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A blog about economics in the South Caucasus.

The Making of Nations


GOING UP … OR DOWN? 

I was 13 when my family took the fateful decision to make ‘Aliyah’ to Israel back in 1977. ‘Aliyah’ (the act of going up in Hebrew) is a nice term describing Jewish ‘repatriation’ from the Diaspora (St. Petersburg, in my case) to the Holy Land. Etymologically, ‘Aliya’ originates in the ancient Israelite tradition of annual ‘pilgrimage tours’ to Jerusalem (situated almost 1km above sea level). Yet, there was very little ‘going up’ in the social status of my family during the first five years in Israel.

My parents took more than two years to learn enough Hebrew to be able to land their first jobs. To cut on household expenses, I was sent off to Alonei Itskhak, a Jewish Agency-financed boarding school catering to immigrant kids: recent arrivals from USSR, like myself, and children to barely literate parents who immigrated to Israel from remote rural communities in Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and other North African nations in 1950s.

Needless to say, the two groups – the ‘Russians’ and ‘Moroccans’ – lived in parallel universes. We attended the same classes but had little else in common. We communicated in different languages, and were different in everything that mattered: from manner of speech and behavior, to hobbies and intellectual interests. 

Things changed quite dramatically the following year. I passed entrance exams and was admitted (with a scholarship) to the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa, an elitist private institution that agreed to (very partially) open its doors to outsiders like myself. A more than 2-hour daily commute from Kiriat Ata (a small working class town in Haifa’s vicinity) seemed like a good price to pay for membership in this prestigious club, a hotbed of technological talent, intellectual, military and political leadership. 

As the only ‘Russian’ kid in the class, I worked very hard to hide my foreign identity and accent. Thus, I spent hours circling my (very) humble abode in order to practice the difficult Hebrew ‘r’ sound. Very soon I acquired near flawless mastery of the language, but all my efforts to ‘connect’ and become socially accepted fell flat. 

Ironically, my classmates and I wore the same uniform consisting of jeans and blue shirts with the school’s motto “Walk Humbly” (Micha, 6:8) sewn to the pocket. Yet, these blue shirts could not conceal the differences in social status between outsiders and those born into upper middle class Israeli families from Haifa’s upscale neighborhoods on Mount Carmel. 

By the age of 16, I gave up on desperate attempts to acquire ‘authentic’ Israeli friends and found refuge in the company of other ‘Russians’ closer to my proletarian neighborhood. This could have been the end of my Israeli dream, except that at the age of 18 I was drafted by the Israeli military.


THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET

The year was 1982. Israel was at war in Lebanon and volunteering to serve in an elite paratrooper unit seemed like the right thing to do. Very soon I found myself in a boot camp with 25 other young guys: Dov Zilber from Moshav Kfar Kish and Ofer Cohen from Naharia; Yair Itzhaki from Kubbutz Kineret and Roni Almagor from Tel Aviv; Amir Halkin from upscale Savion and Pinki Zuaretz from crime-infested Netanya; Arik Libman (myself), son of recent Soviet emigrants, and Omri Sharon, son of the then Minister of Defense and future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

NATIONAL ARMY, ISRAELI STYLE

Military service is a universal duty for Israelis (certainly for the Jews among them). Every young Jewish Israeli man and woman, regardless of their social status, education, or skin color is required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Moreover, military duty is not only mandated by law but is considered to be a privilege. 

About a year prior to being drafted, young Israelis start going through a battery of tests designed to examine their psychological fitness, cognitive and physical abilities. The purpose is to optimally match future soldiers and officers (based on their skills and motivation) to military occupations and units. Those selected into occupations that require prior training are assigned to intensive prep courses in programming, technology, languages, etc. Depending on IDF needs, hundreds are allowed to acquire higher education degrees in fields ranging from IT and engineering to medicine and law (yes, the army also employs lawyers!) in order to serve in a professional capacity.

Once again, I was the only ‘Russian’ in the pack, but this time it seemed to be of little significance. What mattered was your willpower and physical strength; the agility with which you would wake up to substitute for your friend on a night duty or stick your shoulder under a heavy stretcher. It was about who you were yourself and not “what is your father” (a line that stuck with me from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).

