Friday, October 30, 2015

The cross-cultural ambiguity of "nation" in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Advance warning: 1. I am no expert on Hebrew, nor for that matter on semantics. 2. Comments relating to word usage are welcome below; attempts to refight the conflict are not.

One thing that's always puzzled me about pro-Israel discourse is the enormous weight it tends to place on the concept of nationhood. Over and over again, you find Zionists insisting that Israel is a nation, that Palestine is not a nation, that Palestine must acknowledge that Israel is a nation - as if nationhood were the key issue at stake. In pro-Palestine discourse, on the other hand, the question of whether either party is a nation hardly arises except in responses; who cares? Recently it struck me that this difference in rhetoric could perhaps be understood in semantic terms. What is a nation? And just how badly does this rather polysemous word translate?

When Netanyahu defends proposals to define Israel as the "nation-state of the Jewish people" (מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי), or declares that "we do not want a bi-national state" (איננו רוצים מדינה דו-לאומית), the word he's using is le'om לאום. In the Hebrew Bible, this word (better transcribed lə'ōm) is fairly uncommon, occurring 26 times in the plural and 5 in the singular (26 of them in the singular), usually in poetry and paired with its far more frequent near-synonym ʕām עָם "people, nation". It occurs in the singular in Proverbs, with general reference, and in Genesis 25, in which Jacob and Esau are each presented as a le'om, implicitly representing the nation made up of his descendants: respectively, Israel and Edom. Elsewhere, it occurs in the plural, especially referring to other nations (eg Psalms 47:3). In a more modern context, le'om is the word used for "ethnic affiliation" on Israeli ID cards: an Israeli citizen's le'om can be Jewish, Arab, or Druze, but, curiously enough, never Israeli.

In Arabic, the "nation-state of the Jewish people" is rendered as "دولة قومية للشعب اليهودي", and "bi-national state" as "دولة ثنائية القومية", both using the word qawmiyy "national", from qawm "nation, people". The latter word is very frequent in the Qur'an, occurring 383 times. Its usage there, however, is rather different. It never occurs pluralised (though it takes plural agreement). Whereas the only le'oms defined by name in the Bible are defined by common patrilineal ancestry, a qawm is defined by name in the Qur'an only in terms of their prophet or (more rarely) leader: qawmu Mūsā "the people of Moses", qawmu Firʕawn "the people of Pharaoh", qawmi Nūḥ "the people of Noah", qawmi 'Ibrāhīm "the people of Abraham"... Otherwise, it is defined in terms of its characteristics: most often, believing (aware, realising, grateful, etc.) or unbelieving (wrong-doing, misguided, self-wronging, etc.)

As might be expected based on this, the noun qawm is hardly ever used to refer to something like a "Palestinian nation", nor to a "Jewish nation", nor even to an "Arab nation" (Google returns derisorily small numbers of hits, in the low thousands or below). If you search for dawlah qawmiyyah "nation-state", what you mostly get is discussion of Israel (along with a few fringe movements). Qawmiyyah, "nationalism", is a more prominent concept in the modern era - above all, al-qawmiyyah al-ʕarabiyyah "Arab nationalism", ie the dream of a single pan-Arab state - but one with a rather ambivalent ring to it at best; there are still Arab nationalists around, but the Arab unity project has had a musty 1960s smell to it for a while, criticised as much from the right as from the left. Even apart from its content, the common Israeli demand for recognition of a "nation-state of the Jewish people" thus translates rather poorly - not because the concepts don't exist, but because they don't have similar connotations. Palestinians aren't normally speaking in terms of a "dawlah qawmiyyah of the Palestinian people", nor for that matter of "the Arab people"; whether Palestine is a nation-state or some other kind of state is a secondary issue.

