COVER STORY: Obsolete or Indispensable?
A new book argues that the nation-state is the best form of political organization humanity has yet discovered.
When Israel adopted a Basic Law in July defining the country as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” opposition was instantaneous and widespread. The objections fell into two categories. Some opponents agreed with the law’s basic premise but objected to specific provisions. Others, however, were dismayed by the very idea of defining Israel as a Jewish nation-state, believing that this definition inherently discriminates against non-Jews. Indeed, liberal opinion today increasingly views the nation-state as a relic of an unsavory past that the West has thankfully moved beyond.
It’s this view that Dr. Yoram Hazony, a longtime friend, challenges in his new book, “The Virtue of Nationalism.” Hazony argues that for all its flaws — and he’s far from blind to them — the nation-state is the best form of political organization humanity has yet discovered.
In the process, he also challenges a conception of Judaism increasingly popular among liberal Jews: the view that “universal values” like equality and human rights are the essence of Judaism. By definition, universal values aren’t unique to Judaism; they are equally applicable to and accessible by non-Jews. But Hazony argues that Judaism celebrates what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called “the dignity of difference.” It’s the only great civilization in history that never sought global application of its laws, customs, and religious practices; rather, the Bible explicitly envisioned a limited Jewish state surrounded by other, non-Jewish states.
It’s worth emphasizing just how exceptional this is. The other two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, both sought global domination. At its height, the Muslim empire stretched from Spain to India; Christianity had the Byzantine Empire in the East and the Holy Roman Empire in the West. Almost every major non-monotheistic civilization was also imperial, including Persia, Rome, Greece and China. And empires continued straight through to modern times‑ recent examples include the British Empire and the Soviet Union.
[Hazony argues] that the Hebrew Bible gave the world the very idea of the nation-state, at a time when the surrounding world consisted of either empires or tribal societies.
The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, assigns the Jews a limited territory with specific boundaries. Like everything in Judaism, their exact location is disputed. But even the maximalist conception of this territory is minuscule compared to Biblical empires like the Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian.
Moreover, Hazony notes, the Bible explicitly forbids the Jews to exceed those boundaries. In Deuteronomy, for instance, God warns, “Meddle not with [the children of Esau], for I will not give you of their land. No, not so much a foot’s breadth. Because I have given Mount Seir to Esau for a possession … Do not harass Moav, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession … And when you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession, for I have given it to the children of Lot for a possession.”
Nor is Judaism’s self-limitation merely physical. Unlike Islam and Christianity, Judaism hasn’t traditionally been a proselytizing religion; it sees no need for the entire world to be Jewish. And aside from the seven Noahide laws, Judaism’s extensive legal code is meant to govern Jews alone.
This doesn’t mean Judaism has no universal moral principles. Indeed, Hazony argues that the biblical idea, later adopted by Protestant nation-states like Great Britain and the Netherlands, requires any legitimate government to satisfy a “moral minimum,” and he considers any theory of nationalism that doesn’t include such a moral minimum unviable. Nevertheless, the Bible recognizes that how these principles translate into specific laws and practices might differ from nation to nation.
All of the above leads Hazony to argue that the Hebrew Bible gave the world the very idea of the nation-state, at a time when the surrounding world consisted of either empires or tribal societies. The rest of his book is devoted to explaining why he believes this biblical political model is still the best we have.
Cohesion and trust
A nation-state is one in which a substantial majority of the population shares certain characteristics, like a common language or religion and a common history, especially of uniting against outside aggression. These shared characteristics, transmitted from generation to generation, provide nation-states with a level of cohesiveness and trust that’s difficult to achieve in states lacking such commonalities, Hazony argues.
This cohesiveness and trust in turn make many other moral goods possible. Indeed, Hazony says, it’s no accident that most of the civil and political liberties we take for granted today developed in nation-states like Britain and the Netherlands.
I’m naturally sympathetic to that argument, not least because I chose as an adult to relocate from America to the world’s only Jewish nation-state. But until recently, that sympathy was widely shared. For centuries, Hazony writes, “a nationalist politics was commonly associated with broad-mindedness and a generous spirit.”
