A radical ambivalence

Jasmine Donahaye reflects on the emotional subtleties of nationalism.


How viciously beautiful the names have been: Operation Summer Rains (2006), Operation Autumn Clouds (2006), Operation Hot Winter (2008), Operation Pillar of Cloud  (2012). Others are more utilitarian – Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), and now Operation Protective Edge (the English name differs from the Hebrew, Operation Firm or Resolute Cliff, which doesn’t work effectively in translation). We’ve been here before; we’ll be here again, only each time it’s worse; each time there is an even greater imbalance in power, in the capacity for self-protection, and in the casualties and costs.

In the midst of tearing disaster, each time, as now, there are moments of exquisite, delicate humanity that restore a little hope; and each time the ferocity of hatred on both sides, and among distant supporters, is shocking (and yet this time more shocking than before is what has come from the mouths of elected Israeli politicians). Nothing is so shocking, though, as the ferocity of denial which shuts down the capacity of any individual to imagine in each injured or dead child god forbid your own child injured, or dead.

One of my daughters, knowing how obsessively I am following the news, seeks to divert me for a little with a less pressing concern – the Scottish referendum. She lives in Edinburgh, and is excited and daunted by the prospect of voting. She is ambivalent, one of the undecided. Nationalist sentiments don’t speak to her, and she mistrusts Alex Salmond’s smooth reassurances. She’s inclined to vote yes, believing independence might deliver a more securely liberal and progressive democracy, but she has questions about practicalities and finds no answers in the emotive rhetoric from either side. Why would I vote yes, she wants to know; why would I vote yes in Wales if given the chance?

The question does not take me away from Israel/Palestine, as she intended, but returns me to its fundamental problem: the reasons I’m in favour of independence broadly echo my daughter’s civic ones, but at the same time are based on a romantic nationalist feeling which, no matter how socially progressive, no matter how far it moves away from essentialist ethnic roots, is, by its very nature, exclusive.

Of course being pro-independence doesn’t make you a nationalist by default. Nevertheless, a strong emotive part of the popular national narrative positions Scotland and Wales as being more socially progressive than England, being more committed to collective than individual wellbeing – not only based on past voting patterns, but also because of past and present collective experiences of oppression and marginalisation. That romantic national – if not necessarily traditionally nationalist – feeling lies at the base of even my most ‘civic’ argument in favour of independence: else why these particular borders? But it’s this tendency towards nationalist sentiment that also makes me ambivalent, an ambivalence that arises directly from being a Jew. This is not because of the historical consequences of some forms of continental European nationalism, but because of the present consequences of Jewish nationalism.

My identification with Wales is entirely elective. I’m an immigrant from England (via California, with family roots in Israel/Palestine), and because of my ethnic and national roots, and my own romantic nationalist feelings elsewhere, I identify with what feels like the familiarly resonant predicament of Wales. My attachments and affiliations here are largely impersonal: they don’t arise out of an essential sense of self, but out of choice. This is, by its very electiveness, a privileged position to have – but it is also tenuous, as is the case for immigrants everywhere, no matter how they choose to identify.

The response last week to the death of the poet Gerallt Lloyd Owen brought home to me strongly the tenuousness of that identification. It is moving to see how a writer can so articulate a collective feeling, how one man’s contribution can be so celebrated, and his loss elicit such grief. In the outpouring on social media, over and over people quoted poignant lines from his poem ‘Etifeddiaeth’ –  ‘inheritance’, that dangerous, resonant, powerful word.

That collective etifeddiaeth is not my etifeddiaeth, of course, nor can it ever be. To say so is neither to complain nor to lament, but simply to make the observation. But within a few brief moments, the response to his death shifted me from my rather cosy pseudo-Welsh identification to a state of radical ambivalence. I can sympathise with the mourning for a national poet, and with the poem’s own mourning; I can feel it, but I am outside it – it is an inheritance, and a state of mind, from which I am excluded because it is part of a narrative of land, language, and roots by which I was never shaped, and into which I cannot fit.

