The Olympics are always an exciting time. As the paragon of athletics on the international level, it allows a unique arena for patriotism and pride. It is easy to enjoy watching your countrymen and women compete, performing seemingly impossible tasks. It is even mildly suspenseful; will she land that dismount? Will we win more medals than China? For a few days, the conflicts and enmities of our world seem farther from sight. There is something idyllic and heartwarming about seeing people from such a multitude of diverse places all compete on the same level. In the Olympics, everyone is equal.
But what I really cannot help but think of as I sit and watch team USA is how much I take for granted, and how truly lucky I am to have been born within the borders of a country. To have been born in any country at all is a gift, let alone in one like America. While I am by no means an American exceptionalist — I know that neither my country, nor any country is above any moral standard — I have traveled enough to appreciate the luxury of being born in a country with the economic infrastructure required to create genuine opportunity for its people. In America, I have the possibility of realizing my greatest dreams and aspirations. I may be a doctor, a butcher, a software engineer, a graphic designer; my only limits are those I place on myself.
What does it mean to be born without a country? It is no abstract thought experiment. I lived for six and a half months in the Palestinian territories — areas of land under such ambiguous authority, whose future remains contentious and largely open ended. What is more is that the future of the area, and determining of governance will most likely not be determined by the people who live there. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank hang in a gray area, a tricky in between.
What does it mean to be born without a country? Without a country, a person has no entity that can act on the global stage on his or person behalf. Persons without a country are denied the proper representation that most of us take for granted. Who will protect their rights? Who will act in their best interests? Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, less by their own fault and more by design, are not sufficient stand-ins for an autonomous government and genuine statehood.
Indeed, my experience of living in Palestine has lead me to the conclusion that world we have created is one in which it is damning to be born without a country.
In his essay “Radical Evil as a Freudian Category,” the philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses what it means to be stateless. He contends that, while human rights attempt to provide a blanket of protection for all humans, regardless of country, in practice, political rights have much greater clout and meaning. A person without a country is dubbed a “refugee,” and afforded virtually no liberties at all. Far from being the bearer of fundamental human rights, the refugee is virtually relegated to the realm of subhuman. What follows from this is that what is primary is “citizen,” and what follows from this is “human,” instead of vice versa. The relationship, originally conceptualized as human taking on the role of citizen, has become perverted. A person’s identity is determined so greatly by his or her political position.
Being a citizen stipulates a certain symbiosis — a relationship between the individual and state that requires certain sacrifices and certain reciprocal luxuries. For some, this means conscription, for others, maybe merely exercising one’s right to vote. But nonetheless, identity is dealt from this random lottery of where one is born.
What is hard for a passport-bearing American to envision about Palestine is the metaphysical crisis that ensues from being born without a country. Palestinians try, even painfully so, to not be defined by their politically damning circumstances. A great majority of those I met in the West Bank were attempting to carry on their lives as “normally” as possible. They covet Mercedes and listen to Rihanna, chat on Facebook and watch Twilight, because this is “what people do.” Yet they still cannot escape the fact that their entire reality is basically predetermined by their lack of political identity. Everything, from which roads they can use, to the price of bread, to how few job opportunities there are, is made that way by the occupation. Their freedoms are miniscule. As an outsider living in Palestine, it was hard to not notice this irony, this fundamental disconnect.
Thus, Palestine becomes a painful example of Žižek’s point, that the ideal of fundamental human rights has yet to become more than that — an ideal. Without a state, there is no such mechanism in place to secure Palestinian rights or freedoms. Human rights only exist inasmuch as we humans collectively will them to be.
So what does this leave you with, when you are born without a country? What resources do you have? What opportunities are truly open to you? You are, by default, by birth, relegated to a realm that is subordinate to that of the citizen. To be born without political rights, without any political identity puts you at a disadvantage that for people of a country is truly hard to imagine.