This was the moment when I finally started feeling a proud Israeli citizen.


GEORGIA’S NATION BUILDING PROJECT CELEBRATING 130 YEARS

Most Georgians are acutely aware of the fact their country is home to many ethnic and religious minorities – Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Ossetians and Yazidis, Jews and Greek. Yet, few would doubt that despite being divided and ruled by dominant regional powers for much of its history, the Georgian nation has been in existence since times immemorial. 

The truth is that, just like all modern nations of our time, the Georgian nation is very a recent creation. Until well into the 19th century, Kartvelian tribes were just that: tribes. Of course, they spoke closely related dialects and had a common religion, but one would have a hard time discerning anything like a common national sentiment. And, indeed, how could there be any unifying sentiment in a territory divided by impassable mountain ranges and artificial borders imposed by rival empires and competing feudal rulers. 

Georgia’s revival as a nation started with the country’s political unification under the Russian rule in early 19th century. However, it was not until 1860s and 70s, when influenced by other national movements on the fringes of the Russian empire and elsewhere in Europe, Georgian intellectuals were able to take the country’s nation-building project to the next level. Two notable milestones in this process were the publication, in 1876, of Mother Language (დედა ენა) by Iakob Gogebashvili, and the establishment, three year later, of the Society for the Spreading of Literacy among Georgians. Led by Ilya Chavchavadze, Iakob Gogebashvili and other literati, this charity supported the teaching of the Kartuli vernacular in newly founded schools across the entire country, seeking to establish it as a common national language for all Georgians. Kartuli books, newspapers and magazines published by Chavchavadze et al were just another means of achieving the same goal.

Celebrating its 130th anniversary in 2016, Georgia’s nation-building project is not much younger than most national movements in Europe. However, having achieved independence only in 1991, Georgia is still a very young nation, lacking in maturity and confidence of its older siblings. As we wrote on these pages, to date, Georgians tend to cluster in family groups and clans, and many of the country’s challenges – in business, politics and government – stem from people’s limited ability to let go of these primitive parochial bonds.

Sadly, instead of breaking existing divides, Georgia’s education system and institutions, such as the military, are major detractors from the country’s nation-building project. Instead of facilitating social mobility, Georgia’s public schools are sustaining and deepening existing social and cultural gaps (see “Like Teacher Like Son” on the ISET Economist Blog). Instead of helping heal wounds in Georgia’s social fabric, the Georgian law on military duty and military service effectively divides the nation into haves and have nots. As a result, Georgia ‘national’ army is but an army of illiterate peasants, poorly motivated and unfit for the security challenges of the 21st century.

*     *     *

The good news is that backwardness comes with an important advantage: ability to learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Israel may face its own share of challenges, but if there is one thing Georgia could learn from Israel it is how to use the military as the ultimate nation-building device.


The article was first published in Georgia Today - Georgia's leading English language newspaper, published twice weekly.

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18 Comments

Comments

 
Nino Doghonadze on Monday, 07 March 2016 11:42

The blog is very interesting and I agree with the general idea that the army could play a role in Georgias nation-building.
However, there are the statements that I completely disagree with and find misleading. In particular these: Until well into the 19th century, Kartvelian tribes were just that: tribes. and Georgia’s revival as a nation started with the country’s political unification under the Russian rule in early 19th century. United Georgian nation-state existed from as early as 975, under Bagrat III and in this united form existed for five centuries, until 1466, Giorgi VIII. Even before and after we had small kingdoms with their laws, taxes, army, religion and loyalty towards the kings. And all these happened well before the 19th century and Russians.

