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Israel: The last Ottoman state

The modern Israeli state is deeply rooted in both Central Europe and Ottoman Palestine. It is a place where Central Europe’s dominant ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism meets the post-Ottoman ideology of ethno-confessional nationalism.

June 2, 2021 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt during the reign of Sultan Suleiman I, between 1537 and 1541. Photo: Lodo flickr.com

It is common to hear the opinion that Israel is the sole democracy in today’s Middle East. Indeed, since the founding of this polity in 1948, the cycle of parliamentary and presidential elections has never been delayed or breached in Israel, whatever the circumstances. On the contrary, each other country in the region has either been an autocracy (for example, Egypt), absolutist monarchy (for instance, Saudi Arabia), a theocracy (Iran) or a republic where coups d’état and civil wars have repeatedly subverted democracy (for example, Lebanon or Turkey). Perhaps the Israelis were capable of achieving and maintaining their democracy due to the fact that most of them either came or stemmed from Europe and the United States, where the system of modern democracy originated. Between the late 19th century and the 1920s, this system of governance spread across Central and Eastern Europe, where the majority of the world’s Jews then lived. In the cases of other Middle Eastern states, democracy was either imposed by or adopted from a former colonial power.

Visitors from Central Europe wonder how much Israel resembles their own countries, especially when faced with the oft-repeated insistence that Hebrew be the sole official language of Israel. After the Great War, ethnolinguistic nationalism has become the dominant form of statehood creation, legitimisation and maintenance across Central Europe. Most of Israel’s Jews hail from this region, so in more ways than one this ideology underpins an average Israeli’s “natural political instinct.” It provides that the nation should speak and write its own unique language, not shared with any other nation or state. In turn, all speakers (speech community) of a language should be housed in their own unshared nation-state. Hence, all Polish speakers constitute the Polish nation that enjoys its own ethnolinguistic nation-state of Poland, with no place for speakers of other languages, deemed thus to be members of “foreign” nations.

Jewish emigration from Europe to Israel 1945-1970. Source: Princeton University

In the dark 20th century, the construction of ethnolinguistically homogenous nation-states in Central Europe required the unprecedented bloodbath of two world wars that destroyed the region’s polyglot empires and multi-ethnic polities, as well as numerous ethnic cleansings and genocides for the sake of “sorting” speakers of different languages and “fitting” them to “their” ethnic nation-states. When the dust of this radical socio-political overhaul settled, it became clear that in this lethal tango of musical chairs, no state was left either for the Jews or Roma. The latter suffer the situation’s multiple indignities to this day, while the former were de facto expelled from Europe, at the behest of the former imperial powers that gave them a vague promise of a Jewish state in Palestine. Holocaust survivors, faced with post-war Europe’s virulent antisemitism, had no choice but to try to make this utopia come true, or perish as a nation.

The dilemma of democracy and ethnolinguistic nationalism

Fortunately, political, social and economic tribulations of antisemitism suffered in Europe made Israel’s Jews keenly aware that without democracy, the rule of law and civic inclusiveness, they would not be able to build a successful modern state. Their political reflex toward ethnolinguistic nationalism, as inherited from Central Europe, has been moderated in Israel by the adoption of the legal system of Britain’s Mandatory Palestine. Under the law, Arabic, English and Hebrew functioned as the official languages of Mandatory Palestine. In Israel, English was scrapped in this function, but due to the economic and cultural domination of the Jewish diaspora in North America, this language de facto remains official, alongside Israel’s de jure official tongues of Hebrew and Arabic.

Knesset vote on the Nation State Law. Graphic by Middle East Eye

This situation, however, was not to many Israeli Jews’ liking. They wanted Israel to become a straightforward Jewish nation-state, with one language and one nation, like Poland or Hungary in Central Europe. Such Jews are usually labelled “conservatives,” though “ethnolinguistic nationalists” appears to be a more appropriate sobriquet. In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu rose to power as Israel’s prime minister, still incumbent today. His tenure in office coincides with a similar turn toward religiously underpinned ethnolinguistic nationalism in Central Europe. In 2010, Viktor Orbán gained power in Hungary, and five years later, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland. Both see themselves as “defenders” of “Christian-national” values. Since their ascendance to power, Orbán, as Prime Minister, has turned Hungary into an “illiberal democracy,” while Kaczyński aspires to follow suit as Poland’s de facto ruler who gives orders to the country’s prime minister and president.

