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Faculty Book Spotlight: Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Territorial Separatism (Edited by Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson)

book cover of Partitions

This semester’s faculty book spotlight features Professor Arie Dubnov, co-editor of Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Territorial Separatism (Stanford University Press, 2019). Dubnov was interviewed by Alyssa Bivins, who is currently a second-year PhD student in GW’s History Department.

Q: What inspired you to begin this book project?

Laura Robson and I both participated in a decolonization seminar through the Library of Congress. This seminar lasted ten years and pushed participants to think in broader comparative terms about processes of imperial disintegration during the twentieth century. Partition was one of the themes that emerged from such a study of decolonization, especially once we traced it across territories and periods. The idea for the project was planted in the seminar, as well as the tools to explore the connections among its many iterations. It inspired us to move beyond the nationalist frameworks to begin to question the conventional narratives that read partition as a natural or inevitable phenomenon.

The more we studied the history of partition, the more we became convinced that the very idea of a physical division of territory along ethno-religious lines into separate nation-states is a relatively recent phenomenon in historical terms. We also ended up this study convinced that the attempts to promote partition as a successful political “solution” to ethnic conflict were based on a rather poor reading of history.

Q: This comprehensive transnational project brought together an impressive assembly of scholars to focus on three key instances of partition in British colonial history: Ireland, India, and Palestine. What was the process of bringing these scholars together?

A: I am a firm believer in the importance of using more global and international approaches to history, that would complement (but not substitute) local expertise and the fine-grain knowledge that characterizes area studies. The book needed to be a collected volume rather than a traditional monograph partly because of the sheer linguistic limitations and the number of archives that had to be examined, in four corners of the globe. It is really too much for a single scholar to do properly. I was fortunate to have colleagues who were willing to think transnational and join me and my co-editor in this project!

Q: You also wrote a chapter for the book about an architect of two of the partitions. As a fellow historian, I feel compelled to ask: how did your training as a historian and your work in the archives inspire this current work? Did you have any “aha” moments?

A: For me, the project was not born from a single moment, but through the historical character of Reginald Coupeland. Coupland was a prolific historian, serving as Beit Professor of Colonial History at Oxford from 1920 until 1948. Educated at Britain’s most prestigious schools and holding a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford University’s most elitist hub, he was a prototypical member of the Empire’s educated elite, close to policymakers and advisors.

Early on, I realized that the name of the same individual kept reappearing in all three cases of partition! During the 1920s, he was very close to Lionel Curtis and other people who had planned the Irish partition. Next, in 1937, he was appointed a member of Lord Peel’s Royal Commission on Palestine, which ended up proposing partition. Later he reappeared in India as a member of Sir Stafford Cripps’ 1942 Mission to India and an author of several length reports on the future of the Raj, which resembled in structure and contents to the Peel Commission’s Report. Seeing him involved in all three cases, even as a supporting actor, constituted a kind of first “aha” moment. Here’s a fellow whose fingerprints kept popping up. I called him, in a mix of fondness and mockery, my imperial Waldo.

Q: Do you think the creation of these partitioned spaces was unique to the British Empire and the cases you covered?

A: First, to be clear, partition is a very particular thing that should be defined historically and analytically. When we first think about partition, most of us imagine a line that is drawn on a map. That is one essential element, of course. But border-making and partition are not synonymous.

The second important aspect of partition is that the border it creates divides two new entities that are called nation-states. Thus, unlike borders that were made for redistricting, or cases like the territorial divisions of Poland in the eighteenth century (culminating in the disappearance of the Polish state), the three British partitions we studied became important milestones on the road to statehood. They were predicated on the idea of self-government and sovereignty. Unlike India and Pakistan, the 1948 War in Palestine ended up with only one state, Israel, rather than two, and with the Nakba, the expulsion and denial of return of Palestinian residents from the areas of the new state.