The blog is very interesting and I agree with the general idea that the army could play a role in Georgias nation-building. However, there are the statements that I completely disagree with and find misleading. In particular these: Until well into the 19th century, Kartvelian tribes were just that: tribes. and Georgia’s revival as a nation started with the country’s political unification under the Russian rule in early 19th century. United Georgian nation-state existed from as early as 975, under Bagrat III and in this united form existed for five centuries, until 1466, Giorgi VIII. Even before and after we had small kingdoms with their laws, taxes, army, religion and loyalty towards the kings. And all these happened well before the 19th century and Russians.
Eric Livny on Monday, 07 March 2016 15:23

Nino, we dont disagree on the facts. Of course, Georgia had all these independent or semi-independent kingdoms and fiefdoms throughout its history. But so did France, Germany, Italy and all other European nations throughout their history. Europe was full of competing city-states (not nation states), such as Florence, Genoa and Venice. Their citizens were loyal to their cities (and their rules, in case these were not democracies such as ancient Athens). They were not loyal to anything like the French or Italian nation. Nation as a social and political construct did not exist in anybodys mind at the time. For example, DArtagnan was from an impoverished noble family of Gascony in the service of the French king, not the great French nation. I am sure he had difficulties communicating with his fellow Musketeers who were from other parts of modern day France. The French nation was born much later, after the French revolution. It took extensive education effort to teach the French language to French people.

The nation is a legal fiction created in the 19th century to help overcome Middle Age parochialism. You can think of this as an effective market-driven solution to excessive fragmentation, constant conflicts (one baron robbing the other) and a lack of security. Georgia is really no different from others in this regard. To discover this one only has to read.

Talking of reading, there is some wonderful book about nationalism that I could recommend.

Nino, we dont disagree on the facts. Of course, Georgia had all these independent or semi-independent kingdoms and fiefdoms throughout its history. But so did France, Germany, Italy and all other European nations throughout their history. Europe was full of competing city-states (not nation states), such as Florence, Genoa and Venice. Their citizens were loyal to their cities (and their rules, in case these were not democracies such as ancient Athens). They were not loyal to anything like the French or Italian nation. Nation as a social and political construct did not exist in anybodys mind at the time. For example, DArtagnan was from an impoverished noble family of Gascony in the service of the French king, not the great French nation. I am sure he had difficulties communicating with his fellow Musketeers who were from other parts of modern day France. The French nation was born much later, after the French revolution. It took extensive education effort to teach the French language to French people. The nation is a legal fiction created in the 19th century to help overcome Middle Age parochialism. You can think of this as an effective market-driven solution to excessive fragmentation, constant conflicts (one baron robbing the other) and a lack of security. Georgia is really no different from others in this regard. To discover this one only has to read. Talking of reading, there is some wonderful book about nationalism that I could recommend.
Nino Doghonadze on Monday, 07 March 2016 15:32

OK, now I understand your definition of the term nation but I still do not understand your definition of the term tribe. At once, it sounds pretty insulting.

OK, now I understand your definition of the term nation but I still do not understand your definition of the term tribe. At once, it sounds pretty insulting.
Eric Livny on Monday, 07 March 2016 16:15

This is about how people define themselves in relation to others. As you know me, I dont automatically identify with any particular group beyond my immediate family and ISET. I would like to think of myself as a citizen of the world. At the same time I know very well that most people around me have group identities based on the national principle. The national principle is different from tribal group identification in that the latter is based on intimate proximity to, and familiarity with, other group members. It presupposes kinship (common ancestors), common deities (local spirits), a common local jargon, as well as opportunities to meet at funerals and weddings about which you love writing.

The national identity principle is based on the idea of common citizenship, with each person having a stake in the political governance of the group. The nation itself, rather than any external authority such a God or King, is presumed to be the source of sovereignty and political authority. Personal acquaintance and even common jargon or religion are not required for people to form a national group identity (think of Switzerland at the extreme). Common ancestry can be a part of a nation building project, as is the case in Georgia, but is also no longer essential. Think of the American and Australian nations. What common ancestry there is between a recent Jewish immigrant in Brooklyn, the native Americans of Oklahoma and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP) of New England?

