Introduction: Burdens of Memory

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A Nation … is a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbors.

—Karl Deutsch, Nationality and Its Alternatives, 1969

I do not think I could have written the book on nationalism which I did write, were I not capable of crying, with the help of a little alcohol, over folk songs.

—Ernest Gellner, “Reply to Critics,” 1996

This book is a work of history. Nonetheless, it will open with a number of personal stories that, like all biographical writing, required a liberal amount of imagination to give them life. To begin like this is less strange than readers may at first imagine. It is no secret that scholarly research is often motivated by personal experiences. These experiences tend to be hidden beneath layers of theory; here some are proffered at the outset. They will serve the author as the launch pad in his passage toward historical truth, an ideal destination that, he is aware, no one ever truly reaches.

Personal memory is untrustworthy—we do not know the color of the ink with which it was written—and thus one should view the depiction of the following encounters as inexact and partly fictitious, though no more so than any other type of biographical writing. As for their possibly troublesome connection with the central thesis of this book, readers will discover it as they proceed. True, their tone is sometimes ironic, even melancholic. But irony and melancholy have their uses, and might jointly be suitable attire for a critical work that seeks to isolate the historical roots and changing nature of identity politics in Israel


The First Story—Two Immigrant Grandfathers

His name was Shulek. Later, in Israel, he was called Shaul. He was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1910. At the end of the First World War his father died of the Spanish flu, and his mother went to work as a laborer in a textile plant near the city. Two of her three children were put up for adoption with the help of the local Jewish community; only Shulek, the youngest, remained at home. He attended a heder for a few years, but his mother’s straitened circumstances forced him out into the streets at an early age, and he began to do various jobs associated with the processing of textiles. That’s how it was in Lodz, Poland’s center of textile production.

The young man shed his parents’ ancient faith for fairly ordinary reasons. As his mother had been impoverished by his father’s death, the local syna• gogue ordered her to sit in the back rows of the congregation. Hierarchy ruled in this traditional society. The reduction of financial capital almost always led to a rapid reduction in symbolic capital, and so the mother’s distance from respectable social status was mirrored in her distance from the holy Torah. Her son, carried along by the momentum of exclusion, found himself cast out of the house of prayer. Loss of faith among the young in the Jewish quarters of major cities was becoming widespread. Overnight young Shulek, too, found himself without a home and without a faith.

But not for long. He joined the Communist Party, as was the fashion, which brought him in line with the cultural and linguistic majority of Polish society. Soon Shulek became a revolutionary activist. The socialist vision filled his imagi• nation and strengthened his spirit, prompting him to read and think in spite of the demanding work he did for a living. The party became a haven. Before long, however, this warm and lively shelter also got him thrown in prison for political sedition. He spent six years there, and while he never finished school, his education was considerably broadened. Though unable to assimilate Marx’s Das Kapital, he became familiar with the popular writings of Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilych Lenin. He who never finished his heder education, and did not fulfill his mother’s hope that he would enter a yeshiva, became a Marxist.

One cold December day in 1939, Shulek saw three Jews hanged in Lodz’s central avenue—a stunt by some German soldiers who’d been drinking in a nearby beer hall. A few days later, he and his young wife and her sister were swept up with a flood of displaced people rushing eastward toward the Red Army, which had occupied half of Poland. Shulek did not take his mother along. Later he would say she was old and frail; in fact, she was then fifty years old. She was similarly old and also indigent when the ghetto dwellers—and she among them—began to be eliminated in slow and cumbersome gas trucks, the primi• tive extermination technology that preceded the more efficient gas chambers.

When the refugees reached the Soviet-occupied area, Shulek knew better than to reveal that he was a Communist: Stalin had recently eliminated the leaders of Polish Communism. Instead Shulek crossed the German-Soviet boundary bearing an old-new identity: that of an avowed Jew. At the time, the USSR was the only country willing to accept Jewish refugees, although it sent most of them to its Asian regions. Shulek and his wife were fortunate in being sent to distant Uzbekistan. His sister-in-law, who was educated and spoke several languages, enjoyed the privilege of being allowed to remain in civilized Europe, which, sadly, had not yet been dubbed Judeo-Christian. So it was that in 1941 she fell into the hands of the Nazis and was dispatched to a crematorium.

In 1945, Shulek and his wife returned to Poland, but even in the absence of the German army the country continued its rejection of the Jews. Once again the Polish Communist was left without a homeland (unless we count Communism, to which, despite all his troubles, he remained loyal). He and his wife and two small children found themselves in a camp for displaced persons in the moun• tains of Bavaria. There he met one of his brothers, who, unlike Shulek, disliked communism and favored Zionism. History looked on their fates with an ironic smile: the Zionist brother got a visa to emigrate to Montreal, where he remained for the rest of his life, while Shulek and his little family were transferred by the Jewish Agency to Marseilles, whence at the end of 1948 they sailed to Haifa.

In Israel, Shulek lived for many years as Shaul, though he never became a real Israeli. Even his identity card did not classify him as such. It defined him as Jewish by nationality and religion—since the 1960s, the state had recorded a religion for all citizens, including confirmed unbelievers—but he was always much more of a Communist than a Jew, and more of a Yiddishist than a Pole. Though he learned to communicate in Hebrew, he did not much care for the language, and continued to speak Yiddish with family and friends.

Shulek was nostalgic for the ‘Yiddishland’ of Eastern Europe and the revolutionary ideas that had seethed and fermented there before the war. In Israel he felt he was stealing other people’s land; though it wasn’t his doing, he continued to regard it as robbery. His obvious alienation was not from the native-born Sabras, who looked down on him, but from the local climate. The hot breath of the Levant was not for him. It only intensified his longing for the heavy snows that blanketed the streets of Lodz, the Polish snow that slowly melted in his memory until his eyes finally closed. At his graveside, his old comrades sang “The Internationale.”

Bernardo was born in Barcelona, Catalonia, in 1924. Years later he would be called Dov. Bernardo’s mother, like Shulek’s mother, was a religious woman her entire life, although she attended a church rather than a synagogue. His father, however, had early on abandoned any intensive preoccupation with the soul and, like many other metalworkers in rebellious Barcelona, become an anarchist. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the anarcho-syndicalist cooperatives supported the young leftist republic and for a while actually ruled Barcelona. But the right-wing, Francoist forces soon reached the city, and young Bernardo fought alongside his father in the final retreat from its streets.

Bernardo’s conscription into Franco’s military, a few years after the end of the Civil War, did not soften his feelings about the new regime. As an armed soldier in 1944, he deserted to the Pyrenees, where he helped other opponents of the regime cross the border. Meanwhile he waited eagerly for the American forces to arrive and bring down the cruel ally of Mussolini and Hitler. To his dismay, the democratic liberators did not even try. Bernardo had no choice but to cross the border himself and become a stateless person. He worked as a miner in France, then stowed away on a ship in hope of reaching Mexico. But he was caught in New York and sent back to Europe in shackles.

Thus in 1948 he, too, was in Marseilles, working in one of the shipyards. One evening in May, he met a group of enthusiastic young men in a dockside café. The young metalworker, still dreaming of the human beauty of Barcelo• na’s revolutionary cooperatives, became convinced that the kibbutz in the new state of Israel was their natural successor. Without the slightest connection to Judaism or Zionism, he boarded an immigrant ship, arrived in Haifa and was promptly sent to the battlefront in the valley of Latrun. Many of his compan• ions fell during combat, but he survived and immediately joined a kibbutz, just as he had dreamed of doing that spring day in Marseilles. There he met the woman of his life. Along with several other couples, they were married by a rabbi in a speedy ritual. In those days, the rabbis were still happy to provide this service and asked no superfluous questions.

The Ministry of the Interior soon discovered that a serious error had been made: Bernardo, now known as Dov, was not a Jew. Although the marriage was not annulled, Dov was summoned to a formal meeting to clarify his true identity In the government office to which he was directed sat an official wearing a large black skullcap. At that time, the religious-Zionist party Mizrahi, which ran the Ministry of the Interior, was cautious and hesitant. It was not yet insistent about “national” territories or the politics of identity exclusion.

The exchange between the two men went more or less as follows: “You are not a Jew, sir,” said the official.

“I never said I was,” replied Dov.

“We shall have to change your registration,” the official said casually. “No problem,” Dov agreed. “Go right ahead.”

“What is your nationality?” “Israeli?” Dov suggested.

“There is no such thing,” stated the official. “Why?”

“Because there is no Israeli national identity,” the ministry official said with a sigh. “Where were you born?”

“In Barcelona.”

“Then we’ll write ‘nationality: Spanish.’ “

“But I’m not Spanish. I’m a Catalan, and I refuse to be categorized as Spanish. That’s what my father and I fought about in the 1930s.”

The official scratched his head. He knew no history, but he did respect people. “So we’ll put ‘nationality: Catalan.’ “

“Very good!” said Dov.

Thus Israel became the first country in the world to officially recognize the Catalan nationality.

“Now, sir, what is your religion?” “I’m a secular atheist.”

“I can’t write ‘atheist.’ The State of Israel does not recognize such a cate• gory. What was your mother’s religion?”

“The last time I saw her, she was still a Catholic.”

“Then I shall write ‘religion: Christian,’ ” the official said, relieved.

But Dov, normally a calm man, was growing impatient. “I won’t carry an identity card that says I’m a Christian. It’s not only opposed to my principles; it offends the memory of my father, who was an anarchist and set fire to churches in the Civil War.”

The official scratched his head some more, weighed the options, and found a solution. Dov left the ministry office with a blue identity card that declared both his nationality and his religion to be Catalan.

Over the years, Dov took pains not to let his national and religious iden• tity adversely affect his daughters. He knew that Israeli schoolteachers often referred to “us Jews,” despite the fact that some of their pupils, or the pupils’ parents, might not be among that group. Since Dov was antireligious, and his wife was opposed to his being circumcised, conversion to Judaism was not on the cards. At some point he searched for some imaginary link to the Marranos (forced converts) of Spain. But when his daughters grew up and assured him that his being a non-Jew did not trouble them, he abandoned the search.

Fortunately for him, the graveyards of kibbutzim do not bury gentiles outside the fence or in Christian cemeteries, as all other Israeli communities do. Dov, therefore, is buried in the same plot of land as the other members of the kibbutz. His identity card, however, has disappeared, though he could hardly have taken it with him on his final journey.

In due time, the two immigrants, Shulek and Bernardo, shared Israeli granddaughters. Their father was a friend of two men whose stories begin here.

The Second Story—Two “Native” Friends

Mahmoud One (both protagonists in this story are named Mahmoud) was born in Jaffa in 1945. In the 1950s there were still some Arab neighborhoods whose inhabitants had not fled to Gaza during the fighting and were permitted go on living in their native city. This Mahmoud grew up in the impoverished alleys of the city, which was almost entirely settled by Jewish immigrants. Unlike the population in the Sharon Plain and the Galilee, the Palestinians of Jaffa had been left depleted and orphaned; too few of the city’s original inhab• itants remained to carry forward an independent culture, and the immigrant society refused to become involved or integrated with them.

One outlet from the small, narrow ghetto of Arab Jaffa was the Israeli Communist party. Young Mahmoud joined its youth movement, in which he met Israelis his own age. The movement also enabled him to learn Hebrew well and to travel in and become familiar with “Eretz Israel,” which was still quite small. Moreover, the movement took him beyond the scanty education he had received at the Arab school, and, like Shulek of Poland, he studied Engels and Lenin and tried to read Communist writers from around the world. His Israeli youth guides liked him, and he was always willing to help his comrades.

Mahmoud befriended an Israeli boy a year younger than he was. They shared an outlook, and Mahmoud helped his friend cope with the intense, challenging street life of Jaffa. His physical strength made the younger lad feel safe, while the latter’s sharp tongue sometimes served Mahmoud well. They grew very close. They told each other their deepest secrets. The friend learned that Mahmoud dreamed of being called Moshe and of being accepted as one of the boys. Some evenings as they wandered about the streets, Mahmoud introduced himself as Moshe and succeeded in convincing peddlers and shopkeepers of his Jewishness. But he could not maintain the other identity for long, and always reverted to Mahmoud. Nor did his pride allow him to turn his back on his family.

One advantage Mahmoud enjoyed as an Arab was exemption from military service. His friend, however, received a conscription notice, which threatened to separate them. One weekend in 1964, they sat on Jaffa’s beautiful beach and specu• lated about the future. Fantasizing freely, they resolved that as soon as Mahmoud’s friend completed his military service they would travel the world, and perhaps, if they were lucky, would not have to come back to Israel. To cement this fateful resolution, they carefully cut their palms and pressed them together and, like a pair of silly little boys, swore to make the great journey together.

Mahmoud waited for the younger man to complete his national service. It lasted more than two and a half years. But the friend came back changed—in love, emotionally shackled, confused. Though he remembered their pact, he became hesitant. Tel Aviv’s vibrancy attracted him. Its abundant temptations were too great to resist. Mahmoud waited patiently but finally had to admit that his friend was very attached to the excitement of Israeliness and would not be able to break away from it. So Mahmoud gave up, saved his money, and left. He crossed Europe slowly, putting Israel farther and farther behind him, until he reached Stockholm. Despite Sweden’s unfamiliar cold and blinding white snow, he tried hard to adapt. He began working for an elevator company and became an expert installer.

But during the long northern winters he still dreamed of Jaffa. When he wanted to marry, he returned to the place that had once been his homeland but that history had decided, when he was three, would not be his. He found a suitable woman, took her back to Sweden, and raised a family with her there. Somehow the Palestinian from Jaffa became a Scandinavian, and his children grew up speaking Swedish. They taught their mother their native tongue. Long ago, Mahmoud stopped wishing his name were Moshe.

The other Mahmoud was born in 1941 in a small village, now long extinct, near Acre. In 1948 he became a refugee when his family fled the fighting to Lebanon, and his birthplace was erased. A thriving Jewish village rose on its ruins. One moonless night, a year after the war, Mahmoud and his family quietly crossed back across the border and made their way to the house of relatives in the village of Jadida, in the Galilee. In this way, Mahmoud came to be included among those who for many years were classified as “present absen• tees”— refugees who remained in their country of birth but had lost their land and possessions. This second Mahmoud was a dreamy, gifted child who used to amaze his teachers and friends with his eloquence and imagination. Like the first Mahmoud, he joined the Communist Party and soon became famous within its ranks as a journalist and poet. He moved to Haifa, which was then the biggest mixed Jewish-Arab city in Israel. There he met young Israeli men and women, and his poetry attracted a growing public. His bold poem “Iden• tity Card,” written in 1964, excited an entire generation of young Arabs, both inside Israel and beyond its borders. The poem opens with a proud challenge to an official of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior:


I am an Arab

And my identity card number is fifty thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth is coming after the summer

Will you be angry?

Israel compelled its indigenous non-Jewish citizens to carry an identity card in which their nationality was listed neither as Israeli nor Palestinian, but as Arab. Paradoxically, it thus became one of the very few countries in the world that recognized not only Catalan but Arab nationalities. Early on, the poet foresaw that the growing number of non-Jewish residents in Israel would begin to worry the authorities and politicians.

Mahmoud was soon labeled seditious. In the 1960s, Israel still feared poets more than shaheeds (martyrs). He was repeatedly detained, sentenced to house arrest, and in quiet periods forbidden to leave Haifa without a police permit. He suffered the persecution and restrictions with a stoical, rather than a poet• ical, sangfroid, and took comfort in the friends who made the pilgrimage to his flat in Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood.

Among his distant associates was a young Communist from Jaffa. This comrade knew no Arabic, but Mahmoud’s poems in Hebrew translation fired his imagination and tempted him to try his hand at writing. Once discharged from the army, he would travel to Haifa from time to time to visit the poet. Their talk not only strengthened his faith in the struggle, but was also a useful deterrent against writing puerile verse.

At the end of 1967 the young man again visited Haifa. While taking part in the conquest of East Jerusalem, he had had to shoot at the enemy and intimi• date terrified inhabitants. Israelis were intoxicated with victory; Arabs were sick with humiliation. Mahmoud’s young friend felt bad and smelled bad with the stink of war. He longed to abandon everything and leave the country. But he also wanted a final meeting with the poet he admired.