For us of citizenship, we afford convenient terms for such people: refugees, non-state actors. When such people resort to violence — a tactic that I do not condone, and see by no means as warranted no matter what one’s circumstances — we call them terrorists. Then we ourselves carry on, without any such helpful term to label our own countries, our own armies, our own policies when they wreak hardships and death upon civilians. Somehow, being a state makes us justified, being a state makes terror not so bad.
In the same essay,Žižek explores some of the intricacies of political evil as the world has experienced over the past one hundred years. He asserts that political evil arises when political entities attempt to bridge the gap between the concept of a nation as based on physical boundaries, and an ideology based on ethnic privilege, citing Nazism and Stalinism as examples. He writes,
It is as if the first and foremost effect of migration is to foreground even more the blood relations, thus violating the basic territorial definition of a modern state: the member of a state is not defined by his/her “blood” (ethnic identity), but by being fully acknowledged as residing in the state’s territory – and the state’s unity was historically established precisely by the violent erasure of local blood links. In this sense, the modern state as such is the outcome of an “inner migration,” of the transubstantiation of one’s identity: even if, physically, one does not change one’s dwelling, one is deprived of a particular identity with its local color…And, perhaps, as was made clear in Fascism, violence explodes precisely when one tries to deny the gap and bring together the two dimensions of blood AND soil into a harmonious unity…
In summary, in a modern world in which migration and movement of people is commonplace, one must recognize that the concept of the nation-state, at base, is one of borders demarcating a physical location. This, in turn, requires a “transubstantiation” of the self, meaning that people derive political identity not by their blood (my great-grandfather emigrated from Italy, but none of his offspring were “Italian” in citizenship), but by their physical locale. For the purpose of politics, heritage and where you came from is fundamentally less relevant than where you are. Fascism and other such political catastrophes arise when ideologies attempt to make physical borders strictly accordant to ethnic lines — i.e. Nazism, in which Germany is for the Aryans.
Thus, there is an obvious disconnect between the concept of the modern nation state and political ideologies established on ethnicity. Where does one see this being played out in the world today, if not in Israel and Palestine? It is in this disputed land that we see the struggle to constantly redraw ambiguous borders, and yet maintain ideologies based entirely on ethnic identity. Too much of the approach there relies on this tired and failing approach of constructing political identity entirely from ethnic identity. Today, the most popular and politically correct proposal for Middle East peace — two states for two peoples — again offers a solution based only on the premise of statehood as a manifestation of ethnic being. It ignores the fact that Palestinians and Israelis live on both sides of the 1967 borders, footnoting “territory swap” as an answer to the settlements too established to dismantle.
One of the greatest obstacles, and also the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to discussing Israel/Palestine, is that in the effort to maintain Zionism, we are sustaining an outdated and even malicious notion that we can feasibly construct states based solely on ethnic lines. Did post-apartheid South Africa or post-Civil Rights Movement America become two states for two peoples?
Until the mechanisms are in place to ensure universal human rights, we must learn to construct political identity on the basis of something other than ethnicity. Likewise, Israel and Palestine cannot be a safe home for “two peoples” (really, many more, if you take into account that Russians, Eastern Europeans, Ethiopians, Arabs, etc. have a plethora of heritages to contribute), until we embrace the idea of constructing political identity on something other than ethnicity. Only then is coexistence possible, along stable borders. The people who live in these lands are there. Instead of moving them, instead of clinging to a concept that is not only outdated but also failed, let’s move forward to consider the true multitude of possibilities for the foundation of Israeli/Palestinian peace.
It is interesting to think that the Olympics were revived in 1896, with fourteen nations competing. Today, we cheer on our teams with a sort of nationalistic pride that is in many ways awesome given its degree of peacefulness and camaraderie. Yet why do we find ourselves simultaneously still struggling to reconcile nationality with ethnicity? Why do we not bother to go back and ask, must the two be reconciled? Rather, can we redefine the system so that the two are decidedly different?