In Era of Hardening Identities, Trump Order on Jews Kindles Questions Old and New

In Era of Hardening Identities, Trump Order on Jews Kindles Questions Old and New

The concept of an overarching identity tied to one’s country was invented not by ancient poets or warriors but by 19th-century European governments. As monarchies teetered and the church declined, governments saw engineering common languages and ethnic heritages as a way to justify their rule over polyglot empires, as well as an opportunity to marshal their populations for collective pursuits like industry or war.

“Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth,” the British-Czech political theorist Ernest Gellner wrote.

But this way of thinking reshaped 19th-century Europe, leading to the creation of modern Italy and Germany. It later spread to the rest of the world, inspiring independence and liberation movements on the basis that all people belong to national groups awaiting their nation.

National identity’s rise, however, also turned minorities and migrants into second-class citizens — or even into perceived threats within. It turned racial purity into a matter of ethnic, and therefore national, survival. It defined nations as irrevocably divided from one another by race and heritage.

The world, unable to unwind a global order built on national identity, sought to manage its worst tendencies by promoting cultural pluralism, international integration and protections for minorities and migrants. These values did not so much replace national identity as sit uneasily alongside it, eventually leading to a backlash.

Leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary combine the old appeals to blood and soil with something new: promises to smash the systems of multiculturalism and integration seen as posing just as grave a threat to national identity as any minority or migrant. Mr. Trump rose on a similar message, saying about immigration and border restrictions he considered dangerously weak, “You either have a country or you don’t.”

Mr. Trump’s order, for purposes of monitoring educational institutions’ handling of discrimination, places Jews under Civil Rights Act protections based on race, color or national origin. The order also draws on a 2005 definition of anti-Semitism, one of whose authors has since said is overly broad, conflating hatred of Jews with criticism of Israel.

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