Nationalism vs. Empire

Recently I’ve had some arguments with Jewish anti-Zionists (although they sometimes claim they are Zionists). These are not the ones who wear Palestinian keffiyes and say kaddish for dead terrorists. These are the “moderate” ones who say that they totally understand why Israel should exist, but think that it should repeal the Nation-State Law and become a “democratic state of all its citizens” instead of one that privileges one group at the expense of others. It makes them nervous that Israel has a Jewish symbol on its flag, and refers to the “Jewish soul” in its national anthem.

They believe that ethno-religious nationalism, of which Zionism is a sub-species, has been the cause of great trouble in the world, giving rise to wars, ethnic cleansing, and genocide in the recent past.

This is a common view today. Humans are apparently genetically wired to feel trust for and loyalty to their immediate family, their extended family, and to broader and broader circles (clans, tribes, and nations) of people that are in some sense like them. But many people believe that this is a negative characteristic that leads to hatred and violence. They believe that social progress requires eliminating it, at least for circles wider than the family. In particular, the loyalty of individuals to national groups has been blamed for the destructive wars of the 20th century. Indeed, the European Union was intended from the beginning to grow into a super-nation that would ultimately absorb the loyalties of the various European peoples, and thus make future wars unlikely.

Yoram Hazony, in his book “The Virtue of Nationalism,” argues that in fact the main cause of the world wars was not nationalism, but rather imperialist expansionism. Hitler, according to Hazony, wanted to destroy the order of independent sovereign states and replace them with an empire, the “Third Reich,” modeled on the “First Reich,” the Holy Roman Empire. Hazony contrasts two divergent ideas of the best way to bring about peace and prosperity: “an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding; and an order of peoples united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.” The former, he believes, provides the best opportunity to maximize each individual’s liberty and opportunities for self-realization. Empires come into being and maintain themselves by coercion of their subject nations, which naturally inhibits personal freedom.

In the best case, an independent nation’s population shares a common language, religion, and other cultural features, along with a shared vision of the kind of society it wants to have. Such a nation can provide a high degree of autonomy for its citizens, because they work toward common purposes. In the worst case, you have Lebanon or Syria, where ethno-religious strife tear a nation apart, allow despotic regimes to take power, and sink into a state of daily hell for their people.

Empires, on the other hand, invariably stratify their populations into advantaged groups, who make the rules and consume the fruits of empire, and those who make do with what the elites allow to trickle down to them. The latter have little autonomy, because they must be guided – coerced – to act in ways that promote imperial objectives, and prevented from rebelling. Today there are several empires or aspiring ones: the US, Russia, China, and the European Union.

The nations that consistently score highest on the World Happiness Report scale are not the richest or largest nations, but smaller, ethnically and religiously homogeneous ones, like the top three: Finland, Iceland, and Denmark. Of course there are many other factors that affect rankings, but there is no doubt that their homogeneity plays an important part in their people’s satisfaction.

“But that’s racist!” I hear. No, it’s just fact. Anyway, skin color or other genetic properties have nothing to do with it except as markers for culture in the broadest sense, including language and religion and numerous other things. I suspect that the desire and ability to live together with others who are like you is a property that developed by an evolutionary process, and as I suggested, is now hard-wired into the species. Those who want to change it, to create a new kind of human who will be totally free of bias won’t be pleased to hear this, but they are fighting hundreds of thousands of years – going back to pre-human species – of evolutionary development.

I suggest that we should work with the nature of our species. Nations should be small nation-states of similar people. Countries like Iraq that were created by strokes of a pen on a map without consideration of who lives in the area circumscribed by those strokes, are bound to have problems, as well as artificially balanced multiethnic constructions like Lebanon. Empires can provide stability, but at the cost of the exploitation and oppression of the majority of imperial subjects. A majority in the UK decided that they would prefer full sovereignty to attenuated self-rule as part of an empire, and voted to leave the EU.

Not every group with national aspirations can have a state. Some people will live in countries like the US, which are defined as states of all their citizens. Others will live as members of a minority in someone else’s nation-state.

Jews have a special reason to need a state of their own; their unique history of ever-mutating persecution. It takes a surprising degree of historical ignorance, or something less innocent, to deny that today. The Jews got their state at the cost of an enormous amount of blood, and then had to defend it again and again. And their enemies, both the local ones who simply want to take their land and their wealth, and the European empire for which the Jewish state stands as a reproach, show no evidence of giving up.

Israel did pretty well in the World Happiness Report, coming in 11th out of 149 (the US was 14th and the UK 17th). That is despite the fact that Israel is not Finland: there is a large Arab minority (one out of five Israelis is an Arab) that is excluded from the national mission of the Jewish state. They are not, however, excluded from economic and political life the way minorities often are, as (for example) America’s black minority was for many years. There is a very delicate balance here that the state needs to maintain in order to thrive, or even survive, with such a large national minority within its borders. One doesn’t have to go very far here in the Middle East to see what can happen as a result of unhappy minorities.

One of the reasons that Israel has been so successful, despite the challenges it has faced from its external enemies, the tension between religious and secular Jews, and the complications created by its internal minority, is its sense of national purpose as the nation-state of the Jewish people. I cannot imagine the state would survive the cancellation of this national purpose, even if it maintained, for a time, its Jewish majority. Why would it be more desirable for a Jew to live in Israel, with its mandatory army service and periodic wars, than to live in Europe, America, or Australia? Many of those who had the option to leave would do so. And why would those that stayed have a desire to improve anything in the public sphere, anything beyond their personal situation?

Nationalism, including Zionism, is not anti-democratic, racist, or otherwise evil. I would rather see a world of independent sovereign states coordinating their activities by means of treaties of mutual advantage, than the one governed by one or several powerful, coercive empires toward which we are tending.

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One Response to Nationalism vs. Empire

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is another outstanding and convincing analysis of a central problem in the world today. The conclusion is important and I believe correct. Israel is and should be the
    nation-state of the Jewish people. Our survival here and the survival of coming generations would seem to depend (Among other things) upon this.

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