Passover is the festival of freedom, but also of nationalism.
The Exodus from Egypt is what brought Israelites their freedom and made them into a nation. It also gave them a responsibility toward the “other.” The precept to love the stranger, foreigner and minority all originated in Egypt. Nationalism was thus a positive force in the building of the Jewish nation, as well as the entire family of nations.
However, nationalism needs to be balanced to safeguard the freedom of all citizens, and certainly of strangers and foreigners. In a world that is becoming more nationalistic, the message of Passover is that only by maintaining the balance between these values can we prevent an escalation from nationalism to ultra-nationalism and racism.
The Exodus from Egypt is a defining moment in Jewish history and a milestone in human history.
The tribes’ coalescence into one nation united around a single faith and territory was the prototype for modern nationalism. Nationalist movements in Europe and the Founding Fathers in the United States saw themselves as the successors to, or emulators of, the Israelites who left Egypt and became a nation.
The leaders of national revolutions saw themselves as Moses when he delivered the Jewish people from Egypt. Nationalist thinkers and scholars have seen the Book of Exodus as their blueprint.
The Exodus from Egypt was also a transition from physical and spiritual slavery to freedom. As such, it became a model for the liberation of oppressed minorities, a source for the principle of individual freedom – the emancipation of men and women from the burden of another who is enslaving them for his/ her own benefit or forcing his own values upon them.
Modern nationalism is not so modern anymore. It became popularized 200 years ago and has had immense impact on our current reality. For example, the consolidation of liberation movements and countries around nationalist ideas triggered political and social revolutions and led to the emergence of the modern state. It also revolutionized how individuals view themselves. Individuals became part of something larger, part of a nation and a nation-state.
Over time, nationalism ebbed and flowed, with outcomes both great and sinister. In the name of nationalism, man has accomplished great things. Likewise, also in the name of nationalism and racism, man has committed some of the most heinous transgressions.
At the start of the current millennium, it seemed nationalism was losing popularity. With the strengthening of the European Union and the rise of globalization, nationalism was dismissed as archaic and harmful, a threat to individuals, their freedom and liberal values.
Its critics saw it as the root of all evil and as a barrier to human development.
Many of them believed that national identities should be blurred and that we should aspire for a world centered exclusively on the individual.
That never panned out.
Nationalism has roared back and is here to stay. We are experiencing a new tidal wave of nationalism that is swamping the West and engulfing its political agenda. Globalization, especially the kind that sought to blur the lines between national identities, is retreating, and particularism and isolationism are returning to center stage. Beginning with Brexit and continuing to the surprising election of Donald Trump and then to the rise of right-wing parties in Central Europe, nationalist ideas are back in fashion.
Today, the public, political and global discourse often emphasizes the differences between countries and what makes them distinctive, rather than their commonalities. Political leaders stress domestic interests and prefer to focus internally rather than internationally.
But there is a big difference between the Exodus from Egypt, the dawn of modern nationalism, and the nationalism that is emerging today.
The Exodus marked the transition of a minority from slavery to freedom and its coalescence into a nation. The origins of modern nationalism, too, were for the most part a process of release from despotic monarchy.
The current nationalist trend is very different. It does not derive from the struggle by an oppressed minority or a majority living under tyranny to attain rights, freedom and independence. On the contrary, it stems from the majority’s fear of minorities and from the possibility that the minority will influence the majority or not allow it to run its life as it wishes.
The fear of minorities, resident aliens and immigrants has led European countries with a long tradition of tolerance and acceptance of the other to close their gates and their hearts. It was one of the factors behind the vote for Brexit, and is also very much present in the Israeli public sphere.
This is not in line with the messages of Passover. The Festival of Freedom is also the holiday of protecting minorities.
The Torah, which commands us to love the stranger and foreigner, the weak, the minority, links this precept to the Israelites’ experience of slavery in Egypt: “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
We are obligated to do so as the majority, precisely because we know what it is like to have been enslaved.
Nationalism is a very important phenomenon in history. It played an important role in the consolidation of the Israelites as a nation when they left Egypt and has continued to be significant in the world and in Israel until the present day. However, as the last century taught us, it is fraught with danger. The passage from nationalism, which allows a people to unite and withstand challenges, to ultra-nationalism, which poses a threat to the minorities living among it, is all too easy to make. The result is a nation in which minorities’ rights are eroded, and it is a short path from there to restricting the freedom and fundamental rights of both minorities and the majority.
Passover and the story of the Exodus remind us that nationalism can play a constructive role. But for that to be the case, it needs to be balanced by individual freedoms and rights, and by a fierce defense of minorities and the disadvantaged.
The nation, the Jewish one in Israel as well as other nations, must build together with minorities, rather than on their backs. ■ The writer is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor of Law at the Peres Academic Center.