Many years ago, when my son was still in grade school, I received a phone call from his “director of diversity,” asking if I could please loan the school a Palestinian flag, as they were putting on a display of all the countries represented by the student body. They knew I was Palestinian because I served on the school’s diversity committee, and had given a couple of talks about Palestine to the students at assembly.
I told the school I very much appreciated their recognizing Palestine, but that I did not have a flag to loan them. Later that evening, I had a conversation with my son about why I did not own a Palestinian flag, explaining that flags represent nationalism to me, and that my own activism stems from an impulse towards justice, and has nothing to do with patriotism.
I recall this story in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of normalization between the UAE and Israel–something Donald Trump is taking credit for, even though the relationship between the two countries has been vigorous for many years now. The reaction in the Arab world is that this demonstrates the failure of “Arab nationalism,” which is understood to be supportive of Palestine, and opposed to Zionism. Palestinians are particularly offended by it, as they had long urged Arab countries not to normalize with Israel. Noura Erakat, for example, tweeted that while she is not surprised by the announcement, she remains disappointed at “the failure of Arab nationalism.” I highly respect Erakat, and my disagreement with her here is not personal, indeed, it is one I have had with many Palestinian activists, who bristle at my questioning any analysis grounded in nationalist aspirations.
“Nationalism” is, by definition, an imaginary and exclusionary ideology. Benedict Anderson called nation-states “imaginary communities,” where all citizen residents of a country “imagine” that they have a cohesive culture in common. Looking at any country today, we immediately see how this is not the case: what “cohesive culture” is there in the USA, where neo-Nazis, Blacks, Arab Americans, and members of the many tribes indigenous to this land carry the same passport, but experience their country in entirely different ways?
The same is true about most Arab countries, where diverse communities living widely different lifestyles cohabitate within the same borders, most frequently with unequal political and civil rights.
Nationalism is also exclusionary because it hinges on the existence of boundaries that keep others out, for the sake of national cohesiveness. But these boundaries have always been porous, and are becoming more permeable by the day, in our era of globalization, diasporas, and mass migrations. And so a country like Lebanon, which prides itself on the diversity of its own people, but also has the world’s highest ratio of refugees and non-nationals to Lebanese citizens, did not initially name Palestinians, Syrians, and domestic workers from South Asia in the list of victims of the recent explosion. The parents of a 20-year old casualty of the explosion had a difficult time burying her, because she is Syrian.
To speak of the failure of “Arab nationalism” reveals a belief in something that never really existed, despite some historic attempts at forging it. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser comes to mind, of course, but also, Syria’s Hafez el Assad and his son Bashar…
Today, as indeed it has been for centuries, all solidarity, all joint struggle, are along the lines of causes, struggles, beliefs, etc. These cross national boundaries, as evidenced in recent years by the platforms of Blacks for Palestine, and the Red Nation, which recognize the real connections between people oppressed by the same systems (racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and yes, nationalism), so as to make “the world,” and societies generally, rather than any one country, a better place.
But this is not new. Last century’s struggles to overthrow European colonialism in various African countries were fully transnational, as fighters crossed national boundaries to join in the struggle against another country’s colonizer. National independence was certainly the goal, but the fighters who risked their lives for someone else’s freedom were motivated by anti-colonialism, not nationalism.
Similarly, the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa hinged on global—that is, transnational—solidarity, grounded in a desire to end injustice. And today’s struggle to end apartheid in historic Palestine similarly depends on the activism of allies outside of the country—allies who are not acting out of a nationalist impulse. The intersectional struggle we celebrate today is very articulate in arguing that our connections transcend national boundaries, that the oppressed, criminalized, and occupied people in Gaza and Ferguson share similar experiences that bind them more intimately than, say, US citizenship binds Blacks to this supposed land of opportunity and meritocracy.
Nobody is really surprised at yesterday’s announcement of the UAE’s normalizing with Israel, and many expect more such agreements to be announced in the coming months, between Arab leaders and Israel. Most progressives today acknowledge we live in a post-nationalist world. It is time we also abandon nationalism, with its failed promises and flawed premises.