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Understanding Homelands

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From the Trump plan for a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the Russian annexation of Crimea, conflicts between China and India, on one side, and Taiwan on the other, and Basque and Scottish secessionist endeavors, the world continues to be riven by projects intended to reshape international borders. Sometimes such projects “work” and new borders are eventually accepted as appropriate. Other times, however, the drawing or redrawing of international borders sparks apparently intractable conflict. My book, Homelands: Shifting Borders and Territorial Disputes, explains the role homelands play in this variation.

Homelands matter

Homelands are a fundamental component of any nationalism. The idea that a nation ought to control its political destiny (nationalism) requires a territory in which to exercise this control. As a result, all nationalisms sanctify a particular territory as the homeland. Homelands then come to symbolize the area from which a nation has risen and in which it should fulfill its destiny. The emotive power of homelands stems from these symbolic, almost religious, beliefs more than any economic or strategic value of the land. This is why borders that truncate homelands lead to so much conflict.

The emotive power of homelands stems from these symbolic, almost religious, beliefs more than any economic or strategic value of the land.

Homelands change

Yet, despite their tremendous value and the common view of homelands as immutable, the contours of the homeland can, and do, change over time. For example, Indian nationalists no longer Pakistan as part of “Mother India.” Germans rarely seek the return of the German homeland east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers. Even Italian nationalism, whose aspirations for its terra irredenta (unredeemed land) along the Adriatic coast gave us the term “irredentism,” no longer widely includes Istria or Dalmatia within the geographical scope of the Italian homeland.

Taking the possibility that a homeland’s boundaries can change, seriously, directs our attention to questions about how and under what conditions such transformations take place. Asking these questions allows us to move beyond the debate about whether or not the territory’s role in a conflict is due to its perceived indivisibility to an explicit exploration of the mechanisms that drive changes in the definition of the homeland’s scope and the conditions that make such transformations more likely.

Taking the possibility that a homeland’s boundaries can change, seriously, directs our attention to questions about how and under what conditions such transformations take place.

Homelands evolve

Such transformations are frequently the byproduct of the domestic political game. Different political movements often disagree about exactly which tracts of land are appropriately part of the homeland and what logics or combination of logics (e.g., historical, religious, economic, demographic) justify including that land as part of the nation’s homeland. The domestic competition for power between these movements fosters change in two particular ways. First, new, more modest, understandings of the homeland, where they are associated with domestic political success in this struggle, displace more expansive ones. Over time, land left out of these understandings loses its status as part of the homeland. Second, logics that were successful in laying claim to land as part of the homeland in an earlier period may, for any number of reasons, no longer hold sway. When either happens, new map-images of the homeland come to be seen as the commonsense ones. These contractions in the homeland’s scope, in turn, explain why some new borders are accepted while others fuel recurring violence.


Nadav Shelef is a Professor of Political Science and the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Israel Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. See all books by this author.

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