Israel: The Last Ottoman State
University of St Andrews
(Source of titlemap: https://i.redd.it/v2ia4bmgd5k51.png)
Israel’s Uniqueness: Between Central Europe and Palestine
It is common to hear the opinion that Israel is the sole democracy in today’s Middle East. Indeed, since the founding of this polity in 1948, the cycle of parliamentary and presidential elections has never been delayed or breached in Israel, whatever the circumstances. On the contrary, each other country in the region has either been an autocracy (for example, Egypt), absolutist monarchy (for instance, Saudi Arabia), a theocracy (Iran), or a republic where coups d’état and civil wars have repeatedly subverted democracy (for example, Lebanon or Turkey). Perhaps, the Israelis were capable of achieving and maintaining their democracy, due to the fact that most of them either came or stemmed from Europe and the United States, where the system of modern democracy originated. Between the late 19th century and the 1920s this system of governance spread across Central and Eastern Europe, where the majority of the world’s Jews lived then. In the cases of other Middle Eastern states, democracy was either imposed by or adopted from a former colonial power.
Visitors from Central Europe wonder how much Israel resembles their own countries, especially when faced with the oft-repeated insistence that Hebrew be the sole official language of Israel. After the Great War, ethnolinguistic nationalism has become the dominant form of statehood creation, legitimization and maintenance across Central Europe. Most of Israel’s Jews hail from this region, so in more ways than one this ideology underpins an average Israeli’s ‘natural political instinct.’ It provides that the nation should speak and write its own unique language, not shared with any other nation or state. In turn all speakers (speech community) of a language should be housed in their own unshared nation-state. Hence, all Polish-speakers constitute the Polish nation that enjoys its own ethnolinguistic nation-state of Poland, with no place for speakers of other languages, deemed thus to be members of ‘foreign’ nations.
In the dark 20th century, the construction of ethnolinguistically homogenous nation-states in Central Europe required the unprecedented bloodbath of the two world wars that destroyed the region’s polyglot empires and multiethnic polities, as well as numerous ethnic cleansings and genocides for the sake of ‘sorting’ speakers of different languages and ‘fitting’ them to ‘their’ ethnic nation-states. When the dust of this radical socio-political overhaul has settled, it became clear that in this leathal tango of music chairs, no state was left either for Jews or Roma. The latter suffer the situation’s multiple indignities to this day, while the former were de facto expelled from Europe, at the behest of the former imperial powers that gave them a vague promise of a Jewish state in Palestine. Holocaust survivors faced with postwar Europe’s virulent antisemitism, had no choice but to try to make this utopia come true, or perish as a nation.
The Dilemma of Democracy and Ethnolinguistic Nationalism
Fortunately, political, social and economic tribulations of antisemitism suffered in Europe made Israel’s Jews keenly aware that without democracy, the rule of law and civic inclusiveness they would not be able to build a successful modern state. Their political reflex toward ethnolinguistic nationalism, as inherited from Central Europe, has been moderated in Israel by the adoption of the legal system of Britain’s Mandatory Palestine. Under the law, Arabic, English and Hebrew functioned as the official languages of Mandatory Palestine. In Israel English was scrapped in this function, but due to the economic and cultural domination of the Jewish Diaspora in North America, this language de facto remains official, alongside Israel’s de jure official tongues of Hebrew and Arabic.
However, this situation was not to many Israeli Jews’ liking. They wanted Israel to become a straightforward Jewish nation-state, with one language and one nation, like Poland or Hungary in Central Europe. Such Jews are usually labelled as ‘conservatives,’ though ‘ethnolinguistic nationalists’ appears to be a more appropriate sobriquet. In 2009 Benjamin Netanyahu rose to power as Israel’s continually recurring prime minister, still incumbent today. His tenure in office coincides with a similar turn toward religiously underpinned ethnolinguistic nationalism in Central Europe. In 2010 Viktor Orbán gained power in Hungary, and five years later Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland. Both see themselves as ‘defenders’ of ‘Christian-national’ values. Since their ascendance to power, Orbán as Prime Minister has turned Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy,’ while Kaczyński aspires to follow suit as Poland’s de facto ruler, who gives orders to the country’s prime minister and president.
