I’ve been thinking of how the late English-born historian, Tony Judt, would have taken this week’s Scottish referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The renowned New York University scholar died tragically of ALS in 2010. In a famous article in the New York Review of Books (“Israel: The Alternative,” Oct. 23, 2003) this one-time Zionist youth movement leader described Israel as an “ethno-religious” state that’s “an anachronism.” He indicated a preference for one bi-national state over the two-state solution favored by our dovish Zionist camp. (To be fair, PPI’s Zionist lineage has early roots in the pre-1948 Hashomer Hatzair movement that also favored bi-nationalism, but in a different era; after more than 66 years of the ongoing bitterness of this conflict, it’s hard to envision such an arrangement as a peaceful solution for our time.) The NYRB article instantly transformed a mainstream progressive into a hero of radical opponents of Israel.
Judt’s scholarship and the positions he championed generally favored the pan-national project of the European Union and the moderate left political camp of social democracy. Yet nationalism and even “ethno-religious” nationalism (as he put it) have been on the rise since the disintegration of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia over 20 years ago — not to mention the violent (nearly genocidal) splintering of Sudan, and the ethno-religious divisions shattering Syria and Iraq at this very moment. It would surely have been a bitter pill for this liberal internationalist, that his native United Kingdom has come so close to disunion, with the secession of Catalonia from Spain, and the dissolution of Belgium between Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons still very possible elsewhere in Europe.
I don’t want to skewer a profound thinker whose writings in The New Republic I had genuinely enjoyed for almost 20 years, before he blew his bridges with TNR with that NYRB piece. But there’s a natural connection to Judt in today’s headlines because it’s but more evidence that the post-Soviet world is not turning away from nationalism.
Still, Scottish nationalism seems to be a different animal from what has arisen elsewhere, and specifically different from what has happened in Israel in the wake of the Intifada and ongoing conflicts with Hezbollah and Hamas since. The Scottish variety is left-wing and seemingly gentle in its nature; it doesn’t appear to be anti-anybody, but favors a strengthened social democracy in Scotland, and abhors the rightward swings in its southern neighbor and senior partner in the UK, since the rise of Maggie Thatcher over 30 years ago.
Most Israelis emerged from the Second Intifada and the Hamas takeover in Gaza with their faith shaken in successfully negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians and deeply suspicious of the loyalty of Arab citizens of Israel. This right-wing manifestation faintly echoes the much uglier ethno-religious strife ripping apart most of Israel’s near neighbors. The contrast between Scottish nationalism and what besets today’s Middle East underscores the very rough neighborhood in which Israel resides.
Postscript: If we can imagine some immortal essence of Tony Judt– say his soul– I’m guessing that it would feel relief at the more than 10-percentage point victory of the “No” camp against independence. I’m pleased with this outcome as well. Scottish independence would have been compelling if there were oppression or discrimination against Scots within the UK. Yet, despite its much smaller population, Scotland has prospered in a full partnership with England. For example, five British prime ministers were born in Scotland (including Arthur Balfour, the author of a document we know something about) and two others were of Scottish ancestry; I knew that David Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, is Scottish, but was unaware until the other day that Tony Blair is also Scottish-born.
Contrast Scotland’s happy circumstance with that of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who are dominated by another country — in different ways depending upon where they live. These are excellent grounds for separation.