“Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel” -A Conversation with Nadav Shelef

Nadav Shelef, the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Assistant Professor of Israel Studies and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, presented remarks on his latest book, “Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel 1925-2005.”


“Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel” -A Conversation with Nadav Shelef

On April 28, 2011, the Project on Middle East Political Science hosted Nadav G. Shelef, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, to discuss his new book, Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Religion and National Identity in Israel, 1925-2005. Shira Robinson, Assistant Professor of History and International Affairs, moderated the event.

In his opening remarks, Shelef framed the parameters of the discussion by saying, “when I talk about changes in nationalism, I’m especially concerned with the ways in which the answers to very basic questions change over time. These are questions that every nationalist movement has to answer: where is out homeland? Who is part of our political community? What ought we to be doing with our time? And the answers to these questions matter because they structure the rest of the political game, not just in Israel, but in most societies around the world. These are foundational questions.” Although Shelef addresses all three questions in his book, only the first question of territorial nationalism was addressed during his lecture.

While scholars have observed changes in the conceptions and articulations of territorial nationalism, the question of how these changes occur has been generally ignored. Essentially, there are two existing theories of how changes in nationalist conceptions occur. The first, “rational adaptation”, argues that nationalist ideas change in response to events that make prior conceptions obsolete, or require new interpretations. For example, after World War I when the British and French governments established the borders of Palestine, Zionist leaders were forced to adapt their territorial claims to the new status quo. The second theory argues that changes to the behavior of political leadership accounts for changes in nationalist ideas. For example, leaders may alter their territorial claims to achieve idiosyncratic political or economic objectives.

While neither of these two approaches is entirely inaccurate, they do not offer a complete illustration of how changes in the conceptions of nationalism occur. Shelef offers an alternative approach: “unintentional change, driven by an evolutionary dynamic”. Just as biological evolution is a process of variation among units, competition between them, and retention of dominant traits, the evolution of nationalism follows a similar pattern. “Variation, competition, and retention characterize nationalism around the globe. To take the Israeli example, the various movements that eventually conglomerated under the label ‘Zionism’, often had radically different answers to those foundational question—hence variation. The movements are articulating different answers to these questions—competition…And while the nationalist idea endures, it changes over time”.

One of the main ways in which conceptions of nationalism change occur when nationalist leaders try to solve specific political problems by making tactical alliances with their competitors, which require them to change their own definition of nationalism. If these short-term alliances are successful in achieving the objectives of the participants, it becomes difficult to revert back to their prior conceptions of nationalism. This implies that small, incremental changes can eventually result in dramatic changes to nationalist ideas.

Shelef then outlined how changes to the ‘map-images’ of the land of Israel changed among Labor Zionist, Religious Zionist, and Revisionist Zionist movements. These changes were not the result of rational adaptions to changing circumstances, nor were they the result of the idiosyncratic agendas of nationalist leaders. Instead, these changes resulted from cumulative effect of small, tactical political changes over time.

The status of the West Bank remains a point of contention among Zionist movements. Religious Zionists claim the West Bank is part of Israel; Labor Zionists have a more complicated position, but seem to be essentially in favor of a partition agreement with the Palestinians; likewise, the Revisionist Zionism position is complex, but generally supportive of partition due to security concerns. However, these security concerns about the borders of the West Bank are not related to the state’s security—as territorial claims have been in the past—but are a matter of individual security in light of terrorist bombings and the Palestinian intifada’s; hence the construction of a separation wall in the West Bank in 2002.

While this evolutionary model of nationalism does not explain all such changes, it is an approach that adds to a more complete understanding of how nationalist movements change over time. The implications of this model for conflict resolution are that it demonstrates how conceptions of ‘homeland’ are fluid. While the territorial claims of Israelis or Palestinians may appear static, or that a resolution to the conflict is impossible, Shelef illustrates that these assumptions are not true. As political dynamics and debates within Israel and the Palestinian National Authority evolve, so too will their territorial claims and nationalist conceptions. However, Shelef also cautions that this process of evolutionary change can take generations.

In the Q&A period, Shelef was asked how to determine whether nationalist changes are real and internalized among their supporters, and not just public statements that are subsequently disregarded. He responded that, “you compare what they say to the outside world and what they say internally [to their supporters]. I looked in their children’s instructional materials. Presumably these ideologues are also parents whose kids are in the youth movements, and they want to teach their kids the right way about the world. They might be lying to their kids—teaching them something they don’t really believe in, but it’s relatively unlikely…Once changes reach the instructional materials of these kids, I’m relatively more confident that [conceptions of nationalism] are well entrenched.”