A Jewish comment on cosmopolitan citizenship in the Middle East

Could a cosmopolitan citizenship in the Middle East ever include Israel? The fundamental meaning of Jewish cosmopolitanism for both its proponents and its antagonists was actually a sign of Jewish civilization long before the state of Israel was created
Natan Sznaider
10 August 2010

Sami Zubaida has written a fascinating piece about cosmopolitanism in the Middle East, how it was, should have been and disappeared. It is a piece at the same time about the world we have lost and the world that never was. This was a world of benign empire, a world before religion turned into ethnicity and where cosmopolitans were almost the default, given the situation of their life-worlds.  Zubaida wants to reconstruct the old possibilities of the new Middle East: plurality of ethnicities, languages and religions. He talks about a rational cosmopolitanism which seems to go against the grain of current ethnic nationalist trends in the Middle East. The demise of Empire was also the demise of cosmopolitan citizenship and Arab and Jewish nationalism started to cloud the vision of a cosmopolitan tradition inherent in Muslim and Jewish lives before the advent of the nation-state.

Zubaida connects his cosmopolitan vision with the Middle East conflict. Is there a cosmopolitan vision for the Middle East? Can Muslim and Jewish cosmopolitanism be revived in the age where religion has turned into ethnicity and states have become ethnic nation states?  These are questions of high political relevance in times where large parts of Europe are undergoing processes of post-national cosmopolitanization while the Middle East seems to be on a reverse course.

This is also the time to reconstruct the vision of Jewish Cosmopolitanism side by side with cosmopolitan citizenship of the Middle East. Jewish Cosmopolitanism can also connect the problems of the Middle East with Europe's history. This vision lags behind objective reality, because people are still thinking in terms of the national outlook which suggests the nation-states as the universal and most important containers within which human life is spent. But cosmopolitan citizenship opens up the possibility of what I refer to as ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’. By rooted cosmopolitanism I mean universal values that descend from the level of pure abstract philosophy and engage people emotionally in their everyday lives. It is by becoming symbols of people’s personal identities that normative cosmopolitan philosophy can turn into a social and political force. A commitment to global or cosmopolitan values does not imply that cosmopolitans are rootless individuals who prefer humanity over concrete human beings as tempting as this might be.

However, and this is important to bear in mind, since 1945 cosmopolitan thought cannot innocently appeal to the old world and its transcendental certainties of reason. While the Middle East is part of a memory culture of de-colonization, Europe is part of a memory culture of the Holocaust and its ramifications. Thus, the Jewish presence in the Middle East also introduces a clash of memory cultures and different formations of cosmopolitan traditions which are not easily reconciled. Therefore, Zubaida's piece is not only an academic exercise but part of an on-going global project of re-discovering the cosmopolitan structures of our world.  This also means to confront and bring together different cosmopolitan traditions.

The fundamental meaning of Jewish cosmopolitanism for both its proponents and its antagonists was actually a sign of Jewish civilization long before the state of Israel was created. If cultural and ethnic nations are really just illusions waiting to be shattered, as some constructionists love to argue, then the identities based on them are nothing more than misconceptions and delusions. If that is the case, then Jewish (as well as Middle Eastern) cosmopolitanism is a contradiction in terms and we have simply reproduced an even more virulent universalism. For Jews (and others) who wanted to regarded themselves as different this is a crucial point. Thus, many European Jewish intellectuals before the Holocaust were between cultures and were regarded with suspicion. They saw themselves playing a dangerous game for high stakes; namely the preservation of civilization. The virtue of these men and women (like Hannah Arendt, Rafael Lemkin and many others) was that they were between cultures.  It is what gave them their sophistication, their breadth of vision and their tolerance. Their culture came from many places and was ingrained as a composite in their personalities. They embodied the ideal of integration.  It was inextricably part of their ideal of individual cultivation.  In men and women like this, rootedness - being fixed in one place and submerged in one culture - was regarded as a limitation. They recognized that limited people could only extend their (mental and physical) boundaries by war. This also expressed itself as a vision of multi-ethnic European civilizations – like the Habsburg Empire in addition to the Ottoman one Zubaida writes about.  But this also passed with the coming of the nation-state and was practically destroyed with the Holocaust.

This cosmopolitan vision was not merely an accident of intellectual history. The agonizing that they went through - their inability to give up either their universalist dreams or their ethnic national identity - was not merely an indecisiveness born of trauma and exile. Questions of Jewish particularism and universalism within and beyond Judaism and questions of individual independence and collective responsibility are not only questions of particular concern, but turn into questions that are theoretically relevant to cosmopolitan theory and praxis even today.  Cosmopolitanism is the idea that the universal and the particular must somehow both be preserved, without either being reduced to the other. 

What does this mean to Israel and the Middle East today? Israel defines itself both as universal-democratic and particular-Jewish, such that its universality is in­herently limited, meaning that it is not a universal democratic state (if one ever existed). It keeps alive the memory of the destruction for which Nazi Germany and its collaborators were responsible. Zionists thought that only territorial sovereignty could repair the damage caused by the Nazis, meaning giving the Jews a state and thus turning a homeless, stateless, cosmopolitan people into a people with a state and a home. Zionism spells the end to the experience of the Diaspora, an experi­ence which has often been identified as a helpless kind of Jewish cosmopolitanism. For many Israeli Jews, the Holocaust was a result of their own statelessness, not a result of extreme nationalism, as many outside of Israel have come to see it.

