(September 19, 2014 / JNS)
I will confess that, over the last week, I felt more anxious than I’d anticipated about the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum. In case it’s not clear why, I’m a British citizen who has lived in the United States for the past decade. Over that period, as with many arrivals to these shores, my attention has been consumed far more by domestic issues here, just as my concern with the finer details of politics in my native land has faded. Yet the spectacle of Scots voting on whether to leave the United Kingdom stirred something in me. I couldn’t observe it with the same dispassionate mindset that I might bring to a similar referendum in say, Quebec, or in the Catalan or Basque regions of Spain, and I found myself spending more and more time reading and worrying about it.
That, I suppose, is what happens when identity meets politics—one’s judgements become less clinical and more emotional. I became impatient with the Scottish nationalist assertion that independence was justified because a majority of Scots didn’t vote for the current Conservative-led coalition government, and the related (not unjustified) complaint that London’s politicians were ignoring Scotland’s needs. After all, large parts of England —the country where I grew up—as well as Wales and Northern Ireland could say much the same, and they weren’t agitating to dismantle the 307-year-old union.
Similarly, when I learned that the (just now resigned) Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond had rounded on 2014 as the year for the referendum on the grounds that it marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn—when the forces of the Scottish King Robert the Bruce vanquished the English army of King Edward II—I experienced a spark of anger. That anger was compounded by the sight of pro-independence campaigners mocking political leaders campaigning for a “no” vote as “our imperial masters.” I thought to myself, “The Scots haven’t even thought through key practical consequences of independence, like which currency to use or the prospects for European Union membership, and here they are summoning the spirit of a medieval military skirmish.”
On the day of the referendum, though, it was clear that practical considerations were of greater importance in deciding which way to vote than any nationalist impulses. The Scots opted, by a clear majority of 55 percent, against independence, and the union was saved. That doesn’t mean all the underlying questions around the referendum have been resolved—a fundamental transformation of how power is distributed among the nations and regions of Britain will surely be forthcoming—but the United Kingdom as a political unit will survive.
When I heard the result, I was flooded with relief. Again, those emotions are intimately connected to identity. For immigrant communities in the U.K., Jews among them, the idea of “Britishness” always seemed more expansive and generous than “Englishness” and “Scottishness.” The two latter categories are tied up with notions of ethnicity and belonging to the land, whereas the former is more civic in orientation, implying that one’s ethnic background or religious beliefs should not be a barrier to participating fully in national life. I therefore found myself pleased, on Friday morning, as both a citizen of the U.K. and as a member of its Jewish community.
Let’s face it: Jews in Europe have rarely thrived under nationalist leaders. In the last century, nationalists across the continent reminded us constantly that we were an alien presence that didn’t belong. In this one, there’s been a shift in that narrative. The left-wing populism that underlies the nationalist movement in Scotland and elsewhere in western Europe is distinctly unfriendly to Israel, seeing the Jewish state as an outpost of the same “imperial” system that they themselves are fighting against. That was why Alex Salmond, while advocating for an independent Scotland, still found the time to compare Israel to the genocidal thugs of the so-called “Islamic State,” and to call for an arms embargo against Israel.
Should we conclude from this that nationalism is inevitably inconsistent and hypocritical, and that we should therefore dispense with all of its expressions, including Zionism? The answer, to my mind, is a resounding no. Nationalisms are formed in response to the surrounding conditions that nurture them. For the Jews of Europe, Zionism was a means to ensure survival in the physical sense of that word. For the Jews of Israel, Zionism reinforces the sense of a common destiny, of flourishing as an independent society even as too many of their neighbors question their right to be there in the first place. However disadvantaged Scotland has become in the decades since Margaret Thatcher’s government was in power, no one has ever challenged the existence of a country called Scotland. Mercifully, the Scots have never experienced the sheer barbarism of a modern-day genocide.
Zionism, moreover, was always a practical, outward looking movement. Its leaders negotiated with international leaders as varied as the Ottoman Sultan and the British prime minister. It aspired to “normalize” the Jews as part of the community of nation-states, rather than endlessly dwelling on past centuries of Jewish victimhood. It envisaged close cooperation, rather than conflict, with the neighbors of an eventual Jewish state.
What can we learn from this? Simply, that tensions between political identity and political arrangements are not pre-ordained. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give it its full name, is a fundamentally decent, civilized idea that demonstrates how different nations and communities can live together and share sovereignty. Many Israelis have wished for a similar system in the Middle East, in which they would participate—fully and securely—in some sort of regional federation with economic and political benefits for all members. As of now, though, there is precious little sign of such an entity emerging.
Perhaps, then, the slogan of the “No” campaign in Scotland—“Better Together”—carries an important message for the Middle East. We are better together when we participate together as sovereign equals, instead of conferring greater rights on one particular nation on the basis of a highly dubious reading of history.
Of course, Israel and its neighbors are arguably further from that goal now than at any other time—but it’s precisely at desperate moments like these that a grand vision is needed for what a sustainable peace might look like. Hence, the Scottish independence referendum may yet have a positive impact on the wider world. Just not in the manner that the nationalists intended.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.