Borders and Nations
“When there is a great war in the world, the energy of the messiah awakes.” So wrote Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook—the mystic theologian of religious Zionism—sometime in the late summer or autumn of 1914, as the unprecedented conflagration of World War I began.
Tyrants would be “pruned” away from the world, which would become “more fragrant,” he wrote. “And the greater the war, in quantity and quality, the greater the anticipation of messianic steps it brings.”
The old order was collapsing and, in the new one to come, Kook predicted, blessings would flow to the whole world as the Jews rebuilt a life as a nation in the Land of Israel.
Kook was hardly alone in his sanguine view of the war. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, loyal to both Zionism and Germany, saw Germans going off to fight as being uplifted by the spirit of self-sacrifice for the nation. At the same time, he wrote, Jews who were joining the armies on all sides of the conflict were being transformed as a nation from a people who “suffer passively” and “forever ponder” into a people who act.
The two Jewish thinkers expressed common elements of optimism, in Europe and beyond, at the start of the war: upbeat expectations of the end of the old international order and of tyrants, and faith that individuals would give their lives meaning through dedication to their nation.
Such hopes were particularly acute among groups that sought liberation as nations. Most of a great swath of territory, from the Baltic Sea to the Indian Ocean, was ruled by the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Within their political borders lived a multitude of nationalities—Poles, Croatians, Kurds, Arabs, Czechs, Jews and more. In each ethnic nationality, to one extent or another, the idea had spread that a person should identify most strongly with his or her nation—defined by a shared history, language, territory and sometimes a shared religion—and that a nation must have political independence. Zionism was just one such movement for national self-determination, a bit quirky because most Jews did not live in their homeland. Many nationalists asserted, as Kook did, that the liberation of their particular nation was essential for the well-being of the world as a whole.
Seeing the war as a long-awaited opportunity was also common. Czech nationalists initially hoped they could achieve autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire; their expectations rose later in the war. Already at the outset, Polish nationalists hoped the war would enable reestablishment of an independent Poland.
As the conflict stretched on, as soldiers died in vast numbers, the romance of patriotic self-sacrifice faded into horror. The world was not more fragrant in November 1918.
Yet empires did collapse. New states gained independence. New borders were drawn in Europe and in the Middle East. Remarkably, the post-World War I borders in the Mideast have remained nearly unchanged. Nearly a century later, that map may be on the edge of obsolesence.
The Great War lasted four years only when viewed from the West. After November 1918, fighting continued in the East between newly independent Poland and Russia, between Greece and Turkey, and elsewhere.
By 1922, though, the embers of war had nearly burned out, and peace agreements established the new map. In central Europe, political cartography was guided partly by the ancient tradition of exacting a price from the losing side. But there were also revolutionary principles, as articulated in United States President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points: Ethnic nationalities should have an independent place among the nations and boundaries should be drawn along “clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” In short, nation-states should replace multinational empires. Closely related nationalities could share a state, though. So Poland regained independence. Czechoslovakia was born. Serbia became the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later renamed Yugoslavia as the king tried to merge the separate Slavic nationalities into one.
The problem, as Baghdad-born British Jewish historian Elie Kadouri later wrote, was that there were not “recognizable lines of nationality.” Populations were mixed; nationalities overlapped. For example, only two-thirds of Poland after World War I was ethnically Polish. An eighth was Ukrainian. A tenth was Jewish and considered a separate nationality. Recklessly, the majority nationality in each new state tended to favor its own members and impose its culture on the minorities.
Disputes over minorities and borders roiled Central Europe till the next, even worse, conflagration—World War II. Afterward, new borders were drawn. Communism’s collapse brought the unraveling of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as nationalities again demanded self-determination. For a century, shared nationality was expected to act as the glue that holds a country together. Repeatedly, national claims have torn countries apart. A cartographer’s work has never finished in Europe.
