Home inFocus America: Making it and Keeping it (Summer 2017) How Jews Understand Nationalism, and How They Should

How Jews Understand Nationalism, and How They Should

Juliana Geran Pilon Summer 2017
Young people gathering with flags of Israel at Jaffa Street in the center of Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.

The dialectical trajectory of human history had presumably targeted nationalism for extinction. Its synthesis had been all but preordained into the inexorable next stage, variously described as internationalism, globalization, post-modernism, or trans-nationalism. But things didn’t quite work out as expected. Though its persistence has confused progressives of the academy, who had written it off as just one more ideological casualty along the march to Progress Uber Alles, nationalism stubbornly refuses to go away.

Most inconvenient of all perhaps is Zionism, whose strength appears to thrive on adversity. Not that many of its own opinion-makers do not feel uneasy. For as Professor Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University observed in the journal Shma, “the Jewish state is not immune to the global trends. Nationalism is out of fashion these days, and young intellectuals are seeking ways of avoiding this label. For them, globalization became synonymous with ’normalization,’ namely, shedding the Jewish component of the state of Israel and becoming a civil society, ’a state of all its citizens.’” That of course is what Israel’s enemies have long argued, in direct opposition to the basic tenet of Zionism that Israel would once again serve as the Jews’ true homeland and their refuge of last resort.

But after all, nationalism need not exclude a globalist outlook. A Dane or a Latvian may be a proud citizen of his country while merrily doing business with Japanese partners, patronizing Italian restaurants, and enjoying the tango. But there is a catch: Danes and Latvians are also members of the European Union, which presumably amounts to a “higher,” trans-national European identity. It’s as if belonging to the globalist EU somehow mitigates the sin of retrograde national identification.

But that narrative is, basically, a hoax. For despite the EU’s self-proclaimed image as a post-nationalist modern political structure, it is in fact more like a socialist version of the United States, a United States of Europe without the checks and balances of a genuine federalism. The plethora of tariffs placed on goods imported into the EU give the lie to the notion of a border-free market system. When unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, moreover, dictate where migrants may settle and how they must be treated, what most readily comes to mind is the Austro-Hungarian court of Karl Franz Joseph.

The influx of Middle Eastern and other immigrants has decidedly exacerbated the crisis. According to a study just released by the American Enterprise Institute, “The EU’s asylum system was not designed to deal with large, irregular influxes of asylum seekers and places unreasonable strains on individual countries.” Though few news media outlets cover the true magnitude of the economic, cultural, and especially security strains caused by these unfortunate people fleeing misery and carnage, the EU’s methods of dealing with the problem have caused considerable consternation throughout the continent.

And well they should. In a Special Report published in March, The Economist has found that “The EU’s institutions, built up over six decades, are not ideally suited to responding flexibly to challenges such as the single currency, migration or foreign and security policy. The club remains vulnerable to the charges of operating with a ’democratic deficit’ that alienates many voters.” In the name of globalism, the EU runs roughshod over traditions that vary from one member nation to another, to the detriment of those whose savings habits do not conform to those of, say, Germany. Calling it a “club” says it all. Not everyone who is fed up with it is a Russian troll, a far-right fascist, or an anti-Semite.

The Left-Wing Threat to Jews

In truth, the greatest danger to the Jews of Europe today comes from radicalized Muslims and their left-wing acolytes. Gunther Jikeli, coordinator of the New York City-based Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy’s (ISGAP) activities in France, has found that “antisemitism from Muslims has become a serious issue in Western Europe, although not often acknowledged as such.” While Brexit was blamed on the “nationalist far right,” a term widely perceived as essentially redundant, it was really the pro-EU Labor Party in the UK that wins the prize for anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Obviously, xenophobic Jew-haters continue to infest Europe, in alarming numbers. Yet it was no Green peacenik but Dutch nationalist free marketer Geert Wilders who said he never feels more at home than in Jerusalem.

To their credit, Jews have long prided themselves in proclaiming a trans-national conception of human rights predicated on the equality of mankind that transcends borders. It was consistent with the notion that Judaism is above all a religious community, an idea eloquently defended by the great eighteenth century philosopher Moses Mendelsohn. In the same vein, historian Simon Dubnow described the Jewish people as an “am olam,” literally “eternal people,” whose home is the entire world across time and space – crediting Perez Smolenskin with coining the term. As it happens, however, Smolenskin changed his mind after the pogroms of 1881, becoming an enthusiastic preacher of Zionism. So too did Dubnow, but it was too late: he was killed in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Riga.

A Nation Beyond Borders

Jews have traditionally thought of themselves as a “nation” that transcends boundaries, whose special culture is not tied to residence in a specific state, yet without implying antagonism to nationalism as such – on the contrary. Throughout the ages, many sought to become patriotic citizens of the commonwealth where they happened to reside, without abandoning their beliefs. But while this is possible in a relatively liberal state that is predicated on religious and philosophical tolerance, it is incompatible with Marxist socialism, of which modern-day internationalism is decidedly an offshoot.