This leads me to the third element of a partition: namely, the idea that the new ethnonational state created will be feasible only if it maintains clear majority/minority proportions. This third element is not uniquely British, but is connected to the ways in which a democratic global order was conceptualized in interwar years. The emerging League of Nations committed itself and its resources to the principle of homogeneous ethnic nation-statehood, to be accomplished with transfer—the involuntary displacement of populations, accompanied by violence if necessary. The nation-state engineered the space to correspond with the demography, and absorbed the logic of population transfers.

Q: The question of partition is particularly timely, you noted in your book, because it is still floated as a potential policy today, and the parallels between the nations covered in your book continue to exist! One political incident involving two of the “partition spaces” in your book occurred in late November of this year, when it was leaked that India’s consul general in NYC suggested that India could follow an Israeli model in Kashmir. Since your book has suggested historical parallels between these many countries, do you think there are also future parallels for foreign policy solutions or cautions?

I might come out much more optimistic in this answer than I am in practice! How can one explain the similarity between contemporary India and Israel? And what is the historical perspective we need to understand the sudden rapprochement between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel and India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi? I tried to answer some of these questions in an essay I entitled “Notes on the Zionist Passage to India,” which I could not summarize here with due diligence.

There is ample evidence to show that Narendra Modi, who promotes a much more assertive Hindu nationalism, is looking in a very positive way at Netanyahu’s Israel. Both of them are hyper-nationalist, populist, and neoliberal leaders. Both follow the logic of “open markets – closed cultures,” a handy catchphrase I borrow from Arjun Appadurai. Many find it difficult to see that there is no contradiction between the cultivation of an uncompromising nationalist leadership style, which is accompanied by a clear anti-Muslim sentiment, and the desire to open their countries to foreign investments and promote high-tech initiatives.

There is a long and interesting history between the two countries. It of course is not linear, as India and Israel were not always the best of friends—that part is a recent phenomenon. Bear in mind that there are important, positive things they could learn from each other instead: for example, India is the world’s largest democracy, it has a progressive constitution, and it has minority protections built into its constitution. Sadly, many of these principles are challenged and even eroded today. And you are right that politicians and activists in India and Israel do continue to look to each other for parallels today. Unfortunately, all too often what each side sees as “the virtues” of the other side, is far removed from what progressive observers would consider to be a positive model worthy of imitation. India’s army, for example, imports military equipment and knowledge from Israel, and tries to learn from the Israeli security apparatus how to use drones and conduct “surgical strikes.” On the other side, Messianic Jews are looking at India for precedents. Those who followed the Ayodhya dispute—a contested religious site which is regarded among Hindus to be the birthplace of Rama but is also a site of a Muslim mosque—can guess where all this goes. After long years of dispute, India’s Supreme Court ruled in November 2019 that the ancient Hindu Temple will be rebuilt, and the mosque relocated elsewhere. Within less than a week, a group of Messianic Jews who covet to rebuild the Jewish Temple on the site of the Al Aqsa Compound on the Temple Mount / Haram el-Sharif began citing this Indian ruling as paving the way for their plan. Analogies and parallels, therefore, work both ways, and they outlived the British empire, which provided in the past the shared framework for Jewish and Hindu nationalists. Evidently, comparative gazes and translocal imitations could serve multiple political agendas.

I am a historian, not a political scientist or a policy advisor, so I do not pretend to offer model to explain the present and predict the future. I only wish to offer a historical perspective. I did not anticipate that using partition as a lens would help highlight a lot of what makes the newspaper headlines in contemporary politics in post-partition spaces. Look at the way the “Irish question” turned out to be, one of the stumbling blocks of Brexit negotiations, look at Kashmir. We are living in “interesting times,” as the famous curse-turned-phrase goes. It is one of the privileges and duties of historians to discuss the implications of their learning for concerns and disputes in the present—including contemporary controversies about past events. Thank you for providing me with an opportunity to reflect on my project and to share some of my historical insights and interpretations with a wider IMES community!