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Friday, 7 February 2014

Thinking About National Identity

I just finished reading two books: Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl in the expanded 1990s edition available in Penguin Books; and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in the 1965 edition (with a Postscript) and also easily available in Penguin Books.

" first wish after the war is to become a Dutch citizen. I love the Dutch, I love this country, I love the language and I want to work here. And even if I have to write to the Queen herself, I won't give up until I've reached my goal". Thus Anne Frank in her Diary entry for 11 April 1944.

To say the least, it's an understandable wish for a displaced German Jew living in hiding in Amsterdam. Anne Frank listened to the radio broadcasts of the Queen and members of the Dutch government exiled in London and took them very seriously. By going into exile, the Dutch leadership provided a focus of resistance to German occupation which could be heard and which helped Dutch people identify themselves as opponents both of the Germans and their policies. The Frank family in hiding was sustained by the support of four non-Jewish Dutch citizens.

Later in the Diary, Anne Frank is perturbed by signs of anti-semitism among the Dutch particularly aimed at German Jewish refugees (22 May) and, of course,  it was a Dutch citizen who finally betrayed the Franks' hiding place in August 1944. But even on 22 May she writes, "I love Holland. Once I hoped it would become a fatherland to me, since I had lost my own. And I hope so still!"

Citizenship - central to what we understand by National Identity - is normally acquired by accident of birth, just as it was for Anne Frank born in Frankfurt in 1929. It all depends on geography. At the extreme, national laws could make it the case that anyone born on national territory is automatically a citizen - even the child of a passing  tourist who goes into premature labour in the wrong country! Countries move away from that extreme and lay down citizenship requirements - for example, that the child born on national territory needs to have one or both parents who are already nationals. Conversely, countries recognise as their own the child born in a foreign country to nationals who have gone into labour there.

In one famous instance, that recognition was not available: in Yugoslav law, to become the heir to the throne you had to be born on Yugoslav territory. So in order to secure the right of succession of the baby born in London who became Crown Prince Peter of Yugoslavia, it was necessary for Churchill's war time government to formally cede territory to Yugolsavia, viz, a suite of rooms in Claridge's Hotel, London. Job done, Yugoslavia then ceded the rooms back.

As this example illustrates, the rules can get very complicated but geography remains central. Nine times out of ten, you get your passport from the country where you were born. And your passport is not only what enables you to leave your country and get into another, it is - very traditionally - a guarantee of protection and a return ticket. Get into trouble in a foreign country and you can turn to your consulate. Get kicked out of a foreign country and however much they might wish not to let you and your obnoxious drunken stag party back in, your own country has to take you back (though you might have to give up your political ambitions as the British MP Aidan Burley has had to do).

These banal facts are worth thinking about partly because it was only in the period of Nazi domination in Europe that people found their citizenship routinely stripped from them (leaving them stateless and without protection) or found that their children could no longer benefit from what one might call the Geographical Principle.

Zionism got its biggest boost from this aspect of Nazism. If geography will no longer secure you the ordinary protections of citizenship, then it is necessary to create a new country - Israel - where it is your race or religion or some mixture of them which will do the job instead. For a time, some Zionists felt that this could provide the basis for a working relationship with the Nazis : you don't want Jews in your country any more, OK, then if we have our own country we will offer a home to as many of them as you want to kick out. It was nearly as crude as that. Hannah Arendt fleshes out the details of attempts at rapprochement and accommodation.

But something changes fundamentally at this point. The geographical principle as the basis of citizenship is a very weak principle of  National Identity. It's very clear in the case of my own country. Here, we all hold "United Kingdom" passports but there is not a single person who thinks of themself as "United Kingdomish". Most of us when abroad will answer to being "British" (but not the Northern Irish who aren't) but when at home we are more likely to answer to being English, Welsh and Scots. It depends partly on where we were born, partly on where we live now, partly on the football team we support (there is no United Kingdom football team - a very good thing if you think that there is a United Kingdom entry to the Eurovision song contest).

In contrast to the geographical principle the Zionist principle is excessively strong. Trying to define "Jewishness" runs into the mirror-image of the problems the Nazis faced in trying to concoct some working definition of "Aryan". The very idea has always been under pressure: on the one hand, there are today Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship in virtue of the geographical principle. On the other hand, there are Jews in Israel who don't want to recognise the Jewishness of some of those knocking at the door - and who are, well, different or, simply, black.

The Nazis never got their Judenfrei Reich, though they got close to it. It will be a long time before any European country ventures to restrict citizenship on such tight principles, though some are trying to move in that direction.

Equally, the best hope for peace in the Middle East is not a Two State solution based on tight principles of national identity ( Hebrew speaking / Arabic speaking; Jewish / Muslim; black clothes / white clothes ... you can go on and twist yourself into as many knots as you like). The best hope for peace is a one state solution with citizenship accorded on weak geographical principles but also open to those who love the country, love the languages and who want to work there and are willing to write to anyone who will listen to their case.

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