The nation as an island: the source of Israel’s resilience
At this week’s annual dinner in London of the Anglo-Israel Association, which promotes understanding of Israel in the UK, the Israeli thinker Daniel Gordis poignantly described Israel as an island surrounded by enemies.
This image of Israel under siege is currently all too apposite. With Iran’s regime now entrenched through its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, Israel now faces a genocidal enemy on three simultaneous fronts.
In the face of these dangers, not to mention the recent mini-war when thousands of rockets from Gaza rained down on southern Israel, the resilience of ordinary Israelis is astonishing. There can surely be no other country which, despite its state of permanent embattlement, remains so cheerful and full of hope about the future.
This is because, despite the manifold divisions in Israeli society, the people pull together against their foes. Israel is able to defend itself in the way it does because it sees itself as a nation, governing itself in a land with which it has an unbreakable bond.
This relates way beyond Israel to the momentous argument now underway throughout the West over the very idea of a nation and the resurgence of nationalist feelings.
For more than half a century, the Western nation has been under attack from the dominant, progressive side of politics which damns it as intrinsically racist, colonialist and exploitative.
Under this orthodoxy, Western democratic parliaments and national laws must give way to transnational institutions such as the UN, EU, or international human rights law.
National borders, it is assumed, must be permeable; people should be able to flow across them. Immigration control is xenophobic. Transnationalism means the brotherhood of man and kumbaya. Nationalism means prejudice, hatred and war.
This is deeply mistaken. A nation is a large group of people bound into a shared project, rooted in a particular culture, history, laws, religion, language and other traditions and governing itself within a defined area of land.
Nationalism is merely the desire to be a member of, identify with and promote and defend such a nation. It became seen as bad in the West because German nationalism was held to have led directly to Nazism.
In fact, as Yoram Hazony has pointed out in his new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Nazism was really a form of imperialism because it set out to conquer and rule other countries in a re-run of the Holy Roman Empire. And Hitler’s vision of the German nation was based on an unhinged requirement for racial purity that was particular to the Nazi regime.
That requirement may remain on the agenda of present-day neo-Nazis in America or Britain, but it most certainly does not apply to American or British national identity.
Across the West, millions have risen up in revolt against transnationalism and said they want their nations back. This was the major reason for the Brexit vote in Britain, the election of US President Donald Trump and the rise of nationalist or populist parties in Europe.
Some of these parties do indeed have troubling roots in fascist ideology. Yet all in the West who believe in their individual nation and its particular culture are tarred as nativists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Nationalism is thought to threaten the return of the jackboot. But the nation is in fact a bulwark of protection for liberty and democracy.
Many in Britain viscerally understand this. Britain is an island nation which has fought off all invaders for the past thousand years. Many of its citizens understand that the political liberty it invented cannot exist unless the nation governs itself again free of EU control.
But many others in Britain no longer share that ancient cultural memory. The country is currently in the grip of a profound political and constitutional crisis as Brexit is being fought to the death – a fight led by those who realize that the return of Britain as an independent nation threatens their whole project to undermine it and its core values.
Most British Jews voted against Brexit, many of them fearful that British nationalism would unleash antisemitism. But antisemitism in Britain has already roared out of control principally among those on the left who oppose the nationalism agenda and for whom hostility to Israel is their default position.
British Jews have got this badly wrong. The most fertile soil for antisemitism is not a country with a strong sense of identity, but a country which has lost it.
Antisemitism denotes a society in trouble. For decades, normative Western values have been under assault in the belief that the Western nation is innately rotten.
Behind that is a loss of belief in the West itself and in progress and modernity. The Holocaust, which took place within the crucible of Western high culture, smashed to smithereens Europe’s belief in itself as the exemplar of superior cultural values.
America experienced a further cultural demoralization caused by its terrible and recent history of slavery and racial prejudice. Between both these shocks the West was unable to resist the onslaught by the left determined to remake society in its own image.
National identity was replaced by factional interest groups. Morality was replaced by a Marxist view of the world based on competing power blocs. Biblical morality was replaced by man-made, universalizing ideologies, such as moral and cultural relativism or multiculturalism.
Above all, the Western nation could never defend itself by force. Every conflict had to be resolved through negotiation, compromise and peace processes – even with non-negotiable, genocidal agendas. Hence the terrible Iran nuclear deal, and the reframing altogether of the Arab war of extermination against Israel as a conflict between two rival claims to the land.
In the Western progressive mind, therefore, Israel is damned many times over: as a (supposedly) Western, ethnic nation that defends itself with force.
Perhaps even more enraging to the Left than that, the ancient kingdom of Israel was the original paradigm nation, on which at some level America and Britain modeled themselves.
The current resurgence of antisemitism in the West is part of a far deeper and wider struggle. It’s a fight between two views of the world and of humanity itself. A fight over how we should live in this world, what it means to be moral and what it means to be human. And Jews are on both sides in this great battle.
But if the West is ever to learn to love the Jewish people and their nation in Israel, it will first have to learn to love again the Western nation itself.