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Temps et espaces en Palestine

Roger Heacock

I. Cadrages

Some Theoretical Considerations

Ronald Grigor Suny

Entrées d'index

Mots clés :

identité, nation

Texte intégral

1Palestine is a denied country, and Palestinians a denied people. Their very existence, place on the globe, history, culture, and right to a homeland remain an open question. Very often in the United States one hears the rhetorical question – in which the answer is implied – “doesn’t Israel have the right to exist? And, therefore, the right to defend itself?”  But the question is almost never asked – at least I have never heard it in my own country – “doesn’t Palestine have a right to exist and Palestinians the right to defend themselves?”

2Where does that right to exist come from? From might? Might is right, say the realists going back to Thucydides. From simple demography? We are here, and we are a majority of the population, so say those democratic and socialist defenders of the right of national self-determination. From having gotten to a piece of the world’s real estate first? So say the primordialist defenders of mythical histories that argue from ancient texts that we were here first and that gives us the right to this land no matter who in the intervening millennia came and went from this territory. Perhaps from the international community? Or from the struggle to make a nation, and by the making of that nation, to force upon the world the demand that they recognize the right of that nation to exist. That powerful claim is the card that stateless peoples have had to play, many successfully, in the last several centuries. Once the discourse of the nation became a principal threat to multinational empires based on conquest, dynasty, and the divine right to rule over inferior peoples, the claim could be made that nations had the right to rule themselves – and in order to do that they needed a place on the earth, a territory of their own, and a state to guard and guarantee their present and future existence.

3Territory, state, and nation, then, are intimately linked in the discourse of the nation, and in the fiercely competitive international environment, a nation would find it hard to exist for very long or very effectively without territory and state. The dispersed Jews of Europe discovered that link between nation, territory, and state with the invention of Zionism, and built their state on land on which for centuries other peoples had lived. In their search for security they reaped permanent war and the steady erosion of their more democratic, socialist, and humanitarian ideals.

4Nations are neither ancient nor permanent. They are the products of the modern age, though often built on older traditions and cultures. Nations are communities of people who identify more closely with one another than with others, who believe they share a culture, and because of that shared culture they have the right to rule themselves, live in security on a specific territory (identified as the homeland), and in the best of situations have a state of their own. This unique link of culture and politics is what makes the modern nation different from earlier political communities that had other forms of justification for government – God willed it or I conquered you or my father ruled and therefore I should as well (divine rule, conquest, dynasty).

5Nations are particular forms ofidentification. Therefore, I should say a few words about identity. Identity is understood here as “a provisional stabilization of a sense of self or group that is formed in actual historical time and space, in evolving economies, polities, and cultures, as a continuous search for some solidity in a constantly shifting world – but without closure, without forever naturalizing or essentializing the provisional identities arrived at” (Suny 1999/2000, p. 144). Yet, at the same time, when people talk about identity their language excludes a sense of historical construction or provisionality and instead almost always accepts the present identity as fixed, singular, bounded, internally harmonious, distinct from others at its boundaries, and marked by historical longevity, if not rooted in nature. In other words, instead of seeing identity as something shifting and situational, people in ordinary language tend to primordialized and essentialized identities.

6This loss of a processual sense of identification taking place over time is particularly acute in the rhetoric about national identity, which has become the universal category for modern political communities marked by a purportedly shared culture. Like other identifications, nations can be thought of as arenas in which people dispute who they are, argue about boundaries, who is in or out of the group, where the “homeland” begins and ends, what the “true” history of the nation is, what is “authentic” about being national and what is to be rejected. Nations are articulated through the stories people tell about themselves. The narrative is most often a tale of origins and continuity, often of sacrifice and martyrdom, but also of glory and heroism (Suny 1999/2000, p. 145; Suny 2001, p. 335-358).

7Where do identifications come from? Identities are generated both internally by actors and externally by elites and states. Post-colonial studies in particular have contributed enormously to our understanding of how mapping, naming, census categories, statistical enumeration, and other practices of the modern state have delineated and fixed the more fluid distinctions generated by people, turning blurry differences into more visible, seemingly unalterable differences (Anderson 1991, p. 163-185, Cohen 1996, Scott 1998).