During the fighting in the Holy City, Mahmoud was manacled and taken to prison through the streets of Haifa. The soldier saw him after his release. They passed a sleepless, drunken night immersed in the fumes of alcohol beside windows made dim by cigarette smoke. The poet tried to persuade his young admirer to remain and resist, rather than flee to alien cities and abandon their common homeland. The soldier poured out his despair, his revulsion with the general air of triumphalism, his alienation from the soil on which he had shed innocent blood. At the end of the night, he vomited his guts out. At midday, the poet woke him with a translation of a poem he had written at first light, “A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies”:

understanding as he told me

that home

is drinking his mother’s coffee

and coming back safely at evening.

I asked him:

and the land?

He said:

I don’t know it

In 1968, a Palestinian poem about an Israeli soldier capable of feeling remorse for his violence and for having lost his head in battle, of feeling guilty about taking part in a conquest of the land of others, was perceived by the Arab world as a betrayal—surely such Israeli soldiers did not exist. The Haifa poet was roundly chastised, even accused of cultural collaboration with the Zionist enemy. But this did not last. His prestige continued to grow, and he soon became a symbol of the proud resistance of the Palestinians in Israel.

Eventually the soldier left the country, but the poet had left before him. He could no longer bear being suffocated by the police, subjected to continual perse• cution and harassment. The Israeli authorities quickly abrogated his questionable citizenship. They never forgot mat the cheeky poet was the first Arab in Israel to issue his own identity card, when he wasn’t supposed to have an identity at all.

The poet traveled from one capital to another, his fame growing all the while. Finally, during the ephemeral Oslo Initiative thaw, he was allowed to return and settle in Ramallah, on the West Bank. But he was forbidden to enter Israel. Only when a fellow writer died did the security authorities relent and allow Mahmoud to set his eyes on the scenes of his childhood, if only for a few hours. As he did not carry explosives, he was subsequently permitted to enter a few more times.

The soldier, meanwhile, spent many years in Paris, strolling its beautiful streets and studying. Finally he weakened. Despite the alienation, he was over• come by longing for the city in which he had grown up, and so he returned to the painful place where his identity was forged. His homeland, claiming to be the “State of the Jewish people,” received him willingly.

As for the rebellious poet who had been born on its soil, and the old friend who had dreamed of being Moshe—the state was too narrow to include them.

The Third Story—Two (Non-)Jewish Students

Named Gisèle, after her grandmother, she was born and brought up in Paris. She was a lively, impetuous girl whose first response was always, No. Yet despite the stubborn no, or perhaps because of it, she was an excellent student, though barely tolerated by her teachers. Her parents indulged her in every way, even when she suddenly decided to study the Holy Tongue. They had hoped she would be a scientist, but she made up her mind to live in Israel. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and learned Yiddish and Hebrew at the same time. Yiddish she chose because it was the language spoken by her grandmother, whom she never knew, and Hebrew because she wanted it to be the language of her future children.

Her father had been imprisoned in the camps. Owing mainly to the help of German fellow prisoners, he was saved, and thus was fortunate enough to return to Paris after the war. His mother, Gisela, who was taken with him in the summer of 1942, was sent directly from Drancy to Auschwitz. She did not survive. He joined the French socialist party and there met his future wife. They had two daughters, one of whom was named Gisèle.

By the time she was in secondary school, Gisèle was already a wild anar• chist, associating with the remnants of the legendary groups of May ’68. When she turned seventeen, she abruptly announced she was a Zionist. At the time, there were not yet many books in French about the fate of the French Jews during the Nazi occupation, and Gisèle had to be content with general writ• ings about the period, which she read avidly. She knew that many of those who survived the death camps had gone to Israel, but that her grandmother Gisela had perished. Gisèle sought out Jewish women who resembled her, and prepared to undertake “aliyah.”

In the winter of 1976 she took an intensive Hebrew course given by the Jewish Agency in the heart of Paris. Her teacher was an irritable, sensitive Israeli. She annoyed him with her questions and did not hesitate to correct him on tricky verb declensions. Although her critical remarks displeased him, she intrigued him and he did not strike back: she was the best student in the class, and he could not help but respect her.

Before the end of the year, however, Gisèle suddenly stopped attending the course. The Hebrew teacher wondered if he had unwittingly offended her during one of their disputes in class. A few weeks later, as the course was coining to an end, she suddenly turned up, haughtier than ever but with a touch of melancholy in her eyes. She informed him that she had decided to stop studying Hebrew.

Gisèle had been to the Jewish Agency to arrange her travel to Israel. There she was told that she could study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and could receive the usual immigrant benefits, but that she would not be consid• ered Jewish unless she converted. Gisèle, who always insisted she was a Jew and was proud of her typically Jewish surname, had known that her mother, despite her wholehearted identification with her husband, was a gentile. She also knew that in the Jewish religion the child’s religious identity is derived from the mother’s, but she had considered this only a minor bureaucratic detail. Being young and impatient, and also convinced that the history of her father’s family provided sufficient grounds for her self-identification, she had expected these matters to be easily resolved.

Impertinently, in French, she had asked the Jewish Agency official if he was a believer. No, he replied. Then she asked him how a nonreligious person who regarded himself as a Jew could advise another nonreligious person who regarded herself as a Jew to convert in order to join the Jewish people and their country? The representative of the Jewish people replied drily that this was the law, adding that in Israel her father would not have been able to marry her mother, as only religious marriage was allowed. Suddenly Gisèle understood that she was, so to speak, a national bastard. Though she thought of herself as a Jew, and since becoming a Zionist was also seen by others as a Jew, she was not enough of a Jew to satisfy the State of Israel.

Gisèle refused to consider conversion. She could not bear clerics of any persuasion, and having heard about the embarrassment and hypocrisy involved in conversion to orthodox Judaism, she recoiled in disgust. There were still traces of radical anarchism in her personality, and she promptly eliminated Israel from her list of desirable destinations. She decided not to migrate to the state of the Jewish people, and gave up learning Hebrew.

Having conducted her final talk with her Israeli teacher in French, she ended it by saying, in strongly accented Hebrew, “Thanks for everything, so long and perhaps good-bye.”

The teacher thought he could discern a Yiddishist intonation in her voice. She had, after all, learned Yiddish. He never heard from her again. Years later, he came across her name in a respected Paris newspaper. She’d written an article about Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories; beneath her name, it was noted that she was a psychoanalyst. No doubt many French Jews immedi• ately classified her as a self-hating Jew, while the anti-Semites probably thought hers was a typically Jewish profession.

The other student, whose name was Larissa, was born in 1984 in a small town in Siberia. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s, her parents migrated to Israel, where they were sent to a so-called develop• ment town in the Upper Galilee. There Larissa was brought up amid a balance of immigrant and Israeli children, and appeared to integrate well. She began to speak Hebrew like a Sabra and was content with herself and with daily life in Israel. Sometimes she was upset when called a Russian and teased because of her golden hair, but that was how local youngsters treated newly arrived children.

In the year 2000, at age sixteen, she went to the Ministry of the Interior office to obtain her first identity card. She was received cordially by a woman clerk and given an application form to complete. When it came to the question of nationality, she asked, naively, if she could write “Jewish.” The clerk looked through the information she had already entered and explained, apologeti• cally, that she could not. She would be in the same category as her mother, and thus bear the taunting title “Russian.” Later she would say at that moment she felt the same pain as when she began to menstruate—something that occurs in nature and can never be got rid of.

Larissa was not the only girl in the town who bore this mark of Cain. At school they even formed a sorority of non-Jewish girls. They shielded each other and tried to smudge the nationality information on their identity cards to make it illegible, but that didn’t work and they had to continue to carry the incriminating document. At seventeen they all hastened to get a driver’s license, as that did not detail nationality and could substitute for an identity card.

Then came the school’s “Roots” trip to the death camps in Poland. A problem arose. To obtain a passport, Larissa had to bring her identity card to school. Fear that the entire class would discover her secret, as well as her parents’ limited means, made her forgo the trip. So she didn’t get to see Auschwitz, which has gradually been replacing Masada as the site of forma• tive memory in modern Jewish identity. She was, however, conscripted into national military service, and although she tried to use her Russian national status to avoid the draft—even writing a long letter to the recruiting office about it—her request was turned down.

Military service actually did Larissa some good. Fumbling for the Bible during the swearing-in ceremony, she trembled and even shed tears. For a moment she forgot the little cross she had received from her maternal grand• mother upon leaving Russia as a little girl. Once in uniform, she felt she belonged, and was convinced that from now on she would be taken for an Israeli in every way. She turned her back on the detested, faltering Russian culture of her parents, choosing to date only Sabras and avoiding Russian men. Nothing pleased her more than to be told she did not look Russian, despite the suspicious color of her hair. She even considered converting to Judaism. Indeed, she went so far as to seek out the military rabbi, but then desisted at the last moment. Though her mother was not devout, Larissa did not want to abandon her to an isolated identity.

After her military service, Larissa moved to Tel Aviv. Fitting into the lively, carefree city was easy. She had a new feeling that the nationality detailed on her identity card was insignificant, and that her persistent sense of inferiority was merely a subjective invention. Yet sometimes at night, when she was in love with someone, a worry nagged at her: What Jewish mother would want non-Jewish grandchildren from a gentile daughter-in-law, a shickse?

She began to study history at the university. She felt wonderful there, and liked to spend time in the student cafeteria. In her third year she signed up for a course called “Nations and Nationalism in the Modern Age,” having heard that the lecturer was not too strict and that the work was not difficult. Later she realized that something else, too, had attracted her curiosity.

During the first class the teacher asked if any of the students in the room were registered as something other than Jewish by the Ministry of the Inte• rior. Not a hand was raised. She feared that the lecturer would stare at her, but he only looked slightly disappointed and said nothing more about it. The course appealed to her, though the lessons were sometimes boring and the professor tended to repeat himself. She began to understand the unique nature of Israeli identity politics. Unwrapping situations she’d experienced while growing up, she saw them in a new light; she understood that in her mind, if not in her lineage, she was in fact one of the last Jews in the State of Israel.

Later in the semester, obliged to choose a subject for a term paper, she quietly approached the professor.

“Do you remember the question you asked in the first class?” “What do you mean?”

“You asked if any student present was not classified as Jewish. I should have raised my hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Then she added, with a smile, “You might say I once again failed to come out of the closet.”

“Well, then,” he said. “Write a term paper about what made you ‘pretend.’ Maybe it will spur me to start writing a book about a confused nation pretending to be a wandering people-race.”

Her paper received a high mark. It was the final push that broke the barrier of anxiety and mental struggle.

By now, you may have guessed that Larissa’s history teacher in Tel Aviv was also Gisèle’s Hebrew teacher in rainy Paris. In his youth, he was a friend of Mahmoud the elevator installer, as well as of the Mahmoud who became the Palestinians’ national poet. He was the son-in-law of Bernardo, the Barcelona anarchist, and the son of Shulek, the Lodz Communist.

He is also the author of the present troublesome book—written, among other reasons, so that he can try to understand the general historical logic that might underlie these personal stories of identity.


Undoubtedly, personal experience can sway a historian’s choice of research topic, probably more so than for a mathematician or a physicist. But it would be wrong to assume that personal experience dominates the process and method of the historian’s work. Sometimes a generous grant directs a researcher to a particular field. At other times, if less often, findings rise up and compel a scholar to take a new direction. Meanwhile, everything that originally alerted the scholar to the central issues with which he or she is preoccupied continues to engage the mind. Other factors, too, of course, help shape any intellectual endeavor.

Over and above all these components is the fact that the historian, like other members of society, accumulates layers of collective memory well before becoming a researcher. Each of us has assimilated multiple narratives shaped by past ideological struggles. History lessons, civics classes, the educational system, national holidays, memorial days and anniversaries, state ceremonies—various spheres of memory coalesce into an imagined universe representing the past, and it coalesces well before a person has acquired the tools for thinking critically about it. By the time a historian has taken the first steps in his career, and begun to understand the unfolding of time, this huge universe of culturally constructed “truth” has taken up residence in the scholar’s mind, and thoughts cannot but pass through it. Thus, the historian is the psychological and cultural product not only of personal experiences but also of instilled memories.

When, as a young child in nursery school, the author stamped his feet during Hanukkah festivities and sang enthusiastically, “Here we come with fire and light / darkness to expel!” the primary images of “us” and “them” began to take shape in his mind. We, the Jewish Maccabees, became associated with the light; they, the Greeks and their followers, with the dark. Later, in primary school, Bible lessons informed him that the biblical heroes had conquered the land that had been promised him. Coming from an atheistic background, he doubted the promise, yet in a natural sort of way he justified Joshua’s warriors, whom he regarded as his ancestors. (He belonged to a generation for whom history followed a path directly from the Bible to national revival, unlike the elision he would make in later years from the exile to the Holocaust.) The rest is known—the sense of being a descendant of the ancient Jewish people became not merely a certainty but a central component of his self-identity. Neither stud• ying history at university nor becoming a professional historian could dissolve those crystallized historical “memories.” Although historically the nation-state arose in the world before compulsory mass education, only through this system could it consolidate its position. Culturally constructed memories were firmly entrenched at the upper levels of state education; at their core was national historiography.

To promote a homogeneous collective in modern times, it was necessary to provide, among other things, a long narrative suggesting a connection in time and space between the fathers and the “forefathers” of all the members of the present community. Since such a close connection, supposedly pulsing within the body of the nation, has never actually existed in any society, the agents of memory worked hard to invent it. With the help of archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists, a variety of findings were collected. These were subjected to major cosmetic improvements carried out by essayists, jour• nalists, and the authors of historical novels. From this surgically improved past emerged the proud and handsome portrait of the nation.1

Every history contains myths, but those that lurk within national histori• ography are especially brazen. The histories of peoples and nations have been designed like the statues in city squares—they must be grand, towering, heroic. Until the final quarter of the twentieth century, reading a national history was like reading the sports page in the local paper: “Us” and “All the Others” was the usual, almost the natural, division. For more than a century, the produc• tion of Us was the life’s work of the national historians and archaeologists, the authoritative priesthood of memory.

Prior to the national branching-out in Europe, many people believed they were descended from the ancient Trojans. This mythology was scientifically adjusted at the end of the eighteenth century. Influenced by the imaginative work of professional students of the past—both Greeks and other Europeans— the inhabitants of modern Greece saw themselves as the biological descendants of Socrates and Alexander the Great or, alternatively, as the direct heirs of the Byzantine Empire. Since the end of the nineteenth century, influential textbooks have transformed the ancient Romans into typical Italians. In the schools of the French Third Republic, Gallic tribes who rebelled against Rome in the time of Julius Caesar were described as true Frenchmen (though of a not-quite-Latin temperament). Other historians chose King Clovis’s conversion to Christianity in the fifth century as the true birth of the almost eternal French nation.

The pioneers of Romanian nationalism drew their modern identity from the ancient Roman colony of Dacia; given this exalted origin, they called their new language Romanian. During the nineteenth century, many Britons began to view Queen Boudicca, leader of the Celtic tribe of Iceni, who fiercely resisted the Roman conquerors, as the first Englishwoman; a glorified statue of her stands in London. German authors seized eagerly on Tacitus’s account of Arminius leading the ancient tribe of the Cherusci, and depicted him as the father of their nation. Even Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and owner of many black slaves, insisted that the state seal of the United States bear the images of Hengist and Horsa, who led the first Saxon invaders of Britain during the century in which Clovis was baptised. The reason he gave was that it was they “from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”2

Much the same went on in the twentieth century. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the inhabitants of the new Turkey found that they were white Aryans, the descendants of the Sumerians and the Hittites. Arbitrarily mapping the boundaries of Iraq, a lazy British officer drew a dead straight line; those who had overnight become Iraqis soon learned from their authorized historians that they were the descendants of the ancient Babylonians as well as of the Arabs, descendants of Saladin’s heroic warriors. Many Egyptian citizens had no doubt that their first national state had been the ancient pagan pharaonic kingdom, which did not stop them from being devout Muslims. Indians, Algerians, Indonesians, Vietnamese and Iranians still believe that their nations always existed, and from an early age their schoolchildren memorize long historical narratives.

