As markets quake and elites quiver, I know I am supposed to fret about Brexit, the British exit from the European Union. Just as we were told before the vote that only demagogues and bigots wanted out, we are being told now that the yahoos won, the haters triumphed, vanquishing the enlightened forces of progress. True, I worry about the markets and this messy divorce’s mechanics. I recoil from the Brexiters’ chauvinism and cynicism, their day-before delusions and day-after distancing. Still, the Euroskeptic, the liberal democrat and the Zionist in me all cheer the British people for defending their national identity.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s clumsiness, calling the vote assuming it would fail, reflects the EU elites’ broader failure. They created an arrogant bureaucracy contemptuous of national traditions and the masses’ common sense. Opponents estimated that 65 percent of British regulations, nearly 50,000 rules, were EU-imposed, including idiotic bans on restaurants serving olive oil in bowls and the “bent banana ban” on “abnormal curvature.” But underlying this is a deeper, ongoing debate about World War II. The EU and UN believers decided that the answer to Nazi nationalism was no nationalism. But the best answer to bad nationalism is good, constructive, liberal nationalism.
Culture counts – and cosmopolitanism miscalculates. Just as the international language Esperanto misfired decades ago, the EU stumbled because many people like their cozy identities, tribal communities, national traditions. Meanwhile, calling anyone worried about terrorism and mass immigration a bigot is as bigoted as calling all immigrants terrorists. It takes too much education and too many ideological blinders to ignore some of the problems that motivated the “leave” voters.
Immigration benefits societies. Most Muslim immigrants, like most immigrants historically, simply seek a better life. Nevertheless, immigration can be destabilizing. Moreover, while few Muslims are terrorists, almost all modern terrorists are Muslim – and by definition every Islamist terrorist is Muslim. If elites tolerated honest conversations about immigration’s blessings and curses, and about the complicated ways Islam, Islamism and terrorism interact, the frustration that cascaded into Brexit – and feeds Trumpism – would dissipate. Instead, the politically incorrect, who are often correct but politically checked, feel angry, disenfranchised, squelched – then lash out.
Candid conversations would have blurred lines and reduced tensions rather than creating all-or-nothing worldviews reinforced by fury. Politically correct shaming cannot obscure or solve the problems of immigrant gangs, the assaults on national sensibilities, or the many Muslims and Muslim preachers tolerating terrorism and enabling Islamism. With too many native Europeans facing too many months without enough money, the economic woes trigger larger social, cultural and political frustrations.
Just as decades ago the oppression of Soviet Jewry helped Zionists see Soviet Communism’s flaws long before other progressives could, Zionists today can see the EU’s flaws more clearly, and understand some of the Brexit impulse. Zionists experience the politically correct blindness regarding Israel that reflects a more widespread series of ideological blinders the Brexiters detested and rejected. Zionists see the softness regarding terrorism, the hypocrisy favoring undemocratic Palestinian terrorists over democratic Israelis, the destructive self-hatred regarding Western values, ideals and sensibilities.
Beyond the liberating insights that come from supporting Israel despite being the least favored, most targeted nation, comes Zionism’s deep, convincing yet spectacularly unfashionable reading of universalism and particularism.
Following the Holocaust, too many EU cosmopolitans decided that nationalism was xenophobia, religion was superstition, particularism merely selfish.
The cosmopolitan ideal became to construct a Republic of Everything, open, welcoming, fluid, super-pluralistic. Unfortunately, this Republic of Everything, while bringing some benefits, frequently becomes a Republic of Nothing, lacking anchors, grounding, values and tradition.
By contrast, Zionism appreciates living in a Republic of Something, a political entity reflecting common ideals and a shared mission, bound by a sense of the past that enriches the present and inspires us to build a better future. Zionism wants the nation to pass what I call the Richard Stands test, taken from the line in America’s Pledge of Allegiance – “and to the Republic for which it stands” which elementary school smart-mouths often rendered as “Richard Stands.”
Nations should stand for something. Nationalism can be xenophobic or constructive, uniting people to build something greater than themselves individually. This national grandeur is best displayed in the liberal nationalism of the United States, Israel, Canada, and yes, Great Britain.
Similarly, religion can be rigid, fanatic and inhumane, but it can also be aspirational, inspirational and spiritual, stretching us to be better people and live more meaningful lives. And rather than seeing particularism as merely egocentric, the Zionist understands particular pride as the best way to contribute to the broader world. By fulfilling constructive liberal democratic national values, by embracing Jewish ideals, the Zionist contributes to humanity, not just to a limited community. Ultimately, rather than denigrating tribalism, the Zionist seeks to make tribalism transcendent.
The Brexit voters voted against the EU’s Republic of Everything and Nothing. Donald Trump’s rise reflects parallel fears that as America becomes a Republic of Everything it is collapsing into a Republic of Nothing – ironically epitomized by Trump’s bullying buffoonery. Trump has risen as a reaction to President Barack Obama’s EU-like obtuseness and political correctness. Hillary Clinton will fail – as did the EU’s boosters – if she merely parrots the media and elite contempt for these worries. The West needs candid, constructive, courageous leaders who address problems honestly, offer intelligent solutions reasonably, and help rebuild visions for modern Republics of Something creatively, thereby passing that all-important Richard Stands test.The author, professor of history at McGill University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.
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