The story of national liberation movements would at first glance seem to be straightforward. They are a modern development of the sovereign nation of citizens, usually in a democratic state structure. The French Revolution provided the template for the transition from the ancient regime to the new nation of citizens. The American colonies offered the template for the revolution against the imperial metropole. The classic national liberation movements of the nineteenth century include the revolutions in the Americas for independence and later the 1848 Springtime of Nations whereby various European peoples sought to throw off the yoke of imperial powers or the ancient regime and establish liberal democratic governments. Another classic period of national liberation movements occurred in the twentieth century among African and Asian nations against European colonial powers. National liberation was an ideal of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so much so that national self-determination became a key principle of the modern order enshrined in the United Nations.
This apparent clarity, though, has been complicated by Marxist, postmodern, and neo-imperialist claims. The first insists that not all forms of national liberation are equal, some are genuine while others are bourgeois; the second argues that nations as ethnic-cultural groups might not really exist at all; and the third claims that great powers should be able to define the nature and or political status of smaller peoples. These critiques have complicated the historical investigation into national liberation movements, nowhere more clearly than the case of Zionism. Here, scholars with the same empirical information either view Israel as a national liberation movement in which the Jews are native to Israel, or as a settler colonial movement in which they are foreign invaders. The second group believes that the Palestinians are both part of the wider Arab people and an indigenous people involved in a struggle for national liberation and that the Jews are a religious rather than national group, while within the first group, some see the Palestinian national struggle as a national liberation movement as well, with others viewing it as part of Arab imperialism. A third group views Zionism as both a national liberation movement in its goals and a settler colonial one in its methods. The lack of consensus requires an explanation, and yet current perspectives on national liberation movements do not provide one.
The debate about Israeli and Palestinian national liberation cannot be reduced entirely to Marxist, postmodern, or neo-imperialist ideological preferences. There is a more substantive heuristic issue at its heart, based on a set of assumptions about the commonalities among movements that purport to be about national liberation. To understand why competent scholars, not only activists, come to such opposing conclusions on Israel and Palestinian nationalism one needs to analyze more closely the differences between purported national liberation movements, particularly in relation to geography. In my view, this lens reveals that national liberation movements can be classified according to the origin of the movement for national liberation (diaspora and local) as well as according to the origin of the people seeking national liberation, whether from the region itself (which I will call native) or from the metropole of a colonial empire (which I will call derivative). This classification, as well as its application to the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, can explain the apparently irreconcilable views of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms and offer a clear description of both. Both of these points are supported by an argument for the validity of peoples as a historical category across time.
Despite postmodern opposition, there is good reason to acknowledge the relationship between peoples and modern nations. Scholars who have emphasized the changing nature of peoples have argued that, because of this dynamism, they are not a useful way to create citizenship or have claimed that the nation state of the nineteenth and twentieth century has artificially, and usually forcibly, homogenized diverse populations through a national project. As a result, they argue, there is very little relationship between the peoples of the past and the modern nations of the nation states. The problem with this approach is that it often has to ignore a great deal of history and lived continuity, not to mention the identities many groups have of themselves. The modern Greeks may not be exactly the same as the classical Greeks, but there is linguistic, geographical and culture continuity as well as evolution and change. Likewise, the Arabs recorded in Assyrian texts and later in Greek ones, or that show up centuries later in Syriac texts about the Arab conquests or in the nineteenth-century writings of the Nahda, have a shared language, a sense of common history and cultural continuity, even if punctuated by major breaks like the conversion to Islam or industrialization. Genetic evidence also bears out ethnic continuity in many places of the world. Certainly, national projects have taken place, for example France clamping down on its regional languages, whether Provencal or Breton, which have involved forced homogenization. Yet the idea that many of the modern nations of the national movements are invented full cloth defies common sense. At least in many cases, there is a clear commonality between the peoples of old and their modern articulation as nations of citizens.
Likewise, while the national sovereignty of the modern national liberation movements did not exist in the past, some form of self-rule or autonomy was often fought for. If the notion of national liberation is a political project tied up with modern notions of citizenship and the state, we nonetheless know that peoples of the past would often resist imperial domination or seek to reestablish independence, whether in the form of a kingdom or in the form of autonomy or through the protection of a more favorable empire. This process was at work when the peoples subjugated by the Aztec empire joined with the Spanish in the hope of overthrowing its yoke. The Berbers (Amazigh) fought Arab domination in the seventh century, while the Serbs fought the Turks in the thirteenth and the Sioux fought the Americans in the nineteenth. Fighting for one’s territory against incursions is an old story.
