Jewish Nationalism and the Question of Palestine

Joan Cocks. Interventions. Volume 8, Issue 1. 2006.

In commemoration of Edward Said, I should like to probe one question he presses us to ask but does not answer and another he helps us to answer but does not ask. The first question: what deep-seated tendencies of thought and feeling help spur the myriad refusals of recognition of Palestinians by Jewish society and the Israeli state? The second question: what form of polity can transcend the conditions that gave rise to those tendencies and hence offer hope of a just and lasting solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? Both questions must be posed in a different way on the Palestinian side. This essay, which does not examine Palestinian currents of thought and feeling that flow from refusals of recognition or the political effects of those currents, is therefore necessarily incomplete.


Among the many crises that confront the world today, few blaze hotter or with more obscuring smoke than the conflict over Israel’s ‘right to exist’. The claim that any state, as opposed to any people, might or might not have such a right is peculiar enough that it should raise a red flag. Debates over existence rights have so typically centered on living, breathing creatures that we seem to make a category mistake when we add institutions to the list. This is true above all when the institution in question not only is not a mortal entity but also is not, in one of its key functions, a moral entity: when it is, to borrow Nietzsche and Freud’s morose definition of the state, a larger quantity of power amassed for the purpose of crushing smaller quantities of power. As such, the state is a possible protector of rights but not a bearer of them. The idea of existence rights for political states is indeed so incongruous that only Israel has been positively or negatively associated with it—which perhaps is why, although the phrase ‘right to exist’ is most often used as a rhetorical device by defenders of Israel, every utterance of it raises doubts about that state’s legitimacy. And yet, this strange idiom is but a branch of the modern idea that the nation-state is the manifestation of a people—a very common, if crooked, tree.

Like the claim of Israel’s anomalous existence rights and challenges to those rights in the Arab and Muslim world, other distortions about Israel have variants on the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ side. Despite the large number of Israeli Jews with Arab backgrounds, many people assume that Israel is racially as well as culturally European and hence alien to the Middle East, whether they think that makes Israel superior to the Arab world or subversive of its civilizational integrity—in Said’s words, a European solution to a European problem on Middle Eastern soil (Said 1992, 2000a ). Diasporic Jews and militant Islamists alike can conflate religious Judaism, ethnic Jewishness, and pro-Israel politics, although the former tend to do it to police Jews who might otherwise object to Israeli policies, while the latter tend to do it to attack Jews regardless of their actual political positions. The certainty of many Jews that hostility to Israel is symptomatic of a universal anti-Semitism has its inverted form in the suspicion of many Muslims that Jews endorse the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians as a result of some pernicious ethno-religious essence. Then there are the equally preposterous if diametrically opposed assumptions that Jews are eternal victims without co-responsibility for the web of human action of which they are a part, even after they have won state sovereignty; and that Jews are the secret authors of Western imperialism, global capitalism, 9/11 and other nefarious plots.

The notion of Zionism as an utter anomaly rather than a member of the panoply of modern ethnonational movements surfaces on both sides of the debate. On the one side is the view that Zionism reflects the Jews’ status as God’s chosen people or resolves their unique predicament as exiles in every society. On the other side is the view that Zionism either is singularly vicious or exhibits a singularly vicious version of the imperial desire to control other territories and peoples instead of the dangerous but all too familiar desire to control a territory for one people alone. Meanwhile, the Jewish belief that Zionism is exceptional is often weirdly accompanied by the conviction that nationhood will bring normalcy to the Jews by assimilating a scattered people not within other nation-states but to the family of nation-states as a whole. A similar assumption is made with respect to Palestinian nationalism, with too few people willing to inquire into the nature of the normalcy that nationhood brings, or whether freedom and happiness follow automatically from national sovereignty.

