Reflections: Does Israel Intend to Follow Central Europe’s Sad Example?

We continue our series of staff reflections on various issues from a transnational historical perspective. Dr Tomasz Kamusella FRHistS, is a Reader in Modern History. He is the author of the extensive monograph The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe (Palgrave 2009).

Knesset Building I have spent the last two decades studying the rise and implementation of the idea of ethnolinguistic nationalism across Central Europe, or the home region of the majority of the world’s Jews for over a millennium until the Holocaust. The gradual establishment of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Italy, Romania, Germany and Bulgaria as ethnolinguistic nation-states during the 19th century was followed after World War I by the enshrining of the ethnolinguistic nation-state as the sole legitimate model of statehood in Central Europe. It meant the destruction of the polyglot, multiethnic and polyconfessional empires: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, and also the detaching of similarly multiethnic borderland areas from Germany and the Russian Empire (soon overhauled into the Soviet Union in 1922). In their place the brand-new ethnolinguistic nation-states were founded, namely Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Albania, together with only briefly independent Belarus and Ukraine that were soon annexed by Bolshevik Russia.

Ethnolinguistic nationalism defines all the speakers of a language as a ‘proper’ nation. In turn, the territory compactly inhabited by the speakers of this language should be made into such an ethnolinguistically defined nation’s nation-state. The language now dubbed as ‘national’ is elevated to the rank of the nation-state’s sole official language. Ideally, no other languages should be allowed in official use and education, and the national language should not be shared with any other state or nation. These onerous conditions of ‘proper’ ethnolinguistic national statehood were successfully implemented across interwar Central Europe, much to the exclusion of speakers of languages other than the national one, but especially to the exclusion of Jews, even if they happened to speak a given national language. Interwar anti-Semitism, hand in hand with ethnolinguistic nationalism, additionally precluded assimilation of Jews, due to their ‘foreign’ religion, which – in line with the ‘science of race’ (Rassenkunde) and its application in the form of ‘racial hygiene’ (Rassenhygiene) – was construed as the biologized marker of the ‘Jewish race,’ and as such the ‘undeniable proof’ of their ‘irreducible Semitic racial foreignness.’

The noted interwar German-language writer Joseph Roth’s entire oeuvre mourns the loss of his patria, Austria-Hungary. In his novels and stories it represented a multiethnic and tolerant lost Central Europe where speakers of a variety of languages professing a plethora of languages could find a safe haven. He despaired of the exchange of the mansion of such open and accepting polities for the narrow cabins of exclusivist nation-states of the ethnolinguistic kind. Roth and many other intellectuals of Jewish origin hoped that in the then international language of German – spoken from Alsace to Moscow and from Helsinki to Trieste – they might find a new spiritual home, vaguely reminiscent of Austria-Hungary. A vain hope indeed it turned out to be in this novel as Central Europe was divided among ideologically monolingual nation-states, suspicious of any ‘racial’ foreignness that might be concealed by ‘crypto-Jews’ in their assimilation to the national language.

Numerous minorities speaking ‘wrong languages,’ including Jews, survived in interwar Central Europe’s nation-states, suffering indignities of discrimination visited at them by the regimes that rapidly abandoned democracy in favour of authoritarianism, and then totalitarianism. The tragic watershed of World War II demolished the last legal and moral constraints toward building ‘truly homogenous’ nation-states. Others had to disappear or to be disappeared. Between the early 1930s and the 1950s, genocide (infamously known as the ‘final solution’) and ethnic cleansing (euphemistically called ‘population transfer’) became the norm of social and political engineering in the bloodlands of Central Europe. Borders were moved and ‘foreign’ populations expelled to ‘their’ nation-states or exterminated. The result was a new Central Europe of ethnolinguistically homogenous nation-states, with almost no minorities left.