8More elusive as sources of identification, but perhaps most influential, are the self-generated subjective identifications that individuals make spontaneously and that stem from the most local locations – family relations, birth position in the family, sexual preferences, etc. Here proximity, distance, and length of time of relationship are key influences on stable and lasting associations and networks, whether kinship, friendship, collegial, or national, and have powerful determining effects on identification with groups, location, and nation. Self-identification is seldom a simple rational calculation but is deeply implicated in emotional attachments and subjective preferences.

  • 1  Brubaker and Cooper dispute the analytical validity of the term “identity” and propose substitute (...)

9Finally, identifications are influenced by the discursive context in which people find themselves, the pervasive narratives that surround them, giving shape to their perceptions and understandings of the world. Although identification “invites specification of the agents that do the identifying,” as Brubaker and Cooper put it, “identification does not require a specifiable ‘identifier’; it can be pervasive and influential without being accomplished by discrete, specified persons or institutions. Identification can be carried more or less anonymously by discourses or public narratives”1 (Brubaker and Cooper 2000, p. 16).

10Narrative – the stories we tell about ourselves and others – is central to identity formation, as Margaret R. Somers reminds us:

[I]t is through narrativity that we come to know, understand, and make sense of the social world, and it is through narratives and narrativity that we constitute our social identities… [A]ll of us come to be who we are (however ephemeral, multiple, and changing) by being located or locating ourselves (usually unconsciously) in social narratives rarely of our own making (Somers 1994, p. 606).

11Somers goes on to specify four dimensions of narrativity: ontological, public, conceptual, and metanarrativities. Ontological narratives are about who we are and why we do what we do. Public narratives are those attached to cultural and institutional formations beyond the single individual, to intersubjective networks of institutions. Conceptual narrativity is the concepts and explanations that are constructed by social researchers, such as “society,” “culture,” “structure,” and “agency.” And, finally, metanarratives or master narratives are the grand overriding stories in which we are historically embedded, such as stories of the nation, progress, decadence, or the end of history (Somers 1994, p. 617-620). Identities, then, are always formed within broad discourses, universes of available meanings, and are related to the historic positionings of the subjects involved, which are themselves constituted and given meaning by the identity makers.

12Some theorists are already asking: why bother about identity? Why indulge in so much theorizing about such an abstract and contested term? The payoff of employing the concept of identity is threefold. Sensitivity to the fluidity of identities, as well as the naturalizing tendencies of identity-talk, helps the researcher avoid, first, essentialism and, second, reification. Essentialism may be defined as the attribution of behavior or thinking to the intrinsic, fundamental nature of a person, collectivity, or state. Identity theory proposes an alternative to essentialist models of people or social groups by claiming that rather than having a single, given, relatively stable identity, persons and groups have multiple, fluid, situational identities that are produced in intersubjective understandings. Reification “is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products – such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will. Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between man, the producer, and his products is lost to consciousness. The reified world is…experienced by man as a strange facility, and opus alienum over which he has no control rather than as the opus proprium of his own productive activity” (Berger and Luckman 1966, p. 89). Identity theory instead emphasizes the historical and contextual generation of both categories and their effects. In this approach human agency remains central to the production of identities. Third, identity as a focus of analysis displaces interest as the unmediated causal explanation for action. Instead of appealing to a notion of a universal social agent that acts because of inherent interests in predictable ways in similar circumstances, theories of identity propose that predictability from interest must consider the ways in which individuals or groups of people in similar social positions with similar experiences identify themselves, how stable or unstable that identity is, and how fractures or multiple commitments will affect ideas of interest. This is an important move toward contextualizing, historicizing, and relativizing actions. Interests themselves should be seen as tied to identities – what we think we need is linked to who we think we are – and are themselves affected by historic positions discursively constituted and embedded in narratives.

13Although individual senses of the self may differ radically from one society or culture to another, it is possible to assert that there cannot be a group that does not possess some sense of shared commonality, even if just being in a certain room at ten past twelve, and a sense of difference with others, those in another room or with no room of their own. Cohesion of a group may depend on the particular articulation of the sense of commonality, and here a sense of shared past experience, that is, history, becomes important as a record of what binds the group together and distinguishes it from others.

