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In Defense of the Nation-State

Daniel Gordis wants you to know that if you want tolerance, diversity and freedom, you should work for Zionism.  In his new book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength, Gordis weaves the work of political theorists and historians into a compelling case for the nation-state in general and Israel in particular.  His first argument, in favor of the nation-state, is every bit as important as the second.        

As Gordis points out, talk does not produce human rights; governments do.  And the governments that have produced human rights such as personal liberty and the rule of law have most often been ethnically based nation-states like Israel, South Korea, and the Czech and Slovak Republics.  Even in places like communist Poland, where the government was perfectly dreadful, the ethnic nation-state has generated these benefits.  In the Middle East, hardly fertile ground for law and freedom, Zionism has brought civil liberties and democracy to millions of people who never enjoyed them before, chiefly Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern and European tyranny but also Israeli Arabs.

Gordis quotes intellectual historian Mark Lilla, who notes that while Western Europeans have forgotten “all the long-standing problems that the nation-state, as a modern form of political life, managed to solve,” Zionism “remembers what it was to be stateless, and the indignities of tribalism and imperialism.  It remembers the wisdom of borders and the need for collective autonomy to establish self-respect and to demand respect from others.”  Until Western Europeans re-learn those lessons, “the mutual incomprehension regarding Israel between Europeans and Jews committed to Zionism will remain deep.”

Gordis is on to something here.  True, European and American opposition to Israel partly reflects anti-Semitism; but it also reflects the fact that Israel is the archetypal nation-state, and nation-states have fallen from favor in intellectual circles.

The idea that humanity is arranged into peoples and nations, each with its homeland, language, and unique ideas about how society should be organized, is fundamental to the Hebrew Bible.  It is a profoundly tolerant idea, acknowledging that there may be more than one way to build a good and just society.   This Jewish idea stands in radical opposition to universalism.  The great universalizing traditions of the West—Greek, Roman, Christian, Islamic, Marxist—have all attempted to annihilate Jewishness because they could not tolerate such diversity.  It is no accident that universalism, religious and secular, has spawned many of history’s great crimes.

Until recently, republics have arisen only in small city-states and, usually, only briefly.  Apart from these cases, in all of human history only a few ways have been found to organize political life.  There is the intense and appalling tribalism of Afghanistan.  There are empires in which conquering Herrenvolk oppress conquered peoples.  There are dictatorships and monarchies in which individuals may have comforts or privileges but not rights.  There has been the universalizing ideology of Marxism, which has produced brutality and death on an unimaginable scale.  Then there is the nation-state.

The nation-state gives no assurances of the universal peace and justice promised by Marxism, Islam, or the human rights movement.  It claims merely that it will attempt to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for its citizens.   The nation-state does not claim it will bring peace or justice to the whole world, only that it will work to bring these benefits to a particular people living on a particular piece of land. 

Even for one people in one land, this is a tall order; yet Israel, Gordis argues, has largely succeeded in filling it.  Israel has maintained a stable democratic government, a free press, and a high standard of civil liberties for its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian citizens, even those who work openly for its destruction.   It has made world-class contributions in every field of human achievement.   It has taken in large numbers of refugees, not just Jewish but non-Jewish.  It has created a first-world economy and defended itself against attacks aimed at its annihilation.

As Lilla puts it, in a passage not cited by Gordis, “One of the long-standing puzzles of politics is how to wed political attachment (which is particular) to political decency (which knows no borders). The nation-state has been the best modern means discovered so far of squaring the circle.”  Nation-states can produce bad governments, of course.  But they quite often produce good governments, even liberal democracies; and that capacity makes them unique in a world mostly governed by dictatorships.  The nation-state, one can conclude, is the worst possible form of political organization, except for all the others.

Gordis would not put it so minimally.  He envisions a world in which each people lives in its own nation-state, governing itself as it chooses, perhaps competing freely through persuasion but claiming no right to impose its ideas on another people.  For him, the utilitarian laundry list of decent government, civil rights, a flourishing economy, and the other miracles that tiny Israel has produced in the face of implacable hatred are but a prelude to the things that Jews living as a free people in their own land can and will produce.  In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s terms, such a flowering is possible only under conditions of self-determination.  “I shall never believe that I have heard the arguments of the Jews,” he once wrote, “until they have a free state.  Only then will we know what they have to say.” 