I know precisely what would resonate like that for me, which imagery of land and longing could draw from me that same deep romantic nationalist feeling: Yehuda Ha-Levi’s lines ‘my heart is in the east  but I am at the edge of the west’; Avram Shlonsky’s ‘dress me good mother in a coat of many colours and at dawn lead me to toil. My land is wrapped in light as in a prayer shawl’. It is because I have those feelings about Israel that I identify with those feelings about Wales; it is because I am radically ambivalent about those feelings for Israel that I am radically ambivalent about my feelings for Wales. That ambivalence is not suspicion, but an awareness of two narratives simultaneously – that of ‘civic’ Wales and of ‘ethnic’ Wales (and this isn’t particular to Welsh-language Wales, either: an Anglophone ‘Industrial South Wales’ mourning could have the same effect).

I feel things by choice about Wales – but I don’t feel them by choice about Israel, because I was shaped by an Israeli national and nationalist narrative, and by my mother’s homesickness for her motherland. I feel them, and yet morally, now, I may not feel them, let alone think them, or articulate them, or take a political position that arises from them.

‘Etifeddiaeth’, of course, has a more immediate resonance with Palestine than with Israel (however you might define Palestine, in its multiple possible meanings). How strangely poignant it is that all over Wales, Welsh-speakers were grieving the poet and quoting that poem at the moment when it was revealed that Bibi Netanyahu made categorical what has always been understood: that he has no intention, as Prime Minister of Israel, of ever relinquishing control of the border between the West Bank and Jordan. The pock-marked land that remains would always and only be an enclave, or several enclaves, a Palestinian homeland within the state of Israel. This is a horrible inversion of the ‘Jewish national home in Palestine’ which was promised, through the Balfour Declaration nearly a century ago, by Wales’s own David Lloyd George – a promise from which a direct trajectory can be traced to the present apparently insoluble situation.

Netanyahu’s position cancels out absolutely a two-state (or three-state) solution, though many argue that that option has long-since been dead, and others that it was never viable. Even so, perhaps only now its remains are going to be officially identified. Perhaps now we can begin to talk about what a single state might really look like – a democratic single state that is desirable for precisely those civic, progressive, liberal democratic reasons that underlie arguments in favour of breaking up the single state in which we live. Though I think one democratic state is right for ethical, intellectual, and practical reasons, and is probably the only long-term sustainable outcome, it nevertheless goes against everything I feel: it repudiates utterly my narrative of self and past and collective, and my emotional investment in the right to Jewish self-determination – that personal national narrative which makes the Welsh or Scottish national narrative so familiar and so compelling.

We are pressured on all sides to see things as unitary rather than multiple – how, otherwise, might we be able to vote, or act? Nevertheless I think there’s value in the complexity of ambivalence. By ambivalence I don’t mean simply that one might feel equally one thing or another, or not feel anything very much at all, or be unwilling to take a position. What I mean in this context by radical ambivalence is the attempt to apprehend simultaneously your own and the other narrative, to believe it is possible to be right at the same time as the other, who sees things conversely, is also right. That’s the radical ambivalence I have about Israel and Palestine, and about Wales and Scotland too, where even the most civic formulations of nationalism still rest on narratives about self and collective that privilege one set of experiences over another.

For me, in the case of Israel, what I think has to prevail over what I feel – and increasingly I feel what perhaps Gerallt Lloyd Owen did not mean at the end of ‘Etifeddiaeth’: that we should have fought harder for Israel – not for physical possession, but for the idea, for the ideal. We didn’t, and now, for me at least, it’s too late.

None of which helps my daughter make a decision about the referendum – and that’s appropriate: it’s her own future to determine, on her own terms. But what an exciting thing it would be to see the emergence of a new state not through the violent imposition of one narrative and the eradication of the other, but through the democratic process. Of course there’s no guarantee that with independence Scots would elect a progressive government – but they might. And if they did, what a model that could be for a world in which children are living through their third war in six years.

Jasmine Donahaye is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Swansea University and a member of the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales. Her memoir Losing Israel will be published by Seren next year.