For Israelis, specifically those of Jewish origin, such mythologies are far• fetched, whereas their own history rests on firm and precise truths. They know for a certainty that a Jewish nation has been in existence since Moses received the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai, and that they are its direct and exclu• sive descendants (except for the ten tribes, who are yet to be located). They are convinced that this nation “came out” of Egypt; conquered and settled “the Land of Israel,” which had been famously promised it by the deity; created the magnif• icent kingdom of David and Solomon, which then split into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They are also convinced that this nation was exiled, not once but twice, after its periods of glory—after the fall of the First Temple in the sixth century BCE, and again after the fall of the Second Temple, in 70 CE. Yet even before that second exile, this unique nation had created the Hebrew Hasmonean kingdom, which revolted against the wicked influence of Hellenization.

They believe that these people—their “nation,” which must be the most ancient—wandered in exile for nearly two thousand years and yet, despite this prolonged stay among the gentiles, managed to avoid integration with, or assimilation into, them. The nation scattered widely, its bitter wanderings taking it to Yemen, Morocco, Spain, Germany, Poland, and distant Russia, but it always managed to maintain close blood relations among the far-flung communities and to preserve its distinctiveness.

Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, they contend, rare circum• stances combined to wake the ancient people from its long slumber and to prepare it for rejuvenation and for the return to its ancient homeland. And so the nation began to return, joyfully, in vast numbers. Many Israelis still believe that, but for Hitler’s horrible massacre, “Eretz Israel” would soon have been filled with millions of Jews making “aliyah” by their own free will, because they had dreamed of it for thousands of years.

And while the wandering people needed a territory of its own, the empty, virgin land longed for a nation to come and make it bloom. Some uninvited guests had, it is true, settled in this homeland, but since “the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion” for two millennia, the land belonged only to that people, and not to that handful without history who had merely stum• bled upon it. Therefore the wars waged by the wandering nation in its conquest of the country were justified; the violent resistance of the local population was criminal; and it was only the (highly unbiblical) charity of the Jews that permitted these strangers to remain and dwell among and beside the nation, which had returned to its biblical language and its wondrous land.

Even in Israel these burdens of memory did not appear spontaneously but rather were piled layer upon layer by gifted reconstructors of the past, begin• ning in the second half of the nineteenth century. They primarily collected fragments of Jewish and Christian religious  memories, out of which they imaginatively constructed a long, unbroken genealogy for “the Jewish people.” Before then, there had been no organized public “remembering,” and remark• ably enough, it has not changed much since then. Despite the academization of Jewish history studies—with the founding of universities in British-ruled Jeru• salem and later in Israel, and the opening of Jewish studies courses throughout the West—the idea of the Jewish past has remained generally unchanged, retaining its unified, ethnonational character to this day.

Different approaches have, of course, been employed in the extensive historiography of Judaism and Jews. There has been no shortage of polemic and disagreement in the highly productive field of the “national past.” But, so far, hardly anyone has challenged the fundamental concepts that were formed and adopted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Neither the important processes that profoundly changed the study of history in the Western world in the late twentieth century, nor the significant paradigm changes in the study of nations and nationalism, have affected the departments of the “History of the People of Israel” (aka Jewish history) in Israeli universi• ties. Nor, amazingly, have they have left their imprint on the ample output of Jewish studies departments in American or European universities.

When occasional findings threatened the picture of an unbroken, linear Jewish history, they were rarely cited; when they did surface, they were quickly forgotten, buried in oblivion. National exigencies created an iron-jawed vise that prevented any deviation from the dominant narratives. The distinctive frameworks within which data about the Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli past is produced— namely, those exclusive departments of Jewish history that are completely isolated from the departments of general and Middle Eastern history—have also contributed much to the astonishing paralysis and stubborn refusal to open up to new historiography that would soberly investigate the origin and identity of the Jews. From time to time the question “Who is a Jew?” has stirred up the public in Israel, chiefly because of the legal issues it entails. But it has not perturbed the Israeli historians. They have always known the answer: a Jew is a descendant of the nation that was exiled two thousand years ago.

The dispute of the “new historians,” which began in the 1980s and for a short while looked set to shake the structure of Israeli memory, involved almost none of the “authorized” historians. Of the small number of individuals who took part in the public debate, most came from other disciplines or from outside the academy. Sociologists, political scientists, Orientalists, philologists, geogra• phers, scholars of literature, archaeologists, even a few independent essayists, voiced new reservations about Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli history. Some had doctorates in history from outside Israel but had not yet found positions in the country. Departments of Jewish history, however, which should have been the main sources of breakthrough research, contributed only uneasy, conservative responses framed in apologetic, conventional rhetoric.3

In the 1990s, the counterhistory dealt mainly with the stages and outcomes of the 1948 war, focusing especially on its moral implications. This debate was certainly of great significance in the morphology of memory in Israeli society. What one might call the 1948 syndrome, which troubles the Israeli conscience, is important for the future politics of the State of Israel but perhaps even essen• tial for its future existence. Any meaningful compromise with the Palestinians, if it ever materializes, would have to take into account not only the history of the Jews, but the recent history of the “others.”

  • To understand this controversy, see Laurence J. Silberstein, The Postzionism Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture, New York: Routledge, 1999, and also my book Les mots et la terre: Les intellectuels en Israël, Paris: Fayard, 2006, 247-87.


Yet this significant debate has yielded limited achievements in the area of research, and its presence in the public mind has been marginal. The older, estab• lished generation has utterly rejected all the new findings and evaluations, unable to reconcile them with the strict morality it believes guided its historical path. A younger generation of intellectuals might have been willing to concede that sins were committed on the road to statehood, but many among that group possessed a relative and flexible morality that was willing to allow for exceptions: How bad was the Nakba compared with the Holocaust? How can anyone liken the short and limited Palestinian refugee situation to the agonies of a two-thousand-year exile?

Sociohistorical studies that concentrated less on “political sins” and more on the long-term processes of the Zionist enterprise received less attention. And though written by Israelis, they were never published in Hebrew4 The few Hebrew works that tried to question the paradigms that underpin the national history were met with general indifference. These include Boas Evron’s bold Jewish State or Israeli Nation? and Uri Ram’s intriguing essay “Zionist Histo• riography and the Invention of Modern Jewish Nationhood.” Both issued a radical challenge to the professional historiography of the Jewish past, but such challenges scarcely disturbed the authorized producers of this past.

The present work was written after the breakthroughs of the 1980s and early 1990s. Without the challenging writings of Evron, Ram and other Israelis,5 and above all the contributions of non-Israeli scholars of nationalism such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson,6 it is doubtful if it would have occurred to this author to question anew the roots of his identity and to extricate himself from the many layers of memory that, since childhood, had been heaped upon his own sense of the past.

Where national history is concerned, it is not merely hard to see the wood for the trees. A momentary glance at the encompassing woodland reveals a forest  canopy  of  intimidating  size.  Professional  specialization  sequesters scholars in specific portions of the past. Narratives grow toward inclusiveness, but for a heretical metanarrative to take shape, it is necessary that historical research be conducted in a pluralistic culture, free from the tension of armed national conflict and from chronic anxiety about its identity and sources.

In light of Israeli reality in 2008, such a statement may justifiably be called pessimistic. In the sixty years of Israel’s existence, its national history has hardly developed, and there is no reason to expect it to attain maturity anytime soon. The author has few illusions about the reception of this book. He does, nevertheless, hope that a small number of readers will be willing to risk a more radical re-evaluation of the past, and thus help to erode the essentialist identity that permeates the thoughts and actions of almost all Jewish Israelis.

Though the present work was composed by a professional historian, it takes risks not usually permitted or authorized in this field of endeavor. The accepted rules of academe demand that the scholar follow prescribed path• ways and stick to the field in which he is supposedly qualified. A glance at the chapter headings of this book, however, will show that the spectrum of issues discussed herein exceeds the boundaries of a single scientific field. Teachers of Bible studies, historians of the ancient period, archaeologists, medievalists and, above all, experts on the Jewish People will protest that the author has encroached on fields of research not his own.

There is some truth in this argument, as the author is well aware. It would have been better had the book been written by a team of scholars rather than by a lone historian. Unfortunately, this was not possible, as the author could find no accomplices. Some inaccuracies may therefore be found in this book, for which the author apologizes, and he invites critics to do their best to correct them. He does not see himself as an Israeli Prometheus, stealing the fire of historical truth for the Israelis. So he does not fear an omnipotent Zeus, in the shape of the professional corporation of Jewish historiography. He seeks only to draw attention to a well- known phenomenon—that venturing outside a specific field, or walking on the fences between several of them, may occasionally yield unexpected insights and uncover surprising connections. At times, thinking beside, rather than thinking within, can fertilize historical thought, despite the drawbacks of being a nonspe¬ cialist and of exercising a high degree of speculation.

Because the recognized experts in Jewish history are not in the habit of confronting simple questions that at first glance may seem surprising yet are fundamental, it may be worthwhile doing it for them. For instance, has a Jewish nation really existed for thousands of years while other “peoples” faltered and disappeared? How and why did the Bible, an impressive theological library (though no one really knows when its volumes were composed or edited), become a reliable history book chronicling the birth of a nation? To what extent was the Judean Hasmonean kingdom—whose diverse subjects did not all speak one language, and who were for the most part illiterate—a nation-state? Was the population of Judea exiled after the fall of the Second Temple, or is that a Christian myth that not accidentally ended up as part of Jewish tradition? And if not exiled, what happened to the local people, and who are the millions of Jews who appeared on history’s stage in such unexpected, far-flung regions?

If world Jews were indeed a nation, what were the common elements in the ethnographic cultures of a Jew in Kiev and a Jew in Marrakech, other than religious belief and certain practices of that belief? Perhaps, despite everything we have been told, Judaism was simply an appealing religion that spread widely until the triumphant rise of its rivals, Christianity and Islam, and then, despite humiliation and persecution, succeeded in surviving into the modern age. Does the argument that Judaism has always been an important belief-culture, rather than a uniform nation-culture, detract from its dignity, as the propo• nents of Jewish nationalism have been proclaiming for the past 130 years?

If there was no common cultural denominator among the communities of the Jewish religion, how could they be connected and set apart by ties of blood? Are the Jews an alien “nation-race,” as the anti-Semites have imagined and sought to persuade us since the nineteenth century? What are the prospects of defeating this doctrine, which assumes and proclaims that Jews have distinctive biological features (in the past it was Jewish blood; today it is a Jewish gene), when so many Israeli citizens are fully persuaded of their racial homogeneity?

Another historical irony: there were times in Europe when anyone who argued that all Jews belong to a nation of alien origin would have been classified at once as an anti-Semite. Nowadays, anyone who dares to suggest that the people known in the world as Jews (as distinct from today’s Jewish Israelis) have never been, and are still not, a people or a nation is immediately denounced as a Jew-hater.

Dominated by Zionism’s particular concept of nationality, the State of Israel still refuses, sixty years after its establishment, to see itself as a republic that serves its citizens. One quarter of the citizens are not categorized as Jews, and the laws of the state imply that Israel is not their state nor do they own it. The state has also avoided integrating the local inhabitants into the superculture it has created, and has instead deliberately excluded them. Israel has also refused to be a consociational democracy (like Switzerland or Belgium) or a multicul• tural democracy (like Great Britain or the Netherlands)—that is to say, a state that accepts its diversity while serving its inhabitants. Instead, Israel insists on seeing itself as a Jewish state belonging to all the Jews in the world, even though they are no longer persecuted refugees but full citizens of the countries in which they choose to reside. The excuse for this grave violation of a basic principle of modern democracy, and for the preservation of an unbridled ethnocracy that grossly discriminates against certain of its citizens, rests on the active myth of an eternal nation that must ultimately forgather in its ancestral land.

It is difficult to formulate a new Jewish history while looking through the dense prism of Zionism—the light that traverses it keeps breaking into sharply ethnocentric colors. Please note: the present work, which proposes that the Jews have always comprised significant religious communities that appeared and settled in various parts of the world, rather than an ethnos that shared a single origin and wandered in a permanent exile, does not deal directly with history. Given that its main purpose is to criticize a widespread historiographic discourse, it cannot avoid suggesting alternative narratives. The author began with the question posed by the French historian Marcel Detienne—”How can we denationalize national histories?”—echoing in his mind.7 How can we stop trudging along roads paved mainly with materials forged in national fantasies?

Imagining the nation was an important stage in the development of histori• ography, as indeed in the evolution of modernity. It engaged many historians from the nineteenth century onward. But toward the end of the twentieth century the dreams of national identity began to disintegrate. More and more scholars began to dissect and examine the great national stories, especially myths of common origin, that had hitherto clouded the writing of history. It goes without saying that the secularization of history took place under the hammer blows of cultural globaliza• tion, which continually takes unexpected forms throughout the Western world.

Yesterday’s nightmares of identity are not tomorrow’s identity dreams. Just as every personality is composed of fluid and diverse identities, so is history, among other things, an identity in motion. This book seeks to illuminate this dimen• sion, both human and social, that is inherent in the passage of time. Though this lengthy plunge into the history of the Jews differs from the usual narratives, it may not be free of subjectivity, nor does the author claim to be free of ideological bias. He intends to present some outlines for a future counterhistory that may promote a different kind of culturally constructed memory—a memory that is aware of the relative truth it contains, and that aspires to help forge emerging local identities and a critical, universal consciousness of the past.

7 Marcel Detienne, Comment être autochtone, Paris: Seuil, 2003, 15. It is worth mentioning here that my conversations with the French historian Marc Ferro provided material and inspiration for this book. See his article “Les Juifs: tous des sémites?” in Les Tabous de l’Histoire, Paris: Nil éditions, 2002, 115-35.


Making Nations: Sovereignty and Equality

No nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalized, the populations included within them,  divided up among them or dominated by them, are ethnicizedthat is, represented in the past or in the future as if they formed a natural community.

—Etienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology”

Nationalism was the form in which democracy appeared in the world, contained in the idea of the nation as a butterfly in a cocoon.

—Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity

Thinkers and scholars have struggled for more than a hundred years with the issue of nationalism but have not come up with an unambiguous and univer• sally accepted definition. A widely accepted description will probably be achieved only after the age of the nation has ended, when Minerva’s owl takes flight and we see past this overarching collective identity that so powerfully shapes modern culture.1

But it is only proper that a historical work, particularly one likely to cause controversy, should begin its explorations with a look, however brief, at the basic concepts that it will employ. In any event, this is sure to be a chal• lenging, even exhausting, voyage, but a lexicon that consists of explanations of the conceptual apparatus employed in this book may prevent superfluous wandering and frequent stumbling.

European languages use the term “nation,” which derives from the late Latin natio. Its ancient origin is the verb nascere, “to beget”. Until the twentieth century, this term denoted mainly human groups of various sizes and with internal connections. For example, in ancient Rome it commonly referred to aliens (as well as to species of animals). In the Middle Ages it could denote groups of students who came from afar. In England at the start of the modern era it denoted the aristocratic strata. Now and then it was used in reference to populations of a common origin, sometimes a group speaking a particular language. The term was used in diverse ways throughout the nineteenth century, and its precise significance remains a subject of controversy to this day.

1 Please note that the term “nationalism” when used in this book should not immediately be equated with an extremist ideology.

The great French historian Marc Bloch said that “to the great despair of historians, men fail to change their vocabulary every time they change their customs.”2 We might add that one source of anachronism in historiographical research (though not the only one) is human laziness, which naturally affects the creation of terminology. Many words that have come down to us from the past and, in a different guise, continue to serve us in the present are sent back, charged with a new connotation. In that way, distant history is made to look similar, and closer, to our present-day world.

