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The Spectacles of Isaiah Berlin

By Assaf Inbari

The twentieth century's greatest liberal was anything but a pluralist


Is nationalism indeed essentially a modern European (and reactionary) phenomenon? Is it not actually even more ancient than the Greek recognition of the incompatibility of absolute values, which Berlin portrayed as a discovery of Romanticism?
Nationalism was born three thousand years ago in ancient Israel.39 For the last two thousand years, by their own irritating existence as a nation, the Jews acted as a constant reminder of the national idea for the people among whom they lived. In fact, the Jews presented the challenge of nationality to their hosts as far back as the fourth century B.C.E. if the book of Esther is to be believed. Mordechai refuses to bow down in front of Haman, the representative of the Persian Empire, not because he holds him in personal contempt, but because Mordechai’s self-definition is national rather than civic. Haman complains about him to Ahasverus in these words: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from all people; nor do they keep the king’s laws.”40 Haman realized, as all subsequent hosts of the Jews realized, that the national self-definition of the Jews does not depend on territorial possessions, political sovereignty, or a state constitution. The people of Israel obviously yearned for territory, sovereignty, and statehood, but it demonstrated to the European and Arab nations what it demonstrated to Ahasverus and Haman: That nationhood is a category in itself and is not derived from other categories.41
The nationalist idea is not racist. If we understand the Bible as the autobiography of the people of Israel, then it emphasizes at all its key junctures the independence of the definition of nationhood from the ethnic origin of the fathers of the nation or the ethnic background of those who joined it. There is no Hebrew “race,” and according to the division of biblical humanity into races (Shem, Ham, and Japhet), the people of Israel cannot even be said to belong pure and simple to the Semitic race. Osnat the Egyptian, Joseph’s wife, Zipporah the Midianite-Ethiopian, Moses’ wife, Jezebel the Phoenician, Ahab’s wife, and the many Canaanite women taken for wives during the Kingdom of Israel, mixed Semitic blood with the blood of Ham,42 and Solomon’s harem probably included women from the race of Japhet. Moreover, even if we consider only the Semitic elements of the people of Israel, the Bible underscores their heterogeneity: The four “mothers” were Aramaic; the house of David was the offspring of Ruth the Moabite.
This ethnic mix is at the root of the difference between the people of Israel and other ancient peoples. The biblical authors created a nation that is explicitly an artificial collective identity. Belonging to a people is a biological fact; belonging to a nation is a conscious belonging to an “imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson put it.43 “Imagined”—that is to say, essentially fictional. According to Ernest Gellner, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist.”44 On an ethno-biological level, the land of Canaan included a mixture of indigenous peoples and nomads, Semites, Mesopotamians, and Indo-Europeans; on the conscious level, a nation was invented in it.
This imagined community became more and more imagined during two thousand years of Jewish exile. In every Jewish dispersal there were mixed marriages and conversions as a result of which the ethnic identity of those who were dispersed became irrelevant. It was precisely because of this that Jewish identity coalesced into national identity, dependent on common traditions and destinies, not on common blood.45 And the concept of nationhood, freed from its dependence on ethnic traits, was also freed during two thousand years of exile from any dependence on territory, and even from dependence on a common language. Contrary to Marx’s famous dictum, consciousness determines being.46
Thus, the State of Israel is defined as a Jewish state, not as an Israeli state. There is no Israeli nation; there is a Jewish nation, dispersed throughout the world.47 You are no less Jewish if you are not Israeli, and the Jews living in Israel are not a “people” in the ethnic sense. The modern Jewish nation-state is therefore the realization of the concept of nationality invented in the Bible and refined in the Diaspora. Races, peoples, tribes, civilizations, languages, kingdoms—they have all existed, as Genesis tells us, since the dawn of history; but not a nation. Belonging to the imagined community called “nation” is a revolutionary possibility proposed by the Bible, and this proposal is what in time shaped Europe.
Supra-national powers shaped Europe until the end of the eighteenth century,48 in the same way as superpowers, alliances, and supra-national dynamics have shaped and continue to shape the world today.49 But we must not conclude from this that the upsurge of European nationalism in the nineteenth century was what gave rise to the concept of nationalism. Until the nineteenth century, Europe had preferred to define itself according to supra-national categories (as citizens of an empire, as Catholics or as Protestants), or sub-national (as vassals of a principality or as inhabitants of regions), and they preferred this for a thousand and one good and not-so-good reasons. But as hosts of the Jews and as students of the Bible—since Europe’s adoption of Christianity, and all the more so since the Reformation—they were aware of the concept of nationalism and its physical embodiment, and always reacted to it with words and persecution.
Napoleon’s conquests at the beginning of the nineteenth century provoked a nationalistic reaction from Spain to Russia, and this is clearly the starting point for the spread of modern European nationalism. But to tell the story of the spread of European nationalism in the nineteenth century as a story of the birth of the concept of nationalism is to fudge the truth not only as a historian but also as a philosopher. A philosophical discussion of the idea of nationalism demands recognition that it is indeed an idea—not merely a reactionary emotional symptom.
Why did Berlin have the reputation of being a liberal who recognized the significance of nationalism? Perhaps because of the rhetoric he employed when he referred to nationalism: The rhetoric of astonishment at its very existence, and astonishment that all the leading philosophers of the nineteenth century did not recognize as he did the significance of the phenomenon. “No significant thinkers known to me,” he wrote, “predicted for it [nationalism] a future in which it would play an even more dominant role.”50 To be sure, “no social or political thinker in the nineteenth century was unaware of nationalism as a dominant movement of his age,” but, “in the second half of the [nineteenth] century, indeed up to the First World War, it was thought to be waning.”51 So all these philosophers proved to be remarkably short-sighted, because “the rise of nationalism is today a world-wide phenomenon, probably the strongest single factor in the newly established states, and in some cases among the minority populations of the older nations.”52
This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The short-sightedness among nineteenth-century philosophers concerning the flourishing of nationalism in the twentieth century was no more astonishing than Berlin’s short-sightedness concerning the post-nationalist dynamic that began at the end of World War II. The flooding of the United States and Europe with millions of immigrants (Muslims and others), and the demands from the radical Left for a “multi-cultural” definition of citizenship; the renewed delight in Marxism (the negation of nationalism) after the student riots of 1968; the globalization of market forces that developed at the expense of national economies; and the media globalization of the age of television and pop music that developed at the expense of national culture—all these processes together created the post-nationalist order in front of Berlin’s very eyes. When he wrote about nationalism in the seventies, he did not predict and could not have predicted the world’s entry into the Internet age and the unification of Europe at the turn of the century. But the period in which he wrote about nationalism was enough of a post-nationalistic period even without the Internet and the euro. If he had taken serious account of nationalism, he would have dealt with the post-nationalist arguments that became the intellectual bon ton of his generation.
There are two reasons for this short-sightedness. The first is that Berlin was firmly planted in the first half of the twentieth century and did not clean off his spectacles in the second half. The totalitarian setting that shaped his youth continued to condition his thinking in later years. From his perspective, eighteenth-century enlightenment and nineteenth-century nationalism were two opposite but complementary trends that gave rise to Bolshevism, Fascism, and Nazism. Volatile enlightenment ends in Bolshevism, volatile nationalism ends in Fascism and Nazism. There is truth in this, but a truth that became irrelevant in the middle of the twentieth century. The debate on nationalism in our liberal-democratic age, appearing more and more to be a post-nationalist age, is a debate that Berlin was unprepared for.


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