There are other commonalities between pre-modern and modern loss of sovereignty and struggles to regain it: the location of the struggle. The peoples of the past have often had periods of self-rule in some form, whether that be tribal confederations or kingdoms, as well as periods of imperial rule. The latter have come under such different forms, from simply paying tribute (Persia) to military subjugation (Greece and China) and expulsion (Assyria or Rome), or even mass murder (the Mongol and Timurid Empires). These options have been true of more recent empires as well, from the Nazi Empire in Eastern Europe (military subjugation, expulsion, and mass murder) to the Dutch Empire in Indonesia (military subjugation and resource exploitation) to the French in North America (displacement through treaties) or the French Protectorate in Morocco (land acquisition and commercial preference as a kind of tribute and nominal sovereignty). Whether ancient or modern, subjugation often leads to displacement. As a result, the struggle to regain some form of sovereignty may happen either locally or from abroad, that is from a diaspora. The small peoples in the Caucuses and the Fertile Crescent, at the crossroads between numerous empires in antiquity down to the present, lived both locally and in the diaspora, and at some points in their history primarily in the diaspora. A classic case of this is the Armenians, whose diaspora has existed since antiquity and at various points was much larger than the Armenian population in historic Armenia. It also provided support for the return to local rule during the medieval Armenian Kingdom (especially in Byzantium), and again with the modern Armenian nation state (from across the world).
Another similarity between pre-modern and modern movements for sovereignty is the origin of the group in question. While empires often disperse native peoples, they also often create a diaspora of the imperial conquerors in the conquered areas, often referred to as settler colonialist. Such is the case of the Greek Diaspora over much of the Eastern Mediterranean or the British Diaspora in the Americas and the Arab Diaspora in the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. Therefore, we find peoples with an ethnic, religious, linguistic and or cultural identity tied to a metropole in conquered lands. Historically these people have sometimes been loyal (English Canada) or have sought to break off from the political power of the empire, while retaining cultural ties (the USA). In the premodern period, think of the fracturing of the Caliphates and the Chinese empire during the Warring States period as regional leaders sought to assert their power. In the modern period, these imperial fractures were transformed into national liberation movements because of their accompanying republican ideology – think of the Creoles in South America seeking independence from the Spanish Crown. What changed in the modern period is that the Creole leaders invented successor nations defined by republican citizenship that were nevertheless culturally, religiously and politically derivative of the Spanish Empire (in most places keeping a racial hierarchy of the descendants of Europeans colonizers ruling of Native Americans and Africans as well). It is in this respect that these new nations are derivative.
In the modern period, the quest for sovereignty by derivative nations (composed of an imperial diaspora and the former empire’s subjugated peoples) and native nations (composed of a historic people) are often both referred to as national liberation movements, despite their differences. Yet American independence from Britain is different from Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. As explained above, the first is simply the fracturing of an empire ruled by one people accompanied by a republican ideology and the creation of an American nation that in fact retains much of the culture, religion, and legal structure of its predecessor, the British Empire. The second is the revolt of a subjugated people – in this case the Greeks – against an imperial state ruled by another people – the Turks – also articulated through a republican ideology. Yet historians speak of Greek and American independence in similar terms.
These distinctions between derivative and native, and diaspora and local, are key for understanding the different interpretations of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, since they offer a typology of both movements. Zionism is perhaps the most extreme case of a diaspora national liberation movement of a native people, since the proportion of Jewish people living in their historical homeland was very small in comparison with those who had lived in the diaspora for a long time. Nevertheless, it is not alone in being a national liberation movement encouraged from the outside, and Jewish people are not the only people in world history to be without sovereignty for an extensive period, while enduring the conquest of multiple empires. This was the case with all of the peoples of the Caucuses – Armenians, Georgians, Chechens, Circassians and many other smaller peoples – and of the Assyrians and Copts. The Jewish case is also an extreme example of how the diaspora led to the splintering of the various Jewish communities. The Armenians of the Persian, Russian, and Ottoman empires adopted different sensibilities, but they had a common spoken language as well as a common ethnic identity. The Jewish people lost their common spoken language, though not the written one, and adopted many features of the local cultures where they lived. Nevertheless, most communities retained customs specific to Jewish people and a common ethnic identity, though assimilation became more frequent in the nineteenth century. In the context of the region, Jewish people thus follow patterns known elsewhere of diaspora and native national liberation movements, distinguished by degree but not by kind. The Zionist movement, almost universally, sought Jewish sovereignty in the historical homeland of the Jewish people, the place of their ethnogenesis, their spiritual center, and where they had once had a state and accepted Hebrew as the language of their movement.
