Bibi’s Hebron Illusions: The Back Story

Gershom Gorenberg

Alas, caught up in my teaching schedule at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, I’ve been absent both from the physical South Jerusalem and the virtual one. Meanwhile, though, my columns are appearing in the American Prospect. The latest is here; two previous ones are below.

By all accounts, Benjamin Netanyahu devoted very little thought to the two final sites added to a list of designated heritage sites set to benefit from a large government restoration budget. Never mind that the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, is located in the West Bank town of Hebron. Likewise, Rachel’s Tomb is in Bethlehem — also occupied territory. Just before Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, rightist ministers noticed that the two shrines, regarded as the burial places of the biblical ancestors of the Jewish people, were missing from the list. They leaned a bit on Netanyahu, he added the tombs, and the Cabinet unanimously approved the plan…

You might expect Netanyahu to be careful about playing with holy fire. In September 1996, early in his previous term as prime minister, he approved opening a tunnel alongside the Temple Mount, otherwise known as Haram al-Sharif. That set off a week-long mini war between Israel and Palestinians. How could he so easily give in to pressure and repeat the mistake of asserting ownership of contested holy places? While we’re at it, how does a country declare that a place outside its borders is a national heritage site?

I could give quick responses based on Netanyahu’s famously flawed personality. But deeper answers to these questions — and quite a few other Middle Eastern puzzles — can be found in Israeli political sociologist Lev Luis Grinberg’s remarkably insightful recent book, Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine. The starting point of Grinberg’s analysis is that Israel doesn’t have borders, or perhaps has too many of them: “If we would ask Israelis … where the state of Israel is — where its borders are — we would never receive a simple answer. … There is no consensus among Jewish citizens of the state where its borders are, where they should be, or even what the legitimate procedure is to decide on them.”…

This matters, first of all, because modern democracy depends on borders that aren’t messy. “A precondition of democracy,” as Grinberg writes, is “the existence of recognized borders … which define the equal citizens of the state.” Physical boundaries allow creation of the social reality he calls “political space” — the arena in which the institutions of state meet people who represent us and negotiate and compromise and make policy. When there aren’t clear borders, when there’s no agreement on who should be represented or how, violence replaces politics — as happens again and again between Israelis and Palestinians.

Read the full piece here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

13 thoughts on “Bibi’s Hebron Illusions: The Back Story”

  1. “When the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, imagination allowed Israelis to magnify real dangers into overwhelming ones. Wanting “national unity” in the face of the threat, they let generals set policy. ”

    No one was imagining 1700 plus Israelis blown to bits in buses, many of them children. The IDF set the policy to stop the murder. Now that it stopped you can sit comfortably in your cush Baka digs and sneer at those who made the place comfortable for you. This is a perfect example of American entitled snottiness without sacrifice. Tripe.

  2. Democracy needs boundaries, but it doesn’t need physical boundaries. Citizenship in the State of Israel is well-defined although the state lacks defined physical borders.

    Imagined Communities is one of the most over-rated books I’ve ever read. (My copy of it has a blurb from The Nation on the front cover, which is a pretty good indication of what’s inside.) There are many definitions of “nation” – personally I prefer Walker Connor’s – but Anderson’s definition as an “imagined community” is a joke. For one thing, that definition applies to a commonwealth as well, which is a very different animal.

    This kind of confusion is apparent in Gorenberg’s question: “how does a country declare that a place outside its borders is a national heritage site? ” Well, duh. These sites are national heritage sites, not state (country) heritage sites. The borders of the State of Israel are not relevant to sites holy to the Nation of Israel. The latter does have associated borders: those of the Land of Israel.

    I’m wondering where Gorenberg finds his evidence that “most Israelis can imagine that…the current quiet can last indefinitely”. Has he ever talked to an actual Israeli who stated that opinion? I haven’t. Or is this view of Israelis another illusion, carefully hedged by the word “can”?

    Frankly, this article was tendentious, unlike Gorenberg’s usual work.

  3. “For one thing, that definition applies to a commonwealth as well, which is a very different animal.”
    Fallacy alert: to define “nation” as an “imagined community” is not to say that all imagined communities are nations. I haven’t read the book, does Anderson actually claim that?

    IMO a large part of the confusion comes from the fact that in the Western perception “nation” and modern “state” are largely interchangeable, the concepts having grown in tandem. To the extent however that ethnic nationalities become unbounded – in the USA with the emancipation of blacks and native Americans, in Europe with the growth of the EU – national designations, while retaining their cultural importance, become irrelevant for the state.
    Israel OTOH remains stuck in the 19th century pure nation-state idealism. To this day there is no official Israeli nationality, instead the state is seen as the political expression exclusively of and for the mythical Nation of Israel, and an originalist notion of nationality supersedes citizenship.

    Few would care if the designation of national heritage sites outside Israel’s borders had only symbolic character. Kosovo Polje is a historically important site for the Serbian nation? Fine, so be it. The problem, then as now, is that this claim comes attached with assertion of national sovereignty.

    Don’t know about the “current quiet”, but I can immediately think of a frequent commenter here, a self-described right-wing Israeli, who hardly ever fails to point out that the current “status quo” can last indefinitely.

  4. “Citizenship in the State of Israel is well-defined although the state lacks defined physical borders.”

    How is it defined? By race? Is a Jew living in Hebron an Israeli citizen? Is an Arab living five hundred yards away not an Israeli citizen? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” please explain to me, an American, why I should consider Israel to be a democracy.

  5. Gershom: “While we’re at it, how does a country declare that a place outside its borders is a national heritage site?”

    Fiddler: The problem, then as now, is that this claim comes attached with assertion of national sovereignty.

    Ordinarily, I would expect that if a religious or ethnic group feels that a place outside it’s borders is of such importance, then application would be made to that sovereign power for such a designation, and, with some good will, be granted.

    Also, what right does Netanyahu have to act unilaterally in the name of the Jewish people (nation) as a whole? He is only leader of the state of Israel.

    But in this situation it can’t be taken in any other way than another poke in the eye, a claim of sovereignty, and, at that, an invitation to incitement. Like the settlements, this too is illegal grabbing, eating away further land that must go to a Palestinian state in a two state solution.

    The status quo can’t suffer such changes ( especially in this case so symbolic) and still remain status quo.

  6. fiddler is quite right. If Anderson’s point, as many people including Gershom and Aaron seem to think, was simply that nations are socially constructed, there would hardly be any reason for him to write a whole book about it. If Imagined Communities needs to be reduced to a ten-second takeaway, it’s an attempt to identify a certain type of social conception similar in many ways to those that preceded it, but differing in its secular and particular orientation (as opposed to being organized around “high centers” or “script languages”). It’s hardly a useful cudgel in the hands of deracinated leftists: Anderson doesn’t think a consistent cosmopolitanism is possible, let alone desirable. I don’t know what “commonwealth” means anymore, so I can’t say to what extent it exposes inadequacies in Anderson’s account.

    Incidentally, this sort of decoupling between the nation and the state—suggesting that there’s no tension in a nation-state declaring a site outside of its borders to be a national heritage site—is precisely the sort of thing most nationalists reject. In fact, I would say it’s almost characteristic of nationalism.

    Aaron, have you thought about getting a blog? I would read it.

  7. Anderson did define “nation”, but as Raghav suggests, that wasn’t what the book was “about”. In the Afterword, Anderson complained that lots of people paid more attention to the title than to the book. Anderson doesn’t seem to take the definition of “nation” too seriously – and I think his book suffers for that – but here’s his definition (via Google): “In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

    By this definition the State of Israel would seem to be a single nation, which leads only to confusion. In fact, Gorenberg finds it “confusing” and “a mess” that Israeli Jews define their nation ethnically, though the Latin nationem and the Greek ethnos are synonyms, along with the English nation until relatively recently. I’m not arguing for one definition over the others (though I have my favorite), only pointing out the confusion that can result from simple semantics.

    Obviously the State of Israel’s declaration of a national connection to these sites isn’t just an innocent history lesson. It has implications, and the Arabs are right to take note. I’m not “decoupling” anything. I was just objecting to the question “how does a country…?”, which I read as a suggestion that this kind of declaration by a nation-state regarding sites outside its borders is illegitimate or maybe even nonsensical.

    Re citizenship: Israeli citizenship is defined by a list at the Ministry of the Interior. The criteria for getting on the list are controversial, but they’re defined clearly enough for day to day work. It’s generally clear whether or not you’re a citizen, whether you live in Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Hebron, or Brooklyn. I’m not particularly anxious that Bloix consider Israel a democracy. As I’ve said before, I think “democracy” has lost much of its public relations value since the end of the Cold War, and especially with George W. Bush and the Iraq War.

    If by “democracy” Grinberg meant that the electorate is the residents of a given geographical area, then the need for geographical borders is tautologically true. If he meant something more than that, he’s probably wrong. Gorenberg writes: “When there aren’t clear borders, when there’s no agreement on who should be represented or how, violence replaces politics…”. The word “should” changes the meaning from the sentence that precedes it. Obviously, Arabs in Hebron believe that they should be represented primarily, and that Jews should be represented secondarily if at all. But this has nothing to do with geographical borders. It would be the same if Israel’s borders were crisply defined by the Green Line and there were no Jews living on the West Bank – as long as the West Bank is still under Israeli jurisdiction.

    Formulating all this in terms of physical borders and representation seems kind of ridiculous. This is basically a war between two peoples, not a war between two governments or two nationalisms or whatever.

  8. Twisting and turning on definitions while the awful, awful situation of the Palestinians continues. How can anyone imagine the mess can continue indefinitely?

    43 years ago, the only thing I lacked were blue and white pom-pons as I jumped up and down cheering Israel. Now I see the People of the Law standing on the necks of non-Jewish residents of the occupied territories in violation of the law.

    I am completely disgusted with my own government supporting this outrageous land-grab by people who, more than anyone, should understand what it means to have land taken away arbitrarily. While it is said that the situation is mired in historic injustice, at the same time it seems people are blind to history.

    Netanyuhu’s behavior seems to be only the latest example of “we will do as we wish”. Obama, once speaking forcefully, is now quiet as a mouse.

    I’ve had it. In the near future I will be going to DC in the company of other Americans, Jew and gentile, to lobby against more gifts and grants and low cost loans going to Israel regardless of settlement activity and the continued oppression in the West Bank. We will be reminding members of Congress that they are not trained seals.

    With U.S. backing, Israel can afford to do anything, flouting all criticism. It’s time for Americans to wake up and demand this country distance itself from behavior that has no connection to liberty, democracy and human rights.

  9. Suzanne, as for your bewilderment, (a) Hebron and Bethlehem are in the area originally in the territory to become the Jewish homeland; (b) since the partition was rejected in 1947, the geographics are still not yet settled so nothing is ‘outside’ any sovereignty;

    Gershom, still blaming Bibi for that opening in 1996 when the whole project was Shimon Peres’ deal with Arafat. All Bibi did was follow through. Not nice.

  10. I don’t know if Anderson would consider the State of Israel to be a single nation, because he has a very specific notion of the word “community” in the definition Aaron quotes above: “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” (p. 7 of my edition, which does not have a blurb from the Nation on the front).

    Apropos of the previous point, Anderson notes on p. 6 that “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” So fiddler is correct; Anderson isn’t suggesting that all imagined communities are nations.

    That said, this academic custom of cobbling together a definition of the subject matter at the beginning is pretty tiresome. These one-sentence abstractions are mostly useless and misguided from a linguistic point of view; as Mark Rosenfelder says, you’re better off just skipping to Chapter 2.

  11. I think I’ll talk about definitions a little more while Palestine is bleeding.

    Raghav wrote: That said, this academic custom of cobbling together a definition of the subject matter at the beginning is pretty Mark Rosenfelder says, you’re better off just skipping to Chapter 2.

    I followed the link. Anderson’s definition is more vulnerable to this criticism than most.

    The criticism makes sense when there’s no deep problem with the words and concepts themselves. But when the traditional, centuries-old view of nation and state held by Israelis (and by most other peoples) is described to an American audience as “confusing” and “a mess”, that means there’s a conceptual problem. The problem is that current linguistic usage (by Americans) doesn’t cut social reality at the joints.

    For the record, I should have quoted Benedict Anderson phrase “political community” from the start (I did quote “political” in my second comment), and you’re right that the State of Israel would not count as a nation given Anderson’s qualification (deep comradeship). Still, in Zionist ideology the goal of the State of Israel is to be what Anderson would call a nation (a polyethnic one), while still being the Jewish state. If that’s not enough for a reductio ad absurdum, it seems to me that the USSR – famously considered a multinational state – was a nation by Anderson’s definition, as were the Russians, the Uzbeks, etc. as well. But as I said, Anderson doesn’t take his own cobbled-together definition too seriously.

    It doesn’t matter how people use the word “nation” as long as it doesn’t lead to confusion and bad policy. But as Walker Connor showed, current usage of the word does contribute to confusion and bad policy. (Walker’s definition of “nation” is fundamental to his book, by the way; it’s not cobbled together.) These dry academic disagreements are actually pretty important in real life.

  12. Typo: that should have been “Connor’s”, not “Walker’s” in the last paragraph. It’s confusing when people have family names as first names.

  13. Bloix: “How is it defined? By race? Is a Jew living in Hebron an Israeli citizen? Is an Arab living five hundred yards away not an Israeli citizen? ”

    First, being Jewish or Arab is cultural, not racial.

    Second, the Jews in my neighborhood are Israelis and are the Arab in my neighorhood.

    Clear enough?

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