14Nations are particular forms of collectivity that are constituted by a process of creating histories. Just as there are few groups without a sense of continuity, so there can be no nations without a sense of its own history. History contributes in several significant ways. Like the genealogies of ancient and medieval kings, history provides ancestry that legitimizes present-day loyalties. The art of “seizing and recording one’s own history,” writes Natalie Zemon Davis, not only contributes “a deepened sense of identity” but “an affective-political gain in enablement” (Davis 1994, p. 21). National histories followed religious histories and borrowed modes and modalities from them. Both were written to advocate a particular sense of fidelity; light and dark images of the self and other distanced those within the fold and those outside; a sense of enemies, persecution, sacrifices, martyrdom, heretics, and true believers passed from the lives of the saints and the clerical chronicles to the stories of the nation. The longue durée of the past also gives this particular form of imagined community a potent claim to territory, the “homeland,” which the people constituted as nation argues that it held first. The national history is one of continuity, antiquity of origins, heroism and past greatness, martyrdom and sacrifice, victimization and overcoming of trauma. It is a story of struggle, the empowerment of the people, the realization of the ideals of popular sovereignty. While in some cases national history is seen as development toward realization, in others it is imagined as decline and degeneration away from proper development. In either case an interpretation of history with a proper trajectory is implied.

15Beyond the specific narratives of particular nations is the metanarrative or discourse of the nation, the cluster of ideas and understandings that came to surround the signifier “nation” in modern times (roughly post-1750). This available universe of meanings allowed for the power of nations and nationalism to constitute collective loyalties, legitimize governments, mobilize and inspire people to fight, kill, and die for their country. This cluster of ideas includes the conviction that humanity is naturally divided into separate and distinct nationalities or nations. Members of a nation reach full freedom and fulfillment of their essence by developing their national identity and culture, and their identity with the nation is superior to all other forms of identity – class, gender, individual, familial, tribal, regional, imperial, dynastic, religious, racial, or state patriotic. Though the nation may be divided or gradated along several axes, it is politically and civilly (under the law) made up of equals. All national members share common origins, historical experiences, interests, and culture, which may include language and religion, and have an equal share in the nation. The discourse of the nation both acknowledges that each nation is unique, with its own separate past, present, and destiny, yet recognizes the developmental process that gives every nation the conviction that the nation is always present, though often concealed, to be realized fully over time in a world of states in which the highest form is a world of nation-states. The national may be in people unconsciously and may need to be brought forth or willed into consciousness, but in this discourse the nation is never completely subjective but always has a base in the real world.

16Like other discourses, talk about and everyday embodiments of the nation both constitute the felt presence of the national and hide the fractures, divisions, and relations of power within the nation. But, then, that is why intellectuals and politicians, military bands and postage stamps, have so much work to do. Ultimately more fragile than we usually admit, the nation must constantly be reproduced in thousands of ways until it becomes as ordinary and quotidian as the water in which fish swim. Ultimately, ordinary people must join in that daily plebiscite of which Ernest Renan spoke, or what at times seemed so evident and permanent can give way to more tangible concerns.

17But if the theorists of nationalism are correct when they say that the nation is in a real sense an “imagined community,” why then do people persist to think of it as a hard reality, an ancient, continuous, primordial community that moves through time with its fundamental essence intact. The disjuncture between the constructivist convictions of nationalism theorists and the nationalists’ belief in firm, real, essential characteristics of nations is not easily resolved by a simple exposure of the processes by which national histories and group distinctions are constructed. Primordial identity construction cannot be reduced to a mistake, a self-deception, or false consciousness. Rather theorists need to appreciate the important work that primordialism and essentialism perform.

18Identification with the nation need not entail a move to primordialism, though, I hope to show, there is a selective affinity between nation, essentialism, and primordialism. The nation is an affective community, a community of shared feeling, and of individual emotional attachment to the group, one that has an existence independent of oneself and one’s individual mortality. National identity is an act of subscription to a continuous community with a past and a future, a shared destiny. Yael Tamir, the theorist of liberal nationalism, claims that national membership, “unlike membership in a gender, class, or region, thus enables an individual to find a place not only in the world in which he or she lives, but also in an uninterrupted chain of being. Nationhood promotes fraternity both among fellow members and across generations. It endows human action with meaning that endures over time, thus carrying a promise of immortality” (Tamir 1995, p. 437). When they work, nations must feel like a community with powerful subjective identifications of individuals with the whole. While nations to some extent depend on free individual choice, as Margaret Canovan notes, “that choice is nevertheless experienced as a destiny transcending individuality; it turns political institutions into a kind of extended family inheritance, although the kinship ties in question are highly metaphorical” (Canovan 1996, p. 69). Nation works most powerfully precisely when people are unaware that they have made contingent choices and feel that they are acting in accord with a natural order. Calculation is suppressed and feelings are heightened.