A close reading of historical and political works, or even of a modern European dictionary,  reveals a constant migration of meanings within the boundaries of terms and concepts, especially those devised to interpret changing social reality3 We can agree that the word “stone,” for instance, though context-dependent, does correspond more or less to a specific and agreed object. Like many other abstract terms, however, concepts such as “people,” “race,” ethnos, “nation,” “nationalism,” “country,” and “homeland” have, over the course of history, been given countless meanings—at times contradictory, at times complementary, always problematic. The term “nation” was translated into modern Hebrew as le’om or umah, both words derived, like so many others, from the rich biblical lexicon.4 But before taking the discussion to the crucial “national” issue, and trying to define “nation,” which still very reluctantly submits to an unequivocal definition, we should stop to consider two other problematic concepts that keep tripping up the clumsy feet of professional scholars.


Almost all history books published in Israel use the word am (people) as a synonym for le’om (nation). Am is also a biblical word, the Hebrew equivalent of the Russian Narod, the German Volk, the French peuple, and the English “people.” But in modern Israeli Hebrew, the word am does not have a direct

  • Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, Manchester: Manchester University Press,  1954,

28. Nietzsche had already written, “Wherever primitive men put down a word, they thought they made a discovery. How different the case really was! … Now, with every new piece of knowledge, we stumble over petrified words and mummified conceptions, and would rather break a leg than a word in doing so.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn of Day, New York: Russell & Russell, 1964, 53.

  • On connotations of this term and their evolution, see the essays in S. Remi-Giraud and P. Retat (eds.), Les Mots de la nation, Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1996.
  • For example, “Two nations [le’umim] are in thy womb, and two manner of people [goyim] shall be separated from thy bowels,” Gen. 25:23; and “Come near, ye nations [le’umim], to hear; and hearken, ye people,” Isa. 34:1.


association with the word “people” in a pluralistic sense, such as we find in various European languages; rather it implies an indivisible unity. In any case, the am in ancient Hebrew, as well as in other languages, is a very fluid term, and its ideological use, which has unfortunately remained very sloppy, makes it difficult to include it in any meaningful discourse.5

The best way to define a concept is to follow its history, but as it is not possible to expand on the evolution of the term am in such a short chapter, the present discussion will confine itself to a number of comments on the history of the meanings it acquired in the past.

Most of the agrarian societies that preceded the rise of modern society in eighteenth-century Europe developed statewide supercultures that influ• enced their surroundings and gave rise to various collective identities among the elite. Yet in contrast to the image that a good many history books continue to peddle, these monarchies, principalities and grand empires never sought to involve all the “people” in their administrative superculture. They neither needed such participation nor possessed the necessary technological, insti• tutional or communications systems with which to foster it. The peasants, the absolute majority in the premodern world, were illiterate, and continued to reproduce their local, unlettered cultures without hindrance. Where they resided in or near a ruling city, their dialects more closely resembled the central administrative language. These subjects represented what was then called “the people,” but for those who cultivated the soil in outlying regions, far from the political centre, the connection between their dialects and the language of the central administration was quite weak.6

So long as human societies were dominated by the principle of divine king• ship, rather than by the will of the people, rulers did not need their subjects’

  • The word am, which is translated as “people,” appears frequently in the Old Testament with a variety of meanings. It can mean a clan, or a throng gathered in the city center, or even a fighting force. See for example, “So Joshua arose, and all the people [am] of war, to go up against Ai,” Josh. 8:3; “And the people of the land [am ha’aretz] made Josiah his son king in his stead,” 2 Chron. 33:25. It can also indicate the “holy community,” namely, the People of Israel, chosen by God. For example, “For thou art an holy people [am] unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people [am] unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth,” Deut. 7:6.
  • Exceptions to this model include certain Greek polis cities, as well as some aspects of the early Roman republic. In both, the formation of small groups of citizens bears a slight resemblance to modern “peoples” and nations. But the Greek concepts of “demos,” “ethnos” and “laos,” and the Roman “populus,” which arose in the early stages of the Mediterranean slave-owning societies, did not have the mobile and inclusive dimension of modern times. They did not include the entire population—e.g., women, slaves and foreigners—and equal civil rights were granted only to locally born, slave-owning men, meaning they were strictly limited social groups,


love. Their principal concern was to ensure they had enough power to keep people afraid. The sovereign had to secure the loyalty of the state’s adminis• tration in order to preserve the continuity and stability of the government, but the peasants were required simply to pass along the surplus agricultural produce and sometimes to provide the monarchy and nobility with soldiers. Taxes were of course collected by force, or at any rate by its constant implicit threat, rather than by persuasion or efforts at consensus. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that the existence of this power also gave the valued producers of food a physical security, an added value granted them by the very presence of authority.

The state apparatuses, occupied in collecting taxes and recruiting troops, subsisted mainly thanks to the integrated interests of the upper strata—the nobility and the politically powerful. The continuity and relative stability of these apparatuses—not only the crowning of a sovereign, but the invention of dynastic monarchies—had already been achieved by means of certain ideo• logical measures. The religious cults that flourished around the centers of government reinforced the loyalty of the upper levels of the hierarchy through unearthly legitimation. This is not to say that the polytheistic or, later, the monotheistic religions came into being as direct functions of government (the circumstances of their rise were more complex), for otherwise they would have been unnecessary, but that they almost always, though not invariably, served to reproduce power.

The consolidation of belief around the ruling power created a slender, though important, social stratum that grew within the administrative appa• ratus, sometimes merging with it and later competing with it. This stratum, composed of priests, court scribes, and prophets—and later clergymen, bishops, and the ulema—was dependent on the political centers but acquired its most important symbolic capital through both its privileged connections and its direct dialogues with the deity. In early agrarian societies its power and its methods of organizing the religion varied in time and place, but since its principal strength sprang from belief, it constantly sought to widen the demographic base of its following. Like the administrative state apparatuses, it did not have the means to create a broad, homogeneous mass culture, but it did develop a strong ambition to reach an ever-growing number of convinced subjects, and it succeeded in this aim.

Neither the strategy of creating dominant collectives around the appa• ratuses of state power in agrarian societies nor the sophisticated technology employed by religious institutions resembled the identity politics that began to develop with the rise of nation-states at the end of the eighteenth century.


However, as stated before, laziness in coining new terms, along with the ideological and political interests that paralleled this terminological slack• ness, completely blurred the profound differences between past and present, between the ancient agrarian universes and the new commercial, industrial worlds in which we still live.

In premodern writings, historical and otherwise, the term “people” was applied to a variety of groups. They might be powerful tribes, populations of tiny kingdoms or principalities, religious communities of various sizes, or low strata that did not belong to the political and cultural elites (in Hebrew these were called, in antiquity, “the people of the land”). From the “Gallic people” in late antiquity to the “Saxon people” in the Germanic area at the start of the modern era; from “the people of Israel” when the Bible was written to “God’s people” or the peuple de Dieu in medieval Europe; from peasant communities speaking a particular dialect to rebellious urban masses—the term “people” was casually attached to human groups whose identity profile was elusive and far from stable. In fifteenth-century Western Europe, with the rise of the city and the beginning of more advanced forms of transportation and communica• tion, firmer boundaries began to appear between broad linguistic groups, and the term “people” began to be applied mainly to these.

With the rise of nationalism at the end of the eighteenth and early nine• teenth centuries, this ideology and overarching identity, which in modern times embraces all cultures, has made constant use of the term “people,” especially to stress the antiquity and continuity of the nationality it sought to construct. Since the fundamentals of nation building almost always included some cultural components, linguistic or religious, that survived from earlier historical phases, clever engineering contrived to make them into hooks on which the history of nations could be skillfully hung. The people became a bridge between past and present, thrown across the deep mental chasm created by modernity, a bridge on which the professional historians of all the new nation-states could comfortably parade.

To complete the analysis of the term “people,” it is necessary to add some caveats. In the nineteenth century, national cultures often tied the soft “people” to the rigid and problematic “race,” and many regarded the two words as inter• secting, supporting, or complementary. The homogeneous collective origin of “the people”—always, of course, superior and unique, if not actually pure— became a kind of insurance against the risks represented by fragmentary though persistent subidentities that continued to swarm beneath the unifying modernity. The imagined origin also served as an efficient filter against undesirable mixing with hostile neighboring nations.


The  murderous first half of the  twentieth  century having  caused  the concept  of race  to  be  categorically rejected, various  historians  and  other scholars enlisted the more respectable concept of ethnos in order to preserve the intimate contact with the distant past. Ethnos, meaning “people” in ancient Greek, had served even before the Second World War as a useful alternative to, or a verbal intermediary between, “race” and “people.” But its common, “scientific” use began only in the 1950s, after which it spread widely. Its main attraction lies in its blending of cultural background and blood ties, of a linguistic past and a biological origin—in other words, its combining of a historical product with a fact that demands respect as a natural phenomenon.7 Far too many authors have used this concept with intolerable ease, some•

times with astonishing intellectual negligence, though some of them do apply it to some premodern historical entity, some mass of shared cultural expres• sions from the past, that despite its dissolution persists in a different form. The ethnic community is, after all, a human group with a shared cultural-linguistic background, not always well defined but capable of providing crucial materials for a national construction. Yet a good many other scholars cling to ethnos as though to bring in by the back door the essential primevalism, the racial concept that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries bolstered the promoters of the fragile national identity.

Thus ethnos has become not merely a historical and cultural unit but an ambiguous entity of ancient origin, at whose heart lies a subjective sense of closeness that it inspires in those who believe in it, much as race did in the nineteenth century. Committed scholars argue that this identity belief should not be challenged, because it carries a powerful sense of origin that should not only be taken into account during critical analysis and dissection—a legiti• mate, even essential process—but should even be adopted as a whole, and as a positive historical fact that need not be questioned. These scholars admit that the idea that the modern nation sprang from the ethnos may be unverifiable. Nevertheless, we have no choice but to live with it; attempting to question it is pointless and ultimately undesirable.

Blurring the categories of ancient social groupings, as these scholars have helped to do, apparently seemed to them a necessary condition for the preservation of unstable identities in the present. Anthony D. Smith, who became one of the most active scholars in the field of nation studies, made a significant contribution to this process. At a relatively late stage in his work, he

  • See the comments on the loose usage of this term in an important work by Dominique Schnapper, La Communauté des citoyens: Sur l’idée moderne de nation, Paris: Gallimard, 2003, 18.


decided to grant the ethnic principle a decisive role in his research, and even described his approach as “ethno-symbolic.” The term “symbolic” helps soften the essentialist resonance of the phrase while supplying the desired ambiguity. For Smith, “an ethnic group, then, is distinguished by four features: the sense of unique group origins, the knowledge of a unique group history and belief in its destiny, one or more dimensions of collective cultural individuality, and finally a sense of unique collective solidarity.”8

The diligent British scholar, it seems, considers that the ethnos is no longer a linguistic community with a common way of life; that the ethnos does not inhabit a particular territory but needs only to be associated with one; that the ethnos need not have an actual history, for ancient myths can continue to serve this function equally well. The shared memory is not a conscious process moving from the present to the past (since there is always someone around who can organize it) but rather a “natural” process, neither religious nor national, which flows by itself from past to present. Smith’s definition of ethnos, therefore, matches the way Zionists see the Jewish presence in history—it also matches the old concept of pan-Slav identity, or that of the Aryans or Indo-Europeans, or even of the Black Hebrews in the United States—but is quite unlike the accepted connotation among the traditional community of anthropologists.9

Toward the end of the twentieth century and in the early twenty-first, “ethnicity”—which Etienne Balibar rightly described as entirely fictitious— has experienced a resurgence in popularity. This French philosopher has reiterated that nations are not ethnic, and that even what is deemed to be their ethnic origin is dubious. It is in fact nationalization that creates a sense of ethnic identity in societies—”represented in the past or in the future as if they formed a natural community.”10 Unfortunately, this critical approach, which warns against ethnobiological or ethnoreligious definitions, has not had suffi• cient impact. Various theoreticians of nationality, like nationality-supporting historians, continue to thicken their theories and hence their narratives with essentialist, ethnicist verbiage.  The relative retreat of the classic sovereign

  • Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 66; and see also by Smith, The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000. See also a very similar definition in John Hutchinson, Modern Nationalism, London: Fontana Press,

1994, 7.

  • No wonder that Smith has been a godsend to Zionist historians seeking to define the Jewish nation. See, for example,  Gideon  Shimoni,  The  Zionist  Ideology,  Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1995, 5-11.
  • Etienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” in Race, Nation, Class,

Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, London: Verso, 1991, 96.


nationalism in the Western world in the late twentieth century and the begin• ning of the twenty-first has not weakened this trend; indeed, in some ways it has strengthened it.

Be that as it may, if the present work sometimes errs and occasionally uses the term “people”—though not the term ethnos, on account of its bio• logical resonances—it will be pointing very cautiously to a fairly fluid human community, usually a premodern one and especially one in the early stages of modernization. The cultural and linguistic structures held in common by such a group have never been very strong, but arose because of a particular administrative communication that gradually blended, under kingdoms or principalities, with “lower” cultures. The “people” is therefore a social group that inhabits a defined territory and exhibits at least the outlines of shared norms and secular cultural practices (related dialects, foods, clothing, music, and so on). Such linguistic and ethnographic features, which predate the nation-states, were not rigidly consolidated, and the boundary between them and the comparable features of other groups was not essential or unequivocal. It is precisely the accidental history of interstate relations that in many cases determined the location of the barrier between “peoples.”

Sometimes, as has already been stated, such a “people” has served as the Archimedean point for the launching of a new nation—a point that has often been worn down in the nationalizing enterprises of modern culture. The culture of the English “people” became hegemonic in Britain much as the culture of the Île-de-France and the administrative language of the Bourbon monarchs came to dominate their realm. By contrast, the Welsh “people,” the Breton, Bavarian, Andalusian, even the Yiddish “people,” have been almost entirely shredded in the process.

Constructing a nation can also lead to the opposite outcome. Cultural- linguistic minorities, which had not been sharply defined before the era of nationalism, begin to acquire—owing  to  hasty engineering dictated  from the center, or to alienating discrimination—a new, distinguishing sense of identity (modernization can intensify subtle differences). In such cases the reaction, especially among the intellectual elites of the group excluded from the hegemon, can harden, turning amorphous distinctions into an essentialist basis for a struggle for self-rule—namely, for national separation. (This issue will be more fully addressed below.)

Another comment, of special relevance to the present work: Where the common denominator of a  premodern  human  group  consisted  solely of religious norms and practices (cults, rituals, precepts, prayers, religious symbols, and the like), the terms used here will be “religious congregation,”


“religious community,” or “religious civilization.” I may as well add that, prior to the national era, “peoples” both emerged and disappeared, just as kingdoms did, in the unfolding of history. (Again, I shall return to this matter below.) Religious communities, on the other hand, usually persisted in the longue durée, to use the well-known term coined by Fernand Braudel, because they preserved and reproduced tradition-minded intellectual strata.

At times, even religious cultures—when weakened yet still relatively stable, or even when disintegrating—served, much as did popular folklore or the language of state administration, as valuable raw material for the forging of nations. Belgium, Pakistan, Ireland and Israel, despite manifold differences, serve as good illustrations. In all these cases, we find a common denominator in the form of national construction, even when the starting point was a religious community or “people.” Despite the major importance of religious elements in the ways a nation is created, we must not forget that nationality has helped define the contours of the emergent modern religious temperament. There must, therefore, be a significant decline in the intensity of religious fatalism when large human groups, mainly their political and intellectual elites, take control of their destiny and begin to make national history.11

Peoples, populations, native populaces, tribes and religious communities are not nations, even though they are often spoken of as such. To be sure, as cultural building materials they have been vital in the fashioning of the new national identities, but they lack the decisive characteristics that total moder• nity, falling upon them like a raptor, carries below its wings.