In fact, almost every solution posed by various Jewish and Arab factions to the question mark of Israel’s existence is a conveyance en route to the pitfalls of national self-determination. There is the brutal one-state, one-nation solution, involving the expulsion of Jews from a greater Palestine or Palestinians from a greater Israel. There is the disingenuous one-state, majority rule solution, in which one or the other people (Palestinians first, Jews later) in a shared political society will become a vulnerable minority once again. Finally, there is the unstable two-state, two-nation solution, in which two peoples, either strictly separated through a total transfer of populations or partially separated and so plagued by ‘minority problems’, live side by side in mutual enmity, on land too cramped for one at the very start, and too cramped for both to accommodate the full right of return of their respective diasporas without future attempts at territorial expansion.

To point out this parallelism of ill conception and problematic aim on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide is hardly to say that Jews and Palestinians have played symmetrical parts in their relationship. It was the decision of Jews to build a Jewish state rather than any decision of Palestinian Arabs that set in motion the chain of events leading to the current morass. Moreover, the Jews are sovereign in what is now Israel, while the Palestinians have been decimated in what was once Palestine. The injustice of one people having been pushed off the land to which it was concretely attached to clear room for another people whose attachment had been, except for a minority of its members, theoretical has been compounded by the glaring inequality between the two peoples with respect to material resources, social well-being and above all political power over the terms of their relationship. These injustices and inequalities are only exacerbated by the refusal of many Jews either to think critically about the effects on Palestinians of the Jewish state and society or to allow others to speak critically without branding them as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews.

If for opposite reasons, lovers of justice might find it no less tempting than real anti-Semites simply to attack Israel’s ascendancy and excoriate Jews for refusing to recognize Palestinian Arabs or face the human impact of that refusal. But a more fruitful step towards a just and lasting peace in the Middle East would be to confront—not in order to excuse but in order to try to decommission—potent psychological factors behind the quest for Jewish domination in Israel. The partiality to self and the will to power that help animate human action everywhere, for everyone, play their inevitable roles here; national sovereignty is indeed the quintessential modern instrument for expressing and satisfying both of these basic impulses. But more corrigible, in that it is the product of a contingent history instead of a feature of the human condition, is a specific battery of fears, anxieties and defenses that fuelled the Jewish state and continues, along with new and more aggressive impulses, to be fuelled by it. If I may use a psychoanalytic metaphor, my argument in a nutshell is that this battery is symptomatic of a political neurosis (or even psychosis?) on the part of a perpetual minority in the age of the modern nation-state that develops a persecution complex in response to real persecution. In the end, that minority embraces the institutional ground of its plight as the antidote for it, hammering itself into a sovereign national majority while shifting the costs of minority status to an even more vulnerable population in its way. The latter’s predictable reaction to that shift—anger, indignation, violent antagonism—is interpreted by the former as evidence of the continuation of its own threatened-minority plight. Such an interpretation leads the new majority to make a greater effort to entrench its sovereign mastery, which multiplies the hostile reactions against it, producing another version of the precarious situation that mastery was meant to end. This ‘bad dialectic’ generates psychic investments of Jews in the state of Israel regardless of the content of its policies, as well as arousing, in a sub-segment of Jews, an active enthusiasm for the most aggressive and punishing of those policies. Thus, for the sake of Palestinians as well as Jews, the political neurosis behind the dialectic needs to be analyzed so that it can be treated. To analyze the neurosis requires that we rewind the reel backwards from the persecution instigated by the new majority people to its search for national sovereignty to its persecution anxiety to the initial objective conditions of that anxiety. To treat the neurosis requires not therapy for the patient but a cure for those objective conditions. Certainly, in who knows how many individual cases, more than a half century of Jewish sovereignty in Israel has overlaid the insecurity of political powerlessness with a self-serving national pride, a muscular arrogance and/or a fascistic pleasure in violence that in turn exert their independent force in the world. Nevertheless, such tendencies of thought and feeling have a tight connection to an insecurity that is subterranean in both a historical and psychological sense. Unless it is countered, that insecurity will continue to generate those tendencies along with their practical effects.