19Like the idea of family, so the nation form provides clear boundaries of a community within which social goods can be properly distributed. In social science the very process of constituting a political community in the form of a nation has been seen as a necessity for democratic politics. Democracies in particular require a clearly defined, bounded population that then has the right to be represented (Rustow 1970, p. 337-363). Nation is a convenient and powerful form of identification that speaks precisely to these conditions. “Democratic discourse,” writes Canovan, “requires not only trust and common sympathies but the capacity to act as a collective people, to undertake commitments and to acquire obligations” (Canovan 1996, p. 44). While nationalism (because of its affiliations with revolution and the Left) was suspect in the minds of many Western policymakers during the first great decolonization after World War II, political analysts were even more troubled by tribalism and social fragmentation than they were with efforts of nationalists to construct new, coherent communities on the model of Western nations. Political integration of localities or tribes into coherent nations was part of the project of modernization, the prerequisite to democratization, lauded by its theorists (Geertz 1963; Apter 1963; Coleman 1958; Bendix 1977).

20As sensible as the fluidity of constructivism is for theorists, in the actual world of group identifications and distinctions, a belief in sharp and relatively fixed distinctions between groups and predictable harmonies and homogeneities within groups gives a person an easy and reliable map of a complex and changing world. This kind of mental map provides a degree of predictability in an insecure world; it allows expectations of comfort with some and danger from others; and it permits different forms of treatment of those one considers like oneself from those who are considered different. In worse cases it licenses treatment of “others” in ways that one would not treat one’s own. As the Armenian case demonstrates, essentialist articulations of identity are more intense paradoxically when identities seem to be threatened. Even though immutable identities should be the least threatened, as if unconvinced by their own rhetoric primordialist nationalists fear the loss of identity and seek actively to intervene to save it. And they attempt to save it precisely by shoring up the internal harmonies within the nation and policing the boundaries of national identity, sharpening the distinctions between those within and those without.

21But the need for meaning, mental maps, or effective boundaries and collective commitments for polities only partially explains the power of the nation form and the turn toward primordialism. National identity, like others, is seldom purely about what is convenient or rational. Group or personal identities may be strategic starting points from which people act but they are also emotionally generated. Identities are most often a complex combination of reason and affect, learning and experience from a variety of sources. Subjectively experienced, they are a starting point for people’s strategic choices. People may act rationally to realize their preferences, but those preferences are intimately tied to the identities that people have constructed or that have been constituted for them.

  • 2  The study of emotions and nationalism is just getting underway. See for example Petersen 2002.

22National identities are saturated with emotions that have been created through teaching, repetition, and daily reproduction until they become common sense. The very rhetoric of nationalism reveals its affective base. Armenians speak constantly of betrayal, either by traitors within (like my ancient namesake Vasak Siuni who “betrayed” the martyr Vartan Mamikonian in 451 C.E.!), or by foreign powers, or by their own, treacherous imperial overlords. Their history is replete with invasions and massacres, of near disappearances, culminating in the Genocide of the early twentieth century. Yet they have survived! These tropes – betrayal, treachery, threats from others, and survival – are embedded in familiar emotions – anxiety, fear, insecurity, and pride. For many post-colonial nations, governments must construct or reconstruct a national narrative that deals with the anxieties of cultural loss, the need for national pride, and the insecurity of a formerly colonized people now free from but in many cases still dependent on their recent colonizers. For Tamir, the need for the nation involves a perception of shared fate that becomes an answer to the neurosis, alienation, and meaninglessness of modern times. Here again is emotion. The dreads of personal oblivion, the need for redemption, salvation, eternity are all answered in the nation.2

23The nation need not have been primordialized historically, and yet over time it was, until primordial ethnonations became the dominant template for nations. If not in the first generation of nation-formation (the new revolutionary nations of France and the Americas), then certainly in the second and subsequent generations, the nation came to represent a primordial community that passes continuously through time. The category “nation,” like those of class and race, acquired its own style of imagination, increasingly over time about deep, essential differences between nations and fixed, continuous cores within them – whether such distinctions or harmonies existed or not. Certain “objective” criteria of nation – language most importantly – provided the clear markers of boundaries, inclusion and exclusion. As Etienne Balibar puts it, “the illusion is twofold. It consists in believing that the generations which succeed one another over centuries on a reasonably stable territory, under a reasonably univocal designation, have handed down to each other an invariant substance. And it consists in believing that the process of development from which we select aspects retrospectively, so as to see ourselves as the culmination of that process, was the only one possible, that is, it represented a destiny” (Balibar 1991, p. 86).