Despite numerous protests in Israel and abroad, in 2018, Netanyahu’s ruling majority in the Knesset forced the adoption of the controversial Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. This act elevated Hebrew to Israel’s sole state language, and demoted Arabic to the status of a language with a special status. The Basic Law is largely symbolic and does not change Israel’s established legal tradition. Yet, the Knesset’s promulgation of this law shows that unless democrats are watchful Israel may follow Central Europe’s path of ethnolinguistic authoritarianism.
During the past seven decades and counting, Israel has been a home to all Israeli citizens, irrespective of language, religion or race (even if at times the authorities de facto treated Israeli citizens of the Jewish faith more preferentially than Israeli citizens who profess Islam or Christianity). In the Ottoman Empire and in today’s Middle East religion (rather than language) has decided about a person’s identity and political loyalties. During the over-half-a-millennium-long Ottoman rule over the Middle East, Balkans and Maghreb, this Islamic Empire’s polyconfessional inhabitants largely lived and prospered in peace. The Pax Ottomanica was steeped in the flexible system millets (ملت), as provided by sharia for dhimmis (ذمي ‘people of the covenant’). In essence, it was a system of non-territorial autonomies for the recognized and accepted ethnoconfessional communities. In practice, ‘Abrahamic monotheists’ of each creed constituted such a millet, be it Christians, Jews or Muslims. In turn, among the Christians, Armenian Monophysites, Catholics, Protestants, or Syriac Christians constituted separate millets in the late Ottoman Empire.
Beginning in 1492, Jews and Muslims were repeatedly expelled from the Iberian kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. They were welcomed to the Islamic Kingdom of Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, where they gave rise to Sephardim, who speak and write their Romance language of Spanyol (or Judeo-Spanish). Sephardic Jews established communities from Morocco to Syria, to Anatolia and across the Balkans. They came in touch with Mizrahim, or ancient Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in what today is Iraq or Syria; and with Romaniotes, that is, ancient Greek-speaking communities of Jews strewn across the Mediterranean littoral, or in present-day Egypt, Greece and Turkey. All of them constituted the Jewish Millet of the Ottoman Empire.
Each Ottoman millet was responsible for organizing its religious life, education, legal system, and most importantly, for gathering taxes for the Ottoman Sultan. Yet, each member of a recognized millet could live anywhere they chose across the Ottoman Empire. In practice they resided in ethnoconfessionally homogenous villages or city quarters, known as mahallas (محلة). Each mahalla was organized around its place of worship, be it a church, mosque or synagogue. The term mahalla survives to this day for designating a city quarter, neighborhood or a part of a montane village in numerous Balkan languages, such as Bosnian, Bulgarian, Greek, Macedonian, Serbian or Turkish. On the other hand, the word millet in today’s Turkish means none other than ‘nation.’
In the course of the 19th century, the rise of nationalism in Europe began chipping at the Ottoman Balkans. The Orthodox Christian nation-states of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria were established between 1804 and 1878. In this process, the previously non-territorial millets became territorialized. In the aforementioned post-Ottoman nation-states in the Balkans, members of other millets than Orthodox Christianity – that is, mainly Muslims and Jews – were massacred, expelled, forced to convert, or made into second class citizens. A ‘proper’ Balkan nation-state was to be ethnoconfessionally homogenous. This novel political principle posed Albanian-speakers with an existential dilemma, because depending on a region they professed either Catholicism, Islam or Orthodox Christianity. At the polyconfessional 1908 conference in Manastir (today’s Bitola in North Macedonia), Albanian leaders decided to replace their multiple religions with their single Albanian language as the basis for the modern Albanian political identity. Four years later, in 1912, their efforts bore fruit, when Albania was proclaimed as an independent nation-state for the non-denominational (or tolerantly polyconfessional) nation of Albanian-speakers.
In this manner Central Europe’s dominant ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism met the post-Ottoman ideology of ethnoconfessional nationalism. Both ideologies interacted in Albania, but eventually the former trumped the latter. Meanwhile, language had been on the rise as a locus of political identity across the Balkan nation-states. The Ottoman Empire was shaken to its core by World War I, which commenced in the Middle East with the 1911 Italian attack on Ottoman Libya and the two Balkan Wars (1913-14). Likewise, this conflict continued for five years longer than the conventional end of the Great War in 1918. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey was founded, in line with the ethnolinguistic model, as a secular nation-state for the nation of Turkish-speakers. Yet, in practice, the main yardstick of membership in this Turkish nation was Islam. Polyglot members of Anatolia’s millet of Islam were welcomed to or even coerced into the Turkish nation, to the exclusion of non-Muslims (that is, Christians and Jews). This undeclared practice of excluding non-Muslims from the Turkish nation was confirmed by the 1915 Genocide of Armenians and Assyrians, and the internationally agreed mutual ethnic cleansing (‘exchange’) of 1923, when Muslims were forced to leave Greece for Turkey, while Orthodox Christians had to abandon Turkey for Greece.