The second and third parts of this essay will consider the following two problems. What is the nature of the political anxiety of the Jews? What is the political cure for the conditions that gave rise to that anxiety—which, as it is an instance of the anxiety afflicting all those who become beleaguered collective identities in the age of the nation-state, now afflicts Palestinians too? For help on the second problem, I will look to Said, but for help on the first, I wish to turn to someone who both analyzes and exhibits the anxiety in a specifically Jewish form, at the same time that he also writes on imperialism, racism, failed assimilation, marginality, nationalism and cultural fracture in the direct, wrenching style of someone with receiving-end experience of those phenomena. This ardent supporter of anti-colonial struggle, evocative analyst of internal exile and outspoken champion of the whole of subjugated humanity can illustrate for us how even the most generous and thoughtful of souls may be driven to a politics of ethnonational exclusion, with all its inhumane consequences. He also will serve as a reminder that Zionism is not simply a ‘western’ response to western political problems.


The Tunisian Jew Albert Memmi is perhaps best known as the author of the luminous if now largely eclipsed The Colonizer and the Colonized. This explosive little volume was published in 1957, a few years earlier than Frantz Fanon’s still celebrated account of anti-colonial nationalism, The Wretched of the Earth (1963 [1961]). For a decade they were read side by side almost as companion pieces. The Colonizer and the Colonized investigates the same conflict that The Wretched of the Earth does between colonial settlers and natives in North Africa. Like Fanon, Memmi throws himself on the side of the struggle for national liberation even while registering its unfortunate interpretative effects, from the essentializing of identity to the inversion of colonial stereotypes to a willful blindness to shades of grey in human affairs. But what distinguishes Memmi from Fanon, besides his theatrical method of presenting the colonizer and the colonized as if they were characters on a stage, is his position as a member of one of a number of minority groups sandwiched between French master and Muslim majority. Memmi muses that the middling position of the Jews—who were ‘as near as possible to the Moslems in poverty, language, sensibilities, customs, taste in music, odors and cooking’, but who tried to identify themselves with the French and the West ‘as the paragon of all civilization’ (Memmi 1967 [1957]: xiv)—gave him intimate entrée into the mentality of both sides of the colonial relation, a contrapuntal consciousness (to use Said’s term) reflective of the social ambiguity of the colonial ‘half-breed’ (ibid.: xvi).

With the commitment to all underdogs that Hannah Arendt calls the signature sign of the self-conscious pariah, Memmi expands his attention a decade or so later, in Dominated Man, to the ‘bruises’, ‘agonies’ and ‘inner paroxysms’ of the colonized, the Negro, the proletariat, the woman, the servant and the Jew (Memmi 1971 [1968]: 16). Here he also presses his fellow leftists to acknowledge nationalism’s ‘genuine and constructive’ character as the politics of oppressed peoples instead of ‘letting it stay stuck in their throats like a bone they are always longing to cough up’ (ibid.: 70). This work and Racism, published in 1982, protest against all forms of collective injustice while insisting that differences among human groups should be de-stigmatized, yes, but not erased.

In sum, in the 1950s and 1960s, Memmi finds epistemological promise in ambiguous identity, allies himself culturally and economically with North Africa, supports the cause of national liberation for oppressed Muslims and other colonized peoples, and writes on behalf of all subjugated groups but against homogenizing universalist projects. Yet, over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, he increasingly identifies himself with the Jewish people as distinguished from the Arab people (even if he also describes himself, vis-à-vis European Jews, as an Arab Jew), defends the Jewish national cause against its Arab opponents and champions a Jewish state in Palestine. The fact that that state wrested much of its territory from Palestinian Arabs he alternately de-emphasizes and evades. The fact that it accorded unequal rights to its Jewish and Palestinian citizens, unequal human value to Jews and Palestinian Arabs and unreality or illegitimacy to the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination he admits, but only after disconnecting the original ‘unhappiness’ of the Palestinians from Jewish nationalism (Memmi 1975 [1974]: 166). What accounts for this metamorphosis in self-conception, empathy and political commitment—if it is a metamorphosis?

