Citizenship, Nationalism and How to Solve Part of the Israel-Palestinian Problem

There are essentially three impediments to a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians: final borders, Jerusalem and the right of return.  The first two are of course related, and in my view, will never be amicably resolved because no Palestinian political leader will ever be able to agree to allow Jerusalem to belong to Israel, despite the fact that there has been a Jewish majority in that city for well over 100 years.  (Anti-Semitism is really the sole justification for the division of Jerusalem, and explains the views of the rest of the world which have been essentially unchanged since the terrible 1940s.) But I believe the right of return is a solvable problem, and should be tackled separately.

Palestinians are of course not the only people who fled their homes around 1948.  At the same time, millions of ethnic Germans were pushed out of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and many millions fled to either side of the still contested India-Pakistan border (the likely starting point for World War III).  And of course, many Jews had previously fled from Europe during  the previous decade.

When my maternal grandparents escaped from Nazi Germany after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938, they were stripped of their citizenship and were stateless until they became U.S. citizens in 1946.  It might surprise people to learn that they, and others in their situation, were never offered back their Austrian citizenship after the war.  Jews who had fled could only recover their citizenship if they moved back to Austria, which my grandparents and most others did not want to do.

But many years later, in 1993, Austria amended its citizenship laws to permit its former Jewish citizens to recover Austrian citizenship from abroad.  At that time, my grandparents were already deceased but my mother, born in New York in 1940 shortly after her parents reached the United States (what we would call today an “anchor baby“), was able to persuade the Austrian authorities to permit her to recover the citizenship she should have had at birth, were it not for the Nazis.  As the son of a mother (rather than father) who had “recovered” her Austrian citizenship, I still could not obtain Austrian citizenship at that time.  But in 2013 Austria corrected that sexist rule and opened a brief window that allowed me to become an Austrian citizen in 2014.  I was then also allowed to obtain citizenship for my three minor children.

Last December I was in Vienna and met Wolfgang Sobotka, the president of the Austrian Parliament, at the Centropa Hannukah Party.  I took the opportunity to thank him for Austria’s laws that allowed me and my family to obtain Austrian citizenship.  I am not sure what exactly motivated the various laws that helped me, but the net result was very positive.  I felt good about recovering a piece of my family history, since my ancestors had lived in Austria for more than three hundred years before the Nazis arrived.  I noticed also that my children became suddenly more aware of their Austrian-Jewish heritage, wanting to visit the country and even learn German.  The law had cost Austria very little (we weren’t going to move there or take advantage of any social programs) and had garnered the country some good will from a family that had every reason to hold a grudge.  (Among others, my great-grandfather Siegmund Zeisl had been removed from Vienna in 1942 and murdered in Treblinka.)

Since recovering Austrian citizenship, I have wondered if Israel could also adopt the Austrian model with Palestinians who had fled the country in 1948 and were later denied citizenship under the Israeli citizenship law.  I’ve broached this idea with a number of people and have been met with puzzling reactions that I think demonstrate a misunderstanding of what could actually be accomplished.

The first misconception is that Israel would be flooded with returning Palestinians.  I am certain this isn’t true.  Most people like to stay put where they are, even when their lives might be better somewhere else.  (In German and Yiddish they call this Sitzfleisch, the ability to stay put and just persevere.) This explains why there are still Americans living in Mississippi and Louisiana (the two lowest-ranked states in the country by most measures), rather than moving to California.  More seriously, though, there would be lots of impediments to Palestinians moving to Israel.  The main one is that they don’t want to be Israelis.  Imagine if the citizenship process required a simple oath of allegiance to the State of Israel.  How many Palestinians outside Israel would sign that?  Even if economic opportunities are a draw, language and culture are huge impediments.

If you think it’s easy to apply for and obtain citizenship, like I did with Austria, then maybe I didn’t explain the process thoroughly.  I had to fill out endless forms in German, had to obtain not only certified copies of vital records like birth and marriage records, but also an apostille, a court record affirming that the signature on a vital record is valid.  I had to submit to FBI fingerprinting to confirm that I didn’t have a criminal record.  (My sister couldn’t complete her application because, despite several attempts, the FBI couldn’t read her fingerprints.)  I had to submit a financial statement and confirming bank documents and bills to prove I wouldn’t be a burden on the state.  I had to go to the consular office, which happened to be nearby, several times to execute documents.  And I had to pay.  Yes, that’s right, it cost me money to submit the application and to obtain the citizenship certificate and passport.  It wasn’t cheap.

My application was submitted in a very friendly process and I was helped by the consular officials, but I think you can imagine how bureaucratic and difficult it might be for the average person.  The truth is that most Palestinians wouldn’t be able to obtain the required documentation (proving descent from Palestinians living in what is now Israel) and wouldn’t have the stamina to complete the process, even if they could locate everything they needed.  If you assume, generously, that one in ten eligible Palestinians would want to apply, and of those probably only ten or twenty percent could succeed, we’re now talking about 50,000-100,000 people, not the 5 million estimated by UNRWA.  By way of contrast, Israel absorbed about one million Russian immigrants after 1989.

