periods of Muslim rule in large parts of India be regarded historically, in terms of India’s relationship with Pakistan and with regard to India’s important Muslim minority? To call these disputes the tip of the iceberg would be an understatement.

What I’m not trying to do here, and what I’m not doing, is questioning the deep religious and emotional attachment of the Jewish people to the land, or the legitimacy of the Israeli national project. But I am trying to demonstrate why, should I wish to do so, Zionism is certainly not one of the better examples that would spring to mind were I to try to assert some kind of continuity between ancient history and a contemporary national project. In any event, the effort would prove futile, as this will always involve tendentious narratives, privileging of certain historical events, times and places over others, and carefully avoiding inconvenient facts that demonstrate the inherent instability of these narratives.

But unlike a great many academics in recent decades who have understood and demonstrated how this process works, I don’t dismiss or condemn nationalism as purely a menace or a dangerous illusion. Achieving political effects requires developing constituencies, which are always going to be based on reductive identity groups drawn together by philosophically and intellectually invalid claims. There is a deep conundrum built into the relationship between a healthy understanding of the illusory nature of all reductive identity groupings and their constituting narratives on the one hand and the need to form constituencies to achieve anything on the other hand.

Nationalism has been the source of much suffering, conflict, abuse and repression. But it is also built into modernity at its core level. No large, self-defining people can function in the world today—which is made up of states and citizens of those states—without being part of some national structure. Indeed, no individual can function in the modern world outside national structures. Try traveling without a passport, for example. Hence the particular plight of the Palestinians, by far the largest group of stateless people in the world. They find themselves outside the whale, not second-class citizens or citizens of oppressive states—both of which can plausibly fight for their individual or collective rights within the structures of those states—but noncitizens, citizens of no state whatsoever.

Nationalism is indispensable as a political reality because the nation-state has not been transcended as the dominant political structure in the world today in which people have to function. This is the reality that escaped or confounded a great many of the postcolonial critics who championed nationalism as the only effective weapon against colonial rule in the Third World (that much is too obvious to deny), but who critiqued and rejected the nationalisms of developing societies, usually by definition. There wasn’t any other option in seeking independence from colonial rule, and there isn’t any other option for functioning in the contemporary global society either. This doesn’t mean that separatism, ethnic nationalism or Balkanization is a good idea. On the contrary, it’s almost always preferable to keep larger societies together and to avoid partition when people can possibly find a way to live together. History demonstrates that, when it has proven possible, remaining in large, multi-cultural or quite heterogeneous societies is beneficial to all parties.

When this is impossible, obviously a good divorce is better than a bad marriage. Here again nationalism presents itself as much as a solution as part of the problem. Often it’s both, simultaneously. Will the people of the new Republic of South Sudan form a relatively harmonious union in spite of their extreme heterogeneity? That very much remains to be seen. But they were virtually unanimous on one thing: they wanted no more to do with the rest of Sudan, especially Khartoum. This new nationalism, such as it is, at very least gives the people of South Sudan a fighting chance at building a better next half century than the last one.

So what I’m offering here is a qualified, contingent and very reluctant defense of nationalism as not so much a necessary evil as simply a reality of the modern world, while at the same time pointing out that its narratives are particularly dubious. This is especially the case when nationalist rhetoric tries to deploy ancient history, myths and traditions, including religious ones, to legitimate its agenda and ideology. As I have been trying to suggest, the only reasonable conclusion is that nationalism needs to be respected as a legitimate and authentic expression of the will or needs of millions of people (assuming it has a real constituency), but not confused with an intellectually legitimate or historically authentic logical continuation of ancient realities.

No doubt there will be Israelis and their friends who will continue to write to me about ancient bowls and glyphs and so forth. And most people will continue to buy into whatever mythologies they are raised with, especially when it comes to their core national, ethnic and religious identities. The threat of this kind of “delegitimization,” of discovering that there never is a pea underneath that nationalist shell, is probably too threatening for a great many people. All I can offer them, beyond this simple example of how such rhetoric performs its ideological legerdemain, is the assurance that there is something deeply liberating in this insight.

This article was originally published on Ibishblog which is an excellent site.