Liberal American Jews, Gordis argues—he is surely right—are embarrassed by the fact that the Jewish state is a standard-bearer for nationhood, a political idea hopelessly out of fashion.  But the fashionable advocates of universal human rights have a far more embarrassing problem: Advocating human rights in general doesn’t actually do much to move particular governments toward decent behavior.  Issuing reports that tally human rights violations by oppressive governments often seems to do little more than teach dictatorships to lie more effectively. 

Yet practical politicians in Israel have delivered real democracy and human rights, the Czech and Slovak Republics have amicably separated into two admirably liberal nation states, South Korea emerged from decades of brutal imperial occupation to walk a difficult path towards a prosperous liberal democracy, and the state built by the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan is more admirable in every way than the one built by Marxist idealists on the mainland.  None of these young nation-states is perfect, but their governments look awfully good compared not only to what went before in these places but to what goes on today in nearby countries.  A book could be filled with examples of places where nationalism has brought comparatively good government—sometimes even peace, prosperity, and human rights protected by courts of law—in parts of the world long oppressed by the great empires and universalizing ideologies. 

Activists understandably want to find a simple political formula that will bring perfect government to everyone in the world, but Gordis is right:   Building a world of nation-states one by one, a job requiring the kind of hard, painful political labor that created Israel, is a far more practical way to produce a world that is tolerant, diverse, and free. 

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.

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Jeff Saperstein on October 5, 2012 at 1:12 am (Reply)
This thesis has been true. Does it also extend to the validity of States and Provinces (e.g. Australia and Canada) extending these rights and diversity within the nation state? It would be interesting to apply this to the Middle East today. Gaza and West Bank have become separate societies so perhaps they should be separate nation states or perhaps autonomous regions confederated with Jordan to make a more stable state with self rule. One could extend this to the Kurds who may be the most persecuted national minority in the Middle East. They truly should be a state rather than national minorities within several countries (even though the Kurdish citizens of Turkey are technically in a nation state in Gordis' definition).

Regional empowerment should be included in the discussion. Ireland is a nation state of four million while India is a nation state of 1.1 billion; they are very different. India is more of a continent and the diverse peoples would probably benefit from from more regional autonomy to determine their own future within the context of democracy and freedom. Ireland is a homogenous nation state in Gordis' terms.
Len Sullivan on October 5, 2012 at 8:10 am (Reply)
excellent reading
excellent history
excllent research; pragmatic and well presented
100% agree
Eli on October 5, 2012 at 10:06 am (Reply)
"And the governments that have produced human rights such as personal liberty and the rule of law have most often been ethnically based nation-states " The United States is ethnically-based? Canada is ethnically-based?

"The great universalizing traditions of the West—Greek, Roman, Christian, Islamic, Marxist—have all attempted to annihilate Jewishness because they could not tolerate such diversity. " Really? That why was Judaism a religio licita in the Roman Empire? And if Islam sought to "annihilate" Jewishness, then why were Jews accorded offical status in the millet system?
DF on October 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm (Reply)
If this is an accurate sumamry of Gordis's book, he is pretty much saying exactly the same thing Yoram Hazony already said more than two years ago in his article, "Israel through European Eyes."
Cynic on October 5, 2012 at 12:38 pm (Reply)
The millet system was used by the Ottoman empire in treating its Muslims but then was reformed (Tanzimat) to govern the ethnic and religious minorities, it found in its boundaries.
Treating these minorities as dhimmis, with a poll tax, jizya, to be paid for not converting to Islam.
Of course you have not stated the conditions of the dhimmi in Islamic society.
Sydney on October 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm (Reply)
The issue is not the nation state vs some other form of government. That is a straw man, put up only so it can easily be knocked down.

The real issue is the "liberal nation state" - that views itself as as "state for all its citizens" vs the "ethnic nation state" that views itself as the expression of a single particular historic people. The U.S., Canada, and even the U.K are examples of the former. Israel - and perhaps the Check Republic and S Korea are examples of the later. The Check Republic treats its Roma population shamefully, and S Korea has virtually no non-Korean citizens so the issue of minority and/or refugee rights never comes up. And - Gorodis' claims to the contrary - Israel does not treat its non-Jewish citizens very well, and has accepted very few non-Jewish refugees as citizens.