Meanwhile, Western Europe’s imperial powers seized the Ottoman possessions (collectively known as ‘Arabistan’) in the Middle East and North Africa. In some cases the League of Nations made these powers into ‘custodians’ of such territories (known as ‘mandates’), which the European power was obliged to ‘modernize’ and prepare for eventual independence. These territories in the Ottoman south were mostly Arabic-speaking. Some were granted independence in the interwar period, like Egypt (1922) or Iraq (1932), but for most decolonization unfolded rather slowly during the three decades that followed World War II. As previously in the case of Turkey, the millet-based formula of the ethnoconfessional nation of Muslims was combined with the Arabic language, as a bow to ethnolinguistic nationalism. In consequence, numerous Arabic-speaking nation-states were founded, formally numbering 22, which is the current number of the Arab League’s member states.
Like in the Balkans and Turkey, all these nation-states across Arabistan were created for a single millet, in this case the millet of Islam. Muslims, who happened to speak other languages than Arabic had to abandon their own idioms. What followed in the case of non-Muslim millets, was gradual suppression and periodic expulsions. Due to the widespread influence of nazi antisemitic propaganda in the interwar period and during the war, Jews were the first to be targeted by such ethnic (confessional) cleansing measures. The founding of Israel ramped up antisemitic sentiment and acts across the Arab countries, from Morocco to Iraq. During the 1950s and 1960s, practically all the region’s centuries-old Jewish communities were expelled, fled, or Israel evacuated them when a community happened to face the danger of imminent extermination. A similar fate met Christians, though they survive, mainly in Lebanon and Syria, where under France’s mandatory rule millets were incorporated into the system of governance. Despite recent wars in both countries, Christians account for well over a third of Lebanon’s inhabitants, and for almost a tenth of the Syrian population. Rapidly diminishing Christian communities of about 5 percent still linger in Egypt and Iraq.
The tradition of Ottoman tolerance, as symbolized by the millet system, practically disappeared in all post-Ottoman states. Sizeable communities of Muslims and Christians professing a variety of creeds may still brush sides in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Lebanon, or North Macedonia, but no Jewish communities survive in these countries or they are in terminal decline. For better or worse, Israel is the sole post-Ottoman nation-state, where all the main three traditional Ottoman millets continue to co-exist, namely, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Israel, being a Jewish polity, created by and for Jews, unsurprisingly, proponents of the Jewish religion (Judaism) amount to three-quarters of the country’s population. Arabs (Arabic-speakers) constitute a fifth of the Israelis. The vast majority of them profess Islam, but Christians among their ranks add up to 2 percent of Israel’s inhabitants. This percentage may still be higher, if Russian Jews’ non-Jewish spouses are added, because they practice or are culturally attached to Orthodox Christianity.
Furthermore, two thirds of Israelis are actually non-religious, and as many as 9 percent are convinced atheists. This situation is starkly atypical for the Middle East, where close to 90 percent of the inhabitants consider themselves to be religious and atheism is practically not tolerated. For instance, in Saudi Arabia atheists have been officially classified as ‘terrorists’ since 2017. In Turkey, which is considered the region’s most secularized Muslim country, those who do not believe in any deity number not more than 3 percent (though in general secularization continues to grow). Hence, in this respect, Israel appears to be more of a modern Central European state, like the Czech Republic, where only a fifth of the population are religious, while a third do not believe in any deity.
A Really Existing Utopia
Both Central European and Ottoman traditions have been creatively mixed and deployed for the construction, legitimation and maintenance of the utopia that was never to be, or Israel. A fulfilled utopia never lives up to its lofty promise. Critics of Israel are ready to point out that the founding of Israel triggered the 1948 war between Mandatory Palestine’s Arabs and Jews, which then led to the expulsion of four-fifths (0.75 million) of the polity’s Muslims (Arabs). This tragedy of ethnic cleansing that mars the foundation of Israel also brought about the coalescence of the Arabic-speaking nation of Palestinians. The Nakba (النكبة ‘Catastrophe’) constitutes the cornerstone of Palestinian national history. In 2012 the UN partially recognized the State of Palestine as an independent polity.