Likewise, despite the false dawn of communism in the Soviet bloc countries, there was no place left for Jews in postwar Central Europe, as poignantly symbolized by their late expulsion from Poland in 1968. Most Holocaust Jewish survivors departed for the United States and Israel. In the former state, as in Austria-Hungary, there is no official or national language, so one can speak and write in public and private what one wants and what one is comfortable with. Israel retained most laws of the British Mandate of Palestine, which was officially trilingual, in Arabic, English and Hebrew. Although English was struck from the pedestal of official language in independent Israel, informally it retains this position, thanks to the constant inflow of Jews from English-speaking states. A quarter of a century ago, when the Soviet bloc disappeared and the Soviet Union broke up, numerous Jews left the social and political disaster zone for Israel. In doing so they added Russian to English as another informal language of import among Israel’s Jews.

Meanwhile ethnolinguistic nationalism was again at work. Bilingual Czechoslovakia was divided into the monolingual nation-states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The post-Soviet polities in Europe quickly dropped Russian and other minority languages in order to reinvent themselves as ‘proper’ monolingual nation-states in conformity with Central Europe’s ethnolinguistic nationalism. And when Yugoslavia splintered, its language of Serbo-Croatian splintered as well, so that each successor nation-states would be endowed with its own specific national language unshared with anyone else.

Talking to my students in Scotland about these processes in my module on ethnolinguistic nationalism in Central Europe, I note that prior to World War II, Central Europe was home to the world’s sole group of ethnolinguistic nation-states. Each basked in official monolingualism brandishing its specific and unshared language. A similar group of ethnolinguistic nation-states emerged in the course of decolonization in Southeast Asia. But there is no ethnolinguistic nation-state of this type anywhere else outside Eurasia, be it in Africa or the Americas. Some pointed out that Israel – with its interwar ‘language wars’ when proponents of Hebrew persecuted supporters of Yiddish – could be defined as an ethnolinguistic nation-state. I agreed to a degree, but emphasized the fact that Israel is officially bilingual. I also added that this skewing toward ethnolinguistic nationalism should not surprise, as most of Israel’s Jews stem from or are descendants of Jews from Central Europe where the ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism was invented.

Having said that, I proposed to my students that Israel would not endorse the appealing, but in essence poisonous, lure of ethnolinguistic nationalism, because so many of its Jewish inhabitants came from the emphatically non-ethnolinguistic United States. Furthermore, the robust democracy enshrined in the Israeli legal and political system would have prevented such an occurrence. On the other hand, with the big bang eastward enlargement of the European Union (EU) in 2004, the holy grail of ethnolinguistic homogeneity in Central Europe’s nation-states is undermined by the use of the EU’s 24 official languages and the millions-strong migration waves from one member state to another. For instance, over one million Poles in the UK and Ireland have already become bilingual, though state and municipal offices, alongside the NHS, do provide them with printed and oral information in Polish when requested. This is an anathema and a death blow to the authoritarian dream of ethnolinguistically homogenous national statehood.

But now it appears I was wrong. The Jewish nation-state bill under deliberation in the Knesset provides for making Israel a monolingual ethnolinguistic national polity, to the exclusion of Arabic-speakers. But it appears that being a Hebrew-speaker would not be enough, either. Like in interwar or communist Poland where a Polish-speaking Jew could never be a ‘true Pole,’ according to the aforementioned bill, neither could a Hebrew-speaker of another religion but Judaism be a ‘proper Israeli.’ Perhaps this ethnolinguistic and ethnoreligious exclusion will be also extended to non-practising and secular Jews, and to Jews who converted to other religions. What would then happen to these ‘half-Israelis’ and ‘tolerated non-Israelis’ (Arabic-speakers), what is awaiting them in the future?

The history of ethnolinguistic nationalism in Central Europe provides a useful clue. The ethnolinguistic nation-state as the sole model of legitimate statehood in the region was enshrined almost a century ago. I do not believe in numerology, but it is quite an eerie coincidence that a hundred years later Israel should consider entering the ideological path which Central Europe trod during the bloody 20th century. It fills me with foreboding the more, as the bill is offered on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War that erased Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire from the map. In these multiethnic empires many Jews found true home for many generations. In the successor nation-states they found themselves to be homeless, unwanted, excluded, discriminated, expelled and exterminated. Would anyone seriously wish a repeat of this Central European history in the Middle East?

