Zion as Proxy? Three Jewish Scholars of Nationalism on Zionism and Israel

Zion as Proxy? Three Jewish Scholars of Nationalism on Zionism and Israel


Introduction and abstract

One of the curious facts about the study of nationalism in the twentieth century is that some of its greatest scholars were Jewish émigrés who found educations and then homes at Western universities. Scholars such as Hans Kohn, Salo Baron, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Elie Kedourie, Ernest Gellner, George Mosse, Eric Hobsbawm, and Anthony Smith all shared the conviction that nationalism was a phenomenon to be taken seriously, and all share credit for reinvigorating its study during and especially after World War II. Only three are considered here: Gellner, Kedourie, and Hobsbawm, the leading proponents of the modernist approach to nationalism.

Each was an outstanding scholar who bridged several fields. Kedourie was a Middle Eastern historian and political philosopher, a profound student of British policy and critic of nationalism. Gellner was a philosopher and anthropologist, simultaneously a thunderous critic of unreason and a sensitive analyst of non-Western societies. And Hobsbawm was one of Britain’s most relentless Marxist historians, known for his political activism, sweeping view of European history, and studies of jazz and others he saw as revolutionaries.

Their attraction to the subject of nationalism varied, but in no case was it nostalgia. Rather, it was a concern for the interplay of ideas and identity in politics. In an age of nationalism, Jews stood out, forcing these and other scholars to address the question of the "nation” in one way or another. Moreover, it is suggested here that the experiences of these three intellectuals as Jews and émigrés, and their attitudes toward Judaism and Israel, fundamentally conditioned their divergent scholarship on nationalism.

Connecting the inner and the outer man is an historiographic problem. How are milieus, personal histories, attitudes, and beliefs reflected in scholars’ works? The mere facts of an individual’s life cannot be said to correspond exactly to his or her intellectual output. Nor can we psychologize, rotating facets of a life until an interesting and presumably telling refraction appears. The real task is at once factual and speculative, as is all historiography, but a systematic approach is needed (for recent examples of historiographic studies of scholars, see Judt 1998; Myers and Ruderman 1998; Lilla 2001; Hart 1999; Knepper 2005; and Hacohen 1999). At one extreme is Kedourie’s assertion that the historian matters little (Kedourie, 1984c). The opposite impulses are found in Hobsbawm’s autobiography (Hobsbawm, 2002) and in efforts by Gellner’s acolytes to collate his works and write a biography (Hall 1998; Hall and Jarvie 1996; see also the Ernest Gellner Resource Page).

But short of biographies that fully connect the inner and outer scholar, the task is to enter into a dialogue with historians to understand how their lives and thought conditioned our understanding of a key phenomenon: nationalism. Modernist scholarship is the primary lens through which many, including policy makers, see the issue. This paper discusses, to use David Gellner’s words on his father’s analysis of Wittgenstein, "the social context of ideas” (D. Gellner 1998, x), but ideas with more than academic significance.

Nationalism has been defined many ways, including by the three scholars considered here. Briefly, nationalism holds that the world is comprised of many different groups or peoples—defined by shared languages, descended from common ancestors, and with common histories and religions. Nationalism judges it proper for individual groups to exert political control over the discrete territories in which they reside; that is to say, nations should equal states. As a cluster of assertions this is controversial enough, but underlying are more fundamental and intractable questions: whether groups and their identities are "real” or "invented,” of great antiquity or purely modern vintage; and whether identities are natural and necessary, shifting or fixed, arbitrary and even imposed.

This paper discusses the work of Kedourie, Gellner, and Hobsbawm and their attitudes toward Israel and Zionism. These are emblematic of their larger approaches to nationalism and the question of identity in the modern world. They also exemplify some of the Jewish intellectual responses to modernity.

Last updated on 01/03/2016