Nationalism Restored

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Hazony, Yoram. The Virtue of Nationalism. New York: Basic Books, 2018. 304 pp.

Ever since the cultural turn in academia in the early 1970s, it has become de rigueur to disparage nationalism as a volatile and dangerous sentiment susceptible to extreme violence and prejudice. Nationalism was cast as an imagined community with the implication that it was a simulacrum whose substance came wholly from fabricated myths, rituals, and symbols. In this echo chamber, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism comes as a rare and welcome breath of fresh air that revives the idea and places it in context with other alternatives that have been offered over the ages.

Hazony looks to the Bible, specifically Devarim, to find his definition of nationalism. The scriptures actively promote the feeling of brotherhood among all members of the Jewish nation and Mosaic law would serve as their constitution; the king of the Jewish state, its priests, and prophets would all be drawn from among the brotherhood and each would have a role in preserving the traditions, customs, and laws of the community. Geographically, the boundaries of Israel are set by Moses as he expressly forbids the expansion of the nation-state into the neighbouring lands of Esau, Moav, Lot, and Ammon.

The ambitions of nationalism are clearly limited and not inherently expansionist or committed to world domination as critics are prone to hyperventilate. Hazony does not deny that there has been great violence in the past in the name of nationalism but that is also true of any other theory of mass organisation, ethics, and governance. This is an interesting proposition put forth by the author, that nationalism is not merely a feeling of cultural connectedness between people who do not know each other but properly seen, it also includes a system of ethics.

According to Hazony, the roots of nationalism are to be found in the structure of the family – individuals are biologically related in a family and share a sense of rights and duties, blood and belonging, vis-a-vis one another; the prosperity of one member is the success of them all. As families band together into clans, clans into tribes, and tribes into nations to provide better security and accomplish greater tasks, the loyalty commanded by the heads is transferred upwards towards common characteristics the members share, such as language, faith, or ethnicity.

Using the family as a model of organisation for the state is certainly not peculiar to the Bible – similar notions are found as far apart as China and Greece. Confucius clings to the metaphor a little too closely with the result that the ideal Chinese state tends towards authoritarianism; Aristotle sees the polis – state – as the full flowering of the family life but does not carry the analogy too far as he recognises that there is a difference in the nature of power within states and families, not just quantitatively but qualitatively as well.

The Virtue of Nationalism juxtaposes a localised nationalism with universalist ideologies such as imperialism, Christianity, Marxism, and Liberalism. Nations are inherently anti-imperial and therefore more stable, the argument runs, because its members are connected to each other through bonds not mediated by institutions of state. Nations are particular to geography, language, faith, ethnicity, or some other criterion that defines the community whereas the universalist aspirations of Christianity, Islam, Marxism, and Liberalism fall to the temptation of conquest and subjugation of the entire world to the one “true” doctrine of choice.

Hazony’s depiction of nationalism as limited may be true in the Jewish tradition but it has had a very different history in Europe and Asia, at least. Halakha distinguishes between milkhemet mitzva – war of obligation – and milkhemet hareshut – optional war. In the first category fall, for example, the wars of Joshua against the seven nations while David’s campaigns of expansion come under the latter classification. In fact, G-d prohibits David from building the Temple because he was “a man of battles and [had] shed blood.”

It is also problematic to portray imperialism as a universalist principle. Although imperialists have no bounds to their geographic ambitions, it is usually also true that the imperial quest is usually carried out in the name of a nation; the various nations that fall to a growing empire are neither treated nor seen as equals. We see this again and again from the Roman Empire to the pink-tainted map of British expansion. Rome expanded its citizen base only in the latter years to stave off a fiscal crisis brought on by decades of decadent emperors but ties by birth or marriage to the Italian peninsula and preferably Rome were favourable traits to possess well into the second century. Similarly, London scoffed at Mohandas Gandhi’s idea that Britain welcome all inhabitants of its dominions as equal citizens of their empire. Hazony accepts this at one point, but not before an unnecessary discourse on the universalist instincts of imperialism.