Much has been written about the fact that the issue of nationality did not produce its own Tocqueville, Marx, Weber or Durkheim on the social thinking behind it. “Class,” “democracy,” “capitalism,” and even “state” were quite closely diagnosed, but “nation” and “nationalism” have been neglected—starved of theoretical calories. The main, though not sole, reason for this is that “nations,” as a synonym for “peoples,” were perceived as primary, almost natural, entities— in existence since time immemorial. A good many authors, including scholars of history, noted the developments that had taken place in the human groups

11 Paradoxically, even the extreme case of the Islamic Republic in Iran does not entirely contradict this position. The Islamic revolution sought to bring the message of Islam to the whole world, but in fact succeeded primarily in “nationalizing” the Iranian masses (much as Communism had done in other areas in the Third World). On nationalism in Iran, see Haggay Ram, “The Immemorial Iranian Nation? School Textbooks and Historical Memory in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” Nations and Nationalism 6:6 (2000), 67-90.


designated as nations, but these were perceived as minor changes in entities regarded as primeval.

Most of these thinkers lived in emerging national cultures, so they tended to think from within them and were unable to examine them from outside. Moreover, they wrote in the new national languages, and were thus held captive by their principal working tool: the past was made to conform closely to the linguistic and conceptual structures molded in the nineteenth century. As Marx, seeing the social realities of his time, assumed that history was essen• tially a vast supernarrative of class struggles, so most of the others, principally the historians, imagined the past as the constant rise and fall of eternal nations, and their mutual conflicts thickly and solemnly packed the history books. The new nation-states naturally encouraged and generously funded such imagery and writing, thereby helping to reinforce the contours of the new national identities.

Reading the works of the British philosopher John Stuart Mill or the French philosopher Ernest Renan, we encounter some divergent insights, unusual for their time. As early as 1861, Mill wrote:

A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality, if they are united among themselves by common sympathies, which do not exist between them and any others—which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves, exclusively12

Renan, on the other hand, declared in 1882:

A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life … The nations are not something eternal. They had their beginnings and they will end. A European confederation will very probably replace them.13

Though both brilliant thinkers were capable of contradictions and hesitations, their awareness of the democratic core in the formation of a nation showed that they understood they were dealing with a modern phenomenon. There was a good reason that these two liberal writers, who viewed mass culture with

  1. John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, Chicago: Gateway, 1962, 303.  Regarding Mill and the national question, see also Hans  Kohn, Prophets and Peoples: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Nationalism, New York: Macmillan, 1946, 11-42.
  2. See “What Is a Nation?” available at


some trepidation, nevertheless accepted in principle the idea of government by the people.

Unfortunately, neither writer went on to publish extensive, methodical inquiries into nationhood. The nineteenth century was not ready for this. Such famous thinkers on this subject as Johann Gottfried Herder, Giuseppe Mazzini and Jules Michelet did not fully fathom the cunning of national reason, which they mistakenly considered to be ancient or even, at times, eternal.

The first to deal with this issue in terms of theory were Marxists of the early twentieth century For ideologues such as Karl Kautsky, Kail Renner, Otto Bauer, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Joseph Stalin, nationalism was a sucker punch. In its pres• ence, history, the permanent proof of their rightness, seemed to betray them. They had to contend with the strange phenomenon that the prognosis of the great Marx failed to envision. A wave of national demands in Central and Eastern Europe forced them to engage in a discussion that produced intricate analyses as well as hasty conclusions that were always subjected to immediate parry exigencies.14

The Marxists’ significant contribution to the study of the nation was to call attention to the close connection between the rise of the market economy and the crystallization of the nation-state. They argued that the advance of capitalism destroyed autarkic markets, severed their specific social links and opened the way to the development of new species of relations and conscious• ness. “Laissez faire, laissez aller,” the first war cry of capitalist commerce, did not in its early stages lead to sweeping globalization, but enabled the condi• tions for the rise of market economies within the framework of the old state structures. These economies formed the basis for the rise of nation-states, with their uniform language and culture. Capitalism, the most abstract form of property control, required, above all, a system of law that sanctified private property, as well as the state power that ensured its enforcement.

Significantly, the Marxists did not ignore the psychological aspects of the national changes. From Bauer to Stalin, they involved psychology in their central polemics, though in simplistic terms. For Bauer, the famous Austrian socialist, “the nation is the totality of men tied by the community of destiny to the community of character”15 Stalin, on the other hand, summed up the discussion in more definite terms:

  1. For more on Marxists and the nation, see Horace Davis, Nationalism and Socialism: Marxist and Labor Theories of Nationalism to 1917, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967; and Ephraim Nimni, Marxism and Nationalism: Theoretical Origins of a Political Crisis, London: Pluto Press, 1991.
  2. Quoted in G. Haupt, M, Lowy, and C. Weil, Les Marxistes et la question nationale, 1848-1914, Paris: Maspero, 1974, 254.


A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.16

This definition is undoubtedly too schematic and not especially well phrased. Nevertheless, this attempt to characterize the nation on the basis of an objec• tive historical process, though not entirely satisfactory, remains intriguing. Does the lack of one element prevent the formation of a nation? And, as is no less relevant to our discussion, is there no dynamic political dimension that accompanies and shapes various stages in the process? The Marxists’ devo• tion to the theory that holds class struggle to be the key to understanding all of history, as well as their bitter rivalry with national movements in Central and Eastern Europe, which were rapidly outflanking them, prevented their producing more on the national issue than the simplistic rhetoric whose main purpose was to confront rivals and recruit followers.17

Other socialists who might not have significantly advanced the discus• sion used their sharp senses to discern the attraction and promise of popular democracy in the formation of the nation. It was they who discovered the seductive symbiosis between socialism and nationalism. From the Zionist Ber Borochov and the Polish nationalist Josef Pilsudski to the red patriots Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, the formula of “nationalized” socialism proved triumphant.

In the field of pure research there have been discussions about the nation, as we shall see, but only in the 1950s do we encounter fresh intellectual efforts to deal with the social dimension in the rise of a nation. It was no accident that it was an immigrant who revived the debate. While Marxist thought provided, as it were, a lens through which to observe the nation from the outside, the experience of migration—of being uprooted from one’s birthplace—and of living as an “alien,” a subject minority in a dominant culture, proved an almost indispensable condition for the more advanced methodological tools of observation. Most of the leading researchers in the field of national ideology were bilingual in their childhood or youth, and many were children of immigrant families.

Karl Deutsch fled from the Czech Sudetenland region with the coming of the Nazis, and in time found a place in the American academic world. Although his book Nationalism and Social Communication did not attract

  1. Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, first published in Prosveshcheniye

3-5 (1913).

  1. On  the  Marxist  approach  to  the  issue  of nationalism,  see  also  John  Breuilly,

Nationalism and the State, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982, 21-8.


much attention, it was a significant stage in the further discussion of the concept of the nation.18 Deutsch had insufficient data, and his methodological apparatus was awkward, but he showed extraordinary intuition in discerning the socioeconomic processes of modernization that underlie the formation of the nation. The need for a new kind of communication for the alienated urban masses, uprooted from the array of agrarian forms of communication, prompted the integration or disintegration of national groupings. Mass demo• cratic politics, he argued, completed the consolidation. In Deutsch’s second work on the nation, published sixteen years later, he continued to develop the thesis in a historical description of social, cultural and political aggregations that underlay the process of nationalization.19

Three decades passed after Deutsch’s first book before another break• through was made in this field of research. The rapid communications revolution in the final quarter of the twentieth century, and the gradual conver• sion of human labor in the West into an activity of symbols and signs, provided a congenial setting in which to reexamine the old issue. It is possible, too, that the first signs of the declining status of classical nationalism, in precisely the territory that had first produced national consciousness, contributed to the appearance of the new paradigms. Two landmark books on the subject appeared in Britain in 1983: Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism. From then on, the issue of nation• alism would be examined primarily through a sociocultural prism. The nation became an unmistakable cultural project.

Anderson’s life, too, was one of wandering across large cultural-linguistic expanses. Born in China to an Irish father and an English mother, he was taken to California as a child but was educated mainly in Britain, where he gradu• ated with a degree in international relations, a discipline that led him to divide his time between Indonesia and the United States. His life story resonates in his book on national communities, which critically rejects any position that smacks of Eurocentrism. This attitude led him to assert,  though not very convincingly, that the pioneers of national consciousness in modern history were the Creoles—the locally born offspring of settlers in the Americas.

For the present purpose, it is the original definition that he offers in his book that is most significant: “the nation … is an imagined political community— and  imagined  as  both  inherently  limited  and  sovereign.”20   Indeed,  every


  1. Karl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication, New York: MIT Press,
  1. Karl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Its Alternatives, New York: A. A. Knopf, 1969.
  2. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6.


community that is bigger than a tribe or a village is imagined, because its members do not know one another; such were the great religious communi• ties before modern times. But the nation has new tools for people’s imaginary belonging to it that were unavailable to the old societies.

Anderson reiterates that the advent of the capitalism of printing in the fifteenth century began to dissolve the long historical distinction between the high sacred languages and the various local vernaculars used by the masses. The language of administration in the European kingdoms also expanded significantly with the advent of printing, laying the groundwork for the future formation of the national territorial languages we know today. The novel and the newspaper were the first players in the new world of communications that began to demarcate the rising national boundaries. The map, the museum, and other cultural amenities would later complete the task of national construction.

For the contours of the nation to harden, the religious commonwealth and the dynastic kingdom—the two long-standing historical frameworks that preceded the nation—had to be significantly downgraded, both institutionally and conceptually. Not only had the status of the great imperial systems and the church hierarchies been relatively weakened, but a significant break had occurred in the religious perception of time, which also affected traditional belief in the divine right of kings. The citizens of the nation, as distinct from the subjects of kingdoms or the tenant farmers in principalities, began to see themselves as equals and, moreover, as rulers of their own destinies—as sovereigns, in other words.

Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism may be read as largely comple• menting Anderson’s project. In his writings, too, the new culture is depicted as the principal catalyst in the creation of the nation, and he also viewed the processes of modernization as the source of the new civilization. But before we proceed to Gellner’s ideas, we may note that the rule of the “outsider,” of “writing from the margins,” applies to him as well. Like Deutsch, he was a young refugee compelled to leave Czechoslovakia with his family on the eve of the Second World War. His parents settled in Britain, where he grew up and became a successful British anthropologist and philosopher. All his writings include the comparative analysis of cultures that marked all his intellectual endeavours. His brilliant, concise book opens with a double defi• nition:

  1. Two men are of the same nation if and only if they share the same culture, where culture in turn means a system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating.
    1. Two men are of the same nation if and only if they recognize each other as


belonging to the same nation. In other words, nations maketh man; nations are the artifacts of men’s convictions and loyalties and solidarities.21

The subjective aspect must, therefore, complement the objective one. Together they describe an unfamiliar historical phenomenon that had not existed prior to the emergence of the new bureaucratic, industrialized world.

Agrarian societies contained discrete cultures that existed side by side for hundreds or thousands of years. The more advanced division of labor, however— in which human activity is less physical and more symbolic, and occupational mobility keeps increasing—undermined the traditional partitions. The world of production demanded for its actual operation homogeneous cultural codes. The new occupational mobility, both horizontal and vertical, shattered the insularity of the higher culture and forced it to become an ever-expanding mass culture. Universal primary education and literacy were the essential conditions for a developed, dynamic industrial society. And this, according to Gellner, was the great secret of the political phenomenon known as the nation. Thus the forma• tion of a national group is an unmistakable sociocultural process, although it can take place only in the presence of some state apparatus, local or alien, whose presence facilitates or stimulates the awakening of a national consciousness, the construction of a national culture, and their continuation.

Many scholars expressed reservations about certain premises in Gellner’s thesis.22 Did nationalism always wait for complete industrialization before hoisting its flags and symbols? Had there been no national feelings—no aspirations for sovereignty—in early capitalism, before the rise of a complex, developed division of labor? Some of the criticism was persuasive, but it did not detract from Gellner’s important philosophical achievement in determining that the advanced consolidation of a nation is closely connected with the formation of a unified culture, such as can exist only in a society that is no longer agrarian and traditional.

To define the term “nation” in light of Anderson’s and Gellner’s theoretical propositions, as well as some working hypotheses of scholars who followed in their footsteps, it might be suggested that the “nation,” though its historical rise is multifaceted and fluid, is distinguished from other social groupings in history by several features:

  • Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 7.
  • See the following largely supportive but critical essay collection: John A. Hall (ed), The State of the Nation: Ernest Gellner and the Theory of Nationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


  1. A nation is a human group wherein universal education gives rise to a homogeneous mass culture that claims to be common and accessible to all its members.
  2. The nation gives rise to a perception of civil equality among all who are seen and who see themselves as its members. This civil body regards itself as sovereign, or demands political independence in cases where it has not yet achieved that independence.
  3. There must be a unifying cultural-linguistic continuum—or at least some general idea of such a continuum—between the actual representatives of the sovereign power, or those aspiring to it, and every last citizen.
  4. In contrast to the subjects of past rulers, the citizenry that identifies with the nation is conscious of belonging to it, or aspires to be a part of it, with the aim of living under its sovereignty.
  5. The nation has a common territory about which the members feel and assert that they are its sole owners, and any attack on it is felt to be as powerful as a threat to their personal property.
  6. The aggregate economic activity within the boundaries of this national territory, after the achievement of its sovereignty, was more closely interconnected, at least until the late twentieth century, than its relations with other market economies.

This is, of course, an ideal depiction in the Weberian sense. We have already implied that there are scarcely any nations that do not harbor or coexist with cultural and linguistic minorities, whose integration in the dominant super- culture has been slower than that of other groups. Where the principle of civil equality has been slow to apply to them, it has led to constant friction. In exceptional cases, such as Switzerland, Belgium and Canada, the national state has formally maintained two or three dominant languages that had developed separately and remained unbridgeable.23 Furthermore, in contrast to the proposed model, certain productive and financial sectors have eluded the rule of the dominant national market and have been subjected directly to global supply and demand.

But it should be reiterated that only the post-agrarian world, with its altered division of labor—its distinctive social mobility and thriving new communications technologies—has produced conditions conducive to linguistic and cultural homogeneity, leading to an identity and self-awareness

23 This has been done while combining other cultural elements, and with a high degree of decentralization and citizen involvement in politics. On the Swiss example, see Hans Kohn’s old book, Nationalism and Liberty: The Swiss Example, London: Allen & Unwin, 1956; and also the new work of Oliver Zimmer, A Contested Nation: History, Memory and Nationalism in Switzerland, 1761-1891, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


not confined to narrow elites or groups, as was always the case in the past, but now broadly manifest among the productive masses. Whereas earlier, in the era of the great empires, through the nature of the feudal and religious fabric, human societies had always been marked by definite cultural-linguistic divisions and strata, henceforth all the people—high and low, rich and poor, educated or not—would feel they belonged to a particular nation and, what is no less meaningful, would be convinced they belonged to it in equal degree.

The consciousness of legal, civil and political equality—produced mainly by social mobility in the era of commercial, and later of industrialized, capi• talism—created an umbrella under which everyone could share an identity. Whoever was not covered or included by it could not be a member of the national body, an immanent aspect of equality. It is this equality that underlies the political demand that construes “the people” as a nation that warrants full self-government. This democratic aspect—”the rule of the people”—is utterly modern and clearly distinguishes nations from the older social formations, such as tribes, peasant societies under dynastic monarchies, religious commu• nities with internal hierarchies, even premodern “peoples.”

No premodern human community manifested an inclusive sense of civil equality or a persistent desire for self-rule that was felt by the entire populace. But when people begin to see themselves as sovereign creatures, there arises the consciousness, or illusion, that enables them to believe they can rule themselves through political representation. This is the attitudinal core of all national expressions in the modern age. The principle of self-determination, accepted since the end of the First World War as a guiding principle in inter• national relations, is to a large extent a universal translation of this process of democratization, demonstrating the sway of the new masses in modern politics.

The birth of the nation is undoubtedly a real historical development, but it is not a purely spontaneous one. To reinforce an abstract group loyalty, the nation, like the preceding religious community, needed rituals, festivals, cere• monies and myths. To forge itself into a single, firm entity, it had to engage in continual public cultural activities and to invent a unifying collective memory. Such a novel system of accessible norms and practices was also needed for the overarching consciousness, an amalgamating ideological consciousness: namely, nationalism.



