1947 And All That

I can’t claim by any means to be especially knowledgeable about Pakistan. Most of what I know comes from a single book that I picked up essentially on autopilot when it was published (I think a year after 9-11) and finally got around to reading a couple of years later. Nonetheless, my ignorance hasn’t stopped me from being a chronic Pakistanophobe, for all the usual reasons.

It’s striking, though, for this pro-Israel Pakistanophobe to contemplate the parallels between the State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Both were created in 1947; though Israel didn’t actually declare independence until May, 1948, it was voted into existence by the UN in November, 1947.

Both were former British-administered territories. Both were the result of partitions of formerly integral territories. Both states fought wars within their first year of existence (Israel’s War of Independence and Pakistan’s First Kashmir War) in part to establish control over territory deemed rightfully theirs that was not awarded to them in partition. And both states failed (Israel was unable to capture the entirety of Jerusalem in 1948-49, and Pakistan was unable to gain control of all of Kashmir).

Both states had to absorb enormous numbers of refugees from neighboring states within the first few months and years of their existences as independent states (in Pakistan’s case, from India; in Israel’s, from the Arab states). And this influx profoundly shaped the national identity of both states (the relative position of newcomers and oldtimers in Pakistan was a live issue for decades, and the divide between Sephardi and Ashkenazi in Israel remains a live issue decades after intermarriage between the two groups became relatively common).

Both states have fought multiple wars with their neighbors, and have developed a kind of rational paranoia about threats to their national survival. Indeed, it is striking that while many regimes fear for their survival, and many nations have at times believed that there were broad international conspiracies to humiliate them, relatively few nation-states fret about the prospects of national survival in the way that Israel and Pakistan have. In any event, both states have also successfully pursued nuclear weapons as the ultimate insurance against national extinction.

In both states, democratic norms that were fairly robust upon founding have been eroded because of the powerful position of the military in national life. This is manifest in Pakistan, where the Musharraf dictatorship has just entered a new and more blatant phase. But it is also true, though more subtly true, in Israel, where generals have gotten progressively more political, the time-frame for moving from the army to the government has gotten progressively shorter, and the nation’s willingness to trust a non-general with political power continues to decline (and Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz have, by their records in office, done rather too much to confirm the wisdom of this national prejudice).

Both states are founded on the proposition that a religious affiliation was really a nationality. This is a bit more complicated in the case of Israel, as the idea of the Jewish people as a unitary entity is rather older than Judaism, and persisted strongly as an ideological matter within the religious tradition down to modern times, but it remains a fact that the Jewish people were substantially divided into wildly divergent groups that did not intermarry, speak the same language, eat the same foods, or indeed have much contact with each other by the time Zionism came along, and that the Jews of the West, at least, had formally abandoned the notion of being a separate nation decades earlier with emancipation. Zionism was at least as much about creating a Jewish nation out of the Jewish people as it was about creating a state or connecting with the land. The “two nations” concept that underlies the creation of Pakistan, meanwhile, struck many observers at the time as absurd, and still seems odd to me today, not least because Islam is constituted so explicitly against the idea that Muslims are an ethnic group as opposed to a group of people who happen to have already attained what is a universal aspirational state.

Moreover, the fact that both states were founded on such a proposition has had profound consequences for both states’ histories. What remained of Pakistan once it lost its eastern half has become steadily more Islamic in character; this is partly due to trends that are widespread in the Muslim world, but as well substantially due to the fact that Pakistan’s basis for existence as a state separate from India is its Muslim character. A secular Pakistan would not have a terribly coherent national narrative. Similarly, Israel’s professed character as a Jewish State has always begged the question: what’s Jewish about it? As Jewish identity and history cannot plausibly be severed from Judaism, and as Israel remains a predominantly secular society (though not nearly so secular as most Western democracies), the State has been unable to establish a stable modus vivendi with the organs of institutional religion, and since the passing of the founding generation has been unable to articulate a national narrative that is persuasive and inspiring and yet refutes the narratives proffered by the various segments of that country’s religious right.

Finally, both states are long-time clients of the United States, major recipients of American military and non-military aid, major allies outside the European theater in the Cold War, and major – but problematic – allies in the War on Terror (in Israel’s case because we fear our obvious close alignment with Israel hurts our position with Arab allies we need to combat terror groups that target Americans; in Pakistan’s case, because organs of the Pakistani government have historically been supportive of those very groups, yet we fear that were the current government to fall we would wind up confronting an overtly hostile regime).

I’m not sure that I mean to suggest anything by the comparison. I could as easily have listed the numerous ways in which the countries differ: Israel has progressively risen in per-capita income, while Pakistan has stagnated; Pakistan is a huge country in terms of population and territory, while Israel is tiny; etc. I could also have pointed out that, until relatively recently, Democratic administrations in America tended to tilt more towards Israel and Republican administrations more towards Pakistan (this Presidency is certainly an exception to the first generalization and partly an exception to the latter).

I guess all I wanted to point out is that the two countries share a certain set of relatively rare historical circumstances, and to lay out my suspicion that most people who pay lots of attention to one country or the other have not thought about the comparison and whether it might shed any particular light on some aspect of either country’s situation.