A Dose of Nuance: Brexit and the validation of Zionism

Is it possible that the tide may be changing, that the ideas at the core of Zionism are about to be less marginalized?

A ‘BREXIT’ SUPPORTER holds a Union Jack at a Vote Leave rally in London earlier this month. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A ‘BREXIT’ SUPPORTER holds a Union Jack at a Vote Leave rally in London earlier this month.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the Brexit vote in the UK still so recent and so fresh, it’s obviously far too early to know how each of many of the variables will play out.
What will happen to currency markets? Is the post-World War II order really dissolving? Will the European Union crumble? On the Israel front, uncertainty prevails as well. Would a divided European continent, presumably often internally at odds, be less monolithically hostile to Israel? Will Europe’s newfound uncertainties dislodge its capitals from their obsessive preoccupation with a conflict that they have no capacity to influence or to settle? One thing, though, is clear, even if Brexit’s detractors refuse to acknowledge it: Brexit is actually a profound validation of the very premise of Zionism.
Clearly, many British voters chose to leave the EU for reasons having nothing to do with nationalism. Brexit was for many about economics and for others about a legitimate fear of waves of Muslim immigrants coming to Britain’s shores. Many pundits have therefore chosen to portray the anti-Brexit voters, the young and the urban, particularly in London, as the enlightened, worldly, open-minded class, and those who voted to leave the EU as – to use Peter Beinart’s characterization in this week’s Atlantic, “like the supporters of Trump – older, non-college educated, non-urban, distrustful of elites, xenophobic, and nostalgic.”
Older? Yes. Non-urban? Yes. Nostalgic? Yes. Why, though, must those add up to xenophobic? They could also be described as adding up to patriotic, as loyal to one’s nation and people, as believing that Britain has a history of many centuries that those older, non-urban, nostalgic Britons are still unwilling to cede to a vision of a utopian and universalist world order that they know will never take root.
Some of those Brexit voters still remember World War II. Some of them recall Winston Churchill’s speech to Parliament in which he promised, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds... we shall never surrender, and if... this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas...
would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Zionism was also about the “liberation of the old.” Part of the assault on Zionism today stems from the accusation that rhetoric such as Churchill’s is bellicose, old-fashioned, xenophobic.
Zionism, predicated on a passionate devotion to the survival of the Jewish people, shaped by an instinctive Jewish love of the land on which the Jewish people lived long ago, is in many ways arrayed precisely against the universalist values of the now fraying EU. Zionism was about saving the Jewish people, not about pretending that all peoples are fundamentally the same. Zionism was about reviving a Jewish language, not about imagining that languages were merely instrumental and that it makes no difference how people speak. Zionism was fueled by, and in turn then fueled, a revival of distinctly Hebrew and Jewish literature – with uniquely Jewish dreams, Jewish idiom, Jewish imagination and hopes for Jewish flourishing.
If people believing in the innate worth of their people and their heritage is xenophobic, we Zionists are guilty as charged.
But it is human nature for us not to want to be what Paul Cowan called “orphans in history,” disconnected from any tradition or heritage. Why should parents in Provence want their children to be educated just like children in Bavaria? Why should they want them to worship in precisely the same way, learn the same songs, read the same literature? They don’t. That was why the European Union was more than a utopian notion; it was an assault on human nature and was doomed to fail.
With that in mind, Europe’s innate hostility to Israel is less surprising.
There are many reasons for that antipathy, of course, some having to do with Israel and most having to do with Europe. At their core, though, the EU and Zionism were two opposing visions of humanity. One was about blending peoples and erasing borders. The other was about celebrating a people’s heritage, its dreams and its revival.
What animates Europe also dominates the UN. Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, admitted that “the only country in the world with a standing agenda item at the Human Rights Council is not North Korea, a totalitarian state that is currently holding an estimated 100,000 people in gulags; not Syria, which has gassed its people – lots of them. It is Israel. Bias has extended well beyond Israel as a country [but also to] Israel as an idea.”
She is right. At the core of Israel lies not a conflict but an idea. That idea has been on the defensive for decades, since even before Ben-Gurion declared independence. With Brexit, millions of Britons have now declared that they, too, want to preserve their heritage; they, too, have a history of which they are proud. They, too, understand that memory matters, and that so do borders.
Is it possible that the tide may be changing, that the ideas at the core of Zionism are about to be less marginalized? It is far too early to know, but it is not too early to hope.
Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, is forthcoming in October from Ecco/ HarperCollins.