For a long time, scholars—especially historians—regarded nations as an ancient, indeed primeval, phenomenon. Reading their writings today, one sometimes gets the impression that history began with the rise of national groups. These thinkers stirred together past and present, and projected their contemporary, homogeneous and democratic cultural world onto perished civilizations. They based their arguments on historical documents produced by the higher political and intellectual powers of traditional societies, trans• lated them into standard contemporary languages, and adapted them to their own conceptualized national world. Because in their view, nations have always existed, they regarded as a new phenomenon the rise of nationalism as a formulated idea.

Gellner’s theoretical land mine shook most scholars. “It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round,” he declared with his trenchant radicalism, forcing everyone, even the reluctant, to reevaluate the issue.24 Economic, administrative and technological modernization had created the infrastructure and the need for the nation, but the process was accompanied by deliberate ideological practices for steering—or wishing to steer, where the state system had yet to achieve power—the language, educa• tion, memory and other cultural elements that create and define the nation’s contours. The supreme reasoning uniting all these ideological practices required that “the political and the national unit should be congruent.”25

Gellner was prominently followed by Eric Hobsbawm, whose book Nations and Nationalism since 1780 examined how and when political systems, or movements that sought to found states, produced national entities out of blends of existing cultural, linguistic and religious materials. But Hobsbawm appended a warning to Gellner’s theoretical audacity, writing that nations are “dual phenomena, constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless also analysed from below, that is in terms of the assump• tions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people.”26

It is not easy to discover what “ordinary people” thought in historical times, because they left almost no written sources, the supposedly trustworthy testimonies on which historians base their work. But the willingness of citizens of the new nation-states to join armies and fight in wars that became all-out

  • Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 55.
  • Ibid, 1.
  • Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 10-11.


confrontations, the masses’ intoxicating enthusiasm for international sports events, their eagerness during state occasions, their political preferences in the most decisive elections throughout the twentieth century—all of these tend to demonstrate that nationalism has been a captivating success story.

And rightly so, since only in the national democratic state are the citizens both formally and mentally the legitimate proprietors of the modern state. Histor• ical kingdoms belonged to the monarchs, princes and nobility, not to the societies that bore these persons on their productive backs. Modern democratic political entities, by contrast, are perceived by the masses to be their collective property. The imagined ownership of the new state is also seen as proprietorship of the national territory. Printed maps, which were not of course available in premodern times, familiarize people with the exact dimensions of their state, the boundaries of their common and “eternal” property. Hence the appearance of, among other things, passionate mass patriotism and the impressive willingness to kill and be killed, not only for the abstract homeland but for every inch of its ground.

It is true that nationalism has spread in different ways through different social classes, and it has certainly not fully erased earlier collective identities, but its victorious hegemony in the modern era is beyond question.

The assumption that it was national ideology that created, invented or shaped the forms of identity and the envisioning of the nation does not imply that this ideology was the accidental invention or the whim of evil rulers and thinkers. We are not dealing here with a dark world of conspiracies, nor even with an industry of political manipulation. Although ruling elites did foster the development of a national identity by the masses, primarily in order to maintain their loyalty and obedience, nationalism is an intellectual and emotional phenomenon that exceeds modernity’s basic power relations. It springs from the intersection of various historical processes that began in the developing capitalist West about three centuries ago. It is both ideology and identity, embracing all human groupings and providing them with an answer to a variety of needs and expectations.

If identity is a lens through which the individual makes sense of the world, and is in fact a condition of subjecthood, national identity is a modern lens through which the state makes sense of a diverse population, making it feel it is a homogeneous and unique historical subject.

The early stages of modernization—the destruction of agrarian dependency relations, the collapse of the associated traditional communal connections, and the decline of the religious beliefs that had provided comforting frameworks of identity—already presented conceptual breaches through which nationalism could enter at an accelerating rate. The breakdown


in the forms of solidarity and identity of the small human communities in the villages and towns—caused by occupational mobility and urbanization, and by the abandonment of extended-family homes and of familiar objects and spaces—produced cognitive lacerations that only a total identity politics, such as nationalism, could heal, through powerful abstractions given shape by the dynamic new means of communication.

We find the early buds of national ideology, though still hidden in religious foliage, beginning to flower in the political spring of the Puritan revo• lution in seventeenth-century England. (Perhaps they had been pollinated by the new Church of England, in its break with the Roman papacy.)27 Following that upheaval, these buds proceeded to open and then spread east and west, along with the process of modernization. The revolutionary period of the late eighteenth century saw their fullest flowering. A national consciousness was beginning to flourish among North American and French revolutionaries, hand in hand with the idea of “the people’s sovereignty,” the mighty war cry of the new era.

The famous phrase “No taxation without representation!” taken up against Britain by the bold settlers of America, already presented this advancing entity’s Janus face of nationalism and democracy. When the Abbé Sieyes wrote his famous essay in 1789, “What is the third estate?,” the still virginally shy national-democratic ideology could be glimpsed between the lines. Three years later, it was borne aloft through the turbulent streets of France. The cult of the national state, with its rituals, festivals and anthems, began to seem natural and obvious in the eyes of the Jacobin revolutionaries and their successors.

Napoleon’s conquests undermined the traditional monarchist structures and accelerated the spread of what might be described as the central ideo• logical virus of political modernity. The national-democratic bug entered the hearts of France’s soldiers when they came to believe that each one of them might be carrying a marshal’s baton in his knapsack. Even the circles that sought to oppose the Napoleonic conquests, even the democratic movements that began to challenge the traditional kingdoms, soon became nationalistic. The historical logic of this spreading phenomenon was plain to see: “govern• ment by the people” could only be realized in the national state.

There was more. Old, enfeebled dynastic empires—the Prussian and the Austro-Hungarian and, later, the Tsarist Russian—were also obliged to adopt, cautiously and incrementally, the national innovation, in hopes of extending

  • For a further discussion on the later nationalism in England, see Krisham  Kumar,

The Making of English National Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


their own survival. In the course of the nineteenth century, nationalism triumphed almost everywhere in Europe, although it would mature only with the passage of the law of compulsory education and, toward the end of the century, the universal franchise. These two major projects of mass democracy also helped shape the national structures.

Nationalism was further invigorated in the twentieth century. The repres• sive enterprises of colonialism produced many new nations. From Indonesia to Algeria, Vietnam to South Africa, national identity became universal.28 There are few human beings today who do not see themselves as members of a defined nationality, and do not aspire to complete self-governance for their home country.

It was the American historian Carlton Hayes, arguably the first academic investigator of nationalism, who as early as the 1920s compared its force to that of the great traditional religions.29 Hayes, who was probably a religious believer, assumed that nations had existed for a long time, but he also empha• sized the inventive aspect and the structure of modern nationalism, and drew a comprehensive comparison between faith in the supreme deity and passionate belief in the supremacy of the nation. Although he was chiefly concerned with the history of ideas, Hayes argued that nationalism was a great deal more than simply another political philosophy expressive of a socioeconomic historical process, because its potential for destruction is immense. He wrote his first book with the images of the First World War, and its millions of new, highly nationalistic casualties, filling his mind’s eye.

As Hayes saw it, the decline of Christianity in eighteenth-century Europe did not reflect a complete disappearance of the ancient and persistent human belief in transcendental powers. Modernization merely replaced the former objects of religion. Nature, science, humanism and progress are rational cate• gories, but they also incorporate powerful external factors to which human beings are subject. The climax of the intellectual and religious transformation in the late eighteenth century was the advent of nationalism. Arising as it did from the heart of Christian civilization, it exhibited certain distinctive features from the start. Just as the church organized the faith during the medieval era in Europe, the national state regiments it in the modern era. This state sees itself

  • On nationalism outside the European sphere, see the two books by Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, Tokyo: Zed Books, 1986; The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Carlton J. H. Hayes, “Nationalism as a Religion,” in Essays on Nationalism, New York: Russell, [1926] 1966, 93-125; and Nationalism: A Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1960.


as performing an eternal mission; it demands to be worshipped, has substituted strict civil registration for the religious sacraments of baptism and marriage, and regards those who question their national identity as traitors and heretics.

Hayes’s ideas were taken up by many who viewed nationalism as a sort of modern religion. Benedict Anderson, for example, saw it as a type of faith that confronts the finality of death in a novel way.30 Others defined nationalism as a species of religion that succeeds, amid modernity’s fracturing upheavals, in endowing human life with new meaning. Giving meaning to constantly changing reality was one of the main functions of the new secular religion. Still other scholars diagnosed nationalism as a modern religion whose function was to construct a permanent cultic scaffolding for the social order and the class hierarchy. However, if we accept these or other assumptions about nationalism’s religious nature, we are left with a double question that is yet to be answered: Does nationalism really provide what may be described as a genuine meta• physics of the soul, and will it last as long as the monotheistic religions?

There are significant differences between nationalism and the traditional religions. For example, the universalistic and proselytizing aspects that char• acterize a good part of the transcendental religions differ from the contours of nationalism, which tends to enclose itself. The fact that the nation almost always worships itself, rather than a transcendental deity, also affects the manner of rallying the masses for the state—not a permanent feature of the traditional world. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that nationalism is the ideology that most closely resembles the traditional religions in successfully crossing class boundaries and fostering social inclusion in a common system of relation• ships. More than any other worldview or normative system, nationalism has shaped both a personal and a communal identity, and despite its high degree of abstraction, has succeeded in bridging the gap and strengthening the union between the two. Identities of class, community or traditional religion have not been able to resist it for long. They have not been erased, but their continued existence became possible only if they integrated into the symbiotic intercon• nections of the newly arrived identity.

Other ideologies and political movements have likewise been able to flourish only insofar as they negotiated with the new national idea. This was the fate of all varieties of socialism, as well as of Communism in the Third World, in occupied Europe during the Second World War and in the Soviet Union itself. We must not forget that fascism and National Socialism, before they became an oppressive answer to the conflict between capital and labor, were

  • Anderson, Imagined Communities, 10-12.


specific varieties of radically aggressive nationalism. The modern colonialism and imperialism of the liberal nation-states were almost always supported at the center by popular national movements, and nationalist ideology served them as the principal source of emotional and political credit in financing every stage of their expansion.

So nationalism is a worldwide concept, born of the sociocultural process of modernization and serving as a leading answer to the psychological and political needs of the immense human masses rushing into the labyrinth of a new world. Nationalism might not have literally invented nations, as Gellner asserted, but neither was it invented by them, or by the “peoples” who preceded them. Without nationalism and its political and intellectual instruments, nations would not have come into being, and nation-states would certainly not have arisen. Every step in defining the outline of the nation and determining its cultural profile was taken deliberately, creating and managing the apparatus for its implementation. The national project was, therefore, a fully conscious one, and the national consciousness took shape as it progressed. It was a simul• taneous process of imagination, invention, and actual self-creation.31

The forms of imagination and invention varied from place to place, hence also the boundaries of the new human divisions. Like all ideological and political phenomena, they depended on their particular histories.


Hans Kohn, a Zionist of Czech-German background who began to despair of Jewish nationalism, left Mandatory Palestine for the United States at the end of the 1920s. There he became, along with Carlton Hayes, one of the fathers of the academic study of nationalism. His youth in Eastern Europe, where he had fought in the First World War, along with his experiences and disillusion in the Zionist colonialist enterprise and his migration to New York, equipped him with more valuable firsthand data than his colleague Hayes possessed.32 He, too, was a captive of the essentialist premise that peoples and nations had always existed, and he, too, assumed that only the national consciousness was a novel phenomenon that had to be interpreted in the context of modernization.

  • The self-construction of nations is not the same as the self-creation of a modern working class, but the dismantling of the essentialist approach to the two “things”—nation and class—has much in common. See E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, London: Penguin, [1963] 2002.
  • On his fascinating life and the development of his thought, see Ken Wolf, “Hans Kohn’s Liberal Nationalism: The Historian as Prophet,” Journal of the History of the Ideas 37:4 (1976). 651-72.


Thus, much of his writing belongs to the “history of ideas,” though it includes a cautious attempt to make use of sociopolitical history as well. His crucial contribution to the study of nationalism was his pioneering effort to map its different expressions.

Kohn began writing on the issue of nationalism back in the 1920s, but it was only in his comprehensive study The Idea of Nationalism, published in 1944, that he formulated his famous theory of dichotomy, which won him many supporters as well as many opponents.33 If the First World War pointed him toward the study of nationalism, it was the Second World War that deter• mined his political and ideological sensibilities and, in effect, determined his scholarly achievement. Kohn saw nationalism as made up of two dominant categories: Western nationalism, with an essentially voluntarist approach, which developed on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, bounded on the east by Switzerland; and the organic national identity that spread eastward from the Rhine, encompassing Germany, Poland, the Ukraine and Russia.

Nationalism in the West, except in Ireland, is an original phenomenon that sprang from autochthonous sociopolitical forces, without outside intervention. In most cases it appears when the state, which is engaged in modernization, is well established or is being established. This nationalism draws its ideas from the traditions of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, and its principles are based on individualism and liberalism, both legal and political. The hegemonic class that engenders this national consciousness is a powerful, secular bourgeoisie, and it constructs civil institutions with political power that play a decisive role in the formation of liberal democracy. It is a self-confident bourgeoisie, and the national politics it fosters tend generally toward openness and inclusiveness. Becoming a citizen of the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands or Switzerland depends not only on origin and birth but also on the will to join. For all the differences between national perceptions, anyone naturalized in these countries is seen, legally and ideologically, as a member of the nation, with the state as the common property of the citizenry.

According to Kohn, the nationalism that developed in Central and Eastern Europe (the Czech case being something of an exception) was, by contrast, a historical product catalyzed principally from outside. It came into being during Napoleon’s conquests and began to take shape as a movement of resistance against the ideas and progressive values of the Enlightenment. In these countries, the national idea arose before, and in fact unconnected with,

  • Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism, New York: Collier Books, [1944] 1967. His early, pioneering work, A History of Nationalism in the East, New York: Harcourt, 1929, remains notable.


the consolidation of a modern state apparatus. In these political cultures the middle classes were weak, and the civil institutions they founded were deferen• tial toward the central and aristocratic authorities. The national identity they embraced was hesitant; it lacked confidence. As a result, it rested on kinship and ancient origin, and defined the nation as a rigid, organically exclusive entity.

The national philosophies that flourished in the lands of the future state of Germany, of Poland-to-be, and of Russia, exclusive property of the tsars, were reactionary and irrational. They foreshadowed the political tendencies that would develop in these regions. The mystique of blood and soil character• ized German nationalism, much as conservative romanticism animated the national ferment in the Slav countries of Eastern Europe. Henceforth it would be impossible to join the emerging nations, because they were perceived as exclusive ethnobiological or ethnoreligious entities. The boundaries of the nation were congruent with the “ethnic” boundaries, which could not be entered at will. Such was the unmistakable historical product of this identity politics.

Kohn’s dichotomic theory, broadly sketched above without its finer nuances, was without doubt fundamentally normative and born chiefly in reaction to the rise of Nazism. The immigrant, who had already passed through several cultures and national movements, regarded the collective superidentity of the United States, his final refuge, as the highest realization of the univer• salistic aims that animated Western culture. By contrast, Germany and the East represented the terminus of all the myths and legends about ancient collectives, organic and ethnicist.34

Certainly Kohn’s idealization of the American concept of citizenship and Anglo-Saxon nationalism in general does not withstand present-day criticism, and so not unexpectedly found a good many opponents. But the criticism of Kohn’s theory may be broadly classified as of two kinds. One noted his exces• sively schematic division and pointed out empirical weaknesses in its historical descriptions but did not reject the essential elements of his analysis; the other entirely rejected the fundamental basis of his distinction between political- civil and ethnic-organic nationalisms, with implicit apologetics for the latter.35

  • See also Hans Kohn, Nationalism, Its Meaning and History, Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1955, 9-90; The Mind of Germany: The Education of a Nation, London: Macmillan, 1965; and Hans Kohn and Daniel Walden, Readings in American Nationalism, New York: Van Nostrand, 1970, 1-10.
  • See Taras Kuzio, “The Myth of the Civic State: a Critical Survey of Hans Kohn’s Framework for Understanding Nationalism,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 25:1 (2002), 20-39.