The difficulty of sustaining nations on abstractions such as liberalism stems from the inability to justify loyalty to the principle. The likelihood of changing our minds as we experience life and are exposed to more information means that any belonging to an ideal remains unstable at best. Hazony takes help from psychology to make the case that humans are social animals who have a need to belong to networks and believe in something greater than than the mere material of life. Here, he brings up a word not often seen in nationalism studies these days – loyalty – which is the crux of the debate. It is not easy, if at all possible, to have loyalty to an idea in the same manner one feels ties to a sibling or parent.

Hazony reworks several historical events to lend support to his hypothesis, in many cases problematically. For example, rather than see the Thirty Years’ War from the traditional perspective of a conflagration between Protestants and Catholics, Hazony casts it as being primarily motivated by universalist impulses against local inclinations. While most historians would agree that the religious element ceased to animate the conflict as the years passed, the war remained an old-fashioned struggle for geopolitical dominance between France and the Habsburgs.

Perhaps the most jarring incongruity in The Virtue of Nationalism is how the second Christian schism is repackaged as a contest between universalism and particularism. At a certain level, it is undeniable that Catholic allegiance to their Pope made way for dual loyalties. However, it is hardly the case that Protestantism was a particularist creed any more than Christianity a sub-sect of Judaism. While the theological reorganisation gave monarchs their independence from Rome, the faith itself still believed it possessed a universal message. The recent Evangelical movement has strongly underscored this conviction.

The largest empire in the modern era was put together by Britain and it was Prussian militarism that sank Europe into the first of its cataclysmic convulsions of the 20th century. The United States began its expansionist project with Manifest Destiny and then eyed territories beyond; none of these countries were Catholic. What is disappointing is that these ill-considered examples are unnecessary and distract from Hazony’s already persuasive defence of nationalism.

These weak digressions may conceal the real import of The Virtue of Nationalism, which is an assault on the cult of the solitary individual. Hazony traces the roots of this ideology to at least one of its origins, John Locke. Hazony finds the English philosopher’s initial assumption that all people are rational and his utilitarian methodology in assessing rationality flawed. Contrary to Locke, Hazony argues that the fundamental unit of existence is not the individual or even the family but the community. Our ethics arise from our communal interactions as does our sense of self; in turn, these inform all our other beliefs and relations, such as liberty or nationalism.

This is at the root of the conservative world view, that the community and family are prior to the individual. Ever since the early Liberals recast society as a collective of individuals, the idea has taken hold and grown to a point where it is not even questioned any more. The few who reject this modern normal have usually done so on theological grounds and have been easy to ignore in an increasingly profane world. By reviving a classical framework, The Virtue of Nationalism fires a broadside at not just the critics of nationalism but the entire Liberal project. Not only are the dangers of a universalist mindset compared against nationalism and found to be as dangerous if not worse, but individual liberty is argued to be mere license if not exercised within the bounds of community and morality. Thus, this is as much a work of political philosophy as it is about nationalism.

It is to the author’s credit that he does not pay much heed to the silly distinction between patriotism and nationalism – Vidura counters this best in the Udyoga Parva in India’s treasured epic, the Mahabharata, when he says, “[t]hose prone to get drunk get drunk on knowledge, wealth, and good birth; but the same are triumphs of the strict.”

The Virtue of Nationalism is a short book and not written in a solemn academic tone despite boasting an impressive bibliography. Hazony would do well to realise, however, that his understanding of nationalism is peculiar to Judaism and not characteristic of all politico-cultural movements. The inadvertent contradistinction, however, should be most interesting to scholars of nationalism. Readers should beware that the chatty affectation of the book belies a profound sociopolitical weltanshauung and a powerful critique of Liberalism in all its guises. There may be some historical quibbles but they do not, oddly, take away from the overall argument and to narrowly focus on those would be to miss the forest for the trees. In an era of Liberal activist academia, Hazony’s efforts to take us back to first principles and rethink our implicit assumptions is a welcome intellectual challenge.

Jews and Israel, Nation and State

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The Israeli Knesset passed on July 19 the contentious ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’ legislation with 62 votes in favour, 55 against, and two abstentions. The slim margin of victory is a good barometer of the divisions the law has exacerbated in the Israeli and Jewish communities, Arabs and Jews, sabra and Diaspora alike.

