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Vivek Ramaswamy and the Cunning of Ethnonationalism

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Our Zoom call this week, for paid subscribers, will be at our regular time: Friday at Noon EDT.

Our guests will be Emmanuel Shahaf and Iyad Rafidi, proponents of one federated state, with citizenship for all, in Israel and the West Bank (but not the Gaza Strip which would remain on its own). I’m dubious of this version of one state but since we’ve hosted speakers offering a range of political alternatives over the last two years, it seemed worthwhile to discuss this one, particularly as some on the Israeli right have in the past proposed similar notions.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Noam Chomsky, Bret Stephens and, most recently, Benny Morris.

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Sources Cited in this Video

Vivek Ramaswamy’s comments about Israel at the first Republican presidential debate (starts around 1 hour, 7 minutes in).

My article arguing (incorrectly) that Republicans, unlike British Tories, would not vote for a Hindu candidate.

Things to Read

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Sophia Goodfriend explains how far-right content on Tik Tok is radicalizing young Israeli Jews.

Last week on New York One, I discussed Mayor Eric Adams’ trip to Israel.

On August 29 on Zoom, I’ll be talking about Palestinian refugee return and the Jewish concept of Teshuvah.

How climate disaster is fueling fascism in Greece.

See you on Friday at Noon,

Peter


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

Hi. Our guests this Friday at noon ET, our normal time for paid subscribers, will be Emmanuel Shahaf and Iyad Rafidi. They’re both advocates of a federation model for one Israel-Palestine. We’ve talked at various times over the last couple of years about different kinds of models, what one equal state might look like. And this is one particular version—not confederation, but federation that Emmanuel and Iyad have been working on. So, we’ll do that at Friday at noon. And of course, paid subscribers also get all our previous calls with folks like Thomas Friedman and Bret Stephens and Ilhan Omar and the last two particularly interesting ones, I think, with Benny Morris and then with Ahmed Khalidi, who was talking in response to Benny Morris.

I wanted to talk about Vivek Ramaswamy and start with a mea culpa. I did not think that Vivek Ramaswamy was possible. I did one of these a while back arguing that I did not think that the Republican Party electorate would be open to a non-Christian or non ‘Judeo-Christian’ candidate. My argument was that basically we have seen that non-white candidates can gain traction among Republicans, but that their Christianity is really key, and that unlike someone like Rishi Sunak who’s openly Hindu in the UK, that Christianity is so central to the Republican Party’s identity that someone who was not Christian would not be able to be acceptable. And I noticed that people like Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, who are South Asian politicians, had actually converted to Christianity, and that was part of what made them politically palatable for Republicans.

So, it turns out I was wrong that Vivek Ramaswamy is getting substantial support among the Republican base, even though he is openly Hindu. And that, to me, what makes it particularly striking and is that he’s peddling an ethnonationalist vision, which really is in very stark contradiction, I think, to his own family’s story of immigration to the United States. But this really shows that the kind of cunning of ethno-nationalism that you see in various countries that people can articulate an ethno-nationalist vision even when their own identity isn’t really in sync with that ethno-nationalist vision.

So, let me try to explain what I mean in Ramaswamy’s case, and then I’ll give another example of someone in another country who I think shows this cunning of ethnonationalism. So, Ramaswamy at the Republican presidential debate last week was attacked by Nikki Haley for talking about cutting off US aid, and he responded by saying this. He said, ‘you know what I love about Israel?’ This is Ramaswamy. ‘I love their border policies. I love that they have a national identity.’ Now, what are Israel’s border policies? Well, Israel’s immigration policy is that any Jew can go and become citizen on day one, but it’s extraordinarily difficult for any non-Jew to go and gain citizenship in Israel. And that of course includes those very Palestinians who were expelled or their descendants. Now, there are other countries that do favor members of one religious or ethnic group, but Israel has a very, very extreme version of this ethnonationalist immigration policy—an immigration policy designed to buttress one hegemonic ethnonational group.