This is about how people define themselves in relation to others. As you know me, I dont automatically identify with any particular group beyond my immediate family and ISET. I would like to think of myself as a citizen of the world. At the same time I know very well that most people around me have group identities based on the national principle. The national principle is different from tribal group identification in that the latter is based on intimate proximity to, and familiarity with, other group members. It presupposes kinship (common ancestors), common deities (local spirits), a common local jargon, as well as opportunities to meet at funerals and weddings about which you love writing. The national identity principle is based on the idea of common citizenship, with each person having a stake in the political governance of the group. The nation itself, rather than any external authority such a God or King, is presumed to be the source of sovereignty and political authority. Personal acquaintance and even common jargon or religion are not required for people to form a national group identity (think of Switzerland at the extreme). Common ancestry can be a part of a nation building project, as is the case in Georgia, but is also no longer essential. Think of the American and Australian nations. What common ancestry there is between a recent Jewish immigrant in Brooklyn, the native Americans of Oklahoma and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP) of New England?
Nino Doghonadze on Monday, 07 March 2016 17:01

So, you consider democracy (with each person having a stake in the political governance of the group) a necessary condition for a nation to exist? And otherwise we are a tribe?

So, you consider democracy (with each person having a stake in the political governance of the group) a necessary condition for a nation to exist? And otherwise we are a tribe?
Salome Gvetadze on Monday, 07 March 2016 17:50

I kind of believed in the success of Israel until I recently traveled there. You must be raised with the ideology you were talking about to feel happy and free when in every corner there are young people in machine guns, where you drive route 90 and you hear weapons tested. I can not say whether Israel would have been better off without this massive military presence, but for the moment I can not call it “success”, I rather vote for “illiterate peasants”.

I kind of believed in the success of Israel until I recently traveled there. You must be raised with the ideology you were talking about to feel happy and free when in every corner there are young people in machine guns, where you drive route 90 and you hear weapons tested. I can not say whether Israel would have been better off without this massive military presence, but for the moment I can not call it “success”, I rather vote for “illiterate peasants”.
Eric Livny on Monday, 07 March 2016 18:34

I fully take your point, dear Salome. Israels extreme militarization is something anybody would want to follow. I would only argue for using the military AND/OR civil service as a civic education exercise for all (for the sake of illiterate peasants).

I fully take your point, dear Salome. Israels extreme militarization is something anybody would want to follow. I would only argue for using the military AND/OR civil service as a civic education exercise for all (for the sake of illiterate peasants).
Florian Biermann on Monday, 07 March 2016 21:39

Salome, your observation is misguided. Of course Israel has a strong, visible military, but this is a necessity because it has mighty and uncompromising enemies. It has nothing to do with the nation-building role of the Israeli army.

If Georgia would have that kind of nasty enemies as Israel has (the Russians are choirboys compared to Hamas & co.), Georgia would arguably not exist anymore, at least not as a democracy. It is indeed one of the greatest achievements of Israel that they sustain a fully functional democracy, including gay rights, gender equality, freedom of speech etc., in such an environment.

Salome, your observation is misguided. Of course Israel has a strong, visible military, but this is a necessity because it has mighty and uncompromising enemies. It has nothing to do with the nation-building role of the Israeli army. If Georgia would have that kind of nasty enemies as Israel has (the Russians are choirboys compared to Hamas & co.), Georgia would arguably not exist anymore, at least not as a democracy. It is indeed one of the greatest achievements of Israel that they sustain a fully functional democracy, including gay rights, gender equality, freedom of speech etc., in such an environment.
Salome Gvetadze on Monday, 07 March 2016 23:47

Florian, Georgia and Israel are very very different cases, with different backgrounds, problems, enemies and SUPPORTS. Israel can not be a role model for Georgia and we dont even want that. Georgia and the whole region needs less not more nationalism. I am afraid the article was a bit misleading, sorry if I misunderstood it.
p.s. I do appreciate all those achievements you listed Israel has right now, there Georgia could learn :)

Florian, Georgia and Israel are very very different cases, with different backgrounds, problems, enemies and SUPPORTS. Israel can not be a role model for Georgia and we dont even want that. Georgia and the whole region needs less not more nationalism. I am afraid the article was a bit misleading, sorry if I misunderstood it. p.s. I do appreciate all those achievements you listed Israel has right now, there Georgia could learn :)
Lasha Lanchava on Monday, 07 March 2016 23:06

Salome, the 'peace' is no excuse for ignorance and backwardness. In fact, nothing shall be...