24National identity construction has most powerfully been about a single, unitary identity, not a multiplicity of self-understandings, embedded in a long history and attached to a specific territory. The power of that identity lay within the discourse of the nation, which justified both territorial possession and statehood to those with prior and exclusive claims, based on language, culture, or race. In a world of competitors for territory and political power, primordialism was a practical, even necessary, solution to the difficulty of establishing such prior or exclusive claims. Since prenational ethnic and religious communities do not map neatly with modern nations, and nations themselves are inherently unstable categories, primordialism and essentialism do the hard work of reifying the nation. Identities might be fluid but in the real world of politics the players act as if they are immutable, both for strategic reasons and emotional satisfaction.

25What is not recognized in the rush to nationhood is just how much work by intellectuals, activists, and state administrators goes into the forging of new nations. Nationalists often strive to get history “right.” In their “objectivist” reading of the past – showing the past as “it actually was” they set themselves up as representing the only true account. This pretension to an untroubled authenticity of a single reading is a powerful claim to the legitimacy of the nation and particular claims to territory and statehood. But it does not come without costs. If the nation is real, ancient, and continuous, then in its own view (and in the discourse of the nation more generally), its claims to sovereignty is unique, uncontested, and not to be shared. The road is open to exclusivist, homogeneous nations that in our ethnically mixed, fluid, changing world require desperate policies of deportation and ethnic cleansing to secure. Constructivists propose a more open view of national history in which human actions and interventions have made the world the way it is today. If the lines between peoples are blurred and shifting, if many possible claimants to a particular piece of the world’s real estate are allowed, then we can conceive of political communities in the future that permit cohabitation with shared sovereignties in a “national” space.

26No nation in the modern world can survive without a space of its own, a territory on which to build its state and foster its cultural connectiveness. But the way the nation is imagined has profound consequences for the imagination of the territorial homeland as well. If the homeland is imagined as the exclusive property of one ethnic or religious group, then it necessarily leads to subordination of other groups or their assimilation or their physical elimination from the national territory. It is no accident that ethnic cleansing and/or genocide have been the foundational moments of many modern nation states, among them Australia, the United States, Turkey, Israel, and the list goes on and on. In some parts of the world, like the former Soviet Union, an internationalist empire left in its ashes fifteen independent states, each of them clinging to their own national territories, each defining the state in terms of their own ethnic nation. Not much sharing is going on in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, or many other republics.

27But if the nation is imagined as inclusive, as tolerant of difference – religious and ethnic – then the territory too is open to a diverse population. The form and style of national imagination, the content of the national narrative, is central to whether one can share territory with others. Posing the question that way may seem utopian at the present time, particularly in the Middle East, where borders drawn by imperial powers have divided people into states seeking nations, where the colonizers appear determined to assert their influence long after their empires have fallen, and where the nation-state form has not proven very effective in delivering security and prosperity to most of the peoples of the region. At the moment we seem to be stuck with one people, one nation, one state. Some day, perhaps coming from the cradle of ancient civilizations, there will be new ways to imagine states – states larger and more inclusive than current nation-states. The task of intellectuals and political actors, then, in this time of troubles must be to think creatively how history, identity, and territory might be re-imagined so that nation-form works less to divide us one from another and more toward living together.


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1  Brubaker and Cooper dispute the analytical validity of the term “identity” and propose substitute terms, such as identification, self-understanding, and commonality. They make a persuasive case for use of the term “identification” as an active processual term, but my own use of identity preserves the actual ambiguity of the term “identity” and is directed at investigating the tension between the analytical and practical uses of the term that they articulate so well.

2  The study of emotions and nationalism is just getting underway. See for example Petersen 2002.


Professor of history, University of Michigan. Emeritus professor of history and political Science, University of Chicago.

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