In reality, an analysis of the development of Western societies, which Kohn classified as civil, voluntarist, inclusive nations—the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands—reveals tensions and struggles among diverse tendencies. Throughout the nineteenth century, Protestant Anglo-Saxon identity formed the principal focus of American nationalism, so that Native Americans, Asian and Eastern European immigrants, and black African slaves often experienced hostility and strong identity anxieties. In the 1940s, when Kohn was writing his pioneering book, black citizens had not yet been “imag• ined” as an immanent part of the great democratic nation.36

Although the British have always been proud of their mixed origins (Norman, Scandinavian, and so on), at the height of the liberal British Empire political thinkers and leaders saw the inborn English character as the source of its greatness, and their attitude toward the inhabitants of the colonies was always contemptuous. Many Britons took pride in their Anglo-Saxon heritage, and viewed the Welsh and the Irish “of pure Celtic origin” as their inferiors, races alien to the “chosen Christian people.” In the course of the nineteenth century, during which national identity crystallized throughout the West, there were always Frenchmen who described themselves as direct descendants of the Gallic tribes, bolstering their hostility toward the Germans within the framework of the eternal struggle against the Frankish tribes invading from the east.

At the same time, we find in Central and Eastern Europe not a few thinkers, currents and movements that sought to devise an open, inclusive identity politics, bounded not by ethnobiological or ethnoreligious but by cultural and political boundaries. In Germany, the central object of Kohn’s dichotomic model, there was not only the ethnocentric national tradition whose outstanding ideo• logists were Heinrich von Treitschke and Werner Sombart; there were also cosmopolitan writers such as Friedrich von Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, national liberals such as Theodor Mommsen and Max Weber, as well as the great social-democratic mass movement that viewed Germanity as a hospitable culture and saw all who lived within its territory as its inherent parts. Similarly, in Tsarist Russia it was not only the various socialist move• ments that took the inclusive political position that anyone who saw oneself as a Russian must be regarded as such, but also liberal currents and broad intellectual strata that regarded Jews, Ukrainians and Belorussians as integral parts of the great nation.

  • On nationalism in the US, see the interesting article by Susan-Mary Grant, “Making History: Myth and the Construction of American Nationhood,” in Myths and Nationhood,

G. Hoskin and G. Schöpflin (eds.), New York: Routledge, 1997, 88-106.


Nevertheless, Kohn’s primary intuition was correct and to the point. In the early phases of every Western nation—indeed in every emerging national ideology—ethnocentric myths surround the dominant cultural and linguistic group revered as the original people-race. But in Western societies, for all their subtle variations, these myths fade, though they are never quite extinguished, slowly giving way to a complex of ideas and sensibilities that hold every citizen and naturalized immigrant to be integral parts of the nation. At some point, the hegemonic culture comes to see itself as belonging to all members of the nation, and the dominant identity aspires to encompass them all. This inclu• sive democratization is not an unbroken process—it experiences regressions and deviations, as well as political upheavals in times of instability and crisis. Yet despite such setbacks, all the liberal democracies have given rise to an imagined citizenship in which the future is more significant than the past. This imagined concept has been translated into legal norms and eventually perme• ates the state educational systems.

This took place through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Anglo-Saxon countries, the Low Countries, France and Switzerland. Not that racism vanished from these societies, or that contempt and conflict between different sectors within them ceased. But the processes of integration— sometimes through the  absorption of divergent parts,  sometimes by their suppression—were perceived as necessary, even as desirable. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, then citizenship nationalism is the relatively open culture in which the racist, or the excluding ethnicist, is always forced to apologize.

By contrast, in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Russia, despite considerable movements supporting a definition of national identity on the political basis of citizenship, it was the groups that continued to culti• vate myths about an ancient homogeneous origin that carried the day. Such old concepts about a rigid ethnic entity that remained unchanged through history, a genealogy of a primeval and unique “people,” effectively barred anyone from joining the nation or, for that matter, from quitting it—hence, Germans or Poles and their offspring in the United States would remain forever, in the eyes of nationalists, members of the German or the Polish nation.

The Gallic tribes were depicted in the French educational system as a kind of historical metaphor—even the children of immigrants repeated at school that their ancestors were Gauls, and their teachers took pride in these new “descendants”37—whereas the Teutonic knights, or the ancient Aryan tribes,

  • On the consciousness that France is not “Gaul’s descendant,” see the testimony


increasingly became toward the end of the nineteenth century the idealized forebears of the modern Germans. Whoever was not considered a descendant of theirs was not regarded as a true German. Similarly, in the Poland that arose after the First World War, whoever had not been conceived in a purely Catholic womb, who happened to be the child of Jews, Ukrainians or Ruthenians, even if a citizen, was not regarded as a member of the noble, long- suffering Polish nation.38 Likewise, to many Slavophiles, subjects who had not been born within the bosom of the Orthodox Church and were not authentic Slavs were therefore not part of the holy Russian people and were not to be included within Greater Russia.

The life of linguistic or religious minorities in these countries was immeas• urably harder than in the West, even if we leave to one side for the moment the pogroms against Jews in Russia and the murderous campaigns of the Nazis. It is enough to look at the character of the national entities that arose after the collapse of Yugoslavia, and the fragile criteria for membership in them, to perceive the connection between ethnoreligious definitions and the outburst of intercommunal xenophobia. These entities resorted to almost extinct “reli• gion” in order to assert their national ethnos, which had never had much of an existence. It was only the use of ancient (and utterly fictitious) myths that made it possible to set “Catholic” Croatians against “Orthodox” Serbs, and these in an especially vicious way against “Muslim” Bosnians and Kosovars. Following the failure of the former Communist regime’s integrative policies, minute cultural and linguistic differences turned into exclusionary walls.39

Until the final decade of the twentieth century, Germany and Eastern Europe remained dominated by persistent ethnicist nationalism. Cultural and linguistic minorities, even when in possession of citizenship, were still not included in the dominant public consciousness within the national boundaries. Locally born second- and even third-generation immigrants were not granted citizenship. Yet “ethnic Germans” who had lived for generations in the East, in some cases since the Middle Ages, and who had lost all cultural and linguistic connection with any kind of “Germanity,” still had the privilege of becoming

of Ernest Lavisse, the “pedagogic father”  of French  national historiography,  in the book of Claude Nicolet, La Fabrique d’une nation: La France entre Rome et les Germains, Paris: Perrin, 2003, 278-80.

  • On the nature of Polish nationalism, see Brian Porter, When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in Nineteenth-Century Poland, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003-
  • On nationalism in the Balkans and elsewhere at the end of the twentieth century, see the interesting book by Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging: Journeys in the New Nationalism, New York: Farrar, 1993.


German citizens anytime they wished. Only as the European Community grew, and traditional nationalism somewhat declined, did ethnocentric identi• ties begin to weaken in Central and Eastern Europe, as it silently submitted to the requirements of full democratic citizenship in the new, unified Europe. It must not be forgotten that ethnicist nationalism meant that democracy— namely, government representing the entire population equally—was always imperfect because not all citizens were held to be legitimate members of the national body.

The historical origin of this difference lies in the unresolved division between the process that matured into a political nationalism based on citizen• ship, which one could call citizenship nationalism, as opposed to a nationalism based on an allegiance to ethnicity, which one could call ethnic nationalism. Unfortunately, Hans Kohn’s explanations were not entirely satisfactory. For example, Italy’s unification came late, paralleling that of Germany, and, as in Germany, the weak middle class did not accelerate its nationalization. In both countries national movements arose some time before actual unification, and in both it was the monarchies, rather than bourgeois strata with mass support, that created the states. Yet in Germany it was the ethnic, or ethnobiological, version of nationalism that triumphed, while in Italy by the end of the nine• teenth century the political citizenship version had won.

The difficulty in understanding this contrast can be further highlighted by comparing the later movements—German National Socialism and Italian fascism. Both were strongly nationalistic, and among their various projects was popular unification, which had not been fully accomplished by the monarchies. Both movements were authoritarian, both viewed the nation as a collective greater than the sum of its parts (the individuals of which it was composed), and both despised Western individualism. But National Socialism adopted the ethnobiological heritage on which it had been nurtured from the start, whereas Italian fascism continued to draw, at least until 1938, on the inclusive political nationalism of Italy’s legendary founders, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. German speakers in northern Italy, Jews in the urban centers, and Croatians annexed by war were all perceived as parts of the Italian nation, or future members of it.

Even the historian  Hobsbawm’s interesting chronological classification is only partially convincing. He noted that the nationalist phenomenon had two hues: the first appeared during the revolutionary era of the late eighteenth and early  nineteenth centuries, bearing  liberal-democratic  characteristics; the latter surged in a new form at the end of the nineteenth, based on reac-


tionary ethnolinguistic and racist markers.40 While it is true that toward the end of that century the processes of urbanization and migration in Eastern Europe intensified, and the friction between them produced resentment and racism, Hobsbawm’s analysis cannot account for the German development. Moreover, Greece, which attained national independence in the first half of the nineteenth century and won the sympathy of all the democrats and liberals in Europe at that time, preserved almost to the end of the twentieth century its rigid ethnoreligious nationalism. By contrast, the nature of Italian nation• alism, which matured later, was quite political and citizen-focused. Likewise, Czech nationalism—resulting in a nation-state, together with the Slovaks, that was attained only after the First World War—displayed a certain inclusiveness (though not toward German-speakers), which was quite rare among the other nationalities that arose with the fall of the Hapsburgs.

Liah Greenfeld, a noted scholar in the field of nationalism—as a child she emigrated from the USSR to Israel, and then left it to further her academic career in the United States—has tackled the issue with the tools of compara• tive sociology borrowed from Max Weber.” She accepted in broad terms the division between citizenship and ethnic nationalism, but chose to include the collectivist touchstone: if Britain and the United States are individualistic states, the state of France—born from the great Revolution—linked civil identity with reverence for the body politic. Hence its culture is more homogeneous and less tolerant and liberal toward resident minorities than that of its Western neighbors. However, the countries between the Rhine and Moscow developed a more problematic nationalism, being both collectivist and ethnicist. In these countries the nation is seen as an unchangeable primeval body, to which people can belong only by virtue of genetic inheritance.

For Greenfeld, the difference between the strategies of national identity formation was caused principally by the character of the historical subject responsible for them. In the West, broad social strata adopted and internal• ized the national consciousness—in England, it was the minor aristocracy and the fairly literate urban population; in North America, the generality of settlers; and in France, the strong bourgeoisie. In the East, however, quite narrow strata led the way in the adoption of nationalism—in the Germanic

  • Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, 101-130.
  • See Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992; and also her article “Nationalism in Western and Eastern Europe Compared,” in Can Europe Work? Germany and the Reconstruction of Postcomtnunist Societies, S. E. Hanson and W. Spohn (eds.), Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995, 15-23.


cultural world it was small circles of intellectuals who sought a rise in status at the heart of the conservative social hierarchy, while in Russia it was the weak aristocracy that adopted a new modern identity through which it hoped to preserve its remaining privileges. The prolonged isolation of the groups who created “Eastern” nationalism was largely responsible for its exclusivity and its persistent attachment to a mythological past.

Other scholars have proposed further explanations for the disparate kinds of national temperament that produced such different histories in Europe and worldwide. According to Gellner, in the West it did not take many broken eggs to make the national omelette—thanks to the long existence of a high culture, only a few moderate corrections were needed to define the national bounda• ries. But the “East,” given its general disarray, had no such long-standing high culture, hence the need felt by a particular cultural and linguistic group to forcibly modify the body politic through the use of exclusion, expulsion, even the physical annihilation of other cultural groups.42 Here, too, Gellner’s analysis, like Hobsbawm’s, fails to fit the Germanic world: although it had a high culture ever since the Reformation, outright ethnocentric nationalism ultimately won.

Roger Brubaker, an American sociologist who conducted a thorough methodical comparison between the development of nationhood in France and in Germany, also concluded that the complex mosaic of, and sharp frictions between, cultural-linguistic groups  on the Germanic-Slavic frontiers were among the main causes of their differences. For a long time, there had not been a strong nation-state capable of “Germanizing” Poles and others who lived among speakers of German dialects. Nor did a revolutionary regime arise, as in France, capable of unifying all the “ethnic Germans” surrounded by other linguistically defined cultures.43

To this day, no agreed synthesis has been proposed that accounts for the spectrum of national expressions and for their development over the past two centuries. Socioeconomic, psychological and demographic factors, geographic location, even political and historical contingencies—the explanations remain partial and incomplete. Nor has a satisfactory answer been found thus far to the question of why certain nations preserved ethnocentric myths for a long time and used these in their self-definition, while other nations grew up rela-

  • Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 100.
  • Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, 5-11. Brubaker later rejected the conceptual distinction between civil and ethnic nationalism, preferring to distinguish between “state-framed” and “counter-state” nationalism. See “The Manichean Myth: Rethinking the Distinction Between ‘Civic’ and ‘Ethnic’ Nationalism,” in Hanspeter Kries et al. (eds.), Nation and National Identity: The European Experience in Perspective, Zürich: Rüegger, 1999, 55-71.


tively fast and so succeeded in establishing mature democracies. It appears that further research is required, as well as additional empirical findings.

A primeval ancestral identity, an image of a biological genealogy, and the idea of a chosen people/race did not spring up in a vacuum. For the consolida• tion of a national consciousness, civil or ethnocentric, it was always necessary to have a literate elite. To enable the nation to “remember” and consolidate its historical imagery, it required the services of scholarly producers of culture, masters of memory, creators of laws and constitutions. While diverse social strata utilized or derived various advantages from the rise of the nation-state, the central agents in the formation of national entities—those who perhaps derived the greatest symbolic profit from them—were, above all, the intellectuals.


Carlton Hayes, who painstakingly researched national ideas in the classic texts of modern thought, had concluded in the 1920s that “the upshot of the whole process is that a nationalist theology of the intellectuals becomes a nationalist mythology for the masses.”44 To this Tom Nairn, a much later scholar, no less original and, significantly, a Scot, added, “The new middle-class intelligentsia of nationalism had to invite the masses into history; and the invitation-card had to be written in a language they understood.”45

These two working hypotheses can stand, insofar as we succeed in shaking off the long scholarly tradition of viewing the ideas of its leading thinkers as the causes, or points of departure, for the actual historical devel• opment. Nationalism is not a theoretical product that germinated in scholars’ studies and was then adopted by the masses yearning for ideology, thereby becoming a way of life.46 To understand the way nationalism spread, we must define the role of intellectuals in this phenomenon, and perhaps begin by considering their differing sociopolitical status in traditional and in modern societies.

There has never been an organized society, except perhaps in the early tribal stages, that did not produce intellectuals. While the noun “intellectual” is a fairly late one, born at the end of the nineteenth century, the most basic divisions of labor had already seen the rise of individuals whose main activity or livelihood  was  the  production  and  manipulation  of cultural

  • Hayes, Essays on Nationalism, no.
  • Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism, London: New Left Books, 1977, 340.
  • Elie Kedourie’s classic, Nationalism (London: Hutchinson, 1960), embodies this approach.


symbols and signs. From the sorcerer or shaman, through the royal scribes and priests, to the church clerics, court jesters and painters of cathedrals, cultural elites emerged in all agrarian societies. These elites had to be capable of providing, organizing and disseminating words or images in three major areas: first, the accrual of knowledge; second, the development of ideologies that would preserve the stability of the social order; and third, the provision of an organizing metaphysical explanation for the seemingly magical cosmic order.

Most of these cultural elites, as noted earlier, were in some ways dependent on and entangled with the politically and economically dominant strata. The dependence could be lesser or greater; here and there, a measure of autonomy—and even, given a solid economic basis, a degree of independ• ence—was achieved. Nor was the dependence one-sided: political power, which in traditional societies intermeshed with the web of economic produc• tion differently than it does in modern societies, needed cultural elites in order to maintain control.

