Saturday, January 10, 2009

What is a nation?

At the end of last year, JR & I were debating several of the points he raised in what I thought was a generally reasonable suggestion that the Jews might learn a thing or two from the English.

I would like to take up one of those subsidiary disagreements here, namely whether or not the Jews are better designated as a "nation" rather than a community of adherents of a particular religion.

JR offers what he takes to be a commonsensical approach:
I think the only area where Punditarian and I disagree is fairly trivial. He wants to call Jews a nation. I have no strong feelings about that at all. My only point is that Jews are not a race and he seems to agree with that. Nonetheless his use of "nation" is a bit peculiar. In ordinary usage, "nation" refers to the people of a particular place under a single government. So Israel is undoubtedly a nation but Jews generally are not. Whether you call Jews a nation, a people or just a group, however, the only really interesting question, it seems to me, is how they are defined. It is of course an old question that has been debated for many years and Israel itself has effectively thrown up its hands over the matter and declared that you are a Jew if you think you are. Being one of those pesky social scientists, however, I still strive to bring a bit of order out of chaos so I still like my definition that you are a Jew either because of your own religion or the religion of one of your recent forebears.
This is the kernel of his approach:
In ordinary usage, "nation" refers to the people of a particular place under a single government.
Like most commonsense perceptions, there is some truth in that. But that definition really only applies subsequent to the XIXth century. Let's look at the history of a few such "nations."

Take Italy, for example. As a "nation" so defined, it did not come into being until 1870 when (taking advantage of the French defeat in the simultaneous Franco-Prussian war) troops loyal to Victor Emmanuel II seized Rome from the Pope. Before that moment, the Italian peninsula had been for centuries not a united nation, but was divided between various Kingdoms, duchies, republics, and the Papal States. But what permitted Italy to become a nation, was the fact that the Italian people had already developed a national consciousness, and hence a national identity. The unification of Italy was the ratification of nationhood.

Something similar could be said about the German nation before Bismarck, or even about the French nation before Napoleon.

In contrast, look at Iraq or Nigeria, two "nations" with defined populations, territories, and governments. To what degree do the Kurds, Shi'as, and Sunni Arabs really consider themselves part of one nation, with one culture, one history, and one destiny? And I am sure JR remembers Biafra and the jihad waged by the Hausas against the Ibos and Ibibios.

To make these tragedies even more poignant, and pertinent perhaps to JR's laudatory comments about the English propensity for "fudging," note that both Iraq and Nigeria were cobbled together by British bureaucrats who arbitrarily drew single national borders around incompatible and even hostile nations. It hasn't really worked in either case, because there is really no Nigerian or Iraqi nationality.

One might counter that the Hausas, Ibos, and Yorubas in Nigeria, or the Kurds, Shi'as, and Sunnis in Iraq, are not nations, but "ethnic groups." But that just underscores my point. In the ancient world, an "ethnos" was in fact a nation. It is interesting in this regard that the Greek Christian Scriptures used the term "ethnos"(Strong's G1484) to translate the Hebrew word "goy," (Strong's H1471) which means "nation." (Not a "people" which in Hebrew would be an "am." Nor a tribe, which in Hebrew whould be a "shevet." An ethnos is a nation.) The Jewish Scriptures conceive of "70 nations" in the world, including the Jewish nation, and recognize that some of those nations are composed of "tribes." And in late antiquity, the "Ethnos" was governed by an "Ethnarch."

Jewish nationality was also recognized by the Imperial government of Rome. The Sebasteion in Aphrodisias contained a temple to the Roman Emperors that was decorated with sculptured personifications of 50 nations in the Empire, each designated as an "ethnos." Among these were the Dacians and the Jews. An extensive list of nations is also given in the Book of Acts.

The Romans did not necessarily conceive of themselves as a nation, however. Cicero stated:
"Omnes nationes servitutem ferre possunt: nostra civitas non potest."
Cicero contrasts the Roman "civitas" with the "nationes" that the Romans conquered. "All nations can bear servitude, but our civitas can not." Evidently he thought that the Romans were "special." Each community of students at the University in Paris in the middle ages who shared a common origin, language, and laws was considered a "natio."