Those who may answer ‘yes,’ seem to join with Vladimir Putin. On the centenary of World War I that severed the western borderlands of the Russian Empire, he embarked on the dangerous policy of regaining them. In March of this year (2014) Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea and now is clandestinely stoking up and supporting the secessionist war in eastern Ukraine. His justification of the decisions is couched in purely ethnolinguistic terms. Most of the population in the aforementioned areas speak Russian, so according to him they are Russians. (To my knowledge no English politician seriously claims that Scots, Canadians or Americans must be English, because they speak the English language.) Following this line of thinking, Mr Putin proposes that it gives Russia the right to intervene and even annex all the territories compactly inhabited by Russian-speakers. Obviously, within the boundaries of the former Soviet Union or the so-called ‘near-abroad,’ but the logic could be easily extended to Israel with its 1.5 million Russian-speakers. This April the Russian Duma passed a law that recognizes each native Russian-speaker as a Russian and opens an easy path for them to obtaining Russian citizenship.

This law is strangely similar in its logic to the Jewish nation-state bill. Both idolize language and identity at the expense of democracy, inclusiveness and openness. History may be a great teacher, but apparently not in this case. Despite libraries full of books and websites clogged with information on discrimination, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, concentration camps and genocide in the 20th-century Europe, both Israel and Russia seem to have decided to give ethnolinguistic nationalism another try, this time in the 21st century. I pray this sad conclusion is wrong.

Cill Rìmhinn / Saunt Aundraes / St Andrews
November 28, 2014

In Practice: Bernhard Struck

What is transnational history (to me)? The Q Factor OR Transnational History as a Hearing Aid

The following post is part of a series of postings in which our institute members ask themselves “What does transnational and global history mean for me and my research?”. Read the take by Kelsey Jackson Williams, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at St Andrews. The new post is by Bernhard Struck, currently co-director of the Institute for Transnational & Spatial History. 

Another semester has just come to a close. That makes four years of teaching and co-teaching transnational and global history on our two modules that feed into our general Modern History MLitt / Masters programme at St Andrews: Crossing Borders and Global Histories. End of semester is always a good to moment to step back (breathe, think what have we done and taught, how and why) and start thinking ahead. Next term will see the launch of a new undergraduate module Doing and Practicing Transnational History.

Next academic year, 2015-16, the Institute for Transnational & Spatial History will be launching its new Masters programme (MLitt) in Transnational and Spatial History – an exciting step for us as a team. So, time to breathe. Time to look back and ahead. And as we are at the end of term, my personal spin on the question “What is transnational history? (for me)” goes through the lens of teaching. In a nutshell: teaching – that comes with doing and practicing – transnational history for me is:

  • starting with & from curiosity
  • having exciting and unexpected conversations with a great mix of different people from various corners (and borders) of the world
  • seeing things differently and from different angles and perspectives
  • being pushed outside the comfort zone (including mine)
  • (re)mixing expertise & ignorance
  • being a better listener
  • give & take
  • finding flow & inspiration
  • thinking outside the box

These aspects and certainly others do not come in a particular order, though I have tried to put them in a order as I see them fit and interact. They correlate and reinforce one another. They may be more circular rather than linear or listed and ranked. But the circle has to start somewhere and, to me, transnational history starts with working with great, open-minded people in the first place. In 2011 we started teaching “Crossing Borders. European History in Transnational Perspectives”. Last year, in 2013, we added “Global Histories, Globalisation and its Histories”. Over the years we have taught groups of students that were small in size (which is part of the fun and quality, normally 4-6), but global in scale.

Discussing Spatial History and C. Withers "Placing the Enlightenment", Nov 2014

Discussing Spatial History and C. Withers “Placing the Enlightenment”, Nov 2014

In our little teaching and research village (that is St Andrews) on the east coast of Scotland we had students from the UK (perhaps obvious – but a minority), from the US, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, France, Austria, Greece doing and practicing transnational history. And I am sure this is incomplete.