When Mahmoud Abbas mentions "national institutions" or a "national unity government" in his UNGA speech - or meets with the Palestinian National Council - the word he's using, and the word any Arabic speaker would use, is waṭaniyy وطني, from waṭan وطن "nation, homeland". In the Palestinian declaration of independence of 1988, qawmiyy occurs once (in a token nod to Arab nationalism), whereas waṭaniyy occurs 13 times, in collocations like "national identity", "national independence", "national rights", "national personality", "national will"... The word waṭan doesn't occur in the Qur'an at all; the closest it comes is a single usage of mawāṭin "regions". It unambiguously refers to a land, not to a group of people. And, unlike qawm, it has a profound resonance in the context of Palestinian - and Arab - nationalism, and not just because it provides the adjective used in collocations like "national liberation" or "national anthem". It recurs nostalgically in the poems of Mahmoud Darwish ("What is the waṭan? It is the house, and the mulberry tree, and the chicken coop and the beehive, and the smell of bread and the sky") or Tawfiq Zayyad ("As you were, so you shall remain, my waṭan - present in the leaves of the oleander and the fragrance of jasmine"). Further afield, Nizar Qabbani's remarkable line comes to mind now more than ever: "O my waṭan, have they made you a serial of horror whose events we follow in the evening? Then how shall we see you if they cut the power?" And, of course, waṭaniyyah وطنية "patriotism" has far more positive connotations than qawmiyyah. All of this vocabulary places the emphasis away from notions of ethnic cohesion or common ancestry, focusing on a different common ground: the land itself.

The Hebrew translation of waṭan would appear to be moledet (מולדת) "homeland". This word does occur in the Bible, 22 times - but, like le'om, it carries there a sense much more closely tied to human kinship, referring to "kindred, family" as well as "birthplace, native country". Israel's declaration of independence refers to the land as the "national homeland (moledet)" of the Jews, and there seems to be a good deal of Hebrew poetry on the subject. However, collocations like "national anthem" or "National Council" or "national unity government" or "national liberation" all derive from le'om, not from moledet.

"Nation" in English usage is ambiguous: is a nation united primarily by its attachment to a given area, or by its common ancestry? Either language can express either idea. However, the best-established and most positively viewed terminology in Arabic focuses on the former, while in Hebrew it focuses on the latter. This difference is hardly the source of the conflict, but it does play some small part in impeding mutual understanding.


John Cowan said...

I think the meaning of English nation, when not used in archaic language or as a translation of some term in another language, depends on the dialect. In en-UK it means ethnicity, at least within the UK: there are the English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish nations (plus arguably the Cornish and British nations, the last being people who are British citizens but don't identify themselves with any of the other five). But in en-US it primarily means the governmental structure, what in other varieties of English is called the state, a word of specialized meaning in en-US. It is not bound to either territory or population: when Hawaii joined the US, the nation did not change, though its territory grew and it added one more ethnicity.

Alexander said...

It might be worth pointing out that for centuries وطن in Arabic connoted a much smaller area than a country. Generally, it was one's hometown (most often birthplace as well), with special implications for Muslims: traveling a certain distance from one's وطن meant that prayers would be shortened and fasting for Ramadan made optional rather than obligatory. In the 19th century it underwent a semantic shift to take on the connotations of the French 'patrie' or English 'homeland', expanding to include the borders of the newly-imagined nation-state. The same shift happened, at various speeds, in Persian, Urdu, and Ottoman Turkish (among perhaps other languages that had acquired وطن as a loanword).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

John: that is true, but its usage in reference to non-English-speaking countries is a bit more problematic. Even in the U.S., there's a tradition of referring to Native American groups as nations.

Alexander: Interesting suggestion, but it's worth noting that وطن could be used for rather large areas In Classical Arabic too. Consider Ibn Khaldun: ولأن عنايتنا في الأكثر إنما هي بالمغرب الذي هو وطن البربر وبالأوطان التي للعرب "because our concern is mainly with the Maghrib, which is the وطن of the Berbers, and with the أوطان that belong to the Arabs". I'm sure French influenced its emotional connotation especially, but its reference already included homelands as well as hometowns.

Y said...