Yet, on the other hand, one should not remain blind to Israel’s surprising achievements in the field of civic inclusiveness and tolerance. As mentioned above, around 20 percent of the Israelis (that is, Israeli citizens) are Muslims (including Druzes), over 2 percent profess a form of Christianity, and in the Knesset even those Arab (Palestinian) MPs are tolerated who call for the dissolution of Israel. On the contrary, in the State of Palestine, Christians number fewer than 1 per cent of the citizens, no Jews live there, and the sale of land to a Jew is punishable by death, while atheists are persecuted and often sentenced to decade-long terms of imprisonment. In this exclusivist trend, the State of Palestine, unfortunately, follows the sad norm of intolerant monconfessionalism that is rife across all of the Middle East, with the lone exception of Israel.
Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, already in 1948, or in the year when this country was founded. But no Arab state followed suit. Actually, Israel’s Arab neighbors attacked this new state twice, in 1967 and 1973, aiming at destroying Israel, and repeating the Holocaust… Following, Tel Aviv’s unexpected victories in both wars, Egypt and Jordan recognized Israel and established relations with the country in 1979 and 1994, respectively. Following the Oslo Accords of 1993, Israel commenced official relations with the Palestinian Authority. However, Tel Aviv refuses to recognize the State of Palestine, especially after Hamas (حركة المقاومة الاسلامية Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah Islamic Resistance Movement) seized power in Gaza in 2007. In 1988, Hamas adopted the organization’s Charter that calls for the ‘obliteration’ of Israel. The position, though toned down in 2017, remains largely unchanged, in accordance with the stance of this organization’s main funder and international protector, Iran. Although Iran was the second Muslim state to recognize Israel (1950), Tehran changed its position radically in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since this moment the Iranian government has made its best to not utter the name ‘Israel,’ preferring to refer to the country as ‘occupied Palestine.’ At present, Tehran’s position is that Israel must be destroyed. In early 2021 Iran’s parliament even discussed a bill on the plan to destroy Israel within the next 20 years. Just for the record: Israel has never considered, let alone appealed, for destroying a state or nation. That would be unthinkable and unforgiveable in the country founded for Holocaust survivors.
In line with the membership of the Arab League, nowadays there are at least 22 Arab (Arabic-speaking) countries in the world, and at least 57 Muslim states that belong to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Obviously, Israel is not wanted as a member in any of these two organizations. Ironically, though, Israel is more of an Islamic state than Guyana, which is an OIC member; and more of an Arab state than Djibouti, which belongs to the Arab League. Muslims amount to 7 percent of Guyana’s population, while not more than 2 percent of Djiboutians speak Arabic. The Arab League’s member states with their populations that add up to 420 million and the combined territory of over 13 million km² dwarf Israel with the populace of 9 million and the territory of 21,000 km².
Why would the Arab League not wholeheartedly embrace Israel, which actually is a mere speck of Arabistan’s territory (0.1 percent) and population (2 percent). On top of that, Israel cultivates the best traditions of Ottoman and European (Western) tolerance, creatively showing how to modernize and democratize the Middle East. Furthermore, Israel remains a collective remorse for the West that allowed for the Holocaust in wartime Europe and did not secure a state for Jews on this continent, so they had no choice but to establish Israel in the Middle East. Hopefully, this remorse translates into a lasting and powerful moral imperative that shall continue to put a firm curb on self-destructing and other murderous impulses of modernity present both in the West and across the globe.
Perhaps, these blind spots in the Arab and Muslim stereotypical perception of Israel – apart from realpolitik – convinced, in 2020, the four Arab League members Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates to establish relations with Israel. I keep my fingers crossed that it is a good portent for the future: live and let live. There is just one Jewish and truly Ottoman state (with a pinch of Central-European-ness) remaining on the globe. However, the modern world could make with more of such polities, however imperfect, should they display at least some of Israel’s limited achievements in the compartment of multicultural and polyconfessional inclusiveness that are still so surprising in the modern (post-Ottoman) Middle East.
 I thank Konstanty Gebert for his patient explanations and kind advice. Obviously, I am responsible for any remaining infelicities.