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.

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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.


Published in Jewish Ideas Daily, Oct. 5, 2012