Despite numerous protests in Israel and abroad, in 2018, Netanyahu’s ruling majority in the Knesset forced the adoption of the controversial Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. This act elevated Hebrew to Israel’s sole state language and demoted Arabic to a language with special status. The Basic Law is largely symbolic and does not change Israel’s established legal tradition. Yet, the Knesset’s promulgation of this law shows that unless democrats are watchful Israel may follow Central Europe’s path of ethnolinguistic authoritarianism.

Ottoman legacy

During the past seven decades and counting, Israel has been a home to all Israeli citizens, irrespective of language, religion or race (even if at times the authorities de facto treated Israeli citizens of the Jewish faith more preferentially than Israeli citizens who profess Islam or Christianity). In the Ottoman Empire and today’s Middle East, religion (rather than language) has decided a person’s identity and political loyalties. During the over half-a-millennium Ottoman rule over the Middle East, Balkans and Maghreb, this Islamic Empire’s poly-confessional inhabitants largely lived and prospered in peace. The Pax Ottomanica was steeped in the flexible system millets (ملت), as provided by sharia for dhimmis (ذمي “people of the covenant”). In essence, it was a system of non-territorial autonomies for the recognised and accepted ethno-confessional communities. In practice, “Abrahamic monotheists” of each creed constituted such a millet, be it Christians, Jews or Muslims. In turn, among the Christians, Armenian Monophysites, Catholics, Protestants and Syriac Christians constituted separate millets in the late Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire in 1683. By Chamboz wikimedia.org

Beginning in 1492, Jews and Muslims were repeatedly expelled from the Iberian kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. They were welcomed in the Islamic Kingdom of Morocco and the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish refugees became Sephardim, who speak and write their Romance language of Spanyol (or Judeo-Spanish). Sephardic Jews established communities from Morocco to Syria, Anatolia and across the Balkans. They came in touch with Mizrahim, or ancient Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in what today is Iraq or Syria, and with Romaniotes, that is, ancient Greek-speaking communities of Jews strewn across the Mediterranean littoral, or in present-day Egypt, Greece and Turkey. All of them constituted the Jewish Millet of the Ottoman Empire.

Each Ottoman millet was responsible for organising its religious life, education, legal system, and most importantly, gathering taxes for the Ottoman Sultan. Yet, each member of a recognised millet could live anywhere they chose across the Ottoman Empire. In practice they resided in ethno-confessionally homogenous villages or city quarters, known as mahallas (محلة). Each mahalla was organised around its place of worship, be it a church, mosque or synagogue. The term mahalla survives to this day for designating a city quarter, neighbourhood or a part of a montane village in numerous Balkan languages, such as Bosnian, Bulgarian, Greek, Macedonian, Serbian or Turkish. On the other hand, the word millet in today’s Turkish means none other than “nation.”

In the course of the 19th century, the rise of nationalism in Europe began chipping at the Ottoman Balkans. The Orthodox Christian nation-states of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria were established between 1804 and 1878. In this process, the previously non-territorial millets became territorialised. In the aforementioned post-Ottoman nation-states in the Balkans, members millets other than Orthodox Christianity — that is, mainly Muslims and Jews — were massacred, expelled, forced to convert or made into second class citizens. A “proper” Balkan nation-state was to be ethno-confessionally homogenous. This novel political principle posed Albanian-speakers with an existential dilemma: depending on the region they professed, either Catholicism, Islam or Orthodox Christianity. At the poly-confessional 1908 conference in Manastir (today’s Bitola in North Macedonia), Albanian leaders decided to replace multiple religions with their single Albanian language as the basis for the modern Albanian political identity. Four years later, in 1912, their efforts bore fruit when Albania was proclaimed an independent nation-state for the non-denominational (or tolerantly poly-confessional) nation of Albanian-speakers.

In this manner, Central Europe’s dominant ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism met the post-Ottoman ideology of ethno-confessional nationalism. Both ideologies interacted in Albania, but eventually the former trumped the latter. Meanwhile, language had been on the rise as a locus of political identity across the Balkan nation-states. The Ottoman Empire was shaken to its core by World War I, which commenced in the Middle East with the 1911 Italian attack on Ottoman Libya and the two Balkan Wars (1913-14). Likewise, this conflict continued for five years longer than the conventional end of the Great War in 1918. In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was founded, in line with the ethnolinguistic model, as a secular nation-state for the nation of Turkish speakers. Yet, in practice, the main yardstick of membership in this Turkish nation was Islam. Polyglot members of Anatolia’s millet of Islam were welcomed or even coerced into the Turkish nation, to the exclusion of non-Muslims (that is, Christians and Jews). This undeclared practice of excluding non-Muslims from the Turkish nation was confirmed by the 1915 Genocide of Armenians and Assyrians, and the internationally agreed mutual ethnic cleansing (“exchange”) of 1923, when Muslims were forced to leave Greece for Turkey, while Orthodox Christians had to abandon Turkey for Greece.