The Palestinians, by contrast, have the features of a derivative national liberation movement. Identifying both with their Arab ancestors and Arab neighbors in seeing the homeland of the Arab peoples and their spiritual center in Mecca in Saudi Arabia; the Palestinians, like other Arabs in the Fertile Crescent and North Africa are the descendants of Arab conquerors in the region and the local people with whom they intermarried and who thereby adopted their culture. This common origin and peoplehood can be seen in the modern attempt to unify the Fertile Crescent under Hashemite leaders after World War I as well the attempt to unify Syria and Egypt after World War II, and finally with the creation of the Arab League linking all countries conquered and settled by the Arabs during the Medieval Caliphates. The failure of these attempts can be seen as the result of regional rulers and groups seeking to rule, similar to what happened in the Americas. This power grab was often accompanied by stressing local particularities that developed into separate identities. Thus, just as the Palestinians are Arabs, from the Nahda and Salafi movement onwards and particularly after 1964, they also stressed their local difference from other Arabs, much like Argentinians stress their difference from Chileans and Mexicans. Yet, in contrast to many classic derivative national liberation movements, their current enemy is not the metropole or other parts of the empire – though relations are in some cases tense – but rather another national liberation movement. It is here where much of the disagreement between scholars lies and where the history of other national liberation struggles in the Balkans and the Middle East will shed some light.
There are certain features specific to diaspora national movements, particularly in the region of the Balkans, Caucuses and Eastern Mediterranean, which can help explain why the view that Zionists are settler colonialists/imperialists and Palestinians are a native national liberation movement has proved to be convincing to scholars, even though this view is counter-intuitive given the Jews’ ancient history in the region and the Arabs’ imperial conquest. The first feature is a confusion about the meaning of the alliance with other empires or international bodies. Indeed, the national liberation movements of all the smaller peoples in the region actively sought the support of other states and even empires. This is true of the Greeks, the Georgians, the Armenians, the Assyrians, the Maronites and the Zionists. These movements were also shaped by the involvement of diaspora communities, particularly from the Western Diaspora and by the adoption of European political ideas about statehood. The Western imperial powers and Russia also aimed to weaken Ottoman power in the region by supporting these nations. Here scholars have confused an alliance with an empire for imperialism itself.
The second feature is a confusion about the meaning of the displacement of local populations. While displacement is usually associated with imperial conquest, as discussed earlier, diaspora national movements have combined displacement with national liberation. The nineteenth and early twentieth-century Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Greek national liberation movements expelled, and even murdered, the so-called Balkan Turks. In Armenia, the Russians called the Armenians expelled by the Safavid empire back to Armenia and expelled many of the Kurds, Azeris and Persians the Safavids had moved into Armenia. With the creation of Soviet Armenia another wave of these former settlers was again forced to leave. These successful national liberation movements thus included a forced repatriation of imperial diasporas. At the same time the imperial centers also expelled or murdered the diasporas of subjugated peoples. The most well-known is the Turkish genocide of Armenian/Greek/Assyrian peoples, but other examples include the expulsion of Greeks and Armenians from Egypt. In the case of Armenia, this process of expulsion and counter-expulsion occurred over almost two centuries, since the Azeri, Kurdish and Turkish population fled to Azerbaijan with the Armenian-Azeri war of 1990, while Armenians in Azerbaijan – once part of the Persian Empire- fled to Armenia. The Israeli case in this respect is again follows a similar pattern, with a national liberation movement leading to the displacement of the Palestinians and the displacement of Jews in the diaspora from Arab polities allied with the Palestinians.
