Politicians are a bit like polliwogs: they hatch in all sorts of marshes, bogs and, er, swamp settings. Each would-be orator emerges as a frog and ribbits to anyone who’ll listen, creating a popularity contest where the loudest and brashest croaker wins. As students, we become political through our studies; by definition, our essays demand that we take a stance on all sorts of topics related to the human social condition. Meanwhile, in the public arena, polys, if we may term politicians suchlike, say the darndest things with serious consequences for social cohesion.
Recently, the Finance Minister of Israel, named Bezalel Smotrich, claimed that Palestinians do not exist. “The Palestinian people are an invention of less than 100 years ago” he claimed (online). Then, with a rhetorical flourish, he spouted the following:
“Is there a Palestinian history or culture? No. There were Arabs in the Middle East who arrived in the Land of Israel at the same time as the Jewish immigration and the beginning of Zionism. After 2,000 years of exile, the people of Israel were returning home, and there were Arabs around [us] who do not like it. So what do they do? They invent a fictitious people in the Land of Israel and claim fictitious rights in the Land of Israel just to fight the Zionist movement.”
If anyone deserves that moniker of Palestinian it’s his own Jewish ancestors who inhabited the area going back to the 13th Century, Smotrich claims. Them’s fighting words, of course, and as we all know, the sad and fractured realities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation is about as violent and perpetual as any dispute in our times. Yet, despite the calendar year, we can see with our social science education (if that happens to be our discipline) how un-modern such a tribal dispute really is and how early sociological thinkers might have addressed it. Like it or not, we all inhabit a global and integrated world where ethnicity works more as a marketing tool than as a basis for sound economic relations.
Mostrich’s unconventional and tactless statements, like all rhetoric, have a degree of truth in them and certainly remind us of the relative fluidity of nations and peoples over time. As with pre-colonial Canada, people inhabited different regions and locales over time based on environmental and economic realities. Wars shifted locations of Haida and Salish villages, for instance. And, as I was reminded by the words of an elder, the white man did not invent the rush to riches. Yet, something deeper may be at work with Smotrich’s invective other than a desire to rewrite history. He seems to be regressing to a version of identity that precedes our era where we are each, as Marx famously claimed, essentially identified by our class position in relation to capitalist production. Like aged newsprint, our prior identities by necessity recede in importance as raw power asserts itself in class relations.
Investigating why his claims are so inciteful can set our academic gears in motion. In the first place, when the humous hits the fan we might note that yes indeed both Israeli and Palestinian cultures share many of the same food and all of the same geographic zone. Scientifically, they have nothing but commonalities even as their birthrate reminds us that old markers of affluence and poverty are reflected in reproductive realities. Historically, too, these two peoples inhabit modern times that, as we know, essentially began with the Industrial Revolution and the commensurate shift in lifestyle from plough to paycheck. Consensus in social science classrooms (virtual or otherwise) is that societies, regardless of ethnicity, become different beasts when factories replace farms. So there’s fertile cultural ground in that people in any given area can work together in a modern industrial manner; this is how modern nation states emerge. The question remains at square one of how to square the circle of subjective ethnic differences so key to personal identities and used to justify everything from land claims to voting rights. If any approach to the seemingly-intractable problem of Israel and Palestine (if there wasn’t always a Palestinian nation per se there certainly is one in present day) is to gain traction, it needs to uncover the fissures that have so divided these seemingly-disparate peoples.
Enter Durkheim (1858-1917): Founding Investigator of the Causes of Social Dysfunction
The founding sociologist Emile Durkheim knew well that to explain modern social conflict would require a diagnosis of conditions specific to modernism. To begin with, conditions of modernity meant that old stable bonds of tradition were untenable – people had to be “integrated” in new ways so as to overcome their tendency towards a “chronic mood of exasperation and discontent” (334). As public life replaced private relations, the “moral density” of society changed and required larger explanations for why citizens ought to get along (336). It’d seem that the conflicting people don’t see, or choose not to pay mind, to their common economic substrate. Anomie, Durkheim’s key term for normlessness, would lead to suicide and alienation if people didn’t properly identify with their culture in modern terms. In Israel and Palestine, it is that people so deeply identify with their ethnicity that they cannot get along in a modern sense. Durkheim’s prescription applies here: from seeing a “harmony of interests” there will prevail “a uniform conscience”. Finally, by seeing economic interests in common and the need for a peaceful setting if prosperity is to ensue, a “feeling of human sympathy” will emerge as common humanity prevails. Prosperity, Durkheim implies, can provide peace because those who succeed have a vested interest in protecting and improving their lot. Sounds doable, right? Now if only identities that occur outside of modern economic relations could be reigned in.
Regrettably, we live in times where cultural identities are actually encouraged more than ever despite their consequences for disorder and disagreement. By sharing a country, we all share a common experience and, theoretically, we ought to all accept one another as humans on this basis. To prioritize this shared life over and against our private sense of culture would seem crucial to the maintenance of a cohesive and peaceful culture.
Bringing this home, for his part, Justin Trudeau made contradictory claims about a universal human connection as the essence of Canada: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values – openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice” (online). Durkheim would have liked the last part but not the first, one suspects. Centrifugal, rather than centripetal, forces might seem to be our Prime Minister’s essential driving force for Canada’s future.
This is a negative and anti-modern idea, Durkheim suggests, so if we’re students in the social sciences we’re left to ponder whether the 21st Century is fundamentally different than the 19th Century in terms of society and social peace. Identities and ethnicities here appear through a distinctly academic lens as something to interrogate with critical thinking rather than accept at face value. And thus, the sociological imagination progresses where (as C. Wright Mills famously asserted) we learn to accommodate our private facts and troubles within the context of larger, macro-level, public issues and challenges. Just as the polis in ancient Greece was the sum of all the people, so too do we each decide for ourselves what sort of polytical animal we wish to be, and which beliefs are to be our frog Princes and Princesses.