And Ramaswamy wants America to adopt that border policy so it will have a national identity like Israel’s national identity. Israel’s national identity is an ethnonationalist national identity. It is the identity of a Jewish state, right? So, the implication is that Ramaswamy wants America to have an immigration policy that will bolster its ethnonationalist identity, which presumably would be a white Christian state, right? Now, how would Ramaswamy’s own family have fared had America had that kind of immigration policy? Almost certainly his parents would not have been allowed into the United States. Because, in fact, the United States did have an immigration policy that was more similar to Israel’s, more clearly designed to buttress the hegemony of one ethno-religious racial group in the United States. Starting in 1924, the Congress passed a law that was specifically designed—this is quoting from the Office of the Historian of the US Department of State, that the purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was ‘to preserve the ideal of US homogeneity.’ What it basically did was created national quotas that radically minimized the number of people who could immigrate to the United States from Southern or Eastern Europe, let alone from Asia or other parts of the non-Western world. And in fact, one of the fans of this immigration policy in 1924, because it was so draconian in its ethnonationalism, was none other than Adolf Hitler, who in Mein Kampf praised the 1924 Immigration Act because it—this is Hitler’s words—‘categorically refuses the immigration of physically unhealthy elements and simply excludes the immigration of certain races.’

So, that was the immigration policy the US had from 1924 until 1965. Not that different in spirit from the one that Israel has and the one that Ramaswamy would like the United States to adopt now. Fortunately for Ramaswamy’s parents, the United States changed its immigration policy in 1965. The fact that it happened in 1965 is not a coincidence. That was during the Civil Rights movement and the US changed its immigration policy, so it didn’t have such draconian limitations on immigration from the developing world, and it instead had policies of family reunification and certain skills benefits that dramatically and very quickly changed the racial and religious and ethnic composition of immigration to the United States. This policy change, not surprisingly, was opposed generally by Southern segregationist Democrats but it passed because the same coalition of people who supported the Civil Rights movement in Congress, basically Democrats and Republicans from the North and West, supported this immigration change as well.

And the effects were dramatic. So, just some statistics. In 1965, the year the law was passed, the percentage of immigrants that year who came from India was 0.1%. By 1970, it was 5.6%. In 1965, the percentage of American immigrants who were Chinese was 0.13%. By 1970, it was 6.7 5%. In 1965, the percentage of American immigrants that year who were Filipino was 0.1%. By 1970, it was 13.5%. A lot of the dramatic demographic change that we have seen is reflected exactly in those numbers, and part of that story is the Ramaswamy family. Vivek Ramaswamy’s father immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. His mother immigrated in the 1980s. They almost certainly would never have gotten into the United States under the US immigration law that existed before 1965, the kind of immigration law that Vivek Ramaswamy wants to return to, based on the Israeli model. So, it seems to me that there is a direct contradiction between Ramaswamy’s family’s own experience of basically taking advantage of, and contributing to, America that is more open to people who are not white and Christian, and his own desire essentially to return to that vision of American ethnonationalism on the Israeli model.

Now, how is that possible? In a certain way, I didn’t really think that you could have a candidate who would do that. That’s part of the reason I didn’t imagine that you could have a Hindu South Asian Republican doing so well among the Republican base. But what I think I misunderstood, or underestimated, is the ability of people to make arguments that can be very appealing—ethnonationalist arguments—even when their own family story and their own identity is at odds with that. And I probably should have thought of that more. I mean, look at Jared Kushner, right? Jared Kushner’s family are Holocaust survivors who came to the United States. And yet, Jared Kushner himself basically was entirely fine with shutting off America’s borders to refugees. Stephen Miller is denounced by his own uncle who made the very reasonable point that under Miller’s kind of, you know, border policies that his own family would not have entered into the United States—also being Eastern European Jewish. It didn’t stop Kushner and Miller from doing this.

Another example of the way in which people can become advocates of ethnonationalism, even when it’s in contradiction to their own identity is Éric Zemmour, who ran for president of France—a Jewish Frenchman who during his campaign defended Philippe Pétain, the Nazi collaborator. At another point, Éric Zemmour called the French Jews who were killed in an antisemitic attack who then chose to be buried in Israel, or their family chose for them to be buried in Israel, he called them foreigners because they were not born on French soil. So, in a certain way, Zemmour was contributing to the notion that Jews may not truly be French, and whitewashing France’s antisemitic history, even though he was Jewish himself. So, there is a kind of cunning in the ethnonationalist resurgence that we see today, which makes it possible that ambitious, I think often amoral, politicians can become vehicles for this ethnonationalism, even if their own personal life stories are at odds with it. And I think this is the lesson of the rise of Vivek Ramaswamy. Hope to see many of you on Friday with Emmanuel Shahaf and Iyad Rafidi talking about federation in Israel-Palestine.

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Peter Beinart