In essence, the Nation-State Bill (NSB) explicitly declares Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people” and is part of the Basic Laws that guide Israel as a constitution might other states. It further declares that the undivided city of Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state and that the state shall “encourage and promote” the “establishment and consolidation” of Jewish settlements. Other clauses of the Bill reiterate the status of Hebrew, the Sabbath, the anthem, national holidays, and the use of Jewish symbols by the state. Furthermore, Israel will remain open for Jewish immigration and strive to ensure the safety of Jews all around the world.

The Bill was first proposed by former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter in 2011 and has caused controversy ever since. The barrage of criticism has been loudest from Israel’s own post-Zionists and the United States, though Arab members of the Knesset and Europe have not been far behind in their hyperbolic condemnation of the law that heralds the birth of “fascism and apartheid.” The primary concern seems to be that such a law disturbs the equilibrium between Israel’s democracy and its Jewish identity.

There is a fundamental philosophical weakness in this line of argument and it is that it not only takes European social development as normative but also considers only the outcomes that conform to particular theories or ideologies. In doing so, it reaffirms the self-indulgent belief that a liberal politics is truly pluralistic and neutral whereas liberalism actually advocates a dogma of its own that is no less rigid or exclusive than others.

Despite the controversy, if there is one thing that most Israelis agree on, it is that Israel is a Jewish state. The bulk of the NSB – its reaffirmation of Israel’s national symbols and its designation as a safe haven for international Jewry – is de facto law and finds wide consensus among Israelis. The need to restate the obvious and enshrine it into law, however, comes from the equally widespread feeling that the Jewish character of the Israeli state has been gradually undermined by post-Zionist intellectuals, the New Historians, and an increasingly liberal activist Supreme Court beginning with Aharon Barak, president of the Supreme Court of Israel from 1995 to 2006.

The Basic Laws, which serve as the constitution of Israel, clearly establish the civil and political rights of its citizens and make an overt commitment to secularism and democracy. Although the Declaration of Independence unequivocally defines Israel as a Jewish state, what that constitutes was left ambiguous; the NSB remedies this lacuna by providing an anchor to the state’s Jewish heritage and identity.

The circumstances in which Israel was created in 1948, the Jewish experience in Europe over the preceding two millennia, and the status of the country as the sole Jewish state in the world merit some consideration in the Knesset’s desire to cement the state’s Jewish character. Despite the demonisation, much of what the NSB has proposed is no different from many Western democracies. If Israel’s observation of the Sabbath or prevalence of the menorah make it less secular, the same might be argued for Christian countries who observe Sunday as the day of rest and display Biblical symbols in their sigils.

Opponents of the NSB are worried that the reservation of the right to national self-determination in Israel only to the Jewish people (1C) may put the country’s sizable Arab minority at a disadvantage. Yet it is unfathomable that any sovereign state allow national self-determination to any group other than the dominant majority. Spain, for example, has little patience for Basque or Catalan national expression and Italy may not react well to the Alto Adige returning to Austria.

Related to self determination is the encouragement and promotion of Jewish settlements (7A). While foreign critics are worried that this spells a fresh wave of Jewish halutzim to Judea and Samaria, David Hazony, executive director of the Israel Innovation Fund, points out that the Hebrew word used – hityashvut – reminds Israelis of the Negev and the Galilee.

Another fear opponents have of preferential treatment given to Jewish settlements is that the law could cascade into further housing discrimination against Arabs. Again, this is unlikely as Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty passed in 1992 provide certain protections. The NSB, however, does weaken the ability of the court to intervene in mundane quotidian matters of budgetary allocations favouring Jewish population centres over Arab areas. It is important to note that there are already over 400 yishuvim – villages – in the Negev and Galilee that are preferentially Jewish settlements whose right the Supreme Court upheld in 2014 to appoint “acceptance committees” to vet candidates who wish to move to these settlements.