Two of Memmi’s semi-autobiographical novels from the 1950s, The Pillar of Salt (a haunting tale of a difficult ghetto childhood in North Africa) and Strangers (a story of a failed marriage between an Arab Jewish man and a French Catholic woman), provide background clues, but the main pieces of the puzzle can be found in three highly charged books Memmi wrote in the 1960s and 1970s: Portrait of a Jew (1962), The Liberation of the Jew (1973 [1966]) and Jews and Arabs (1975 [1974]). From these texts, we can glean that Memmi was born in 1920 into a large, tight-knit, religious and impoverished family. His father was a harness-maker, one of the Jewish artisans living at the edge of the Tunisian ghetto who had ‘not budged for centuries from that little corner of earth’. Memmi describes the Tunisian ghetto Jews as ‘steering a course for a century between Arabs and Frenchmen, carefully locking their doors at night, but punctually celebrating their Sabbath … poor, without recognized rights, but, in spite of several alarms, almost at home’ (Memmi 1962: 244-5). Otherwise, they shared with their fellow Muslims most of their everyday habits and tastes, their experience of cultural condescension at the hands of the French, and what Memmi calls the physiological troubles of the colonized. ‘We were the same sickly, undersized individuals—either dark and shriveled like insects … or else unhealthily corpulent and yellow, billowing with obesity’ (ibid.: 108).

Memmi lists his multiple attempts to discover a political route out of a predicament he experienced first in the form of ‘that vague unrest, that diffused hostility’ (Memmi 1962: 61) he felt whenever he left his neighborhood for the Arab quarter, and later, while a scholarship student at the French lycée, in the form of taunts and slurs from Maltese, Italians and French, as well as rich westernized Jews. As a young boy, he participated avidly in Zionist youth groups ‘when that movement appeared to be nothing but an adventure’ (ibid.: 4). As an adolescent, he gained a sense of the larger world and, in the period of the French Popular Front, felt the first glimmer of Enlightenment optimism that the brotherhood of man would wash away all human suffering, including his own. But while he was, as a budding socialist, ‘[e]ncamped on the pink clouds of the Universal … [d]own on earth … a real and difficult battle was in progress, whose blows I was hardly able to avoid and hardly ever able to return’ (Memmi 1973 [1966]: 27). He was interned as a Jew at a forced-labor camp in Vichy-ruled Tunisia and after the war attended university in Paris, where he felt himself, as an Arab Jew, a double outsider. Disenchanted with the hypocrisy of western ideals, he returned to Tunisia, where he found the Muslim majority filled with national aspirations and enthusiasms. He joined the Tunisian nationalist movement but became alienated from it when the new state and society established Islam as the national religion, backed Egypt against Israel during the Suez War and refused to hire Jews as technicians, administrators, intellectuals. None of this, in the early 1960s, Memmi finds ultimately indefensible. The assertion of national identity and national culture are essential to the rehabilitation of a people, and exclusivism, including religious exclusivism, is what national assertion is all about. As he put it in those days:

The independence of Tunisia and of Morocco … was not directed against the Jews, but neither was it made with the Jews … It is in the very way in which new nations were born that differences became clear, were confirmed, showed us plainly that we were not part of it. It is in the way that Tunisia became a nation like other nations that we became, as we were everywhere else, a civil and national negativity. (Memmi 1962: 246)

Memmi writes Portrait of a Jew to analyze ‘the condition of all Jews’ (Memmi 1962: 7) to which decolonization restored the North African Jews by spurring their mass exodus from places they long had inhabited. In the ancient period, he tells us, the Jews were like any other people, sometimes the murdered, sometimes the murderer. After that, they lived their collective history on ‘a continual alert, punctuated by ghastly catastrophes’ (ibid.: 19), treated by every society as if they did not really belong there. Whether excluded for being different or different as a result of being excluded, the Jew became a ‘problematical being’ (ibid.: 54) who has been ‘oppressed for so long that he no longer even believes strongly in his right to live among other men’ (ibid.: 253). In The Liberation of the Jew, Memmi moves restlessly from failed solution to failed solution of the great problem of anti-Semitism, discarding in turn the strategies of name-changing, mixed marriage, conversion, self-deprecating humor, religious retreat, the counter-mythology of chosen-ness, unity with all other oppressed groups and abstract humanism. In the end, he arrives at what he sees as the only escape hatch from the general xenophobia and racism that he had earlier regretted are ‘more widespread than anything else in the world’ (Memmi 1962: 29).

