Visiting Rome reminds us of the magic of cities and the power of nationalism. Like people, cities have distinct characters. You can no more take the romance out of Rome, than take the Jew out of Jerusalem. While some tourists are cultural scavengers, cannibalizing disjointed elements of rich, integrated civilizations, tourism at its best is holistic and nourishing, stretching visitors to embrace the unfamiliar, the exotic. Hopping across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Rome reinforces the deep atavistic understanding that people do best in thick, historically-resonant, values-laden communities, bound by multiple ties, while making their tribalism transcendent.
Of course, the wandering Jew in Rome is a fiddler on the roof, dancing delicately between delight and despair. The proud, historically-conscious Jew takes guilty pleasure in Rome’s grandeur. You don’t need to see the Arch of Titus, which toasts our Temple’s pillaging, to remember how destructive was the power represented in the towering columns that punctuate today’s Rome as frequently and dramatically as potholes popped up in 1970s’ New York. But like a wounded lover nobly trying to restore lost faith, the Jew must not be imprisoned by past traumas. While honoring our martyrs’ memories and refusing ever again to be helpless, we distort history and risk poisoning our souls if our collective rearview mirror remains only tinged blood-red.
The story of Rome and Jerusalem, like the Jewish story overall, is not just about Jews confronting non-Jews but about Jewish and non-Jewish collaboration, consonance, and creativity. Martin Goodman’s 2007 book, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, ends tragically but starts happily. “At the beginning of the first millennium CE both cities were at the peak of their prosperity and grandeur, each famous throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond,” Goodman writes. “They were two cities with a culture partly shared, from the gleam of ceremonial white masonry in the summer sun to acceptance of … the influence of Greek architecture and philosophy.”
Seventeen hundred years later, the two cities epitomized the old-new power of Europe’s romantic nationalist resurgence. In Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question, Karl Marx’s colleague Moses Hess pivoted from universalist socialism’s false cosmopolitanism toward the Jewish nationalism that Theodor Herzl later called Zionism. Nationalism was roiling Hess’s Western world in 1862, as Europeans began what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “matching” various peoples with particular states. That year, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s “Iron and Blood” speech helped unify Germany; Giuseppe Garibaldi tried and failed to incorporate Rome into modern Italy; while Abraham Lincoln was struggling to quash Southern separatism and redeem American nationalism.
“On the ruins of Christian Rome a regenerated Italian people is arising,” an inspired Moses Hess wrote. Returning to his own people after “twenty years of estrangement,” Hess rejoiced, “Once again I am sharing in its festivals of joys and days of sorrows, in its hopes and memories. I am taking part in the spiritual and intellectual struggles of our day.” Hess was not retreating to the ghetto but reawakening a more natural, authentic, organic self. He derided the “really dishonorable Jew” who is “ashamed of his nationality,” no matter how many “beautiful phrases about humanity and enlightenment … he uses so freely to cloak his treason.” Hess’s renewed communal sentiment empowered and enlightened. He hailed “the thought of my nationality, which is inseparably connected with my ancestral heritage, with the Holy Land and the Eternal City, the birthplace of the belief in the divine unity of life and of the hope for the ultimate brotherhood of all men.”
Hess made the classic nationalist move, which is often unappreciated in our age of faux-cosmopolitanism. He repudiated the thinness of the universalist’s righteous-sounding but hollow “we are the world” postures while reveling in the thickness of the Jewish nationalist’s ambition to redeem his people and then the world. He understood that the pathway toward uniting Rome and Jerusalem in constructive collaboration was for the Italians to renew Rome and for the Jews to renew Jerusalem. Only by triggering a “national renaissance” rooted in their authentic collective selves could these communities tap into the necessary energies to be the best they could be.
Last month, 150 years later, the New York Times columnist David Brooks, explaining New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen’s continuing success worldwide, wrote: It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition … you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.” Echoing Hess, Brooks pleaded: “Don’t try to be everyman…. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible.”
In that spirit, nationalist scientists tapped into their individual and collective power in discovering the “God particle.” Israeli newspapers emphasized Israel’s role; Italian newspapers proclaimed “Italians help.” Canadians and Indians were equally boosterish – deservedly so. Like religion, nationalism can build or destroy. National pride need not descend into chauvinism; it can be harness to achieve universal goods.
Zionism offers Jews the opportunity to mine the geography of our own past and enjoy our own national pride. The Zionist draws intimate strength from Jerusalem and respectful inspiration from Rome, appreciating Rome’s deep roots and broad vision, while understanding that the same collective power that so long ago built a majestic Colosseum to last, can be tapped today to help individuals find meaning and countries solve their most pressing problems.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.