You want to pick at this hornets' nest, do you?
A great deal of this issue is rooted in the uncertainty of what it means to be an Israeli Jew, and the contradiction of Israel as a Jewish yet democratic state.
— A new official le'om, Aramaic, was adopted last year, defined as a member of one of five Christian denominations (Maronite and Aramaic/Greek Orthodox/Catholic), of northern Middle Eastern ancestry, who speaks Aramaic. Circassians, as far as I know, are still considered of an Arab le'om. Depending on who you ask, the Israeli government is virtuously acknowledging the unique status of Arab Christians, or attempting to divide and weaken Israeli Arab society.
— Another biblical word for 'nation' is גּוֹי goy, nowadays of course only used for non-Jews. Klein is uncertain about its etymology.
— Netanyahu's phrase מדינה דו-לאומית, in context, means a unified state including the West Bank and perhaps Gaza, with citizenship for all of its present inhabitants. In practice, that would produce roughly equal populations of Arabs and Jews, which would change the nature of the country drastically (for better or worse, depending on your inclination). The word le'om has to be interpreted here as part of this charged phrase.
— Likewise, מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי "the nation-state of the Jewish people" refers to a proposed law of that name (see the Hebrew WP article, or the outdated English one.) That law would reinforce the nature of Israel as a Jewish nation-state explicitly. I suppose Netanyahu is using the phrase so as to make the law sound more acceptable.
A commentary from the Israeli institute of Democracy (quoted in WP) says, "We object to the proposed law discussed here. That, even though we agree that Israel is obviously the nation-state of the Jewish people." Thus, the word לאום, or even the full phrase מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי need more extra-linguistic context for their interpretation.
— The framing of Palestinian nationhood in Israel used to be, and to many still is, that the word Palestinian is a fiction, made up to claim some special relation to this particular piece of land. In that view, the Arabs are considered a homogeneous mass, in possession of territory stetching from Mauretania to Iraq, while the Jewish people lay claim to only a relatively tiny piece of land. People who promulgate this view present Palestinians as latecomers (emphasizing 19th century migrants from Egypt), with no coherent mutual identity, who would belong just as well anywhere else in that vast Arab land. In fact, until the 1980s the word 'Palestinian' was pretty much taboo in Israeli political discourse, except for the far left, much as 'Israeli' is taboo in current official Iranian discourse.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Y: That's quite a few points; let me number them...

1. I heard. No Christians (or indeed non-Christians) within the relevant territory speak Aramaic as a first language.

2. I considered adding a discussion of am, goy, sha3b, and umma, but decided the post was already a bit too long. If there's interest, I might attempt one later...

3, 4: Are you suggesting that these differences of interpretation stem from (or relate to) different understandings of what le'om means? If so, can you provide further details please?

5: A friend of mine likes to joke that Zionists are the only pan-Arabists left at this point. Subsequent history should make it obvious that that framing was a gross misreading of the situation. It rested on the assumption that pan-Arabism expressed the deeply rooted historical ambitions of, well, a le'om, while attachment to a particular waTan was a weaker, secondary phenomenon. In reality, pan-Arabism as an effective political project came and went within the space of a generation, while a strong emotional attachment to the land turned out to be persistent enough to survive exile and urbanisation alike. No doubt this reading is to be explained primarily by non-linguistic factors, but I would tentatively suggest that the close link drawn in Hebrew between nationhood and ethnicity played some small role in making it appear more plausible to the Israeli public. Conversely, the close link drawn in Arabic between nationhood and homeland may have helped it seem more intuitively likely to Arabic speakers that the Zionist national project's dependence on immigration would be a fatal weakness.

Y said...

1. You're right. The quote I saw (not the official one) says 'familar' with the language (מכירים את השפה הארמית). There are language revival activities in the Maronite village of Jish.
2. I'd like to know if you have any ideas regarding the etymology of goy. It's a very unusual construction in Hebrew.
3,4. No, I was apparently unclear. I'm suggesting that the semantics of le'om are identical in all these contexts, but that the associations carried by the phrases, beyond their literal meaning, are significant, and mean different things. When a leftist old-school zionist mentions "the nation-state of the Jewish people" he's likely referring to the nuclear idea of Zionism, that of providing a safe and permanent state for the Jewish people, and nothing more. When Netanyahu mentions it, I believe he's trying to push the proposed law, which is more explicit about the primacy of Jewish culture in the state.
In any case, I imagine all the terms you mention are strongly anchored to terms in European languages, whose meanings were crystallized by the theoreticians of nationalism in the 19th and 20th century, who directly inspired modern Arab and Jewish national movements.

