Israel and the defense of nationalism

The country’s existence, Daniel Gordis argues, is in and of itself a rebuttal of today’s dominant universalist ideology.

Old City views 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Old City views 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Nationalism, believed 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, is a great evil and only one stage on any polity’s journey toward true civilization. He said that peoples are destined to go through periods of anarchy, statehood and, finally, moral maturity, in which they would join together in a worldwide government that transcended mere national identities.
He did not see nationalism as a desirable end in and of itself. This idea is a prominent one in contemporary academia and was one of the primary factors behind the formation of the European Union.
How such a worldview affects Israel and Europe’s relations with the world’s most recently established nation-state, a political entity intended for the flowering of a specific ethnic and religious group, has been a topic that has proved endlessly fascinating for Israel’s own intellectual class, especially as represented at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
Last year, the center’s Yoram Hazony made waves with his essay on universalism and Zionism, which explained, in light of the predominant Kantian paradigm in current political theory, why European elites are pushing for a Palestinian state while concurrently questioning the need for – and, indeed, the validity of – a Jewish one.
The latest work to come out of the school of thought being developed at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem institution supporting research in the fields of philosophy, political theory and biblical studies, is The Promise of Israel by the center’s vice president, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis. Called “one of Israel’s most thoughtful observers” by Alan Dershowitz, Gordis is a frequent contributor to this newspaper, penning a regular column with insights into the intersection of theory and practice in the Middle East. He sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss his thesis in an upscale carfe on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street.
His latest in a long line of books explains why, to his mind, Israel’s nationalistic character – which he calls “its seemingly greatest weakness” – can more accurately be termed the country’s “greatest strength.”
Rather than penning another apologetic for Israel, Gordis treats the country as an archetype, one of several competing models on which a polity may be formed.
Rather than a defense of Zionism, Gordis has stepped back and recognized that a dominant world view among the political classes in many Western nations is a rejection of nationalism, per se, and that the fight over Israel is really about symbols.
Israel, he says, represents the flourishing of an ideology that has been discredited in Western eyes. According to Gordis, the debate over Israel’s right to exist is really a referendum on the right of various ethnic groups to self-determination.
Gordis places a great deal of importance on the debate over Israel, asserting that, as the Bible states, Israel can serve as a “light unto the nations” both politically and morally.
“What is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy,” he writes, “is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but quite possibly human freedom as we know it. The idea that human freedom might be at risk in today’s battles over Israel might seem far-fetched or hyperbolic.
This book will argue that it is not, and that human beings everywhere thus have a great stake in what the world ultimately does with the Jewish state.”
While “the idea of a state for a particular ethnicity strikes many people as problematic, immoral, and contrary to the progress that humanity has made in recent decades,” he believes the diversity of approaches to the fundamental questions of the human condition that can be applied in the laboratories of individual ethnic nation states is of immeasurable importance.
Universalism seems to have failed, he notes, pointing to the post-nationalist character of the Soviet Union and the current rising levels of nationalist sentiment in the member states of the EU.
While acknowledging that nationalism, like any ideology given free rein, can result in violence and horror, so can universalism, as seen in the conquests of imperialist societies and the forced homogenization enforced by the Soviet Union.
Expressing great admiration for the American model of a non-ethnic, ideologically based state, Gordis said that such a model can work universally and that it must be balanced by the existence of states that can nurture people who are not, as popularly asserted, “largely the same.” Different groups have different values, tastes and aspirations and people are tribal by nature. It is when we nurture this tribalism but leaven it with a universalist message as well, he says, that nationalism will really come into its own.
Citing Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, and his thoughts on the balance between universalism and particularism, Gordis told the Post that he thinks Israel’s mission is to show that, as “a country that is openly rooted in a religious [and] cultural tradition,” it can prosper and coexist with a democratic political process. This, he writes, “defies the predictions of secular scholars and pundits who believe that religion and ethnicity are the handmaidens of imperialism and fascism.”
Without first coming to identify with a nation, which is a group identification in tension between tribalism and universalism, one cannot come to love all men beyond that initial fealty.
Nations, such as Iran and the Palestinian Arabs, can learn from Israel, he says. They should do this rather than revile the prospect of emulating the Jewish model, he says. The protesters in Egypt do not want to become the “America of Africa” he writes.
“They wish (or so the most Western of them claim) both to celebrate their Muslim heritage and thousands of years of Egyptian history and to join the family of modern democratic nations... To whom can they look for a model of a stable, prosperous, and open state based on a shared religion and heritage?” This Jewish particularism of Zionism, in serving as a model for others to emulate, he says, is in reality a universalist ethos as it recreates the modern Israeli state into a light unto the nations.
The book’s message is best summed up by one passage: “Yet it is not only Middle Eastern and Muslim nations that should be looking harder at the Israeli experiment. The whole world would benefit from thinking in terms of the questions Israel raises. The United States, Sweden, Brazil – it makes no difference. All citizens of every nation would benefit from asking themselves, explicitly, what values they hope their nation will inculcate in its citizens, what culture they are committed to preserving and nourishing. Such conversations would change the way Israel is seen in the world, but they would also change how everyone else sees his or her own country – and how people come to think about the reasons that countries actually exist.”
In the end, says Gordis, the fight over Israel is really a battle over the very concept of self-determination and human freedom.
At the end of the day, too many of Israel’s friends ignore the role that ideology and theory play in determining the course of events in the wider world. Gordis’s work serves to remind the public that without a firm grasp of political philosophy, we really cannot understand the full significance of the epic battle for survival that Israel is waging. As such, this is a critical work for anyone concerned for the future of the Jewish state.