Political theorist Mark Lilla noted the irony that “Once upon a time, the Jews were mocked for not having a nation- state. Now they are criticized for having one,” and for their stubborn determination to defend it.
That is why the dramatic reassertion of national sovereignty in the Brexit vote is important for Israel. Nor was the British public alone. Laurent Wauquiez, former French minister for European affairs, said in the wake of the Brexit vote that “the result would have been the same in any other country in the EU. Perhaps an even greater rejection in France.”
At the core of the concept of national sovereignty, writes Lilla, is the “notion of autonomy, which in political terms means the capacity to defend oneself, and when necessary, wage war.” A corollary is that nations have a duty to value the lives of their citizens above those of citizens of other countries. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fully justified by the projected loss of a million American servicemen in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. (More Japanese civilians would also have died in that invasion than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) And if Hamas or Hezbollah fire missiles at Israeli civilians from amidst their own civilian populations, Israel has the duty to do everything necessary to stop that fire, while trying to minimize civilian casualties.
European nations have lost the ability – and among the elites the will as well – to advance the interests of their citizens or to defend themselves. One thousand young English girls were impressed into sex slavery by Pakistani immigrants in Rotherham, over a period of 20 years.
The authorities did not intervene lest they be accused of Islamophobia. When rapes of Swedish women in Stockholm increase 15-fold as 1.5 million Muslims enter the country, opposition to unfettered immigration is neither racism nor xenophobia but simple self-preservation.
Another aspect of national sovereignty is the ability of each nation to control its borders and determine who will become citizens. Thus immigration debates have taken a central place in America and Europe today.
Current EU rules require Britain to admit any immigrant from another EU country. As a consequence, job seekers from eastern bloc countries in the EU have flooded England. Drawn by Britain’s comparatively free labor markets, resulting in more unskilled jobs, they have claimed 70% of all new unskilled jobs. And if they fail to obtain jobs, they are immediately entitled to all the benefits of Britain’s welfare system.
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UNDERLYING THE sovereignty debates is a deeper philosophical one: Are all people essentially alike – homo economicus, each rationally pursuing a slightly larger slice of the economic pie? (Note the only argument advanced by the Remain camps was: Brexit will cost us money.) And can they be organized, economically and politically, according to rational principles best administrated by an elite of trained bureaucrats? Never mind the abject failure of every centrally planned economy or of the EU itself. Today Europe is the only continent with a declining percentage of world economic activity. Its common currency, the euro, almost brought down the entire banking system when Greece went bankrupt, and remains vulnerable to worse disaster if Spain or Italy follow suit.
The opposing Burkean view that human beings are products of particular cultures, bound to one another by ties of history, kinship and language, underpins the case for national sovereignty.
For Burke, human beings are not abstractions – random sets of individuals born to another random set of individuals.
Rather they are products of an organic historical development, the nether reaches of which cannot be determined by abstract thought experiments à la John Locke. Those living today are part of a pact with previous generations and those yet unborn.
Appalled by the devastation of two world wars, European elites sought to jettison nationalism and the nation- states that were thought to have caused that destruction. The vision of a European political union resulted. But to say that modern Europe was “born in the ashes of Auschwitz,” notes Alain Finkielkraut, is also to forget that Europe is heir to a great civilization and it results in a passion for sameness.
For those who reject all pride in one’s country or culture, there is nothing worth defending beyond one’s time on this planet, or worth transmitting to future generations. The yet unborn remain unborn. Witness Europe’s demographic suicide.
The stubborn refusal to acknowledge the depth of culture differences led Angela Merkel to throw open the gates of Europe to millions of refugees from an alien culture who have proven unable to assimilate, even in much smaller numbers.
NO PEOPLE ever insisted on its own uniqueness – indeed chosen status – to the same degree as the Jewish people.
Without a sense of special mission, we could not have survived for millennia apart from our land.
Not by accident did the first great theorist of national sovereignty, Jean Bodin, draw heavily on Jewish sources.
Jews have been the fiercest opponents of those spreading one universal culture, from the Seleucid Greeks to Napoleon’s armies. The Jews rejected paganism’s easy acceptance of a pantheon of gods and we stood against the monotheistic faiths – Christianity and Islam – that sought to unite all mankind under one banner.
When Napoleon’s liberating armies approached Russia, Rabbi Shmuel M’Liadi, the founder of Chabad, prayed for his defeat. He realized that the slogan of the French Revolution, “To the Jews as individuals – everything; as a nation – nothing,” might be good for individual Jews but would spell the end of Jewish history.
Resurgent pride in place and people may well unleash old genies in Europe.
But Europe’s rationalist bureaucrats have not exactly done a bang-up job of defending Jews or Israel. The Jewish people will never be well served by those for whom religion and national identity are atavistic holdovers from a less enlightened past. The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.
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