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