In the last two chapters of The Liberation of the Jew, which until that point is utterly despairing, Memmi concludes that if other peoples ‘are as yet unable to put up with the presence of compact minorities among them … the Jew must be removed from their midst’ (Memmi 1973 [1966]: 283). To overcome their political and social alienation as a perpetual minority in every society, the Jews must win for themselves a native land, a state and so a respected place in history. In short, the liberation of the Jews must be ‘a national liberation’ (ibid.: 283), an achievement now synonymous with the state of Israel, which has released Jews from the nihility of the ‘absolute foreigner’ (ibid.: 294) by giving them the choice of whether to live ‘as a normal people’ (ibid.: 288) on their own soil or assimilate individually to majority cultures elsewhere.

Similar claims about the essential truth of nationality and imperatives of nationhood (with their pedigree, ironically, in German romanticism) appear in many Jewish writings of the period. Three aspects of Memmi’s thought, however, are unusual and of special interest here. One is his angry rebuttal, in Jews and Arabs, of the proposition that Jews suffered only in European countries before 1948. Memmi asserts that Jews also lived in Arab countries as ‘diminished’ creatures (Memmi 1975 [1974]: 22), even though they may not have been treated as badly as they were in the West, and even though Jewish-Arab relations had once seen a golden age. His declaration that ‘Israel is a rejoinder to the oppression suffered by Jews the world over, including our own oppression as Arab Jews’ (ibid.: 12) challenges both the exclusive preoccupation of European Jews with their place in Christian societies and the representations by Arab writers of harmonious Jewish-Arab relations until the birth of Israel. But it also clashes with his own earlier, polychromatic description of poor Arab Jews as both targets of prejudice and co-participants in North African culture and society, who fell prey, in the end, not to anti-Semitism but to the nationalist movements of Muslim societies. One suspects, on the one hand, that the lens of Jewish nationalism has effected this re-interpretation, leading Memmi to sharpen and darken the line he draws in the 1970s between Arabs and Jews. Certainly he recalls with bitterness he had not shown ten years before, ‘the terrible period’ when, by economic strangulation, popular violence, and segregation, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria ‘liquidated their Jewish communities’ (ibid.: 23). On the other hand, one also gets the sense of a deeply harboured hurt at the rejection of Jews by North African nationalists beneath his new determination to make indelible identity distinctions. ‘Jewish Arabs’, he cries, ‘that’s what we would have liked to be, and if we have given up the idea, it is because for centuries the Moslem Arabs have scornfully, cruelly, and systematically prevented us from carrying it out’ (ibid.: 20). Memmi’s portrayal in the 1950s of those same centuries had been, not rosy, to be sure, but delicate, nuanced and poignant, with a heartfelt sympathy for the common plight of all groups crushed by despotic authority, poverty and cultural humiliation, even though they might have been crushed in different ways and to different degrees. His new accusations may assert something harder and starker about ethno-religious relations in North Africa, but they also unwittingly illustrate his own diagnosis of nationalism as a reactive phenomenon, a repudiation of a repudiation, a response to unrequited love. They also imply that an institutional arrangement different from the nation-state form embraced by many modern European and postcolonial societies might have precluded the need for a Jewish state by giving diasporas, minorities and ‘middling groups’ everywhere a secure and welcoming political home.