5. I agree. I should also mention that Hebrew moledet appears in the Bible mostly as ארץ מולדת erets moledet in the construct case, 'the land of birth of X', and always refers to the land of birth of an actual person. In modern use moledet is used more as the ancestral land of a people, typically the Jewish people, rarely as the land where a particular person was born.

In the argument for who has the stronger claim for Israel/Palestine, Jews have the stronger claim for an ancient presence connecting with the present through ancestry and cultural practices, while Palestinians have had the stronger claim for a more recent presence with a continuity of location. Naturally each side has developed an ideology which favors its claim.

Another biblical word for homeland, now very literary, is מְכוֹרָה mekhora. Klein associates it with כרה, כור 'to dig', i.e. a well.

Unknown said...

John Cowan,

I am not able to unpick what you mean by "nation" in your comment. I was born in (yes, we say 'in', you may say 'on') the island of Jersey. I carry a British passport. Unlike some of my "compatriots", I have the right to travel or live unrestrictedly in the European Union, because enough of my ancestors were "proper" British, rather than Jersiais.
Jersey is less than 20 kilometers from Normandy and Brittany. I don't "feel" very Breton, but that may be simply because I dislike Brittany. Do I "feel" Normand? Despite my surname, not very much.
I live in Spain, and don't kick at all about being called "English". What's your deal with "nationality"? Somehow, I just don't get it...

Heathcliff al-Huxtable said...

I think you're looking in the wrong place here.

Israeli politicians' obsession with nationhood can be attributed to what Chomsky has called a distractionary political tactic to avoid the issue of occupation. But primarily it is a source of Zionist ideology and its roots in 19th-20th century central Europe.

Theodore Herzl had in his youth been a member of a German nationalist social club with Nazi overtones. He had to quit when the anti-semitism of the group became too much for him. But this 19th/20th century obsession with national purity has been embedded in Zionism, as it is essentially an ethno-religious National Socialist movement similar to all the other nationalist movements in Europe from that time period.

This sort of right-wing nationalism that's obsessed with ethnic or religious purity never made it to the Middle East, except for the pan-Turkic nationalism of CUP at the end of the Ottoman Empire. It did also inspire some groups like the Maronite Falange/Kataeb in Lebanon who used to do the Nazi salute and modelled themselves openly on the Hitler Youth. Another one was the pan-Arabist Futuwwa in Iraq. But primarily this sort of nationalism never made it into the pan-Arabist discourse, which was always far more focused on language, nor the Palestinian discourse, which is why this gap exists that you are talking about.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Obviously the way people conceive of nationalism is ultimately determined by politics and history, the details of which are beyond the scope of this blog. However, when a particular presupposition gets integrated into the standard language, it becomes harder to question and seems more like common sense than when it was just a novel idea with no special privileges.

Unknown said...

I'm guessing that qawm is cognate with Hebrew goyim? Jewish exceptionalism dictates that they are not one of the "goyim", and prior to the founding of the State of Israel, even the term "le'om" was problematic. In reference to the "chosen people" etc, the Bible writers use the word "ha'am" (Modern: ha'uma). Indeed, one of the objections of hyper-religious Jews to the State of Israel has always been that it places Jews among the goyim or le'omim. The "United Nations" is rendered in Modern Hebrew as "הָאוּמוֹת הַמְּאֻחָדוֹת", using the plural of uma, a radical departure from the original meaning of ha'am.
We're in muddy waters here, and I, with little knowledge and less understanding of Semitic languages, am frankly on quicksand.

David Marjanović said...

I'm guessing that qawm is cognate with Hebrew goyim?

That would not be regular.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Kind of tempting to try to explain goyim as a borrowing from some dialect of Arabic with q > g... but no, too implausible. Ha'am isn't cognate to ha'uma either; the latter is, however, related to Arabic 'ummah "community".

Y said...

Briggs-Driver connects גּוֹי with Arabic جَوّ and Aramaic גֵּו, גֵּוָא 'middle, midst', usually reflected in Hebrew גֵּו 'back, belly, torso', but also as 'midst' in Job 30:5 מִן גֵּו יְגֹרָשׁוּ 'they will be cast out from the midst [of a community]'. The latter provides a possible semantic connection with 'people', though I'd like to see a clearer demonstration of this.