If Israel viewed itself as a multi-national / multi-cultural state like Canada (and to a lesser extent the U.S.) - it would have much less bad press, and "Liberal American Jews" would not have to be embarrassed by her ethnocentric behaviour.
jacob arnon on October 5, 2012 at 6:12 pm (Reply)
Great article.

This quote by Rousseau has stayed with since I first read it decades ago:

"In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s terms, such a flowering is possible only under conditions of self-determination. “I shall never believe that I have heard the arguments of the Jews,” he once wrote, “until they have a free state. Only then will we know what they have to say.”"

Not only would non Jews KNOW what we have to say when we have become an autonomous people taking irresponsibility for our own being, they only know under such condition What we are.

Only autonomy confers on us the condition of selfhood.
Shlomo on October 5, 2012 at 10:36 pm (Reply)
Appelbaum begs the question of why it is the Jewish nation-state that elicits such opprobrium. Hardly anybody questions Slovakia or even Scotland. Europe is not so detribalized as suggested here and will not likely progress further into imperial bliss under current circumstances. I don't see how a defense of nation-states in general helps to defend Israel in particular.

American Jews have sacrificed Jewish nationhood and culture as a condition of American citizenship and social acceptance. The US Census doesn't recognize a Jewish nationality. American Jews (both liberals and conservatives) believe their religious identity fiction, have absorbed the liberal imperial culture, like it, and don't understand the need for Israel.
S W on October 7, 2012 at 4:58 am (Reply)
While disagreeing with Mr. Arnon from time to time, his citation of Rousseau is apt. And therefore, "Only autonomy confers on us the condition of selfhood." Indeed.

Another speaks of the "liberal imperial culture," a phrase I find also very apt. From the attempts to "unify" Europe, most recently from Napoleon to National Socialism to the current efforts of the European Commission, there has been as urge toward the "imperial" in our recent history. It is an attempt to wipe away the nation-state in favor of a greater entity, the imperium. For this, from National Socialism and Italian fascism to the satellites of Soviet Socialism to the occupation of Tibet under Sino-Socialism, various attempts to create an imperial culture have crushed other peoples. The "ummah" is also such a concept as is the "liberal imperial culture," a fact which we should not forget. Some suggest the North American Free Trade Agreement signed under Clinton is a step towards a North American union. The dream of an imperium continues to linger.

Israel as a nation-state offends the "liberal imperial culture" as it also offends the "ummah." It is therefore obvious that tiny Israel by its very existence threatens various imperial sorts of thinking, each bent on its own aggrandizement at the expense of Jews.

Yet even now we see Catalonia and even in Venice only last week the movements to secede for the sake of self-determination. One may suggest then that self-determination and freedom from the imperium is an ongoing process in the human heart, from our story of the Exodus forward. Yes, "Only autonomy confers on us the condition of selfhood." And it theatens the various imperial mentalities which would have us its subjects rather than free men and freed men.
Patrick on October 9, 2012 at 3:04 am (Reply)
"Gordis is on to something here. True, European and American opposition to Israel partly reflects anti-semitism; but it also reflects the fact that Israel is the archetypal nation-state, and nation-states have fallen from favor in intellectual circles."
Is this written without any sense of irony!
    jacob arnon on October 9, 2012 at 11:19 pm (Reply)
    If you mean that many anti-Israel bigots also come from nation States like the US or
    The United Kingdom, I agree. However intellectuals who pretend to hate the nation State are very happy carrying passports issued by their countries.

    This isn't just ironic. It crosses into Hypocrisy.
      Patrick on October 10, 2012 at 2:21 am (Reply)
      I agree with your comments, but I meant rather that I find it ironic that Jews should be arguing for the superiority of the Nation State over other forms. Jews have been at the forefront of the universalism of Marxism and the overthrow of nativism and the hegemony of particular cultures in predominantly White Christian countries all over the world, including the US through, for example, the 1965 Immigration Law reform and advocacy for unfettered asylum entry.
        jacob arnon on October 10, 2012 at 7:19 am (Reply)
        Some Jews, Patrick argued for "universal Marxism" which had disastrous affects on the Jewish communities in "Marxists" countries. Most Jews didn't support marxism but rather a form of social democracy that is not incompatible with the nation State.