What changed this was World War II — or more accurately, a post-war narrative that blamed nationalism for the war’s outbreak. But before discussing why that narrative is wrong, let’s consider some of the positive goods the nation-state bequeathed us.
First, Hazony argues, the nation-state is the largest political unit in which rulers and ruled can still feel a connection — not a personal connection, since government officials obviously won’t know most citizens personally, but the connection that derives from a shared history, language, religion or culture. And only that sense of connection, in which a shared heritage creates bonds of mutual loyalty, can make a ruler or dominant faction willing to circumscribe its own power.
It’s no accident that most of the civil and political liberties we take for granted today developed in nation-states like Britain and the Netherlands.
Since circumscribed power is a necessary condition for democracy, it’s no surprise that democracy first developed in nation-states like Britain. Clearly, not all nation-states have been democracies. But no larger political unit ever has.
The nation-state’s cohesiveness and trust is also a necessary foundation for freedom, tolerance and individual rights, including for minorities, Hazony argues. That may strike many people as counterintuitive. But historically, majorities have usually felt confident enough to circumscribe their power and grant equal rights to all only when they felt that minorities posed no serious threat to the majority’s shared heritage. When dominant groups feel threatened, they often seek to suppress competing groups.
That’s why nation-states like Britain, India and Israel — as well as ostensibly “neutral” states that are effectively nation-states, like the United States, Canada and Australia, with their strong Protestant Anglo-Saxon cores — have historically proven comparatively free and stable, Hazony says. In contrast, countries lacking the cohesion provided by a clear majority with a shared heritage have typically either become dictatorships, torn themselves apart in civil wars, or both — think Yugoslavia or Syria. And every multinational empire in history has ultimately done the same.
Moreover, because a nation-state, by definition, is surrounded by other states with different languages, religions, cultures and laws, it has no choice but to tolerate these differences, even if it loathes them. Not only does this inculcate habits of tolerance, but “this formal grant of legitimacy to political and religious diversity among the nations then became the basis for the toleration of dissenting communities within the state,” Hazony argues.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean every nation-state will be tolerant and respectful of minorities; hatred appears to be endemic to human nature, and no form of political organization is immune to it. But despite sometimes horrific abuses, Hazony argues that nation-states overall have a better track record than multinational empires.
Indeed, precisely because the latter control so much more territory, they can often wreak far greater devastation: See, for instance, the centuries-long persecution of Jews throughout Europe under the Christians’ Holy Roman Empire, or Communism’s decades-long persecution of minorities throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. At worst, nation-states can persecute minorities in one country. Empires can do so across entire continents.
The value of diversity
Another significant advantage of nation-states is that they provide scope for national experimentation, not just in politics, but in science, economics, art and other fields. A multinational empire, in contrast, will necessarily converge toward uniformity, at least on certain issues. And because no individual or group has yet attained perfect wisdom, the experimentation allowed by a world of nation-states is more likely to produce new or improved ideas and practices that other states can adopt.
A salient example, though not one Hazony cites, is the idea that instead of hereditary monarchs who rule for life, executives could be elected by the people and periodically replaced by them. Many countries eventually adopted this idea. But it entered the world only because America broke away from the British Empire, giving it the freedom to launch what was then a revolutionary experiment.
Hazony’s arguments raise one obvious question: If he’s right that the nation-state has historically fostered freedom, democracy and civil rights, why is it widely viewed today as inherently aggressive and oppressive?
Granted, when nation-states experiment, the results will sometimes be disastrous. But if a nation-state adopts a failed policy, the consequences are limited to that state. When empires adopt failed policies, the suffering is much more widespread. Soviet Communism, for instance, created economic havoc and political persecution across a vast territory stretching from Eastern Europe to central Asia.
Finally, and perhaps also counterintuitively, nation-states have an inherent disincentive to aggressive expansionism. Empires typically seek to bring as many countries as possible under their aegis. But because the nation-state’s cohesiveness depends on the existence of a sizable majority with certain shared characteristics, conquering other states whose populations don’t share those characteristics would inevitably undermine this prized asset.