A third feature is confusion about the meaning of indigeneity. Indigeneity is not the same as longstanding presence in a place, rather indigeneity as defined by the UN is related to ethnogenesis in a given place and a continued attachment to that place. The Portuguese have been in Brazil over six hundred years; this long-standing presence does not make them indigenous. Conversely, a group expelled by an imperial power does not though its expulsion and subsequent history on another land cease to be indigenous (consider the Lenape, who are indigenous to New York, but displaced to Ohio and Oklahoma). Nor is indigeneity related to attachment. The Boers are very attached to South Africa, but they are not indigenous to it. This confusion between longstanding presence and attachment is what has led many scholars to view the Palestinians as indigenous and the Jews as foreign. No doubt the Palestinian Arabs have both a long-standing presence in the territory the Romans named Palestine and an attachment to the land but they are not a people with an ethnogenesis in the land; their language, religion, and clan structure was established in the Arabian Peninsula. The Jews, however, have an ethnogenesis and continued attachment to the land, though they lived primarily in the diaspora. Nor is indigeneity related to a hot war. After the loss of territory, sovereignty, and expulsion many indigenous peoples turn to cultural preservation rather than sovereignty. In fact, scholars routinely misinterpret accommodation (or even the internalization of the conquerors’ superiority) when peoples are too weak to reasonably achieve sovereignty, as a preference for imperial rule, a lack of ethnic identity, or a greater attachment to an imperial identity than to an ethnic one.
A fourth feature is a confusion about the meaning of Jewish responses to Zionism. In the nineteenth century many individual Armenians assimilated into the local cultures and some Armenian communities did not view independence as the preferred political option. The latter, however, largely disappeared after the Armenian genocide. Likewise, many Jews also assimilated and or rejected national sovereignty, but in the Jewish case this issue was even more extreme. With such a long period of diaspora, some Jewish people developed a theology that the quest for independence must wait for the messiah, while others assimilated or were caught up in local or internationalist political movements. The unusual length of the Jewish Diaspora meant that the Jewish movement for national liberation was ideologically less popular than the other national liberation movements in the Balkan, Caucuses, and Eastern Mediterranean – and immigration to America was, as for groups like the Assyrians and the Maronites, a safer bet security-wise and materially. Jewish assimilation, especially to European, but also to Arab culture, has led many scholars to reject the notion of Jewish peoplehood altogether. And, indeed, there are peoples who assimilate out of existence. But in the Jewish case, like many others, assimilation to varying degrees coexisted with a continued sense of peoplehood. Finally, while all national liberation movements of the modern period fanned out ideologically and in their relation to modernity, including secularists versus traditionalists, the differences in the Zionist movement between these and the more traditionalist nationalists and the quietists were perhaps the most evident. These modernizing features are important and have been singled out by those who view Zionism as a European settler colonial movement as proof of its foreignness. But this argument is an exaggeration: these features are common to all national liberation movements during the period and do not change the essential nature of Zionism as a movement for Jewish national liberation.
The final feature is a misunderstanding about colonialism. Settler colonial empires never bought land, and certainly not land they had historic claims to. They conquered, and then settled populations. They might have signed treaties and offered some material compensations to conquered populations after winning wars, but the military conquest or threat of military action was the foundation of settlement. With all the rhetoric of pioneering, the Zionist movement, which purchased land from private owners, differs structurally from the British conquest of the Americas in this crucial way. It cannot be called settler colonial even in its methods.
In addition to these confusions, the way activists and scholars have thought about the two movements has also contributed to the controversy. Most scholars of Zionism have been entirely focused on Russia, Western Europe, and the Americas, where much of the Jewish Diaspora had previously lived, or on postwar examples in Asia and Africa. They have neglected the Ottoman lands and the national movements in this area. This is a grave mistake heuristically, not only because it creates irrelevant comparisons, but also because it bypasses the fact that some of the earliest Zionist thinkers lived in the Ottoman Empire itself (particularly Yehudah Bibas and Yehudah Alkalai) and influenced figures like Moses Montefiore and Herzl. This error, while an understandable one, has led to superimposing on Zionism and Palestinian nationalism comparisons that do not make sense historically and geographically, ones that make no distinction between diaspora, local, native and derivative national liberation movements. Still, the confusion about Zionism and Palestinian nationalisms compared to other local national liberation movements, as well as the degree of foreign interest, is unusual. At some point scholars must delve into how these two movements relate to the ideological claims of contemporary observers, whether Christian, secular, radical, or liberal, to understand their enduring fascination.