The reasons were clearly articulated by the Hungarian Socialist Leader Count Michael Karolyi, who urged Jews to eschew nationalism and stick to their progressivist impulses: “The Jews should play their historic role of building up a better world; they should bend their efforts toward the rehabilitation of Europe instead of secluding themselves among half-civilized Arabs and nursing a petty nationalism.” The date was February 5, 1930.

Socialism became even more appealing to the Jews as fascism rose across Europe. Professor Shapira elaborates: “In a world where Jews filled the role of outsiders, it was only natural for us to seek salvation in theories of universal redemption that cross national borders and states, abolish differences of religion and of origin, and predict the coming of a just kingdom on earth in which Jews would stop being foreign.” Unfortunately, Marxist internationalism exploited this yearning, and the Jews succumbed to its siren song. As the left invoked “universal brotherhood,” a slogan aimed at the world’s capitalist forces, forgotten was Marx’s mantra “The God of the Jew is money” from his infamous essay with the monumentally infelicitous title “On the Jewish Question.” Meanwhile, Hitler’s “Aryan” racism, which he dubbed somewhat disingenuously as “nationalist,” seems to have eclipsed altogether his belief in socialism.

And the Nation in Israel

Many of Israel’s settlers held on to their socialist beliefs, either unwilling or unable to learn the lessons of the Soviet Union and other state-run economies. It took a while to admit that free markets work best, but at last Israel has one of the most dynamic and innovative economies in the world. At the same time, even as it embraces economic globalization, Israel cherishes and preserves its cultural heritage. It has managed to thrive despite a relentless campaign against its very legitimacy, specifically in international forums allegedly devoted to human rights, whose members are among the most vicious regimes on earth. What is more, Israel must confront a vicious, increasingly vocal BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement, sponsored by the likes of the EU with support from academic centers in the United States.

Indeed, it is in America that the ideological battle is particularly momentous. Writing in the May 2017 issue of Mosaic magazine, Professor Daniel Gordis of Shalem College reports a “waning of attachment to Israel among American Jews, especially but not exclusively younger American Jews. Gordis believes that the most important reason for hostility to Israel comes from the left, and it “lies in the ethnic particularism at the core of the latter’s very being.” And so it is. In their Declaration of Independence, on May 14, 1948, the Jews of Palestine proudly proclaimed their intent to create “a country that, democratic in form and in function, and welcoming of all religions and ethnic identities, would unapologetically serve the security needs and cultural purposes and interests of the Jewish nation, vast numbers of whom had recently been murdered and/or abandoned by European civilization.” The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people, stated the Declaration. Their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped there. You couldn’t find, writes Gordis, a “clearer or more candid statement of national particularism, or one at greater odds with the universalist and post- or trans-nationalist affinities of so many liberal American Jews.”

What will it take for them to understand the wisdom of Zionism? Will they too have to witness pogroms, as did Smolenskin in the 1880s, and then again Dubnow half a century later, before they recognize that Jews deserve a place of refuge? Is it not enough to witness the blatant double standard and perennial lying at the United Nations, where majorities routinely castigate the Jewish state for crimes it has not committed, while simultaneously ignoring innumerable atrocities taking place elsewhere?

Narrow-Minded Political Correctness

The EU’s political correctness is mirrored on American campuses, where antisemitism is far greater than among the population at large. As Earl Cox wrote in May in The Jerusalem Post, a wave of antisemitism “pervades college campuses around the nation under the guise of protecting ’oppressed’ Palestinians from ’colonial’ Israel. In a survey of 50 U.S. universities, more than half the students reported observing or experiencing anti-Semitism from peers or staff.” The reason is not hard to find: “Today’s millennials are influenced not only by liberal professors and administrators, but also by being deliberately targeted by pro-terrorism student organizations that push the right progressive buttons by portraying Palestinians as the trodden-upon underdogs and Israel as a repressive Apartheid state ’occupying’ Palestinian land.” Liberal internationalists are being played for fools. So Israeli nationalism is bad while Palestinian nationalism is good? Where is the logic?

Never mind. As Saul Alinsky made abundantly clear in his notorious “Rules for Radicals,” logic takes a back seat to politics. It does not take a rocket scientist to recognize the many contradictions at the heart of an ideology that proclaims a leveling of inequalities while presuming to respect individual rights. A world of equal outcomes is an age-old utopia, or rather dystopia. In the real world, we settle for pluralism and, when possible, popular representation. And that requires some form of nation-state, whose members share a relatively common culture. Ideally, such political arrangements will respect the rights of minorities among them whose culture is different, which is what we mean by liberal republican democracy.

America is one such nation. Israel is another. Indeed, few other states can claim an equal commitment to the universal idea of liberty and tolerance. Not only the Jews’ survival but also that of civilization itself depends on recognizing that seldom acknowledged, but critically important, fact.

Juliana Geran Pilon, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.