This, incidentally, is why no Israeli government, including several wrongly branded as annexationist, has ever annexed the West Bank and Gaza, why numerous governments sought to negotiate peace deals ceding them, and why polls have consistently shown a majority of Israeli Jews favoring such a deal in principle. Israelis understand that permanently annexing millions of Palestinians is antithetical to maintaining a Jewish nation-state.
Because Arab states repeatedly attacked Israel from these territories before Israel captured them in a defensive war, it’s understandably unwilling to cede them without good reason to believe that situation won’t return. Thus the fact that every bit of land ceded to the Palestinians so far has become a launching pad for attacks on Israel, coupled with the repeated failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has increasingly led Israelis to question whether a Palestinian state is a viable solution to this problem. Yet even so, support for annexation remains minuscule.
Hazony’s arguments raise one obvious question: If he’s right that the nation-state has historically fostered freedom, democracy and civil rights, why is it widely viewed today as inherently aggressive and oppressive? The answer is World War II, whose horrors are commonly blamed on nationalism — or in Hazony’s words, on “German soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests.”
Yet in reality, he says, Nazi Germany wasn’t a nation-state, but a classic imperial state. Its desire to conquer all of Europe, and then the world, was the age-old goal of every imperialist, whereas the nation-state, as noted, inherently requires limited borders. Indeed, Hazony writes, the Nazis understood themselves as imperialists. They explicitly sought a “Third Reich,” the German word for empire, inspired by the “First Reich,” aka the Holy Roman Empire (which, despite its name, was dominated by Germanic states for much of its history).
In fact, Hazony argues, every large-scale war in history has resulted from imperial ambitions; other examples include the Napoleonic wars and the Cold War, in which Communist expansionism and Western efforts to contain it sparked hot wars worldwide. That’s because imperial states typically seek to enlarge their empires, and therefore necessarily draw many other countries into their wars. Nation-states also obviously fight wars, but because they require limited borders, those wars are necessarily limited in scope.
Hazony’s recurrent comparisons between nation-states and empires may seem like a straw man. The bloody empires of old, with their expansionist wars and persecution of minorities, appear to have little in common with modern forms of multinational or global governance like the European Union (EU) or the United Nations. And it’s the latter that modern liberals believe should replace the nation-state.
But Hazony sees little fundamental difference between older empires and what he terms the “liberal empire” envisioned by many Westerners today — “one in which liberal theories of the rule of law, the market economy, and individual rights … are regarded as universal truths and considered the appropriate basis for an international regime that will make the independence of the national state unnecessary.” And nothing illustrates this better than the EU itself.
Unlike previous empires, the EU was formed by member states’ consent — a nontrivial distinction. Yet it suffers from many of the same ills that have historically plagued empires.
First, it lacks the cohesiveness and trust generated by a shared heritage. Consequently, after a mere few decades, it’s already under strain from centrifugal forces. Unhappiness over “dictates from Brussels” is widespread throughout the union’s periphery — Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland and, of course, Britain, which in 2016 became the first country to vote to quit the union.
Pundits often deem this griping irrational, arguing that many of the problems these nations decry stem from national policies rather than EU policy. But that merely underscores Hazony’s point: People find it easier to believe ill of “the bureaucrats in Brussels” than of their own politicians precisely because they believe their own politicians are more likely to care about their country’s welfare than politicians with no connection to their country. Nor is this mere self-delusion. By definition, EU officials are concerned with what they consider the good of the union as a whole; often, that will end up being the good of its dominant members, which may not be good for weaker members. See, for instance, EU austerity policies, which benefited strong creditor states like Germany but hurt peripheral states with weaker economies.
Nor is it surprising that one of the most consistent gripes about the EU is its “democratic deficit.” As noted, no political unit larger than a nation-state has yet managed to be democratic. Certainly, the EU is more democratic than previous empires. But voters still have no way to oust EU policy-setters when they dislike EU policies.
Moreover, like all empires, the EU has steadily aggrandized its power, far beyond what most member states originally envisioned. It now governs large swathes of its members’ political and economic life, from setting monetary policy to dictating rules on labor, education and the environment to running courts that can and do overrule national laws.