Having maintained a separate identity, with their own language (actually, their own languages), their own laws, their own history, a self-conscious literature, their own particular religion, and having been accepted as a separate community, for better and more ofter for worse, in every empire or territory in which they have lived, the Jews are surely a nation. In fact, I would argue that the Jews are the quintessential nation in world history.

The Jews share their national identity in common; this identity is at least to some extent exclusive, i.e. it is possible to define those who share it and those who don't; this identity is based on ancestry (although like many other nationalities, naturalization is possible); they have a common culture and a shared civil and criminal code of laws; and they have a common and unique religion.

JR's notion that a nation represents a people living under its government in a particular place is however also important.

In the West, the Jew has been considered to be the quintessential landless wanderer, a people without a homeland, forced to move from territory to territory. But in contrast to the Romanies, who at least publicly do not identify any place on earth as their original home, the Jews have never forgotten the Land of Israel or its capital, Jerusalem. The Bible refers again and again to the organic and wholistic identification of the Jewish people with its Promised Land. The Psalmist sang by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137, KJV):
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
And after 75 years of exile, the Jewish people were restored by permission of the Emperor Cyrus to their homeland. A unique and unprecedented event in ancient history.

Even more remarkable has been the return of the Jewish nation to the Jewish homeland after nearly 2,000 years of exile in Christendom and in the Ummah.

To the Jews, living as a free nation in their own land has always been the summum bonum. After the exile they of course recognized that other nations would dispute them. And to the XIth century Bible commentator Rabbi Shelomo Ben Yitzchak (known as Rashi, who incidentally traced his genealogy 33 generations to Rabbi John the Shoemaker, and through him to the House of David) the reason that the Bible begins with the creation of the world, was precisely to provide an indubitable deed for the Land of Israel (paraphrased):
Rabbi Yitzchak [Rashi's father] taught that God might have begun the Torah with Exodus 12:2, the first commandment given to the Jews [this month shall be for your the beginning of the months] but began with the Creation so that if the peoples of the world will say to Israel, "You conquered the lands of the 7 Canaanite nations," Israel will say to them, "All the world belongs to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, he created it, and he gave it to the one he deemed worthy."
That quotation also brings us back to the question of religion, and whether the Jews are better identified as adherents of a religion than as a nation. As JR stated it:
I still like my definition that you are a Jew either because of your own religion or the religion of one of your recent forebears.
Why not "your ancient forebears?" Evidently because ancient Jews who lost their religion melted in to the populations that surrounded them, and their descendants are no longer recognized as Jews, and no longer recognize themselves as Jews.

But that obtains because in the absence of their homeland, the Jews maintained a distinctive national identity and culture through the medium of Divinely-commanded behaviors that are commonly considered to be the Jewish "religion." As I mentioned in a previous post, however, many so-called "orthodox" Jewish thinkers do not define Jewishness ("Yiddishkeit") as a religion in the sense that Christianity is a religion. Rather, the Jewish-way-of-life is an all-encompassing national culture, which appears to be a "religion" only because (1) the Jews are in exile from their homeland, and (2) the key features of this way of life are understood to have been ordained by the Creator.

In a sense, it is the Jew's refusal to participate in the whole-world-encompassing "religions" that surround him in the West (Christianity and Islam) which separates him from those worlds, and makes his way of life appear to be a "religion."

One may question whether the ancient Romans, for example, had a "religion." They had a complex way of life in which cult activities were certainly important. But the cults in which they participated included many disparate traditions, and as the Empire grew beyond Rome, the particular cults associated with particular localities continued to co-exist with other traditions that were widespread throughout the Empire. This multiplicity of cultures is characteristic of an Empire, in which many nations are embedded.

Finally, although the Jewish nation includes many sub-groups who do not share all of the same, identical elements (Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, etc.) all of these sub-groups recognize their membership in the Jewish nation and do share many elements. Even those sub-groups who had lost the use of the Hebrew language (e.g. the Amharic speaking Ethiopians) have regained it in the Land of Israel today.

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