Highbrow Israel-bashing is hard

Named after Israel’s country code, the +972 site promises “Independent reporting and commentary from Israel and the Palestinian territories.” As far as I can tell, the site’s contributors all seem to agree that this basically means joining the already crowded Israel-bad-Palestinians-good-camp.

Currently, +972 is featuring several articles debating the question whether there is such a thing as “liberal” Zionism. One of the contributions focuses on the question how Zionism differs from other forms of nationalism.

In support of his arguments, the post’s author Sean Lee (described as a Beirut-based American blogger and academic) provides several references to academic works; intentionally or not, this creates the impression that he is well-read and knowledgeable about his subject.

However, Lee proceeds to offer a rather jumbled argument. He starts out by noting that nationalism “implies an in-group and out-group; citizen and non-citizen; us and them.” Therefore, Lee confesses to being “sympathetic to the idea that nationalism is inherently illiberal by the very act of creating this distinction.” Yet, in his view, it should not be overlooked that “Western 21st century nationalism has come a long way from its 19th century origins. Today, American and French nationalism […] are fundamentally political categories that no longer have an ethnic component.”

The most obvious problem with this argument is that both in the US and in France (and everywhere else, for that matter), there is still a difference between citizens and non-citizens.

Less obvious is the misleading claim about the supposedly modern elimination of an ethnic component in the US and France. Let’s dispense with the name-dropping and just turn to Wikipedia, where we find the following under the relevant entries on Jus soli (i.e. right of the soil, or birthright citizenship) and Jus sanguinis (i.e. right of blood):

At the turn of the nineteenth century, nation-states commonly divided themselves between those granting nationality on the grounds of jus soli (France, for example) and those granting it on the grounds of jus sanguinis (right of blood) (Germany, for example, before 1990). However, most European countries chose the German concept of an “objective nationality”, based on word, race or language […] opposing themselves to republican Ernest Renan’s “subjective nationality”, based on a daily plebiscite of one’s belonging to one’s Fatherland.

In other words, the developments of American and French nationalism that Lee describes as recent praiseworthy achievements go back all the way to the beginnings of nationalism.

Importantly, however, the idea of birthright citizenship was originally associated with the assumption that a person who grows up in the country s/he was born will naturally identify with this country’s laws, customs and values, which is reflected in the notion of “a daily plebiscite of one’s belonging to one’s Fatherland.” A contemporary expression of this for modern ears awkwardly phrased notion is found in United States Oath of Allegiance that must be taken by all immigrants who wish to become United States citizens.

Interestingly enough, Sean Lee has written an error-riddled blog post on the debate about an Israeli loyalty oath, where he registered his support for the loyalty oath, “not because it’s right, but rather because I think it helps illustrate the distasteful ideology on which Israel, as an officially Jewish state, is based.”

But back to Lee’s +972 post and the relevant Wikipedia entries that explain:

Many nations have a mixture of ius sanguinis and ius soli, including the United States, Canada, Italy, Israel, Germany (as of recently), Greece, the Republic of Ireland and others. Apart from France, ius sanguinis still is the preferred means of passing on citizenship in many continental European countries.

A long list of countries that “provide immigration privileges to individuals with ethnic ties to these countries” can be found here.

But never mind the facts if the highbrow purpose is to single out Israel’s Law of Return – which Lee mistakenly refers to as “right of return”:

Israel […] is explicitly a state for one category of its citizens: Jews. In both theory and practice, the Jewish state accords certain rights and privileges to Jews that it does not to non-Jews. This is seen most dramatically in the right of return, which states that anyone who has one Jewish grandparent (ironically the same criteria used in the Nuremberg laws) is automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship. Conversion is a little more complicated, but generally speaking, converts to Judaism are also accorded the right of “return.” On the flip side, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Haifa or Jaffa, not only cannot give Israeli citizenship to his or her spouse in Ramallah or Bethlehem, but the latter cannot even enter Israel so they can live together.

I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure why it is “ironic” that a persecuted people would adopt a law that reflects a deadly historic experience, but maybe my sense of irony isn’t sufficiently developed.

But let’s get to “the flip side.” Indeed, Lee’s flip side example is very interesting, involving “a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Haifa or Jaffa” who would like to pass on his or her citizenship to a “spouse in Ramallah or Bethlehem.”

The citizenship of the “Palestinian citizen of Israel” is obviously Israeli, and if his or her prospective spouse was a non-Jewish person holding e.g. American or European citizenship, the “Palestinian citizen of Israel” would face exactly the same bureaucratic procedures as any other Israeli citizen who plans to marry somebody from abroad and wants his or her spouse to have Israeli citizenship. In other words, it’s not about Jewish privilege, as Lee implies.

Moreover, Lee may not know it, but in most countries, foreign spouses cannot claim a right to citizenship and must instead apply for naturalization – which usually also means that they must meet certain conditions, such as, to quote one particularly shocking (!!!) example, “that the applicant not endanger the internal or external security of Switzerland.”

A final note: In an attempt to do some comparative research to find out how many things Lee gets wrong when he writes about Arab or Palestinian nationalism, I only found out that he seems to prefer to write about Zionism. No doubt this is a terribly important subject when you live in Beirut.

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