Salome, the 'peace' is no excuse for ignorance and backwardness. In fact, nothing shall be...
Salome Gvetadze on Monday, 07 March 2016 23:38

Lasha, those are very smart words but have nothing to do with my comment :)

Lasha, those are very smart words but have nothing to do with my comment :)
Lasha Lanchava on Tuesday, 08 March 2016 00:10

Salome, I just said that Georgia can not go for more illiteracy where the education system is in deep trouble by all standards for the sake of peace or whatever. Sorry if I understood your 'I rather vote for “illiterate peasants” ' line incorrectly...

Salome, I just said that Georgia can not go for more illiteracy where the education system is in deep trouble by all standards for the sake of peace or whatever. Sorry if I understood your 'I rather vote for “illiterate peasants” ' line incorrectly...
Salome Gvetadze on Tuesday, 08 March 2016 00:44

OK, got it now, thanks for the clarification, this is my point too.

OK, got it now, thanks for the clarification, this is my point too.
Eric Livny on Monday, 07 March 2016 17:54

So you dont want to belong to a tribe? Neither do I :-)

Having a stake in governance does not automatically translate into democracy. The point is that in modern nation states (as opposed to traditional kingdoms), the ruler - even if a dictator - has to at least to pretend to represent the nation. Otherwise, his/her rule will be lacking in legitimacy. A king does not have prove his/her legitimacy.

So you dont want to belong to a tribe? Neither do I :-) Having a stake in governance does not automatically translate into democracy. The point is that in modern nation states (as opposed to traditional kingdoms), the ruler - even if a dictator - has to at least to pretend to represent the nation. Otherwise, his/her rule will be lacking in legitimacy. A king does not have prove his/her legitimacy.
Nino Doghonadze on Monday, 07 March 2016 18:12

No, we definitely do not belong to the tribes. So, North Korea is a nation and Great Britain __ a tribe? :)

No, we definitely do not belong to the tribes. So, North Korea is a nation and Great Britain __ a tribe? :)
Guest - MuhammadAsali on Wednesday, 09 March 2016 14:52

Thanks for the blog post. Interesting discussion here. Two main misperceptions (or having no clue signs) are in order, though:

1. The military system in Israel is FAR FROM anything uniting the nation. A Russian in Israel will forever be a Russian (even if he/she is a 5th generation there), and even if he/she becomes the Chief of Staff. Same as a Druze or a Bedouin will be regarded as such (Arab), even though these people serve in the military as their fellow Jewish comrades. Sephardic (Eastern) and Ashkenazi (Western) will always divide people of the same religion. In Israel what your father will forever be relevant (or, indeed, the ONLY relevant criterion).

2. Florian: it is so funny that you equalize the Russian federation and army (probably strongest and biggest in the world) with a couple of Hamas armatures. You even consider the whole Russian army as a choirboy when compared to Hamas kids. I dont know what you have in mind when you say Hamas. Certainly its NOT what the (well-informed) Israeli Chief of Staff has in mind.

Thanks for the blog post. Interesting discussion here. Two main misperceptions (or having no clue signs) are in order, though: 1. The military system in Israel is FAR FROM anything uniting the nation. A Russian in Israel will forever be a Russian (even if he/she is a 5th generation there), and even if he/she becomes the Chief of Staff. Same as a Druze or a Bedouin will be regarded as such (Arab), even though these people serve in the military as their fellow Jewish comrades. Sephardic (Eastern) and Ashkenazi (Western) will always divide people of the same religion. In Israel what your father will forever be relevant (or, indeed, the ONLY relevant criterion). 2. Florian: it is so funny that you equalize the Russian federation and army (probably strongest and biggest in the world) with a couple of Hamas armatures. You even consider the whole Russian army as a choirboy when compared to Hamas kids. I dont know what you have in mind when you say Hamas. Certainly its NOT what the (well-informed) Israeli Chief of Staff has in mind.
Eric Livny on Thursday, 10 March 2016 10:43

Dear Muhammad, I may be have been too positive when describing my IDF experience. It did not and does not work for everybody as an exercise in civic education.

Before anything else, not all Israelis serve in the army. The entire Muslim population is left out, and so are members of the ultra religious Jewish sects such as Neturei Karta, and not only.

