A Fresh Perspective: In defense of Jewish nationalism

Linking any form of national solidarity to fascism is like linking regular healthy eating to obesity. Nationalism is positive, even if extreme forms of it can be extremely negative

Hamas-run TV footage of attack in which a terrorist disguised as journalist stabs an IDF soldier near Kiryat Arba (photo credit: SCREENSHOT PALESTINIAN MEDIA)
Hamas-run TV footage of attack in which a terrorist disguised as journalist stabs an IDF soldier near Kiryat Arba
The latest wave of attacks on Israelis by Palestinian terrorists brought in its wake the latest wave of post-modernist moral relativism, putting to question Israel’s right to defend itself.
When coming from the international media, such moral relativism is to be expected, as it is rooted in their misguided efforts to portray a “balanced” picture, even though the morality of the sides to this conflict is not balanced. The correct response to the distortion that tries to make the Palestinian terrorists seem as moral as their Israeli victims, is to respond with facts that make the distorted picture clear again.
Unfortunately, moral relativism comes also from within Israel. Many of our media outlets have questioned the evil of the terrorists attacking innocent civilians. Some Israeli journalists have asked government officials: “How else can an oppressed people respond to years of ‘occupation?’” Others asked: “Why are police killing the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks instead of arresting them?” – ignoring the fact that police officers would have to greatly endanger their lives and lives of others to attempt to arrest a knife-yielding terrorist who is not afraid of dying as long as he gets to maim or kill Jews.
Within Israel, questions like these are increasingly shocking, since they show a disintegration of our nationalist identity. National solidarity is being replaced by a post-modernist deconstruction of nationalism, pushing people towards misplaced criticism of their own nation rather than solidarity. This is what ends up making an Israeli policeman’s blood cheaper than a Palestinian terrorist’s blood.
This disintegration comes from questioning the very nature of nationalism and patriotism in the light of universalistic and humanist values. It is time to reexamine the very nature of Jewish nationalism, as well as patriotism in general, in order to appreciate its critical value to humanity.
Nationalism is about love, not hate
The 20th century saw the most vicious forms of nationalism take root in some European countries, where it translated into fascism and even Nazism. This has made it easy for simplistic opponents to warn of the dangers of nationalism.
However, one should study its benefits.
Human relations are made of hierarchies.
For example, we feel a closer relationship to our own children than to other children, even than to our nephews.
The hierarchy continues; one feels a closer bond to a nephew than to the child of a complete stranger.
These hierarchies are a positive thing.
Could we imagine a world in which children were being educated without the special passion of parental love? This hierarchy enhances bonds between people. Thus, close families are able to help each other when times get tough.
Together, they are stronger than just a collection of individuals.
A hierarchy does not in any way imply a negative feeling towards those on different levels. An increased love for one’s child does not cause any level of hatred toward one’s nephew. This was Plato’s mistake in the Republic, where he argued that a love for one’s family would negatively impact patriotic feeling towards one’s city. Plato therefore tried to make familial ties irrelevant to one’s feeling of solidarity. His model never succeeded, since it not only opposed human nature, but also falsely assumed that increased solidarity for one group of people necessitated decreased solidarity for another.
Just as hierarchy of human relations leads us to prefer immediate family to extended family, and extended family to strangers, patriotism guides us to prefer our own nation to another nation.
A preference for one’s own nation does not translate into hatred or disdain for any other nation. Solidarity with one’s own nation enables humanity to organize into groups of citizens to care for one another, help each other, and together define priorities to succeed better. The weak are taken care of by the stronger, not because of coercive legislation, but out of a feeling of caring and solidarity.
This does not in any way impede the ability to help people from another nation.
Those who oppose nationalism based on humanist or universalistic grounds are no less misguided than Plato.
The Talmud, in tractate Bava Metzia, shows that this hierarchical view is well entrenched in Jewish law and Jewish thought. When speaking of charity, the Talmud says: “The poor of your city take precedence.”
Just as this feeling of national solidarity is positive when it comes to charity, so too is it positive when it comes to defense. After all, one of the greatest manifestations of a father’s love for his children is his willingness to do all that it takes in order to protect them. So too, one should feel an increased level of solidarity when defending one’s own nation from the attacks of other countries.
When media within Israel take the side of the aggressor against the Israeli police or soldiers who are defending their people, this is not only a misunderstanding of the objective reality, where one justifies an aggressor and accuses the victim, but also a disintegration of the essential and beneficial feeling of solidarity between the members of the Jewish nation.
The danger of nationalism
Even a great defender of nationalism’s benefits must take into consideration the dangers of nationalism.
After all, the 20th century gave us good reason to fear extreme forms of nationalism, especially in light of the rise of fascism in Europe. However, linking any form of national solidarity to fascism is like linking regular healthy eating to obesity. Nationalism is positive, even if extreme forms of it can be extremely negative.
The problem with fascism was twofold.
On an internal level, the complete disregard for freedom made nationalism a tool for dictators rather than a tool for healthy national solidarity. True nationalism does not need to come with a coercive government. True nationalism actually warrants a “laissez-faire” approach, since solidarity between people makes government intervention less necessary.
On an external level, fascism linked a feeling of national solidarity with a disregard for other people’s rights. This is not the nationalism that we described, which combines national solidarity with general solidarity between all of humanity. It would be mistaken to let fear of fascism make us miss out on the essential benefits of nationalism.
The case of Jewish nationalism
In the specific case of Jewish nationalism, there is less fear of slipping into fascism.
Jewish nationalism is based on Jewish philosophy, which calls on Israel to become a light unto the nations, a nation that exists for the purpose of doing good for the whole world. A nation with such a mission statement can hardly misinterpret national solidarity with hatred towards other nations. This would contradict the mission statement completely.
In this post-modern age, as people start questioning and deconstructing basic principles of human nature, human interactions and society, one must be careful not to allow the dismantlement of social constructs that provide humanity with many positive aspects. Nationalism, and national solidarity, is one of those constructs.
Academics debate whether nationalism is essential to human nature or whether it is a social construct created by humans, but this academic discussion is moot. The basic fact is that nationalism provides positive things to human society, and must be preserved. This is true whether nationalism is man-made or whether it is innate to human nature, and it is all the more applicable when talking about Jewish nationalism.
The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to Knesset’s coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.