A second, connected aspect of Memmi’s thought is that, for all his militancy, he was initially a reluctant supporter of Jewish nationalism, driven to that stance by the failure of a more inclusive politics. Especially in The Liberation of the Jew, he worries that nationalism ‘is far too frequently an alibi for hatred and domination’, recalling that ‘the Jew was always one of the first victims of nationalist crises’ (Memmi 1973 [1966]: 287). He asks almost in shame, ‘But what does one do … Are we to blame if we have begun to resemble the nationalists?’ (ibid.: 289). He hopes that the nation ‘is a temporary ending’ (ibid.: 288) and regrets that ‘we must pass through this national stage which represents a sort of contraction of a people within themselves’ (ibid.: 289). Against both religious and secular Zionists, Memmi describes the decision to build a Jewish state in an ‘already inhabited, terribly exposed corner of earth’ as neither divinely prescribed nor dictated by some ancient blood right but instead as ‘perhaps the result of a collectively neurotic choice, one of the last neurotic acts, let us hope, of this neurotic people’ (ibid.: 292). Bound up with a religious mythology that induced its adherents to turn a blind eye to social/geographical realities, that decision as Memmi describes it is hardly a model of practical wisdom. But, while the choice of another location for the Jewish state might have been less ‘neurotic’, it could not have led to anything other than some kind of dispossession, given that every place in the world is always already inhabited and so, in the modern era, always already politically contested or sewn up. This does not mean that the Jewish state might as well have been built in Palestine as anywhere else, but instead that it could not have provided an untroubled solution to the predicament of the Jews, wherever it happened to be located.

My final and quite different point on Memmi’s thought requires us to return to The Colonizer and the Colonized. There he describes what he calls the ‘Nero Complex’: the psychological syndrome of a usurper who must ‘absolve himself’ of his own guilty knowledge that he is a ‘nonlegitimate privileged person’ (Memmi 1967 [1957]: 52). The Nero figure seeks absolution by rewriting history, extinguishing memories, glorifying his own merits, harping on the faults of the group he usurps and physically crushing that group to prevent it from demanding recognition of its humanity from him. But the more he oppresses, the more illegitimate he becomes in his own eyes and the more he hates his victim for turning him into a tyrant. Thus the usurper is hurled down a path of escalating cruelty that brings disaster first to his victim but ultimately to himself when that victim rises up against him, as Memmi believes he always will. Although Memmi describes the Nero Syndrome in relation to the European col onialist, there are clear parallels between the Nero Syndrome and the bad dialectic I described in the first section of this paper. The parallelism should prompt us to wonder if not merely perceived national interest but also a defense against guilt is at the root of the vehemence with which many Jews refuse recognition to Palestinians and the violence with which Israeli leaders meet Palestinian resistance and self-assertion.


Memmi’s belief that nationalism was the road to freedom for the Jews has proved to be seriously mistaken. It is true that Jews are no longer in the insidious position of having to beg elites for protection from the majorities in the societies in which they find themselves, otherwise keeping their heads down in the hope that no one will notice them. Nevertheless, they are as tightly imprisoned inside a master/slave relation as they were before, even though, either directly as Israeli Jews or indirectly as ‘pro-Israel’ diaspora Jews, they have assumed the position of the master. Jews have arrived at a kind of normality, the other prize that nationalism promised them, in that they now exhibit the deep pockmarks that scar the faces of all triumphant ethnonationalities. For, if new majorities can inflict all sorts of indignities on new minorities, they inflict on their own members a great deal that is ugly and self-deforming. We see often enough, in those members, the following symptoms of myopia and solipsism: a reduction of the individual’s complex cultural make-up to a fortified singularity; a shrinking of the empathic capacities of the individual to the bounds of a narrow group; a fixation on that group’s fate as if it could be severed from the fate of all others with whom it has become historically entangled; a related belief—perhaps the greatest delusion of our time—in the emancipating power of self-determination.

