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How Israel helped to revive Europe's ugly ethnic nationalisms

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Israel preserved a tribal idea of citizenship that followers of Trump and Europe's far-right now seek to emulate

From commons.wikimedia.org: Benjamin Netanyahu {MID-303762}
Benjamin Netanyahu
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Polarization within western societies on issues relating to migration and human rights has been intensifying over recent weeks and months. To many observers, it looks suspiciously as if an international order in place since the end of the second world -- one that emphasized universal rights as a way to prevent dehumanization and conflict -- is rapidly unraveling in Europe and the United States.

In the past few weeks in Donald Trump's America, it has emerged that thousands of migrant children have been snatched from their parents while trying to enter at the southern border, with some held in cages; the US Supreme Court has upheld the right of border officials to bar entry to Muslims from proscribed countries; and the Trump administration has quit the United Nations' Human Rights Council, a key institution for monitoring human rights violations.

Meanwhile, far-right parties across Europe have ridden to electoral success on the back of mounting fears at a wave of migrants displaced from North Africa and the Middle East by wars and famines. Joining the trenchant anti-immigration stances of governments in Hungary and Poland, Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini has turned away boatloads of migrants from his country's ports. He called last month for the European Union to "defend its border" and deny access to human rights groups, while also threatening to cut his country's budget to Europe unless action was taken against migrants. Salvini is among the Italian politicians demanding the expulsion of the Roma minority.

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Other European governments led by Germany, fearful of internal political instability that might undermine their continuing rule, called a hasty summit to consider options for dealing with the "migrant crisis."

And casting a long shadow over the proceedings is Britain's efforts to negotiate its exit from the EU, a blow that might eventually lead to the whole edifice of the European project crumbling.

Two ideas of citizenship

These are not random events. They are part of a quickening trend, and one that signals how an international order built up over the past 70 years and represented by pan-national institutions like the United Nations and the EU is gradually breaking down.

While the evidence suggests that there is no particular migration crisis at the moment, there are long-term factors that readily provoke populist fears and can be readily exploited, especially over the depletion of key global resources like oil, and environmental changes caused by climate breakdown. Together they have stoked resource conflicts and begun to shrink world economies. The effects are ideological and political shockwaves that have put a system of long-standing international agreements and norms under unprecedented strain.

The emerging struggle faced today is one that was fought out a century ago in western Europe, and relates to differing conceptions of citizenship. In the early 20th century, Europe was riven by ethnic nationalisms: each state was seen as representing a separate biological people -- or in the terminology of the time, a race or Volk. And each believed it needed territory in which to express its distinct heritage, identity, language and culture. In the space of a few decades, these antagonistic nationalisms tore Europe apart in two "world wars."

At the time, ethnic nationalism was pitted against an alternative vision of citizenship: civic nationalism. It is worth briefly outlining how the two differed.

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Civic nationalists draw on long-standing liberal ideas that prioritize a shared political identity based on citizenship inside the stable territorial unit of a democratic state. The state should aspire -- at least in theory -- to be neutral towards ethnic minorities, and their languages and cultures.

Civic nationalism is premised on individual rights, social equality and tolerance. Its downside is an inherent tendency to atomize societies into individuals, and cultivate consumption over other social values. That has made it easier for powerful corporations to capture the political system, leading to the emergence of neoliberal capitalist economies.

Minorities scapegoated

Ethnic nationalists, by contrast, believe in distinct peoples, with a shared heritage and ancestry. Such nationalists not only resist the idea that other groups can integrate or assimilate, but fear that they might weaken or dissolve the ties binding the nation together.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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