The protection of Jews at any price became one of the pillars of Israel’s identity at the time that Israel was founded, just as the new Europe was rising from the ruins of World War II and the rest of the Middle East going through processes of de-colonization. While both Israel and this new Europe took shape against the same backdrop, the former perpetrators and their former victims drew very different conclusions from their respective memories of the Holocaust, inter­connected as these memories were. The fact that Israel was designed to ne­gate European and other Diaspora Jewish life made Israel an inherently European project in its own eyes disconnecting it not only from the decolonizing Middle East, but also from Middle Eastern traditions of cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitan citizenship as outlined by Zubaida.  Thus, for many crit­ics of Israel, modern Zionism, despite being a reaction to modern European nationalism and anti-cosmopolitanism was essen­tially a rejection of the cosmopolitan idea: which indeed it was. Thus, critics of Israel reject the very notion of a "Jewish state" (i.e., an ethnic state in which Jews enjoy privileges), alleging it to be rooted in the very pre-World War II European nationalism that led to Europe’s debacle. Israel is therefore in their eyes, an anachronism in an emerging post-national and cosmopolitan world.  These critics also assail Israel for its willingness to fight and its constant preparedness for war. (This is also the background for Israel’s insistence on its sovereignty as opposed to international legal rules and regulations, as the controversy over the Goldstone Report in 2009 amply demonstrates. The report accuses Israel of violating international humanitarian law during the Gaza operation 2008/9 while Israel insists on its right to defend itself as a sovereign nation. In the background looms the failure of the international system of protection which failed the Jews in Europe during World War II. See also in this connection the public debates regarding the Flotilla incident in May 2010.) Ironically, Israel considers itself the defender of Jewish cosmopolitanism, providing a home for Jews from all over the world. In this sense Israel is a product of Diaspora Judaism, ingathering Jews from all over the world with different experiences and backgrounds, thus limiting Jewish cosmopolitanism to its ethnic boundaries.

Is there any possibility of a cosmopolitan citizenship in the Middle East, which can include Israel? Judaism is an ethnicity as much as a belief system and this feature is written into the very foundation of the state and its citizenship laws. Thus, the current Israel can never be a neutral state on the French or American model. It is difficult to imagine that an American model incorporating pluralism or tolerance or a French model of an aggressively secular state with highest honors going to anti-religious intellect could apply to Israel. Can it be a state based on Middle Eastern cosmopolitan citizenship? At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Jewish Diaspora experience and its cosmopolitan exponents were antipodes to the national-territorial forms of memory constitutive of the European nations.  Today, however, identification with a group (be it ethnic, national, or religious) whose historical roots are outside of the spatial and temporal coordinates of the adopted homeland is often a matter of preference and, not infrequently, of pride – at least theoretically. The Jewish Diaspora could serve as the paradigm for de-territorialization as such.  Jewish culture was not only mixed with other cultures, it was itself a mixture of cultures.  In a certain sense, its cosmopolitanism lay in judaizing the mixture of cultures it absorbed - it gave them a unifying cast without negating them.  The experience of Diaspora, of life in Exile, is the clearest example modernity offers of a sustained community life that did not need a territorial container to preserve its history. In Jewish experience, life outside the nation state is nothing new. Prior to the Holocaust and to the founding of the state of Israel, the Jewish experience was determined by a mixture of yearning to be territorially independent as well as to be universal ambassadors of Diaspora.  Jews were simultaneously cosmopolitan and citizens of a particular country.  Although the Jews were more aware of needing to straddle the poles of universalism and particularism, this state of tension has increasingly become the norm in today’s world. But one should not over-extend the concept. Not all ex-territorial experiences are diasporic and the memory of almost complete destruction still looms large.   

In order to advance the cosmopolitan agenda, it is crucial to criticize the fallacy of universalism. One of the central problems with prevalent visions of cosmopolitan citizenship – like the idea of a bi-or multinational Israel - is that it tends to denigrate all particularism as an affront to its post-national vision of politics. There are, of course, calls for the so-called recognition of otherness, but often this kind of cosmopolitanism falls back into well-established patterns of "othering."  This leaves some open questions: How can a cosmopolitan modernity be defined such that it is compatible with Jewishness? Clearly, Zionism is not the same as Judaism. But Zionism can also be Judaism plus Cosmopolitanism, Cosmopolitanism with a capital C as the founding creed of a modern universal nation state. Thus Europe and the Middle East would have to reluctantly accept that the Jewishness that lurked in the subconscious of the “secular” founding fathers was Judaism as a modern nationality. Judaism is no longer a “spaceless” religion, but Judaism is cosmopolitanism plus a people with a land and with a history including the exercise of political sovereignty. In the final analysis, the paramount goal is to make Israel a normal land, a land at peace, a land that is no longer disputed, and a land that is accepted by the world - the only recognition that will finally turn religion into peoplehood.


Further reading:

  1. For a recent conceptualization of Jewish European Cosmopolitanism see a special issue of the European Review of History, vol. 17 (3), 2010, especially the introductory essay by Michael L. Miller and Scott Ury, "Cosmopolitanism: the End of Jewishness?" pp. 337-359.
  2. See also this author's Gedächtnisraum Europa: Die Visionen des europäischen Kosmopolitismus, Bielefeld, 2008.
  3. For different memory structures of the Holocaust, see Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age, Temple University Press, 2005 and Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, Memory and Human Rights, PennState University Press, 2010. 
Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData