Gentrification and Nationalism

In the Feudal system that succeeded the old Roman empire, owning land predominantly meant holding the right to tax the people who lived on that land. One could in principle do other things to those people (if you can't credibly threaten to destroy or expel them, it's hard to collect taxes), but for the most part, taxes and labor levies were the best use feudal lords knew how to or cared to make of their lands. There were some limitations and exceptions, determined by a combination of custom, law, and explicit contracts. Peasants farmed to survive, and often improved the land they lived on because of a customary expectation that they'd get to benefit from the improvements.

The bourgeois revolution of the 17th century, pioneered by the Dutch Calvinists, replaced the old feudal property system with one oriented around owner-operators, whose clear title to the land they interacted with meant that they could more profitably improve it, and borrow against their assets to finance such improvements. This led to a productivity advantage for areas that operated on the new rules.

Theodore Herzl is widely regarded as the founder of modern Zionism. His substantive proposal was for Jews to buy cheap land in Palestine from people living under Ottoman rule, improve it, and live in the newly valuable land. This was expected to be a sustainable trade in part because wealthy Ottoman landholders were in practice operating according to older, feudal customs, collecting rent from peasant tenants. Herzl's Ashkenazi Jews, well positioned to convert this land to a bourgeois system, could capture more economic value than they paid the land's prior owners.

These trades were mutually beneficial among the explicit parties to the transaction, but since peasants who were thereby forced off the land frequently had no legal claim to it under Ottoman law, they were generally not compensated for their loss. This sort of change in property regime is similar to Britain's earlier experience with the Enclosure Acts, and created similar sorts of social dysfunction. It is also similar to smaller-scale processes of displacement called "gentrification," in which people with access to new higher-wage jobs in an area - or more generally, people with a relation to the state that allows them to capture more of the value created by activities they are involved in - rent or buy homes that used to be occupied by people with lower incomes, thus driving up home rents and forcing the old tenants in an area to move elsewhere. The situation is also similar to cases where leveraged buyouts allowed outside investors to purchase companies, and increase shareholder profits by breaking promises made by management to employees.

In all these cases, part of the profit of the trade comes from exploiting the difference between the older customary mode of cooperation, and the explicit rights recognized by the central enforcing authority.

Whether the people thus disenfranchised were defenseless because they had been operating according to higher-trust assumptions, or whether they had simply accepted a bad deal because they didn't have the power to negotiate a better one with their oppressors, it is reasonable for such people to interpret their displacement in terms of conflict rather than economics. If the trade is genuinely one that increases total value, it ought to be possible to compensate the losers adequately for their loss, and not to do so constitutes a sort of aggression, even if lawful. And if the trade cannot be structured in a way that leaves everyone better off, then it is simply a transfer of wealth from some people to others, and thus zero-sum.

The gentrification story is incomplete; it cannot explain why Europe's Jews were the ones executing this trade - and as an explicitly collective enterprise. This happened in part because bourgeois capitalist revolution coexisted with zero-sum territorial competition among emerging European states.

The process of state formation involved eliminating many intermediaries, replacing the many-layered Feudal system of loyalties with a relatively homogeneous society subject to a single central power. So, instead of being the peasant of this village in the territory of that marquis, or a burgher in that town and a member of such-and-such guild, you might be an Englishman or Frenchman, legally equivalent to any other Englishman or Frenchman, subject only to the national state, and with specific property holdings registered with and guaranteed by the national government and its army directly. This reduced the aristocracy's capacity to rebel against the centralized state, increased the state's capacity to efficiently collect taxes and raise armies, and expanded the range of possible trades citizens could make with each other, since economic affairs were now more often subject to individual contract rather than customary collective rights.

At first, the states that played by bourgeois capitalist rules did a better job integrating new territories into their systems of production, than their competitors who stuck with older, feudal customs. These new territories were called "colonies," after the much older practice of Mediterranean cities which would, on occasion, organize expeditions to found new cities with parts of their population, which generally retained strong social and economic ties to their source city, and frequently coexisted and traded with the people who already lived nearby. In the modern colonization of North America, the situation was substantively similar, though it ultimately resulted in coordination to displace the preexisting people of North America, because the European settlers were more frequently committed to recognizing and enforcing each other's territory claims, than to recognizing the claims of the preexisting inhabitants. In other, more densely settled areas, modern "colonies" were part of a process of establishing territorial control of an area and its prior population, and administered new states subordinate to the colonies' source country. The overall difference between modern and ancient colonization is that ancient colonization was more compatible with a patchwork of diverse affiliations and loyalties, while modern colonization was part of the competition between emerging states which organized themselves as exclusive territorial dominators with an ultimate monopoly on property registration, tax collection, and dispute resolution within their territories.

By the end of the 19th century, the best opportunities for this expansion outside of Christendom had been exploited. The military value of homogeneous national identities, however, remained. The next frontier for the expansion of modern states was the areas operating under something closer to the older, feudal system: the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the successor to the Holy Roman Empire) and the Ottoman Empire (the successor to the Byzantine empire). Unlike the modern colonial powers of England and France, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires ruled over culturally and linguistically diverse territories, so their rule necessarily relied on a greater degree of complex intermediation.

Nationalism is the ideology supporting the creation of centralized states sharing a relatively homogeneous language, culture, and identity. Linguistic and cultural minorities within larger empires frequently disliked being ruled and taxed by foreigners. There was a perceived shared interest among different such groups, and perceived convergence between their interests, the promotion of democratic modes of government (which make it harder for ethnic minorities to maintain domination because they need the consent of the people they rule), and progressive bureaucratic liberalism (which thrived in the context of integrated modern nation-states).

The incursion of the modern system of states into the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires tended to be more nationalistic than capitalistic in nature. Since Europe's Jews were an ethnic, religious, and often linguistic minority distributed out among many parts of Europe, while they thrived during the relatively liberal capitalistic phase of state formation, they were marginalized and eventually physically endangered by the rise of nationalism. One of their distinguishing characteristics, however, was a shared memory of a prior collocation in the land of Canaan, where they had lived together under a system of shared laws and mutual defense.

The exclusionary nature of nationalism was made explicit in the 20th century. Prior to the second World War, Germany, as part of the process of modern state formation, wished to expel its Jews. But ever since the first World War, the nations of the world had adopted and retained fairly strict border controls, seeing the incursion of people of a foreign nationality as a military liability. Germany convened an international conference in Evian, France, to see whether their Jews had anywhere else to go, and the representatives of all the nations of the world - except for the Dominican Republic - said they wouldn't take in a significant number of Jews. So unlike the French, Spanish, or English, the Germans couldn't expel their Jews, and decided to murder them all instead.

Herzl's 19th century proposal was to use a series of peaceful, lawful economic transactions to create a geographic concentration of Jews, which could thus constitute a cohesive national community, much like the European nations getting ready to expel their Jews. Unfortunately, this led to nationalistic aggression against the prior Arab occupants of Palestine in three ways.

First, while some Jews were interested in emigrating to Palestine merely to escape persecution, America was generally considered a better prospect. Some European Jews - especially ones participating in European culture - shared the growing cultural desire to identify with one's "homeland," and moved to Palestine with the intention of engaging in the same sort of exclusionary homogenization that had pushed them out of Europe.

Second, nationalism was eroding the liberal norms of freedom of movement and trade; the Ottomans increasingly saw potential national identities as a threat to their imperial control, and began to impose controls on Jewish immigration to Palestine. Ironically, this forced Europe's Zionistic Jews to adopt less peaceful and more overtly nationalistic means, allying with the British in World War I with the understanding that they'd get a home in Palestine as a reward. Britain took a lot of territory from the Ottoman Empire during WWI, including Palestine, with the help of both Jews and Arabs, both of which were separately promised Palestine.

Third, while economic considerations alone might have motivated Jewish immigrants to merely constitute a new, more active governing class of landlords and urban professionals, the alliance between nationalism and democracy saw such arrangements where a governing class was ethnically and linguistically distinct from the demographic majority as inherently illegitimate. Partly in response to this, Zionists frequently coordinated to employ Jews in otherwise economically inefficient ways as e.g. agricultural laborers, as part of a strategy of legitimization of their claims to the land. Naturally, the Arab residents who otherwise might have been employed by Zionists interpreted this commitment to freezing them out from the growing Zionist-controlled territory as a form of hostile territorial aggression.

Expelling minority groups is frequently a phase of nation-state formation, and as a result of the above factors, the Israeli state was no exception. While under British rule the level of violence between Jews and Arabs was relatively limited, there were organized attacks in both directions, and Zionists were openly setting up state and military capacity in preparation for establishing a Jewish state. The escalatory violent response to this by the other people living in Palestine was at least in part understood by them as preemption - looking at the USA's treatment of the preexisting inhabitants of North America, they could reasonably assume that the default outcome, in the absence of organized resistance, would involve a similar escalating pattern of military aggression.

Just as Europe's Jews had some difficulty finding someplace else to go, so did the Arabic-speaking residents of Palestine they eventually displaced. And just as Europe's Jews adopted a new nationalistic Zionist identity as a response to their predicament in Europe, so have Palestine's displaced Arabic-speakers adopted a national identity as Palestinians as a response to Zionism, to try to constitute a competing collective territorial claim. Thus, Zionism created not only the nationality "Israeli," but also, schismogenically created the "Palestinian." Likewise, just as Zionists successfully sought British patronage in establishing their claim on the contested land, the newly ethnogenized Palestinians had to look to alternative allies to help them advance their claim.

The main patronage options for the Palestinians were secular pan-Arabism and Islam. While there was Muslim-identified resistance to Zionist settlement from early on, the initial resistance to the establishment of the state of Israel was Arab-identified. After WWII and the Holocaust, the United Nations voted in 1948 to partition the British-held territory of Palestine into Jewish and Arab segments. The neighboring Arab states responded by declaring war on the state of Israel, and Israel's borders until 1967 were for the most part determined by the outcome of that war - its eastern border was the border with Jordan (which controlled what is now called the West Bank) and its western border was the border with Egypt (which controlled what is now called Gaza). Israelis remember this as the War of Independence, and Palestinians as the Nakba, or Catastrophe.

Many people who were displaced in the 1948 war fled voluntarily from areas that were conquered by the other side, but their fear was not without empirical support - there are documented murders of whole towns. Zionist forces murdered the inhabitants of Deir Yassin, and Arabist forces murdered the inhabitants of Kfar Etzion. But after the 1948 war, while Israel extended full citizenship to the Arab minority still living within its borders (since there were now few enough of them that their votes wouldn't seriously threaten Israel's constitution as a state both predominantly ethnically Jewish, and democratic), Jews were expelled from many Muslim countries to Israel, with cooperation and in some cases encouragement by the Israeli government, as part of the process of transitioning from older pluralistic modes of government, to nationalistic ones in which states dominated contiguous, relatively ethnically homogeneous territories.

After Egypt and Jordan lost control Gaza and the West Bank in subsequent wars, they eventually decided to accept the existence of and make peace with Israel, in part due to American political, military, and economic influence. Palestinians found themselves under the rule of an unaccountable foreign government. In the absence of nearby state patrons, Palestinian military resistance took the form of asymmetric warfare, frequently directed against civilians. Some of this was organized by the PLO, a secular nationalist organization whose propaganda appealed to Westerners and Arabists. Some was organized by Islam-affiliated groups like Hamas, which have increasingly sought resources from and accepted some control by Iran. Iran is populated and ruled largely by Shia Muslim Persian-speakers, who also constitute demographic majorities in many ethnically Sunni-dominated, nominally secular Arab states, many of which have made peace with Israel.

So the conflict between Israel and Hamas is connected to a conflict in the rest of the Middle East between mostly Sunni and secular Arabists invested in modern states, and those with less stake or interest in the success of such states, who are organized more along international religious lines, but with a state sponsor in Iran, which as an Islam-controlled but non-Arab state, has less in common with Arabist ideology, and more in common with Islamic resistance.

The difference between these two strategies is reflected in a difference of outcomes in the PLO-dominated Palestinian territories on the West Bank of the Jordan, and Gaza. The PLO gradually accepted an accommodation with Israel in which it was awarded territorial domination of the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority (nominally as the governing party of Fatah). It significantly reduced its attacks against Israeli civilians, in exchange for economic concessions that allow it to dispense patronage to its supporters, but maintains the military capacity to escalate such attacks as a bargaining chip to hold onto patronage in the future. Hamas, on the other hand, is committed to a continued aggressive military posture towards the state of Israel (e.g. continued rocket attacks), with the explicit albeit short-run unachievable goal of conquest. This is best understood as compliance with Iranian foreign policy, which sees at present more benefit in keeping the conflict with Israel going than in making conditions better for the people living in Gaza. This is because as long as Israel is understood as at war with a Muslim Arab population, the Muslim coalition sponsored by Iran will seem to many like an appealing alternative to the Arab states that have made peace with Israel.

For similar reasons, right-wing parties in Israel in favor of violent territorial expansion and continued militarization have some political interests in common with Hamas, since unappeasable, aggressive violence from Hamas has made left-wing advocates for peace less credible, and Israeli military operations to disrupt Hamas's ability to attack Israel have increased Palestinians' perceived need for strong military patrons.

In 2000, the left-wing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered large territorial concessions - widely considered extremely generous terms among Israelis - to the PLO in exchange for peace, and his offer was rejected. On the same year, right-wing politician Ariel Sharon, who had encouraged relatively territorially aggressive policies, prominently visited the Temple Mount, the site of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, on which a mosque currently stands, and this visit was considered provocative and aggressive by Muslims. In response to both the visit to the Temple Mount and the failed peace negotiations, Palestinians escalated their level of asymmetric warfare targeting civilians, and Israelis elected Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister.

In 2005, Prime Minister Sharon withdrew Israel entirely from Gaza (where Israel had relatively few settlements, and relatively little historical connection to), relying mainly on perimeter defense to protect Israelis from the Gazan military. This allowed Hamas to seize military control of Gaza. Israel mostly maintained a defensive military posture, but occasionally raided or bombed military sites in Gaza in retaliation for successful attacks, which was referred to colloquially by the military as "mowing the lawn." This was not a peaceful accommodation, but can be construed as an attempt at deescalation circumstances that didn't justify enough trust to bother with verbal negotiations. Sharon was permanently incapacitated by a stroke before implementing a widely expected withdrawal from the West Bank, so Fatah and the Palestinian Authority retained its control there.

There has also been an economic blockade of Gaza which I don't fully understand the reasons for. It doesn't seem very sympathetic, but the cynical explanation that it's a right-wing policy to antagonize the Gazans enough to keep them supporting the relatively unsympathetic Hamas doesn't seem consistent with the situation where the state of Egypt seems to be cooperating with the blockade. I'm clearly missing something there.

The recent Hamas raid on October 7th disrupted the equilibrium in Gaza, since it implied that Hamas was both willing and able to inflict more damage than Israelis were willing to accept as the price of a border. It's not clear, however, that there's any alternative strategy being proposed. In the absence of some specific alternative, this will turn out to be just a very expensive escalation of "mowing the lawn," with a much greater death toll.

A biased short list of information sources:

David Deutsch's Short History of Israel is approximately the version of the story I was taught as a child.

The book Jerusalem 1913 by Amy Dockser Marcus and Martyr Made's podcast Fear & Loathing in the new Jerusalem provide some helpful additional context.

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