Aside: is it possible to change some settings so the blog shows comment dates and not just the hour of posting?

Unknown said...

Thanks for clearing me up about qawm/goy.

I never intended to imply that ha'uma was derived from ha'am, just that the former is used in modern Hebrew to express something similar. Modern Israeli politicians have used all kinds of words to express 'nationhood', some deliberately, others accidentally provocative.

zeke said...

לאום is a pretty modern and political word in relation to Jews. In spontaneous conversation people will talk about עם ישראל or העם היהודי, but rarely will you hear הלאום היהודי. The same is true in old literature where you will never see הלאום היהודי used. Among all the terms for "Jewish people" - עם ישראל gets by far the most hits on Google, being in the millions, while all the other terms are only in the 10s or 100s of thousands. In general, I think you don't give enough attention here to the fact that עם is a much more common word, even today, than לאום.

Also, people will not usually say that they want the state to remain or be recognized as מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי but simply say מדינה יהודית.

What I find interesting is that all these terms (לאום, قومية, وطنية etc.) are modern terms inspired by European concepts of nationalism. In Hebrew I see a gap between how people talk about these things in their daily lives, mostly using traditional Jewish concepts and terminology, but when it gets to political or academic language you suddenly see much more European-inspired terminology.
Is there a similar gap in Arabic between "street" terminology of nationalism and political/academic terminology? My sense is that there is less of a gap than in Hebrew, but I'm not sure.

(Less important (more political) point: Odd point you have at the beginning, since a common anti-Zionist argument is that Jews are members of a single religion, not of a single nation or people. So it is understandable that many Zionist Jews feel they need to argue against that and stress the "nationhood" or "peoplehood" of the Jewish people, which thereby gives them a right to a state in their homeland. And for many people recognizing a Jewish state is equal to recognizing the right of Jews to live in their historic homeland in peace and prosperity.)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

As I said, I ended up leaving out several relevant words in this semantic field for lack of time. I can see that am is a much more important term historically and religiously than le'om, although it looks rather less prominent in the specific field of modern political discourse. However, that kind of confirms my point. I imagine it would be unthinkable - perhaps even blasphemous? - to redefine "am Yisrael" as referring to all (let alone only!) the citizens of Israel, much less to all the residents of territory it controls. In that respect, it too reinforces the concept of nationhood as deriving from common ancestry rather than from common territory. No comparable expression exists in Arabic that I can think of.

Nationalism is a 19th century European idea. In any non-European language, colloquial ways of talking about it are inevitably either calqued on European models or reflect older ideologies that only partly overlap with nationalism. In Arabic, terms like watan, qawm, sha3b, umma are all Fusha words borrowed into the colloquials, and still stand out in them like a sore thumb when they are used. I don't have any idea how Palestinians conceptualize the relevant domain in more colloquial contexts; for Algerians, the most salient general concepts would be blad, home village / home region / homeland, wlid elblad, person from your home region, and maybe berrani, outsider. Contrary to some stereotypes, in Algeria "tribe" and its derivatives would not make it onto the list, except maybe in a few peripheral areas.

(As for your other point: the idea that "nationhood" or "peoplehood" is what confers the right to a state is very far from being universally agreed upon, and part of the oddity is that so many Zionist arguments seem to assume this idea as axiomatic.)

Unknown said...

"I imagine it would be unthinkable - perhaps even blasphemous? - to redefine "am Yisrael" as referring to all (let alone only!) the citizens of Israel."

Believe it or not, some Israeli politicians have attempted to do precisely that (whether thorough ignorance or malevolence, I'm not qualified to say). "Blasphemy"? You can be sure it is so, by Jewish, Islamic or even Christian reckoning,

Yitzhaq Bergmann said...

"Am Israel" refers exclusively to the Jewish people all over the world, I've never heard an israeli politician (or non politician) use this term differently.
To refer to all citizens of Israel the phrase "HaAm BeIsrael" (the people in Israel) is used sometimes.