Numerous detractors have emerged against the new law passed by the Knesset “Israel: The Nation State of the Jewish Nation,” of which beyond doubt, the most important are liberal Jewish Israelis and the political parties that represent them, the Zionist Union and Meretz, the Arab Joint List and voices within the Druze community.
Ironically, the 14th century Arab and Muslim thinker and historian Ibn Khaldun, explains and justifies why the law defining the nation-ness of the state is necessary (as opposed to laws defining the principles and internal workings of the State of Israel, such as the principle of equality between citizens as individuals).
Ibn Khaldun is credited with adumbrating in a 1,000-page work, the first grand theory of human history. As a veteran politician in numerous courts of his day from Spain to Tunisia (where he was born) and as a schemer in most of the courts (this is how at least the numerous rulers who imprisoned or exiled him justified their actions against him), his grand theory of politics is based on conflict and war.
To put it more bluntly, for Ibn Khaldun, human history is a cycle of hungry, martial barbarians emerging from the deserts and steppes who, for lack of sustenance in their habitats of origin, sweep on the states and empires that typically rule over the fertile plains and coastal ports.
The wealth of their inhabitants, rooted in agriculture and commerce, is extracted and used to enhance learning, culture and the arts, which directly and indirectly edify the ruler who pines for commemorative immortality in the absence of achieving it in the flesh.
The wealthier, more cultured and refined the empire, the more it draws the hungry in the steppes to transform it into their prey.
All states, all empires, without exception, according to Ibn Khaldun, succumb to these hordes, whose great advantage is not only material want but spiritual bonding and togetherness, which he famously called “asabiyya”, best translated as tribal “esprit de corps.”
Yet, this is exactly what gets lost as these “barbarians” who conquer these empires, home to great civilizations, lose their assaibya as they continuously become more accustomed to the refinements of urban life. In fact, so ubiquitous is this phenomenon of becoming civilized that he termed the transformation “madaniyya” – a derivative of the Arab word for city and the act of becoming urban.
As the reader probably guessed, once “civilized” and “refined,” the former warriors of the steppe and desert become the victims of the new hordes of Bedouin from the desert.
Ibn Khaldun’s ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, were hardly foreign to the philosophy of Zionism. From A.D. Gordon to the spiritual essays of HaRav Kook, from HaShomer to the Palmah, there was an awareness that the Jews in the Diaspora, praised for the tenaciousness of keeping the faith, were losing their spiritual compass and to a certain sense their asabiyya. The call for pioneers to work the land in the periphery, the Jew “who conquers the mountains” where the forefathers of the nation treaded, reflected the themes of Ibn Khaldun.
Israel is today one of the most urban societies in the world, less than 0.5% of the inhabitants work on the land, where shopping malls tower over the water stacks that characterized the kibbutzim and moshavim. There is a danger that asabiyya will give way to madaniyya, if this has not already transpired.
Yet, Israel can hardly afford to take Ibn Khaldun lightly. Israel needs asabiyya to deal with its many foes, one of them being Israel’s Arab citizens when they act collectively, not as individuals.
In the first days of the Second Intifada, Israel’s Arab media news sites reported that thousands in their violent demonstrations shouted “Khaybar, Khaybar ya Yahud, jaysh Muhammad saya’ud” (Khaybar, Khaybar, Khaybar oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return).
Khaybar was a battlefield where, according to Muslim oral teachings, the Prophet’s army totally annihilated a large Jewish tribe as an important stepping stone in his triumph over Mecca.
Israel’s Arab parties continue to show their “asabiyya” in their never-ending efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state in foreign forums in the name of democracy and human rights, where many of them fawned obsequiously to despots like Assad the father, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadaffi. No one should be fooled.
Yet, Israeli liberals have increasingly been fooled to think that Ibn Khaldun is old hat, that nationalism of almost any sort is growing irrelevant, a 19th century phenomenon, unbecoming to a modern state in the 21st century. They make light of the persistent efforts of the Arab leadership in Israel to destroy Israel from within and the danger that Israel will be neither Jewish or democratic if they get their way.
The law “Israel – The State of the Jewish Nation” is at a deep level an attempt to find the equilibrium point between civilization – the need to be fair and decent to non-Jewish citizens – and the need to assert the collective, national identity of the Jewish people in the State of Israel – one facet of which is the need to assert a collective esprit de corps “in the face of the hordes pining for Israel’s downfall as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Ibn Khaldun must be marshalled to protect Israel from its enemies and to rein in liberal currents that deny the importance of Jewish nationalism in defining the Jewish state.
The Nation-State Law is the appropriate answer to both. The writer is a professor of Political Science and Middle History at Bar Ilan University and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, Israel’s conservative security think tank.