The contrast with the Middle East is remarkable. The former Ottoman lands were divided mainly according to agreements between the victorious Western powers. France took the Levant’s northern part. Britain took a swath stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Each subdivided the territory. The League of Nations then ratified the divisions by granting mandates, which meant the two powers would rule the countries they had created but eventually allow them independence.
In drawing borders, the powers paid passing attention to “recognized lines of nationality” or to the overlapping territories inhabited by religious communities, the other critical element of identity among the residents of the new countries. The British created Iraq, put a Sunni Arab prince on its throne and stamped out a rebellion by the Shi’ite majority. Northern Iraq was home to Kurds, a non-Arab nationality that never got a nation-state. What became the country called Transjordan was the difficult-to-govern land between Iraq and the Jordan River where the British installed another Arab prince as their proxy.
Most of the land assigned to France became Syria. The French separated off the heavily Christian canton of Lebanon, but then added neighboring Sunni and Shi’ite areas to it, creating a country with only a slight Christian majority. They initially divided the rest of Syria into three entities—one Sunni, one for members of the Alawite sect of Islam and one for the Druze sect. Under Sunni pressure, though, the French created united Syria, explains Joshua Teitelbaum of the Begin–Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
The most geographically logical new entity was Palestine, bound by the Jordan and the Mediterranean. The British made a commitment to self-determination, to the Jews. That ignited the opposition of the Arab majority. After 30 years of zigzagging policy, Britain turned the problem over to the United Nations, which decided to solve the quandary of self-determination by a further division into Jewish and Arab states. The partition lines, in theory, and the 1949 armistice lines between Israel and its neighbors, in practice, became the major amendment to the post-Great War borders.
So how did countries so poorly designed, especially Syria and Iraq, stay intact? At first, the colonial powers were responsible. After the British and French left, explains Teitelbaum, the military took power in both countries and created police states that suppressed dissent. In Iraq, the Sunni minority remained in power. In Syria, which has a Sunni majority, the Alawite minority gained control. Both brutally suppressed revolts. The empire was an old memory, but tyrants were alive and well.
The knockout blow to the unified state in Iraq, of course, was the American invasion in 2003. Syria held together until the uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011. What was happening elsewhere, communicated through satellite television and the Internet, provided an example for Syrians. This time, the regime’s attempt to suppress dissent set off full-scale civil war. “When the state loses its grip,” Teitelbaum says, “people revert to their primordial frameworks of loyalty”—ethnic, religious and tribal.
By now, the borders of Iraq and Syria on the map only delineate the territory within which multisided wars are taking place. And even in that sense, the borders are fading. Fighting spills from Syria into Lebanon. The recent conquests by the Islamic State rebels give them control of territory on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Right now the odds seem low that either Syria or Iraq will be put back together as unified states. But will new borders be drawn—delineating, for example, the new state of Kurdistan in what was northern Iraq? Professor David Newman of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, a geopolitics scholar and expert on borders, is doubtful. The United Nations would recognize breakaway states, he suggests, only “if they had support from the surrounding countries.” That is unlikely, he says, because neighboring states would fear a “domino effect” of disintegration.
Teitelbaum, however, argues that the international community and the Arab world “are not best served” by trying to keep Iraq or Syria united. In the long run, division into smaller and more homogeneous states will be more likely to bring stability—as has finally been the case in the Balkans.
What does this mean for Israel? On the one hand, the regional security risks have increased. “It’s pretty obvious that this makes Israel wary of any kind of concessions…especially [under] this government,” Teitelbaum says. On the other hand, he indicates, the same lesson about separation as a path to stability applies to Israel and the West Bank.
The challenge for Israel, in other words, is to find a way to leave the West Bank while ensuring Israel’s own security. To that we should add: The bad example of how European nation-states so often treated national minorities shows that Israel’s internal stability depends on ensuring the full rights of its own Arab minority, including the right to maintain its own culture.
The Great War opened the path for Jews, like many other national groups, to create their own state. It did not provide any easy answers about how to make a nation-state stable and successful. It did not bring the messiah. We still have to solve the problems on our own.
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