Meanwhile, Western Europe’s imperial powers seized the Ottoman possessions (collectively known as “Arabistan”) in the Middle East and North Africa. In some cases, the League of Nations made these powers into “custodians” of such territories (known as “mandates”), which the European power was obliged to “modernise” and prepare for eventual independence. These territories in the Ottoman south were mostly Arabic-speaking. Some were granted independence in the interwar period, like Egypt (1922) or Iraq (1932), but for most, decolonisation unfolded rather slowly during the three decades that followed World War II. As previously in the case of Turkey, the millet-based formula of the ethno-confessional nation of Muslims was combined with the Arabic language, as a bow to ethnolinguistic nationalism. As a consequence, numerous Arabic-speaking nation-states were founded, formally numbering 22, which is the current number of member states of the Arab League.

Like in the Balkans and Turkey, all these nation-states across Arabistan were created for a single millet, in this case the millet of Islam. Muslims who happened to speak languages other than Arabic had to abandon their own idioms. What followed in the case of non-Muslim millets was gradual suppression and periodic expulsions. Due to the widespread influence of Nazi antisemitic propaganda in the interwar period and during the war, Jews were the first to be targeted by such ethnic (confessional) cleansing measures. The founding of Israel ramped up antisemitic sentiment and acts across the Arab countries, from Morocco to Iraq. During the 1950s and 1960s, practically all the region’s centuries-old Jewish communities were expelled, fled or Israel evacuated them when a community happened to face the danger of imminent extermination. Christians met a similar fate, though they survived, mainly in Lebanon and Syria, where under France’s mandatory rule, millets were incorporated into the system of governance. Despite recent wars in both countries, Christians account for well over a third of Lebanon’s inhabitants and for almost a tenth of the Syrian population. Rapidly diminishing Christian communities of about 5 per cent still linger in Egypt and Iraq.

Decolonisation of the Middle East. Source: Never was magazine

The tradition of Ottoman tolerance, as symbolised by the millet system, practically disappeared in all post-Ottoman states. Sizeable communities of Muslims and Christians professing a variety of creeds may still brush sides in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Lebanon or North Macedonia, but no Jewish communities survive in these countries, or they are in terminal decline. For better or worse, Israel is the sole post-Ottoman nation-state where all the main three traditional Ottoman millets continue to co-exist, namely, Christians, Jews and Muslims. As Israel is a Jewish polity, created by and for Jews, unsurprisingly, proponents of the Jewish religion (Judaism) amount to three-quarters of the country’s population. Arabs (Arabic speakers) constitute a fifth of Israelis. The vast majority of them profess Islam, but Christians among their ranks add up to 2 per cent of Israel’s inhabitants. This percentage may still be higher if Russian Jews’ non-Jewish spouses are added, because they practice or are culturally attached to Orthodox Christianity.

Furthermore, two thirds of Israelis are actually non-religious, and as many as 9 per cent are convinced atheists. This situation is starkly atypical for the Middle East, where close to 90 per cent of the inhabitants consider themselves to be religious, and atheism is practically not tolerated. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, atheists have been officially classified as “terrorists” since 2017. In Turkey, which is considered the region’s most secularised Muslim country, those who do not believe in any deity number not more than 3 per cent (though in general secularisation continues to grow). Hence, in this respect, Israel appears to be more of a modern Central European state, like the Czech Republic, where only a fifth of the population is religious, while a third do not believe in any deity.

A really existing utopia

Both Central European and Ottoman traditions have been creatively mixed and deployed for the construction, legitimation and maintenance of the utopia that was never to be — Israel. A fulfilled utopia never lives up to its lofty promise. Critics of Israel are ready to point out that the founding of Israel triggered the 1948 war between Mandatory Palestine’s Arabs and Jews, which then led to the expulsion of four-fifths (0.75 million) of the polity’s Muslims (Arabs). This tragedy of ethnic cleansing that mars the foundation of Israel also brought about the coalescence of the Arabic-speaking nation of Palestinians. The Nakba (النكبة‎ “Catastrophe”) constitutes the cornerstone of Palestinian national history. In 2012, the UN partially recognised the State of Palestine as an independent polity.

