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  • Nonracialism versus Ethnonationalism:Transcending Conflict in Israel/Palestine and South Africa
  • Donald S. Will (bio)

Comparative studies of South Africa and Israel/Palestine go back at least thirty years. The early studies focused on the nature of settler regimes, while more recent ones have sought to compare the struggles against them and the resolution of the seemingly intractable conflicts that were occurring in each society.1 Over the same period, in a related body of work, other scholars scrutinized the relations between the apartheid regime in South Africa and the government of Israel.2 All of these observations took place within a distinctly political context. Apartheid South Africa was overwhelmingly regarded as a pariah state by the international community. By contrast, Israel, which in the eyes of its critics shared a legacy of settler colonialism, was staunchly embraced by the United States and abetted the regime in South Africa. Despite the opprobrium of the majority of the United Nations General Assembly, Israel was not subject to international pressure for change comparable to that exerted on South Africa. In this context some of the comparisons (and virtually all of the work on relations) sought to make arguments that would recast Israel in a more critical light as a settler state sharing characteristics and resources with South Africa. As a result, the literature tended to stress similarities over differences. This was unfortunate because the power of comparative analysis rests at least as often with the contrasts it reveals as it does with the commonalities it identifies.

Increasingly the South African experience is being plumbed for insights into its transition to democracy, sometimes in search of clues to advance the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Drawing useful lessons demands a critical comparison that begins with the settler roots of each state. [End Page 412]

Settler Nationalism

Among contending conceptions of nationalism, the well-thought-out definition put forward by Moshe Behar in his article in the November 2005 issue of the International Journal of Middle East Studies is particularly helpful in the analysis of settler states.3 Reviewing numerous studies of nationalism and, in turn, reviews of them, Behar explores ways to define and understand nationalism so as to link broad comparative studies with the rich literature of regional studies. After rejecting other approaches, he distills a sound definition: "The collective undertaking (by peaceful, forceful, or violent means) of a group of individuals aiming to unify around a common social, economic or cultural denominator for the purpose of securing, at a minimum, political self-rule." He believes that one of this definition's strengths is that while it is not unduly vague, it is still broad enough to include both nationalism that occurs at the nation-state level and the various subnationalisms that exist within any given state.4 Regarding the cases in point, it allows one to consider Israeli nationalism as a whole, while not diminishing the significance of separate nationalisms, for example, religious versus secular, Ashkenazi versus Eastern Jews, Israeli Arabs versus Israeli Jews. Similarly, with the Palestinian movement this distinction allows one to consider the religious/secular or Muslim/Christian difference in areas where these become relevant. For the South African case the subnationalisms could include those among Africans, for example, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, and Khoisan, as well as distinctions among Africans, coloreds, Asians, and whites (both Afrikaans and English speaking). The advantages of this become apparent in the course of this essay.

Roots of Ethnonationalism

One of the more intractable forces at work in South Africa and Israel/Palestine has been the ethnonationalism of the state created by the settlers and the response to that by the popular forces it confronts. In an early attempt to explain the nature of settler societies Louis Hartz argued that settler culture and ideology were shaped by what might be called fragmentation theory. The settler community is informed by the beliefs and customs of its home (European) culture at the time it cleaved off. Thus South African apartheid was seen as deeply rooted in pre-Enlightenment Calvinism.5 While such an approach has some explanatory power, it dramatically underplays both the continuing interaction between the settlers and their European home, as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-226X
Print ISSN
1089-201X
Pages
pp. 412-422
Launched on MUSE
2007-09-18
Open Access
No
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