Thus while the division of power between the EU and its member states originally left space for national experimentation, this space is steadily shrinking. Indeed, Hazony argues, in any federative arrangement, the federal government will tend over time to centralize power and restrict member states’ autonomy.
Even the EU’s most touted achievement, preventing war, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny; it has escaped war for decades solely because it was protected by American troops. Without this protection, it would have faced the same military aggression as states not under America’s umbrella, first from the Soviet Union (see Eastern Europe) and then from Russia (think Ukraine and Georgia). At that point, it would either have fought back or collapsed.
Finally, Hazony argues, empires typically believe their own solutions merit universal application, and indeed are the only “correct” ones. Therefore, they constantly strive to impose these solutions on others and cannot tolerate dissent that challenges the universality of their core truths.
In this regard, liberal internationalism is no different from communism, religious fundamentalism or any other ideology that believes itself the sole possessor of a universal truth. The salient example is liberal internationalists’ intolerance of nationalism itself.
Because the EU and other multinational institutions are predicated on nation-states ceding their own sovereignty, Hazony argues, they cannot abide supporters of national sovereignty. As he notes, this is evident in the “public shaming campaigns” now common in the West against anyone who challenges liberal internationalist dogma, as well as in the loathing for nation-states like Israel, post-Brexit Britain and the U.S. (the latter long predates the presidency of Donald Trump).
The Brexit negotiations are a good example, albeit not one Hazony cites. Brussels adamantly refuses to grant Britain the same deal the EU has with dozens of non-European countries: free trade but no free movement of people or contributions to the EU budget. Yet the scope of EU-British trade means the EU has an interest in preserving free trade with Britain, and it clearly doesn’t object to such agreements in principle. Thus it’s hard not to see this as a classic imperialist attempt to punish Britain for rejecting the empire’s core truth, the wisdom of multinational government, and discourage other parts of the empire from following suit.
In Israel’s case, Hazony cites the obvious example of Gaza. Today, Israel is vilified far more over events in Gaza than over events in the West Bank. But if hatred of Israel were really “because of the occupation,” one would expect the opposite. Unlike in the West Bank, in Gaza Israel did exactly what the world claimed to want, removing every last settler and soldier; ever since, the territory has been a launching pad for nonstop attacks on pre-1967 Israel. Yet hatred toward Israel over Gaza has only intensified since the pullout.
Hazony considers it no surprise that the Jewish state is a particular thorn in liberal internationalists’ side. First, this is because Judaism insists on the value of its own unique laws and traditions, and hence implicitly on the value of national uniqueness in general. Second, it’s because of World War II’s special significance in antinationalist thought.
Because many liberals view the Nazis as the ultimate proof of nationalism’s evil, they find it particularly galling that the Nazis’ principal victims drew the opposite conclusion — that the Nazi genocide was made possible not by nationalism, but by Jewish powerlessness, and therefore, the creation of a new, Jewish nation-state was an inherent good rather than an evil. Or in Hazony’s blunt formulation, Israelis see Israel as “the opposite of Auschwitz.” But to many liberals, “Israel is Auschwitz,” because it embodies the nationalism which they wrongly believe produced Nazi Germany.
This explains not just the often pathological hatred of Israel, but also the fact that more and more liberals believe a Jewish nation-state has no right to exist. Of course, they enthusiastically champion a Palestinian nation-state, but Hazony explains this seeming contradiction through Immanuel Kant’s theory of progress toward enlightened world government: Tribal societies must first become nation-states before advancing to global government. Thus liberals who view the nation-state as a step forward for non-Western countries think that Israel, as a Western country, should know better, and consider its refusal to continue down the road to enlightenment unconscionable.
Yet given the widespread view of global governance as the “moral” choice, perhaps Hazony’s most surprising indictment is his stark formulation of what this choice means: “Here, ‘moral maturity’ is equated with the renunciation of one’s own judgment as to what is right, and of one’s own power to act in the service of what is right.” It’s truly astounding that liberals, who claim to value moral autonomy, have now become the strongest advocates of ceding it.