By combining the explanation given by Antonio Gramsci for the various ways in which intellectuals exist in the world of production with Gellner’s theory of modernization, we gain further insight into their role in the formation of nation• alism and the nation. According to the Italian Marxist,

Every social class, coming into existence on the original basis of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates with itself, organically, one or more groups of intellectuals who give it homogeneity and consciousness of its function.47

To retain control for a long time, it is not enough to possess visible power; it is necessary to produce ethical and legal norms. An educated stratum provides a hegemonic consciousness to underpin the class structure, so that it will not need to keep defending that structure by violent means. In the premodern world the traditional intellectuals were the court scribes, artistic protégés of a prince or a king, and the various agents of religion. Above all it was the clergy in historical societies who helped consolidate a consensual ideology. Gramsci, in his time, admitted that it was still necessary to investigate the rise of the intellectuals in the feudal and classical world, and indeed his writing on the subject is tentative and rather disappointing. Gellner, on the other hand, ventured a more interesting hypothesis.

  • Antonio Gramsci, “The Formation of Intellectuals,” in The Modern Prince and Other Writings, New York: International Publishers, 1957, 118.


As stated earlier, before the invention of printing, court scribes  and priests did not have the means of communication to reach the masses, nor did they need them. The divine right of royalty conveyed ideological legitimacy primarily to the administrative circles and landed aristocracy, and these groups controlled the territory. It is true that the religious elite slowly began its effort to reach the generality, namely, the peasant population, but it also avoided close contact with it. Gellner gives a good description of the intellectual mechanism in agricultural societies:

The tendency of liturgical languages to become distinct from the vernacular is very strong: it is as if literacy alone did not create enough of a barrier between cleric and layman, as if the chasm between them had to be deepened, by making the language not merely recorded in an inaccessible script, but also incomprehensible when articulated;48

Unlike the relatively small priestly circles in the polytheistic royal courts around the ancient Mediterranean, the spreading monotheism gave rise to broader intellectual strata. From the ancient Essenes through the missionaries, monks, rabbis and priests, to the ulema, there were increasing numbers of literate individuals who had extensive and complex contact with the masses of agricultural producers—one reason that the religions survived through the ages while empires, kingdoms, principalities and peoples rose and fell. Reli• gious bodies that did not fully blend with secular authorities acquired varying degrees of autonomy vis-à-vis the political and social classes. They cultivated lines of communication and were always perceived to be the servants of society as a whole, hence the impressive survival of the beliefs, cults and icons they disseminated. Another reason for the longevity of religions was that the value of the spiritual merchandise they provided to the masses must have been more meaningful than the earthly (and exploitative) security provided by the political powers: “divine providence” secured for believers the purity, grace and salvation of the next world.

We might add that the autonomy of religious bodies in the premodern world was achieved not only thanks to their reputation and widespread universal message, but also to the direct material support they received from the devout producers of food. Moreover, many literate individuals combined physical labor with their spiritual occupations, and those who belonged to the upper reaches of the establishment became in time a socioeconomic class and even a judicial establishment—for example, the Catholic Church.

  • Gellner, Natiotis and Nationalism, 11.


Despite the growing popularity of religious elites in the agrarian world, and their devotion to the human flock, they took good care of the working tool that enabled them to maintain their authority. Reading and writing, as well as the sacred tongue, were preserved by the “book people,” and there was neither the will nor the means to propagate these practices throughout the populace. Anderson puts it well: “the bilingual intelligentsia, by mediating between vernacular and Latin, mediated between earth and heaven.”49 Not only did the religious elites know the sacred languages and, in some cases, the language of the administration, but they were also familiar with the peasant dialects. This mediating function of bilingual or trilingual intellectuals gave them a power they would not readily give up.

But the process of modernization—the decline in the power of the church, the shrinking of the religious communities, the disappearance of the patron- protégé relations that had sustained the medieval producers of culture, and the formation of a market economy in which almost everything might be bought and sold—inevitably contributed to the transmutation of all cultural morphol• ogies, leading to major alterations in the place and status of the intellectuals.

Gramsci repeatedly emphasized the links between these new literati and the rising bourgeoisie. These intellectuals, whom he described as “organic,” were not large capitalists but came mainly from the urban and rural middle strata. Some  became skilled experts who administered production, while others followed the free professions or became public officials.

At the top of the pyramid Gramsci placed the “creators in the various fields of knowledge: philosophy, art, etc.,”50 but he used the term “intellectual” broadly, including in effect the politicians and bureaucrats—that is, most of the modern states organizers and directors. In fact, although he does not say so, for him the new state apparatus as an intellectual collective replaced the rational “Prince,” the famous, idealized autocrat depicted by Niccolo Machi• avelli. But unlike that mythological figure, the modern prince is not a single and absolute ruler, but rather a corps of intellectuals who control the appa• ratus of the nation-state. This body does not express its own interests but is supposed to represent the totality of the nation, for which purpose it produces a universal discourse claiming to serve all its members. In bourgeois society, Gramsci argued, the political-intellectual prince is a dependent partner of the property-owning classes that control production. Only when the party of workers comes to power—a new intellectual prince—will the universal dimen• sion be realized in society’s upper political spheres.51

  • Anderson, Imagined Communities, 15-16.
  • Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings, 125.
  • Actually Gramsci applied the term “prince” to a political organism seeking to seize


It is not necessary to believe in Gramsci’s political Utopia—designed to justify his work as an intellectual in a workers’ party—to appreciate his theo• retical achievement in analyzing the intellectual function that characterizes the modern state. Unlike the powers that ruled agrarian societies, moderniza• tion and the division of labor required that the political apparatus perform diverse, ever-multiplying intellectual functions. While the majority of the populace remained illiterate, this apparatus expanded and cultivated within it the bulk of the literate population.

Which social classes produced these first “intellectuals” in the growing state bureaucracy? The answer might help solve the question of the historical differences in the formation of civil and ethnic nationalisms. In Britain, after the Puritan revolution, the state apparatus was staffed by members of the new minor aristocracy and commercial bourgeoisie. In the United States the staff came mainly from wealthy farming families and prosperous city dwellers. In France it was mainly educated members of the commercial class and the petty bourgeoisie who filled the ranks of the “gown nobility,” while the upheavals of the Revolution continued to inject new social elements into the body politic.

In Germany, on the other hand,  the  Prussian  imperial  state  system was made up principally of conservative members of the Junker class, their offspring, and their associates, and things did not immediately change when Prussia became part of the German Reich after 1871. In Russia, too, the Tsarist state drew its public servants from the traditional nobility. In Poland, the first social class that aspired and struggled for a national state were the aristocrats. Without revolutions to introduce educated, dynamic elements and members of the new mobile classes, the early stages of state formation did not include intellectuals who were commoners in the political game or, therefore, in the dominant protonational ideologies.

The French thinker Raymond Aron wondered whether racism is not, among other things, the snobbery of the poor.52 This observation not only diagnoses a familiar mental state of the modern mass; it can also point to the historical sources of the concept of “blood ties,” which dictated the bounda• ries of certain national groups. Before the modern age it was the nobility that marked blood as the measure of kinship.53 Only the aristocrats had blue blood

the state structure in the name of the proletariat. I apply here the concept to the entire state apparatus,

  • Raymond Aron, Les Désillusions du progrès: Essai sur la dialectique de la modernité,

Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1969, 90.

  • In the ancient Jewish world, it was mostly the priesthood that demarcated its identity by blood, and in the late Middle Ages it was, strangely, the Spanish Inquisition.


in their veins, which they inherited from their precious ancestral seed. In the old agrarian world, biological determinism as the criterion for human clas• sification was perhaps the most important symbolic possession of the ruling classes. It was the basis of the legal customs that served as the infrastruc• ture of its prolonged, stable power over the land and the realm. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his time, upward mobility during the Middle Ages was possible only in the church: it was the only system not based exclusively on genealogy and was thus the source of modern egalitarianism.54

The dominant presence of members and associates of the declining nobility among the new intellectuals in the government systems of Central and Eastern Europe apparently affected the direction of the future national identities that were then developing. When the Napoleonic wars forced the kingdoms east of France to don national costumes, their loyal and conservative literate circles sowed the ideological seeds that exchanged the horizontal concept of blue blood for a vertical one, and the reversal of aristocratic identity initiated the hesitant beginnings of a protonational identity. This identity, assisted by later intellectuals, soon led to the ideological and legal principle defining the membership of the “ethnic” nationality as blood-based (jus sanguinis). The national membership granted in the West on grounds of birth in the territory (jus soli) was entirely absent in the nation-states of Eastern Europe.

Yet here, too, the Italian example flies in the face of overconfident schema• tization. Why did civil-political nationalism succeed here at such an early stage? Surely the first intellectuals of the state apparatus throughout the future Italy also derived from the traditional aristocracy? A possible, if inadequate, explanation for the relative restraint of ethnicism in the consolidation of Italian identity could be the tremendous weight of the papacy and the Catholic universalism that it imbued in all the strata from which the Italian bureaucracy arose. Perhaps also the clearly political myth of the ancient Roman republic and empire helped immunize this unusual civil identity; moreover, the marked differences between northern and southern Italians could have prevented a dubious ethnic nationalism.

Or we may ditch all of Gramsci’s analyses and choose a firmer basis on which to clarify the role of the intellectuals in national modernization. We can limit the term “intellectuals” to the producers, organizers and propaga• tors of culture in the modern state and its extensions in civil society. With this approach, it will still be possible to discover how indispensable they were for the consolidation of nationalism and the formation of nation-states.

  • See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, London: Oxford University Press, 1946.


As Anderson pointed out, one of the major developments leading up to the age of nationalism was the printing revolution that began in Western Europe at the end of the fifteenth century. This technocultural revolution weakened the status of the sacred languages and helped spread the languages of state admin• istration that would eventually become national languages. The position of the clergy, whose use of the sacred languages was their main symbolic posses• sion, declined. The clerics, who had attained their status and even earned their living thanks to their bilingualism, lost their historical role and were forced to seek other sources of income.55

The symbolic properties  inherent  in  the  national  languages  offered an expanding market of fresh opportunities. Flourishing book production required new specializations and new intellectual endeavors. Philosophers, scientists, and, before long, writers and poets abandoned Latin and turned to French, English, German and other vernaculars. The next stage, the rise of journalism, would hugely increase the number of readers, and thus the corps of writers catering to the public. But the real catalyst of national language and culture was the state, whose nature kept evolving. To promote production and compete with other national economies, the state apparatus had to take on the task of educating the populace and turn it into a national enterprise.

Universal education and the creation of agreed cultural codes were preconditions for the complex specializations demanded by the modern division of labor. Therefore every state that became “nationalized,” whether authoritarian or liberal, made elementary education a universal right. No mature nation failed to declare education compulsory, obliging its citizens to send their children off to school. This institution, which became the central agent of ideology—rivaled only by the military and by  war—turned all subjects into citizens, namely, people conscious of their nationality.56 If Joseph de Maistre maintained that the executioner was the mainstay of social order in the state, Gellner’s provocative insight was that the decisive role in the state belonged to none other than the educator.57 More than to their rulers, the new national citizens became loyal to their culture.

Yet Gellner’s argument that this has turned the modern state into a

  • On the rise and consolidation of national languages, see Michael Billing, Banal Nationalism, London: Sage Publications, 1995, 13-36.
  • There are not enough empirical studies of the nationalization of the masses in the Western nations. One exception is the relatively early book by Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976.
  • Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 34.


community made up entirely of priests/scribes is imprecise.58 Though literacy has become universal, there is a new division of labor in the nation—between those who create and disseminate literacy and make their living doing so, and those who consume its products and make use of it. From the elected minister of culture through the university scholar and lecturer to the schoolteacher, a hierarchy of intellectuals serves the state, filling the roles of director and playwright, and even leading actors in the immense cultural spectacle called the nation. Agents of culture from the fields of journalism, literature, theater and, later,  cinema and television form the supporting cast.

In the kingdoms that preceded the consolidation of nations, notably those in Western Europe, the agents of culture constituted an efficient corps that worked in tandem with administrative officialdom, the judiciary, and the military, and collaborated with them in the nation-building project. Among minority groups—cultural-linguistic or religious, and generally defined as ethnic—that had suffered discrimination under the supranational kingdoms and imperial powers, the intelligentsia were almost the only midwives of the new, rapidly rising nations.

Within the broad boundaries of the Austro-Hungarian, Tsarist Russian and Ottoman empires, and later the British, French, Belgian and Dutch colo• nies, there arose small circles of vigorous intelligentsia characterized by an acute sensitivity to cultural discrimination, linguistic repression, or exclusion on religious grounds. These groups arose only when the nationalist ferment was already seething in the metropolitan center—still weak and fictive in the crumbling kingdoms, but authentic and hegemonic in the new empires. These circles were familiar with the high culture that was taking shape and spreading in the centers of power, but still felt inferior to it, because they had come in from the margins and were constantly reminded of that fact. Since their working tools were cultural and linguistic, they were the first to be affected and thus formed the vanguard of the nationalist revolt.

These dynamic groups started a long campaign to lay the foundations for the emerging national movements that would claim sovereignty over the nations they represented while, at the same time, bringing them into being. Some of these intellectuals retrained to become the political leaders of the new mass movements. Others clung to their intellectual occupations and passion• ately continued to delineate the contours and contents of the new national culture. Without these early literati, nations would not have proliferated, and

58    Ibid., 32.


the political map of the world would have been more monochromatic.59  These intellectuals had to utilize popular or even tribal dialects, and

sometimes forgotten sacred tongues, and to transform them quickly into new, modern languages. They produced the first dictionaries and wrote the novels and poems that depicted the imagined nation and sketched the boundaries of its homeland. They painted melancholy landscapes that symbolized the nation’s soil60 and invented moving folktales and gigantic historical heroes, and weaved ancient folklore into a homogeneous whole.61 Taking events related to diverse and unconnected political entities, they welded them into a consecutive, coherent narrative that unified time and space, thus producing a long national history stretching back to primeval times. Naturally, specific elements of the various historical materials played a (passive) part in shaping the modern culture, but it was principally the intellectual sculptors who cast the image of the nation according to their vision, whose character was formed mainly by the intricate demands of the present.

Most of them did not see themselves as the midwives of the new nation but as the offspring of a dormant nation that they were arousing from a long slumber. None wanted to see themselves as a baby left on a church door• step without an identifying note. Nor did the image of the nation as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, composed of organs from different sources, especially disturb its devotees. Every nation had to learn who its “ancestors” were, and in some cases its members searched anxiously for the qualities of the biological seed that they propagated.

Genealogy gave  added value  to the  new identity, and the longer the perceived past, the more the future was envisioned as unending. No wonder, then, that of all the intellectual disciplines, the most nationalistic is that of the historian.

The rupture caused by modernization detached humanity from its recent past. The mobility created by industrialization and urbanization shattered not only the rigid social ladder but also the traditional, cyclic continuity between past,

  • On the stages in the development of national minority movements in Eastern and Central Europe, see the important empirical work by the Czech scholar Miroslav Hroch, Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. The author himself attributed the book’s awkward title and its obsolete terminology to the fact that its first version appeared back in the early 1970s.
  • On the visual depiction of nations, see Anne-Marie Thiesse’s excellent, La Création des identités nationales: Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle, Paris: Seuil, 1999, 185-224,
  • On why and how national heroes are created, see P. Centlivres, et al. (eds.), La Fabrique des héros, Paris: Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1998.


present and future. Previously, agrarian producers had no need for the chroni• cles of kingdoms, empires and principalities. They had no use for the history of large-scale collectives, because they had no interest in an abstract time uncon• nected to their concrete existence. Lacking such a concept of development, they were content with the religious imagination that comprised a mosaic memory devoid of a tangible dimension of progressive movement. The end became a beginning, and eternity bridged life and death.

The secular, upsetting modern world, however, turned time  into  the main artery through which symbolic and emotional imagery entered social consciousness. Historical time became inseparable from personal identity, and the collective narrative gave meaning to the national existence, whose consolidation required heavy sacrifices. The suffering of the past justified the price demanded of citizens in the present. The heroism of the receding world prophesied a brilliant future, perhaps not for the individual but certainly for the nation. With the help of historians, nationalism became an essentially optimistic ideology. This, more than anything else, was the secret of its success.