        Don't confuse the part for the whole, Patrick.

        As for the 1965 Immigration law as I recall the Kennedys and other non Jews also supported that legislation.
Recruiting Animal on October 9, 2012 at 9:49 am (Reply)
Gordis seems to be making two arguments that conflict with eachother.

One is that a state formed around an ethnic group is easier to run because its members share common values.

They are not fighting over language or lifestyles.

But he's also arguing that an ethnic state is going to be liberal and democratic.

But it doesn't have to be.

Imagine if Baluchistan breaks away from Pakistan. It would be a backward ethnic state.

And, in fact, one could argue that ethnic states are not naturally drawn to democracy because they have less internal dissent forcing them to liberalize.
    jacob arnon on October 9, 2012 at 11:27 pm (Reply)
    "And, in fact, one could argue that ethnic states are not naturally drawn to democracy because they have less internal dissent forcing them to liberalize."

    Given that democracy in the ancient world began in a city state (Athens) and was revived later in Europe in nation States with single languages and religion like England, it's clear that democracy like tyranny can happen in ethnic "pure' States as well as in impure ones.

    Let's not forget that democracy came to the US when it was a colony of England with a single language and religion (Christian). Yet they welcomed non English speaking peoples as well as Jews.

    I would guess that tyranny is as likely to take hold in large Empires of mixed ethnic peoples as in single ethnic societies. Ancient Rome and Persia are examples, there many others.
Patrick on October 10, 2012 at 10:03 am (Reply)
At the time Teddy Kennedy assured Americans that the 1965 changes would not change the ethnic composition of the United States - he probably believed it, I think the Kennedys hardly had a brain between them. But they were little more than fellow travelers. Anyway it is too late now. Jews have a long history of shooting themselves in the foot. The usurpation of the white Christian majority in the US and the pressure for liberal asylum policies and non discriminatory immigration in all European derived countries, thereby flooding them with virulent anti-Semites is just the latest manifestation of this.
jacob arnon on October 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm (Reply)
"At the time Teddy Kennedy assured Americans that the 1965 changes would not change the ethnic composition of the United States - he probably believed it...."

These changes in immigration were going to happen some time or other.
What drove it were less "Jewish" support than the fact of demographic changes in the world and in Europe: the lower birth rate and the availability of cheap labor.

The same flood of non Europeans overtook Europe as it did the US.

Patrick, if you want to continue discussing these issues with me you will need to stop talking about "the Jews" and start offering evidence for those Jews you refer to.

"The Jews" didn't make the Russian revolution nor did they work to change the demography of the US. If you look closely you will find Jews, Irishman, Catholics, Protestants on all sided of these issues.
Marilyn Kagan on October 10, 2012 at 6:21 pm (Reply)
All these rights and privileges may be there in the Israeli nation-state, except for the full equality of women, in the workplace and on the bus.
    jacob arnon on October 10, 2012 at 9:58 pm (Reply)
    I agree, Marilyn Kagan. Israel isn't perfect and there is a lot of room for improvement in all sorts of areas including the status of women.

    Still they are light years away from the status of women not just in the Arab or Muslim worlds but of many if not most third world countries. A former supreme court justice was a woman and woman occupy many important posts in government and some private companies. Of course that is no comfort to the woman on a Jerusalem bus who is told to sit in their own segregated area.

    Hopefully, this will change in time, and soon.
Patrick on October 10, 2012 at 8:43 pm (Reply)
I will therefor close, but I suggest you look at the speech given on the Island to commemorate the reform, note the names mentioned, refer to the online Jewish Encyclopedia. Jews undoubtedly drove that reform.If you choose to believe as you do,that is fine with me - I will leave you with a quote from one of my friends: "Jews tend to be not big on nationalism", in reply to my tale of a Jewish chap who felt that one of the problems of Argentina was a lack of nationalism.This of course supports both of us!
    jacob arnon on October 10, 2012 at 10:03 pm (Reply)
    "I will leave you with a quote from one of my friends..."

    Great and on what authority does you friend speak?

    I also don'y know what Jewish Encyclopedia you are talking about.

    I could give you many quotes from Jews who would deny your view of them. But why bother. You sound as if your mind is made up. Nothing more boring that talking to someone who has a closed mind on a topic.

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