Why the nation-state law?
Though Hazony’s book was written before the nation-state law was enacted, his arguments underscore a fact that was once widely understood but clearly no longer is: Israel has always been a democracy that generally protects minority rights not despite its self-definition as a Jewish state, but because of it. Indeed, its record on protecting non-Jewish minorities sometimes surpasses that of “liberal” Europe. For instance, Israel has never forbidden civil servants to wear headscarves, like France, or barred mosques from building minarets, like Switzerland. Also, unlike Europe, it funds semi-autonomous Arabic-language public schools to help its Arab minority preserve its language and culture. And that’s precisely because its sensitivity to particularistic Jewish interests allows it to empathize with others’ particularistic interests.
Israel has always been a democracy that generally protects minority rights not despite its self-definition as a Jewish state, but because of it.
Nothing in the nation-state law changes this. Indeed, the most puzzling aspect of this law is that it says nothing that hasn’t been axiomatic for decades: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and within its borders, only Jews will exercise national self-determination — a provision that neither negates equal social and political rights (as opposed to national rights) for non-Jews nor precludes the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which are outside its borders. Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. Its language is Hebrew. It is open for Jewish immigration. It will strive to preserve the heritage of Diaspora Jews and strengthen their ties with Israel. It will seek to rescue Jews or Israeli citizens anywhere (the term “Israeli citizens” includes non-Jewish citizens). It views Jewish settlement as a value (where isn’t specified, but the Hebrew word used usually refers to inside Israel rather than the territories).
In fact, many of its provisions are already codified in existing legislation. And even the one ostensible novelty, the “downgrading” of Arabic’s status, isn’t really much of a change, as legal scholar Netanel Fisher noted: Arabic has never been equal to Hebrew (for instance, court cases can’t be filed in Arabic), and such status as it had was preserved through a clause stating that nothing in the law “undermines the status enjoyed by the Arabic language in practice before this Basic Law came into effect.”
Moreover, the law in no way supersedes existing Basic Laws enshrining Israel’s democratic system of government and basic human rights. Most notably, the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty explicitly protects “the dignity of any person as such,” and courts have consistently interpreted this as barring discrimination, on the reasonable grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity.
In Israel’s constitutional system, each Basic Law is merely one article of a constitution-in-the-making, and is meant to be read in concert with all the others, not in isolation. Therefore, as in any constitution, protections enshrined in earlier articles — in this case, for democracy and human rights — need not be reiterated in subsequent articles addressing different issues, such as Israel’s Jewish identity.
All this explains why even the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute – a left-leaning organization not enamored of Israel’s current government – said at a media briefing in July that the law “doesn’t change anything practically,” “won’t change how the country is run” and is merely “symbolic and educational.” There’s simply nothing in it that undermines democracy, equality or minority rights; these values are no more vulnerable today than they were before the law passed.
Yet if the law truly did nothing but reiterate old truths, why did many Israelis suddenly feel a need to codify these truths in quasi-constitutional legislation? And why was it vehemently opposed not just by people who wish to erase Israel’s Jewish identity, but by many who genuinely want to preserve it?
Primarily, because the very idea of a Jewish nation-state has been under growing assault — from international institutions, liberal intellectuals both in Israel and abroad, increasingly assertive and stridently anti-Israel Arab activists, and above all, Supreme Court justices. Many justices believe, in former court president Aharon Barak’s famous phrase, that the “Jewish” half of Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity should be interpreted at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature.” Consequently, they have repeatedly issued rulings undermining Israel’s ability to preserve particularistic aspects of its unique heritage.
Many Israelis therefore felt a need to reassert Israel’s Jewish identity in a Basic Law that would give this identity equal standing with the state’s democratic nature. But many others, not without cause, feared the consequences of flaunting this identity in a world increasingly hostile to it.
The very fact that reiterating truths held self-evident for decades could cause such an uproar today shows just how far the idea of the nation-state has been eroded. And it also shows why, far more than we need new laws codifying the Jewish nation-state in particular, we need a vigorous intellectual defense of the nation-state in general. Hazony has offered just such a defense.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.
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