In return the modules have been taught by a Scot working on France and colonial Algeria (Stephen Tyre), by a (well) Scott-Kiwi or Kiwi-Scott working on interwar Europe (Conan Fischer), a Brit working on the transfer of seeds and botanist networks (Sarah Easterly-Smith), a Norwegian-Scot-US breed with the (embarrassing – for me as I only know some European) capacity of speaking three Asian languages (and Norwegian, Spanish, English) (that is Konrad Lawson), a German with an interest in border regions and travel (myself), a Pole or should we say a “truly-speaking” Central-European who masters God knows how many languages and works on even more languages (Tomek Kamusella) and a colleague with an Indian and Empire background working on French imperial histories (Akhila Yechury).

With normally two of us in the room we try to teach and discuss aspects such as “comparative and transnational history”, “transnational and global history”, “the question of scales in global history”, “networks and ANTs” (Actor-Network-Theory), “border regions”, “transfers and circulation of knowledge”, the role of “global cities” or the relevance of space in transnational & global history. (Take a look: Handbook Global History 2014)

Back to the students: the national labels used above as shorthand are somewhat misleading. We have had social anthropologists joining in from the Californian-Mexican borderlands. We have had students from, historically speaking, places from the former Habsburg lands that cannot be easily labelled under one national banner. We have had takers from the Bavarian-Austrian border or the French Jura with a view of the Swiss Alps.

What do these people (students and tutors alike), put into a single room once a week, share? What do we have in common? Not much apparently. In particular not if one starts with the national label. The national label and background apart, however, this constantly varying group that comes from different institutions (yes, they matter and we discuss that in the modules as part of the role of institutions, places of science and the circulation of knowledge) shares a lot, despite or rather because of different (national) traditions of doing history.

What these groups share leads back to my list above: taking curiosity as a starting point (not the safe or assumed safer ground of starting from the nation as spatial entity), mixing different expertise, pushing one’s comfort zones – all these contribute to the joy of teaching in such an environment (transnational in itself). These are elements that, to me, tease out the extra edge in teaching history, often simply by bringing in an otherwise unexpected perspective, and feed back into my own research. I would not like to compare teaching transnational & global history to other ways of teaching and practicing histories. There are too many exiting ways of doing it. However, what I have enjoyed over the years teaching these modules and the type of student is that they come with a certain openness and curiosity to step onto new grounds and unexplored territory.

Morenish House, Loch Tay - Transnational Away Weekend, January 2014

Morenish House, Loch Tay – Transnational Away Weekend, January 2014

Students come prepared for methodological discussions and are receptive to the open (and puzzling) questions: Where is transnational history (when history is not set in a – national – container)? How to enter global history – from the global (daunting) or the local? They come prepared to run the extra mile – learning another language. (If I did not miscount: there were six different native languages around the table at the last reading and hiking away weekend.)

This leads to a level of openness, receptiveness and alertness. It brings together different and unexpected fields of expertise. It makes people talk to one another across time and space that otherwise may not sit around the same table. It opens up confessing ignorance. It is easy to listen to an expert in field X. But experts are not always the best listeners – or explainers, for that matter. The transnational mix in class makes for better explainers and speakers. If you do not share too much of the same common ground, expertise, historiographical background, you have to explain more carefully and nuanced. You share more, but take more. This is where the unashamedly selfish researcher inside me comes in: I take a lot of ideas away from our classes as I learn so much from students and colleagues. (Do not worry, I like experts and expertise. Achtung! If you click on this, be aware of unashamed self-advertising and something on experts.)

Perhaps in a nutshell: Doing and teaching transnational & global history feels a bit like the famous Q factor that helps explaining the success of Broadway musicals. The mix makes the music. And I find myself often being a better listener to the transnational or global music in class, when I am ignorant of something others can teach me. To sum up: transnational history for me is a hearing aid. Happy to put it back in next term and start from scratch – and curiosity.