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Nationalism: Belonging and Otherness

Nationalism: Belonging and Otherness
The discussions surrounding the place of the emancipated Jews in the European society corresponded with the major ideologies developing in the 19th century. One such ideology was nationalism. Often defined as the desire for political self-determination of a group over a territory, nationalism laid the grounds for the establishment of modern nation-states. Throughout history people have been attached to their native soil; but it was not until the late 18th century, and especially during the 19th century, that nationalism rose as a major force of collective self-determination. Stemming from aspirations to transfer the base of power from the elite to the people, nationalism introduced a strong democratizing potential.
However, as we will soon see nationalism had negative results as well, especially for a minority like the Jews, as it once again brought to light questions of belonging and otherness. One of the tensions within nationalism, or perhaps contradictions within it, is that, on the one hand, it’s based on the egalitarian and inclusive ideal of national self-determination that contends that the entire population of a nation is where sovereignty resides - rather than in a king or an aristocracy - and that the political institutions and values of a country need to reflect that.
But, on the other hand, to the extent that sovereignty is theoretically shifted from the person of a king to the bodies of millions of former subjects turned citizens, it begs the question who really belongs in this organic body of the nation. And so almost intrinsically nationalism carries within it the dilemma that even as it shares power theoretically with more people than ever before in history, it also begs the question of who needs to be excluded from that; and it begs all sorts of questions about who really constitutes the nation. And it also has the potential to upset hierarchies.
The whole point of nationalism is to change various existing social, ethnic, religious and other hierarchies and so far as nationalism is associated with ideals of self-determination and democracy, formally excluded or oppressed minorities - such as the Jews - could be included in the nation. But precisely because of that, there can be a backlash and there often was a backlash, such that people resented the sudden integration of formerly marginalized people like Jews into regular society, into the mainstream; and they resented the fact that suddenly democratization or ideas, inclusive ideas of national self-determination, allowed Jews to gain upward mobility to economic, and administrative, and even political positions of the sort that had once been completely closed off to them.
And so I think it’s sort of almost an inherent risk of any democratizing movement, and especially any nationalist democratizing movement that it’s likely to create this kind of backlash, especially against minorities who were formerly oppressed and who are now seen as rising above their station, as getting - you know - getting ahead of themselves, or as having overly ambitious aspirations which are seen as coming at the expense of other members of society. So I think that’s one of many ways in which nationalism sort of initially seemed to hold forth great promise for Jews, and many Jews eagerly supported nationalist movements, and in places such as Poland, Italy … many other countries.
But at the same time the backlash could catch them off guard and result in an antisemitism that was even more intense and venomous, and potentially violent than some traditional religious forms of antisemitism had been.

Prof. Aviel Roshwald

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, nationalism was a major political force in Europe, laying the grounds for the establishment of modern nation states.

How did this desire of various groups to self-determination influence the way Jews were treated and perceived and what effect did it have on the formulation of new forms of antisemitism?

For additional visual materials please see “downloads” below.


  • Almog, Shmuel, Nationalism and Antisemitism in Modern Europe, 1815-1945 (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1990).

  • Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

  • Baycroft, Timothy, Nationalism in Europe, 1789-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  • Roshwald, Aviel, The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  • Roshwald, Aviel, “Ethnicity and Democracy in Europe’s Multinational Empires, 1848-1918,” in André W. M. Gerrits and Dirk Jan Wolffram, eds., Political Democracy and Ethnic Diversity in Modern European History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), pp. 65 – 77.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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