If this essay has made the case against Zionism that nationalism does not usher freedom into being when it releases a people from oppression, it also has made the case against many critics of Zionism that imperialism, orientalism, colonialism and/or anti-Arab racism did not supply Zionism’s primary animating force. The complicity of Zionist leaders with European (and Ottoman) imperial powers; their reiteration of western orientalist ideas and racist sentiments; their conquest of Palestinian territory; and their efforts and the efforts of their political descendants to prevent Palestinians from returning to their land, to discriminate against Palestinians who never left and to pursue policies of collective punishment against Palestinians in the occupied territories, were either means to their goal of creating a state for the Jews or entailments and effects of that goal. The subjective experience of injustice on the part of Palestinians may be the same in either case, but the objective form of the injustice (intimidation, displacement and forced separation, not hierarchical rule over heterogeneous peoples), the project it serves (an ethnonational state, not imperial exploitation) and the original mentality behind the project (a persecution complex, not cultural superiority) are importantly different (which is not at all to say that an ethnonational state is ‘better’ than an imperial state or that it cannot metastasize into an imperialist state). To fail to understand the difference is, among other things, to fail to see how anyone calling for national self-determination as the cure for collective oppression is in danger of recapitulating the movement of the Jews on the loop that leads from received persecution to nationalism to active persecution.

At this point it is finally time to return to Edward Said, who offers faint directions to an exit for humanity from this endless loop. To read those directions, we must revisit a much-remarked upon tension in his thought. On the one hand, Said has expressed delight in hybrid identities and the intermingling of heterogeneous peoples, attacked the authoritarian states that nationalist movements bring about and touted the critical pleasures of exile over the unreflective self-certainties of those who are glued to a single place. On the other hand, he has fiercely championed the right to Palestinian national self-determination in historic Palestine, with all the releasing but also identitarian and statist implications of that right. Many critics have seen this tension as the sign of Said’s intellectual inconstancy or political hypocrisy or psychological ambivalence. I want to propose instead that it indicates his attraction to the opposite ‘moments of truth’ of empire and the modern nation-state. That is, multinational empires were characterized not only by the hierarchical, authoritarian rule of ‘higher peoples’ over ‘lower’ but also by the political unity of heterogeneous ethnicities and nationalities. The nation-states that replaced them have exhibited not only popular self-rule and citizen equality but also the impulse to eradicate collective differences via cultural homogenization and/or the persecution of minorities. Said is well-known for his dismissal of Hegelian teleology, and in fact he never alludes to new political forms as anything other than possibilities struggling to become actualities. Still, his emphasis on how European imperialism has forced the world’s peoples into contact; his nostalgia for the intermixture of Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and Jews under the Ottoman empire; his distaste for Herderian notions of national essences; his impatience with the sealed-off nature of identity politics; his advocacy on the side of subjugated peoples in general and the Palestinian people in particular; and, finally, his call for a truly reciprocal conversation among all the cultures that make up humankind, together intimate that the principle of heterogeneity from the age of empire and the principle of democratic self-rule from the age of the nation-state might be joined as the normative basis of a new and higher form of political society.

In 1999, Said floated the idea of a bi-national, one-state solution to the Israel/Palestinian conflict in The New York Times Magazine. There he emphasized pragmatic reasons for such a solution: the economic interdependence of those two populations, their geographical entanglement, the impossibility of a fair division of land and water rights between them and so on. He pressed for a shared political community based on ‘the idea and practice of citizenship’ rather than ethnic or racial identity, with every individual enjoying equal privileges, responsibilities and access to material resources, but also with a right for each group to ‘practice communal life in its own (Jewish or Palestinian) way’ (Said 1999: 39).

In a 2000 interview, ‘My right of return’, Said is more philosophically and imaginatively far-reaching. Here he begins by describing Jews and Palestinians as partners in a tragic Hegelian symphony of opposites that the simple replacement of one people by another would only repeat. ‘I’m totally against eviction’, he declares (Said 2001: 455). ‘The last thing I want to do is to perpetuate this process by which one distortion leads to another’ (ibid.: 451). He endorses instead a reconciliation of the two peoples together with a transcendence of the political conditions that cemented their reciprocal antipathy. The reconciliation requires an actualization of what I am calling the modern national ‘equality principle’: a genuine acknowledgement by Israelis of their past oppression of Palestinians, as well as the practical rectification of economic, political and status inequities between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The transcendence requires an actualization of what I am calling the imperial ‘heterogeneity principle’: a repudiation of partition, separation and the ideal of congruence between a people, a territory and a state. To his Israeli interviewer and audience, Said explains the reasons why Jews should embrace a post-national political society, but his explanations are clearly generalizable. First, the human costs of ethnonationalist politics: ‘Jewish sovereignty as an end in itself seems to me not worth the pain and the waste and the suffering it produced’ (ibid.: 452). Second, the impoverishing effects on individual identity of ethnonationalist politics: ‘I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting … to confine Jews to their Jewishness is problematic … to be Jews is not a life-long project. It’s not enough’ (ibid.: 452). Third, the mutilation of the self’s relation to the rest of humanity required by ethnonationalist politics: ‘The present existence of Israel is based largely upon fending off what’s around and preventing it … from crashing in. That’s an unattractive way to live … The nationalistic option created an anxiety-ridden society … paranoia, militarization, and a rigid mindset. All for what?’ (ibid.: 456).