Yet, on the other hand, one should not remain blind to Israel’s surprising achievements in the field of civic inclusiveness and tolerance. As mentioned above, around 20 per cent of Israelis (that is, Israeli citizens) are Muslims (including the Druze), over 2 per cent profess a form of Christianity and in the Knesset, even those Arab (Palestinian) MPs who call for the dissolution of Israel are tolerated. On the contrary, in the State of Palestine, Christians number fewer than 1 per cent of citizens, no Jews live there and the sale of land to a Jew is punishable by death, while atheists are persecuted and often sentenced to decade-long terms of imprisonment. In this exclusivist trend, the State of Palestine, unfortunately, follows the sad norm of intolerant mono-confessionalism that is rife across all of the Middle East, with the lone exception of Israel.

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognise Israel in 1948, the year the country was founded. But no Arab state followed suit. Actually, Israel’s Arab neighbours attacked the new state twice, in 1967 and 1973, aiming to destroy Israel and repeat the Holocaust… In the wake of the Israeli army’s unexpected victories in both wars, Egypt and Jordan recognised Israel and established relations with the country in 1979 and 1994, respectively. Following the Oslo Accords of 1993, the Israeli government commenced official relations with the Palestinian Authority. The State of Israel, however, refuses to recognise the State of Palestine, especially after Hamas (حركة المقاومة الاسلامية arakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah Islamic Resistance Movement) seized power in Gaza in 2007. In 1988, Hamas adopted the organisation’s charter, which calls for the “obliteration” of Israel. The position, though toned down in 2017, remains largely unchanged, in accordance with the stance of the organisation’s main funder and international protector, Iran. Although Iran was the second Muslim state to recognise Israel (1950), Tehran changed its position radically in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since this moment, the Iranian government has tried its best to not utter the name “Israel,” preferring to refer to the country as “occupied Palestine.” At present, Tehran’s position is that Israel must be destroyed. In early 2021, Iran’s parliament even discussed a bill on a plan to destroy Israel within the next 20 years. Just for the record: Israel has never considered, let alone appealed, to destroy a state or nation. That would be unthinkable and unforgiveable in a country that acted as a refuge for Holocaust survivors.

In line with membership of the Arab League, nowadays there are at least 22 Arab (Arabic-speaking) countries in the world, and at least 57 Muslim states that belong to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Obviously, Israel is not wanted as a member in any of these two organisations. Ironically, though, Israel is more of an Islamic state than Guyana, which is an OIC member, and more of an Arab state than Djibouti, which belongs to the Arab League. Muslims amount to 7 per cent of Guyana’s population, while not more than 2 per cent of Djiboutians speak Arabic. The Arab League’s member states, with their populations that add up to 420 million and a combined territory of over 13 million km², dwarf Israel, which has a populace of 9 million and territory of 21,000 km².

Why would the Arab League not wholeheartedly embrace Israel, which actually is a mere speck of Arabistan’s territory (0.1 per cent) and population (2 per cent). On top of that, Israel embodies the best traditions of Ottoman and European (Western) tolerance, creatively showing how to modernise and democratise the Middle East. Furthermore, Israel is a reminder of collective remorse for the West, which allowed the Holocaust to happen in wartime Europe and did not secure a state for Jews on the continent, but agreed to establish Israel in the Middle East. Hopefully, this remorse translates into a lasting and powerful moral imperative that shall continue to put a firm stop to self-destruction and other murderous impulses of modernity present both in the West and across the globe.

Jewish Population in the Middle East from 1948 to Today. Source: reddit

Perhaps these blind spots in the Arab and Muslim stereotypical perception of Israel — apart from realpolitik — convinced the four Arab League members, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, to establish relations with Israel in 2020. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it is a good portent for the future: live and let live. There is just one Jewish and truly Ottoman state (with a pinch of Central-European-ness) remaining on the globe. The modern world, however, could be bettered by more of such polities, however imperfect, should they display at least some of Israel’s limited achievements in the department of multicultural and poly-confessional inclusiveness that are still so surprising in the modern (post-Ottoman) Middle East.

I thank Konstanty Gebert for his patient explanations and kind advice. Obviously, I am responsible for any remaining infelicities.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.


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