Of course, the process could take into account the potential for a flood of returning Palestinians by first asking for preliminary applications (like a declaration of intention) during a limited time period to gauge the interest of Palestinians in obtaining Israeli citizenship.  But my guess is that the flood would turn out to be just a trickle.  I don’t see the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, Gaza or Lebanon encouraging their populations to apply for Israeli citizenship.  They are still committed to eliminating Israel, not joining it.  When offered a path to citizenship, the vast majority of Palestinians in East Jerusalem (95%) chose not to become citizens, and only a third of those who applied were successful.  So in the end you’ll have only the most eager and able Palestinians applying for and obtaining Israeli citizenship, mostly the ones with close family in Israel whom they wish to join.  Admitting them would make little difference to Israel, but it would likely make a big difference to the rest of the world by demonstrating that Israel is ready to move beyond the hostilities of the 1940s and invite back the former residents who fled.  One of the three major impediments to peace would be off the table.

I have another proposal for Israel that it should consider at the same time.  Last year, Israel passed a somewhat controversial new law defining Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.  To that end, Israel should allow all Jews to apply for Israeli citizenship, not only Jews who decide to move to Israel.  The current Law of Return allows Jews (or those with at least one Jewish grandparent) to become Israeli citizens by moving to Israel.  Originally, Israel was eager to have new Jewish immigrants and afforded citizenship only to those who decided to live there.  But after 70 years, Israel doesn’t necessarily need more Jewish immigrants.  Land and housing are more scarce than they used to be.  The State of Israel is starting to get too crowded.  Of course, you don’t have to live in Israel to be a citizen.  Many Israelis have moved out of Israel and live elsewhere, lots of them in America.  They all retain their Israeli citizenship.  Why not allow diaspora Jews who are eligible to become Israeli citizens to gain citizenship without moving there?  Certainly not all Jews would do so, but many of those who are most committed to Israel would certainly do it to show their support.  It would be good pr for Israel, and a good way to maintain ties with the diaspora.  It could also offset any increase in the Palestinian population in Israel, the so-called demographic problem.

When I have made this suggestion to Israelis they are aghast.  There’s a tendency of Israelis to think of citizenship as a reward that can only be given to those who have somehow suffered for it.  I think that misunderstands the function of citizenship in today’s world.  Israel doesn’t require all of its citizens to serve in the military.  The children of Israelis living abroad are not required to serve, nor are Arabs or Yeshiva students.  So that is no argument.

Expanding the idea of citizenship would also help counter a disturbing nationalist trend in Israel.  Yoram Hazony, whom I knew pretty well back when we were students at Princeton, has written a new book called The Virtues of NationalismYoram has always been exceedingly intelligent and a good debater, and the book is, as expected, extremely well-written.  Yoram, like his conservative counterparts in Trump’s Republican Party, is simply in love with the idea of nationalism, especially as a counterweight to the oppressively utopian uniformity of “globalist” imperialistic international legal structures.  The flaw in his argument (there is always a flaw) is one of perspective.  Hazony sees great benefit in the idea of a nation-state as a way to avoid the anarchic competition of smaller clans and tribes.  Yet he has no real answer for when the benefits of combination into larger structures end and the dangers of imperial structures begin.  If it is good for families to form clans, and clans to form tribes, and tribes to form states, and states to form nations, then why is not good for nations to form multi-national  entities?  Why is it good for Italian states to become a nation, but not good for Italy to join the European Union?  Hazony really cannot answer that question, and he doesn’t want to.  His main goal is to support a theory that a certain form of ethnic nationalism is superior.

It is too bad Hazony isn’t more familiar with European history.  His main focus is on Anglo-American philosophy and history.  But it turns out that the island of Great Britain isn’t really a great model for understanding the difficulties of nation-states.  Because it is an island.  As Brexiters are learning this month as their plans stumble over the problem of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, things get more complicated with a land border.  National borders don’t change human nature and geography.  People who live in close proximity with each other are going to interact and form ties that cross the border, weakening the exclusive national characteristics the political border attempts to separate.  This is why divided cities, like Berlin, Nicosia and Jerusalem, simply don’t work.  Eventually, the borders have to fall.  And the same is true for larger national borders.  Ultimately, the states need to work together to avoid conflict.  They need to accept a dilution of their national sovereignty and ethnic purity.  National cooperation agreements, such as the European Union or NAFTA, allowing for free movement of people, labor, goods and capital, are more efficient, more productive and therefore superior.  Just as clans are superior to families, and tribes superior to clans, and states superior to tribes, and nations superior to states, so too are international organizations superior to nations.  As our legal and material technology improves, humans can organize in larger and larger structures for the benefit of all.

The irony of Hazony’s argument is that for Jews living as minorities in host countries, larger organizations have traditionally offered greater protection.  In Austria-Hungary prior to World War I, Jews were a substantial minority protected by the Habsburg emperor.  This led to great prosperity and unparalleled intellectual achievement.  The rise of nationalism and the breakup of the empire into a dozen smaller states substantially decreased those protections, and left Jews open to slaughter by the Nazis.  Hazony may be correct that Israel is more secure in a world where there are lots of similarly-sized smaller, independent ethnic national states.  But his mistake is thinking that such a world is stable.  The truth is that in order to survive, small nations need allies; they need to combine with larger nations and multi-national entities (or be protected by them).  “No man is an island,” as John Donne wrote, and most nations aren’t either.

In the modern era, citizenship is a tool that nations can use for various purposes.  One is to define the nation by means of inclusion and exclusion.  But smaller countries are discovering that citizenship can also be used to obtain allies abroad.  My experience receiving Austrian citizenship I think provides a good model for what Israel could do for Palestinians, diaspora Jews, and the State of Israel.

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