The Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) will convene an international conference to explore the place of Israel, as a Jewish state, within today’s cosmopolitan world, as a case study for the question of the place of ethnic states within a cosmopolitan world. The conference will interrogate the key concepts of nationalism, nation-state, ethnic nationalism and Jewish nationalism. It will, furthermore, explore the myths and invented traditions that shape Jewish nationalism, as well as the discourse that legitimates it. The conference will attempt to grapple with the question of whether Jewish nationalism and the notion of an ethnic Jewish state have a legitimate place in a modern cosmopolitan world which seeks to recognise multiple identities beyond simply ethnicity, and which seeks to define statehood, citizenship and human rights in inclusive rather than exclusive terms. Can an ethnic and ethnocentric state, and the nationalist ideology which undergirds it, persist within a strengthening culture of individual human rights and inclusivity, or is it an unworkable fallacy?
The idea of “the nation” is not new. Some of the earliest written accounts of differentiated human communities can be traced back to Hindu scriptures and the Hebrew bible, where links between land, language and kinship have strong resonance. The concept of “the nation-state” is, however, relatively novel, and has its roots in eighteenth century Europe. The nation-state came internationally to be recognised as a political entity with its own sovereignty within a system of similar states; with control over a definite geographical territory; with an independent, domestically generated, and relatively centralised administrative apparatus; having a distinct political structure, legal code, economy, currency, division of labour and educational system; and being characterised by a culture, defined by language, arts, customs, religion and / or ethnicity, that may be enormously varied but which generally has a dominant hegemonic strain that is adopted by urban elites. The last aspect of this characterisation is, arguably, the most important since, implicitly, it refers to contestation. Thus, the bureaucratic composition of the nation-state must, of necessity, be differentiated from the ideology that legitimates it; this ideology that is generally referred to as nationalism.
Nationalism has had diverse expressions but can also be generally characterised in terms of a universal struggle between cultures of exclusion and inclusion. Exclusion is marked by authoritarianism, militarism and the evasion of law; racism, discrimination and injustice; and marked asymmetries in access to livelihoods and resources. Inclusion demands pluralism, diversity, democracy, freedom, participation, justice, and tolerance. With specific reference to the state of Israel – which defines itself as a “Jewish State” – these normative antinomies have become the source of conflict that separates Israelis from Palestinians.
In exploring these questions with regards to Israel, the conference will also seek to address the issue of what lies in store for an ethnic Jewish state in the future, in terms of prevailing and emerging global political cultures.