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Revisiting nationalism in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship

by Shelley Ostroff
JERUSALEM - Israeli and Palestinian nationalities emerged only within the last century at a time when globalisation was beginning to transform familiar ideas about nations and nationalism. The declaration of the State of Israel as a Jewish state exacerbated the conflict between the two nations striving for self-determination within the same piece of land.

Israel has just 61 years of independence, mostly overshadowed by wars and violence threatening its survival. The Palestinians, who were exiled, lost land or live under the Israeli occupation, still have no country to call their own, and thus have been unable to even begin to build their national identity within an autonomous land.

Given that both nations are in early stages of forming their own identities, and still struggling for recognition, safety and survival within a painful conflict, it is not surprising that they generally express their nationalistic ideologies in rigid, dichotomous and even paranoid forms of “us against them” concepts and of self-interest at the expense of the other.

Psychologically, a healthy dialogue and relationship usually requires a strong sense of one’s own identity, security and a freedom from existential threat. Neither nation has had the opportunity to reach this position and mature in safety as a nation. Peace negotiations in which Israelis and Palestinians recognise each other’s basic rights and identities demand a maturity that is, perhaps, beyond their current developmental stage. Paradoxically however, as long as they remain entrenched in an “us versus them” nationalism that leads to unrealistic pre-conditions for engagement, they will be less likely to have their own needs for safety and recognition met.

Historically, nationalist ideology has usually been accompanied by feelings of pride in, loyalty to and support for one’s nation for better or for worse, even to the detriment of others. Today however, in the present global context, nations are being challenged to go beyond such polarising forms of nationality and patriotism and to develop more inclusive and interconnected forms of nationalism.

The concept of the “global citizen” recently came into being together with such phenomena as improved mobility, technological connectivity and world-wide problems like terror, pollution, global warming, poverty, slavery, war and epidemics, which are increasingly recognized as global rather than local. Emigration and inter-marriage have also resulted in many people holding multiple national identities and people living and working far from their homeland.

These new realities reveal the limitations of the exclusive nation state and old forms of nationalism. In particular we are being called upon to find creative ways to honour our differences, heritage, place of birth and citizenship while simultaneously recognising the fundamental interdependence and mutual accountability of all nations.

This is especially needed in the Israeli and Palestinian situation where clear national boundaries do not exist and areas are populated by multiple identity groups, many of whom have nationalist longings for an autonomous state within the same geographical area.

The world is moving toward creative pathways whereby local and broader identities and commitments enhance rather than undermine each other. The formation of the European Union is an example of out-of-the-box thinking in addressing familiar ideas of nationhood and belonging. While the EU encounters many challenges on its path, it has shown that exploring different types of laws and loyalties can add multiple layers to the experience of political identity. It now takes a lead role on global issues and citizens of European nations are holding both particular and collective identities.

There are many Palestinians and Israelis who are looking for ways to move beyond the prevalent rigid and dichotomous forms of nationalism in the Israeli and Palestinian relationship. For them, nationalism entails investing in their nation’s humanity and morality. They try to contribute, not only to their own society but to the larger Palestinian-Israeli system, as well as being significant actors in global improvement.

Despite the very different positions of power and physical resources, these Israelis and Palestinians share the same larger vision and the moral and inspirational leverage that comes with it, and they work separately and together towards this purpose. They need to be strengthened as they lead their respective communities beyond the early stages of national identity formation to new and creative understandings of nation-building in community with other nations.

Both historically and currently, Palestinian and Israeli lives and lands are so interwoven that solutions are limited if we hold onto the rigid idea of one nation within a single piece of land. This is especially so when we cling to our particular concept of what that piece of land should be. Perhaps the first step is to evolve our understanding of nationalism and recognise that belonging to our own nation entails the responsibility of cultivating our nation’s capacity to feel part of and to serve not only its own group but also the people who are directly affected by its actions and humanity as a whole.

Only by rethinking fundamental nationalist concepts will we be able to move forward to finding creative paths so that both nations can have their needs met in a good enough, albeit imperfect, way. To do so we must dare to let go of old thought forms, existing political structures and our own particular versions of how things have to be.

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* Shelley Ostroff, PhD, is a consultant living in Jerusalem

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Comment by Neri Bar-On on February 27, 2010 at 4:48pm
This is very good text of Dr. Shelley Ostroff.

I would like to suggest that while Israel change in from Nationalism to trans/post Nationalism The Palestinian path is from pre-nationalism into nationalism. we are two societies in different stages of development.

Some people who are Arabs will attach to the trans-national ideas (global citizens) as some people who are Israelis will attach to the Nationalism ideas (this is "our nation state") but the society as a whole has different center of gravity and the problem Israel has with its "jewish" element need the solution of global citizen while the chaos exist in the Palestinian society need the solution of "national state".

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