Said hopes for a ‘gradual transformation of Israel’ (2001: 452) through bi-national co-existence toward ‘a more open and more livable’ life (ibid.: 453) and eventually its integration into a larger and also more open pan-Arab or Mediterranean political structure. Yes, he admits, the Jews would once again be a numerical minority in that structure, but that is after all what they regionally are, and the significance of being a minority would be very different in a more cosmopolitan setting, where so many different minorities would be intermixed. Said harks back to the Ottoman Empire’s millet system as a device for guaranteeing the cultural autonomy and safety of minorities as at least ‘a lot more humane than what we have now’ (ibid.: 455). By according cultural self-rule to collective differences instead of either assimilating or persecuting them on the one side or arming them against one another on the other side, an institutional arrangement patterned after the Ottoman design could avoid the miasma in which minority/majority hostilities and nationalist politics perpetually feed one another.

Said’s last thoughts on the Middle East after the nation-state are groping and unfinished. For Zionists, the biggest question mark he leaves behind is whether his post-national vision is merely Arab nationalism in disguise. Materialists will wonder what objective conditions in the twenty-first century will support his emergent political ideal, and, if the forces of global capital are among them, what their shaping significance on that ideal is likely to be. Historians of empire are bound to object that Ottoman devices for providing cultural autonomy to minorities hinged on hierarchical social relations within each minority and majority, and unequal power between minorities and majority. Feminists and postmodernists will worry whether such devices can be revamped for a democratic age without, at the same time, either trapping individuals within fixed cultural groups or falling prey to the banalities of liberal multiculturalism. Most germane to this essay, however, is a more immediate problem that recalls an old Rousseauist paradox. How can collective identities already congealed and hardened by ethnonationalism and its injuries relax their vigilance enough to consent to the creation of more pluralistic political forms? The politically produced but viscerally felt sense of national identity poses perhaps the greatest obstacle to the liberation of the Jews from the mean shelter into which even Albert Memmi was driven, and so a double obstacle to the liberation of the Palestinians.

One benefit to Said of his own untimely death is that this impasse is not his nut to crack—only ours. But if that nut were somehow miraculously cracked, how might the right of return be reconfigured to allay Memmi’s anxieties while actualizing Said’s principles of equality and heterogeneity? First, Jews and Palestinians persecuted elsewhere could be given the automatic right to immigrate to ‘Palesrael’. Second, all other candidates for immigration could be assessed according to the society’s capacity to absorb them, but always, until the day it no longer seemed to matter, with the aim of maintaining a rough domestic parity between the two populations. Third, Jews and Palestinians who are citizens elsewhere could have the right to return as visitors and contributors to the new society. Fourth, Palesrael could defend the rights of Jews and Palestinians living elsewhere if and when those parties needed such defense. A pipe-dream? Today, very much so, even if one hears wistful voices for variations of it on both sides of the divide. Still, dreams are important for permitting the imagination to venture out beyond the world’s choking confines. This dream lets us see how a state for a pariah group that became a pariah state might recover, not its ‘right to exist’ (for what state can be said to possess that right?), but what was for some its original élan, through creating a political home for a beleaguered people, now humanly enriched and enlarged.