The decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union –
announced as the EU edges ever closer to disintegration – is a clear attempt to
breathe new life into a deeply challenged alliance. In Israel, as in much of the
West, the decision has been portrayed as virtually comical, the latest in a
series of peace prizes to recipients who simply did not merit the
But the Nobel Committee’s decision is not mere foolishness; it
reflects a worldview that is largely responsible for Israel’s marginalization in
the international community.
And as long as Israeli leaders fail to
understand that what divides Israel and the EU is much deeper than the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict, Israel will continue failing to make its case in the
The Nobel Committee noted that “the dreadful
suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe.” Who
understood that better than the Jews, millions of whom had been exterminated in
Germany and Poland with little response from the rest of the world? But as they
staggered out of what remained of postwar Europe, the Jews drew conclusions
about their future that immediately put them at odds with Europe’s
European intellectuals decided that the nation-state
was a model that needed to be relegated to the ash heap of history; the Jews, in
contrast, decided that the only thing that would avert their continual
victimization was creating a nation-state of their own.
Thus, the Jewish
state, without question the world’s highest-profile example of the ethnic
nation-state, emerged onto the international stage just as Europe decided that
the model had run its course. That is why historian Tony Judt called Israel “an
anachronism,” urging that it be dismantled.
Widespread European disdain
for Israel, while certainly fueled by both the enduring Israeli-Palestinian
conflict and Muslim immigration to Europe, was thus all but
Yes, Israel affords civil rights and freedom of worship to
its many minorities; but it makes no attempt to deny that there is one specific
people, one particular narrative, one religion to which is it most centrally
committed. The State of Israel is, to paraphrase Lincoln, “by the Jews, of the
Jews and for the Jews.” How could those who labored to create the European Union
not consider the very idea of a Jewish state anathema?
THE JEWISH state is much
more than a Jewish refuge created in response to the horrors of 20th-century
Europe. It is a country built on a conception of human flourishing utterly at
odds with that at the heart of the EU. Perhaps no one has put it better than
George Eliot, who wrote in Daniel Deronda, “A human life, I think, should be
well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender
kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds
and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar
unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge... a spot where
the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection.”
sounds and accents that haunt each of us, the narratives that shape our dreams
and our fears, are not universal. They are the ultimate particular allegiances
and the most deeply held convictions that make us human. A family that has lived
in Bavaria for centuries has different traditions and memories and very
different conceptions of loyalty, honor and love than a family that has deep
roots in Tuscany. They will raise their children differently and urge them to
read different books. They will worship in different ways and they will be
willing to die for different causes.
When John Stuart Mill wrote that
“the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of
nationalities,” he was essentially making the same claim that George Eliot did.
And both were expressing the fundamental insight that is at the heart of
Yes, a new Europe was needed after World War II. But was the
transcendence of human difference really the solution? Was the problem the
nation-state or the absence of democracy? Thirty years ago, in two articles
still considered classics, Michael Doyle noted that with almost no exceptions,
liberal democracies do not go to war with each other.
The EU represents a
vision of the future in which peace is achieved by diminishing the importance we
attach to our uniqueness and our differences. The Jewish state is predicated on
the belief that it is human difference that makes humanity majestic and that it
is our specificity that gives us reason to live, to defend ourselves and to
educate future generations.
The recent Nobel Prize decision ought to be a
reminder to Israeli leaders of the huge chasm that separates the Jewish state
from the EU. Zionism, Israel’s leaders must begin to insist, should not be seen
as the last gasp of a discredited worldview, but rather as a millennia-old claim
that human difference is noble and that the preservation of ethnic
distinctiveness is a deep-seated and natural human aspiration.
unlikely to change many European minds, but such a claim would at least free
Israel from its current hopelessly defensive posture and would engage the
Western world in a principled conversation that would enrich Europe no less than
it would serve the Jewish state.
The author is senior vice president and
Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His most recent
book is The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually
Its Greatest Strength (Wiley 2012).