Second, there is quite a bit of self-selection into particular military occupations based on religious, ethnic and/or racial considerations.

– For instance, many of the Druze loved serving in military riot police units, which gave them the opportunity to beat the shit out Palestinian protesters.
– Bedouins specialized as pathfinders ('gashashim').
– Many Russians of my generation - who did not manage to fully integrate into the Israeli society and stopped trying - did everything they could to evade military service. The boys claimed mental disorder or drag abuse, the girls engaged in fictitious marriages. If drafted, Russian Jews preferred to serve as warehouse clerks (to be safe and do little) or drivers . The wet dream was to drive military brass ('nahag bos'), which implied driving a nice car. Being close to home ("kalab") was another top priority for many.
– The Askhenazi Jews dominated military intelligence, electronic warfare, and anything to do with computers and HiTech.
– The underprivileged Sefardi Jews tended to avoid combat units.
– Farm boys - Kibbutzniks and Moshavniks - were the main source of recruitment for elite combat units, such as the paratroopers.

This self-selection, which continues today, is of course detrimental to national building in Israel. At the same time, those who do want to integrate (as was my case back in 1982), have the opportunity to do so through the army. That's how I became an Israeli.

Finally, Israel is changing quite dynamically. Sefardi and Ashkenazi Jews are very quickly mixing, creating a distinctive "Israeli" type which we can all recognize from a distance. Interestingly, the Christian Arabs living in Israel's north, also increasingly look like Israelis. I was amazed to see the change - the wear similar clothes, have the same hair style, and speak the same, accent-free Hebrew. This seems to confirm the hypothesis that many Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Hebrew people who have never leaved Palestine and adopted other religions, such as Christianity and Islam

Dear Muhammad, I may be have been too positive when describing my IDF experience. It did not and does not work for everybody as an exercise in civic education. Before anything else, not all Israelis serve in the army. The entire Muslim population is left out, and so are members of the ultra religious Jewish sects such as Neturei Karta, and not only. Second, there is quite a bit of self-selection into particular military occupations based on religious, ethnic and/or racial considerations. – For instance, many of the Druze loved serving in military riot police units, which gave them the opportunity to beat the shit out Palestinian protesters. – Bedouins specialized as pathfinders ('gashashim'). – Many Russians of my generation - who did not manage to fully integrate into the Israeli society and stopped trying - did everything they could to evade military service. The boys claimed mental disorder or drag abuse, the girls engaged in fictitious marriages. If drafted, Russian Jews preferred to serve as warehouse clerks (to be safe and do little) or drivers . The wet dream was to drive military brass ('nahag bos'), which implied driving a nice car. Being close to home ("kalab") was another top priority for many. – The Askhenazi Jews dominated military intelligence, electronic warfare, and anything to do with computers and HiTech. – The underprivileged Sefardi Jews tended to avoid combat units. – Farm boys - Kibbutzniks and Moshavniks - were the main source of recruitment for elite combat units, such as the paratroopers. This self-selection, which continues today, is of course detrimental to national building in Israel. At the same time, those who do want to integrate (as was my case back in 1982), have the opportunity to do so through the army. That's how I became an Israeli. Finally, Israel is changing quite dynamically. Sefardi and Ashkenazi Jews are very quickly mixing, creating a distinctive "Israeli" type which we can all recognize from a distance. Interestingly, the Christian Arabs living in Israel's north, also increasingly look like Israelis. I was amazed to see the change - the wear similar clothes, have the same hair style, and speak the same, accent-free Hebrew. This seems to confirm the hypothesis that many Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Hebrew people who have never leaved Palestine and adopted other religions, such as Christianity and Islam
Florian Biermann on Saturday, 23 April 2016 03:26

Muhammad, I was not referring to military strength. The Russians do not want to exterminate Georgia, but Hamas and many other of Israels enemies want to erase Israel from the map. In this respect, Israels enemies are much more nasty than Georgias.

Muhammad, I was not referring to military strength. The Russians do not want to exterminate Georgia, but Hamas and many other of Israels enemies want to erase Israel from the map. In this respect, Israels enemies are much more nasty than Georgias.
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