However, conservatives might want to reconsider giving legal force to communal segregation. The right to create exclusive communities does not sit well with a modern cosmopolitan democracy and can only be a recipe for turmoil in the future. They might still work at a smaller scale of an apartment complex but entire mono-cultural settlements could easily be polarised pockets simmering with radicalism and instability. Problems need not arise just from Jewish communities excluding Arabs but even other Jews from Haredi settlements, for example.

The Zionist project was undoubtedly secular, even atheistic perhaps, but it was not seen as hostile to Judaism, its raison d’etre, until recent intellectual developments. There is the obvious case to be made that the NSB is a backlash against the potential Progressive capture of state institutions before it is too late. Yet to call it a frontal assault on the secular nature of the Israeli state is to have too slavish a devotion to the European experience rather than the Jewish story.

An intriguing interpretation is presented by Eyal Benvenisti, a professor of international law at the University of Cambridge, and Doreen Lustig, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University, who argue that the fears surrounding the Nation-State Law must be tempered with other Basic Laws on Human Dignity and on Fair Employment. Furthermore, reading the Nation-State Law in conjunction with the February 2017 Judea and Samaria Settlement Regulation Law, it appears plausible that the Likud and its coalition partners are laying the groundwork for an inevitability they have realised – a Jewish Israel and an autonomous, Islamic Palestinian region as part of a single state.

The Western keening for Israeli democracy is at least puzzling if not downright hypocritical. Most established nations have used force to forge a national identity and protected it with the banal acts of everyday nationalism and immigration controls; the only difference is that Europe and the United States had achieved this a century ago while Israel is a newer nation. As waves of Muslim refugees threaten European shores, the backlash is already discernible in policies and voting patterns. Israel, though a Jewish state, lives with a multicultural population whose demographics threaten to weaken the core of its identity – an ipseity its people have been persecuted for over the centuries like no other. One cannot fault Israeli lawmakers for a passionate defence of their homeland’s essential Jewish character.

The Asian in Europe

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France are not done celebrating their recent success at the World Cup in Russia but football fans already have their eyes turned towards Qatar, the hosts of the biggest tournament in sports for 2022. FIFA, or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body for football, has declared its intent to expand the competition to 48 countries from the present 32, which was itself an increase from 24 until 1998.

Attention is fixed on the tiny Gulf monarchy and the World Cup it intends to host for another reason – the average temperature during June and July, when the World Cup is usually held, can soar up to 50°C, making it not just difficult but dangerous for players to perform. The proposal is to shift the event to late November when the weather would be more amenable but this clashes with club football season in Europe and South America; FIFA has been in negotiations with them to accommodate the World Cup and allow players to go and represent their countries. To the relief of fans, the Islamic country is also setting up dedicated zones for fans around the stadia where alcohol consumption is not prohibited.

The selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup is interesting not just for the change in the format of the tournament it promises to bring or the reworking of the logistics of international football but also because it also brings to the fore the internationally less condemnable iniquity of anti-Semitism. During the bidding process, to strengthen its chances of being selected as hosts, Doha had to categorically state that the Israeli team would be allowed on Qatari soil were they to qualify for the championship. To be fair, were Israel to qualify, it would not be the first time Israeli athletes have competed in Qatar though it remains exceedingly rare. Qatar does not officially recognise the State of Israel though trade relations were established in 1996; business, however, remains around a paltry $1 million.

Listening to passionate fans discuss football may well be a lesson in geopolitics for the uninitiated, if not at least history. Israeli football takes that to an altogether different level. The Jewish state joined the Asian Football Confederation over the protests of many of its Muslim member states in 1954. In response, a large number of Asian Muslim countries boycotted Israel’s football team in tournaments. This created embarrassing situations such as in 1958 when Israel qualified for the World Cup without having played a single match after Turkey, Indonesia, and Sudan chose to forfeit their matches against Israel. FIFA hurriedly arranged for a play-off between Israel and Wales so that the qualifier would have played at least one game on the way to Sweden, the hosts that year; Israel lost and failed to qualify.

Israel were runners up for the AFC Cup in 1956 and 1960, finally winning it in 1964 but only after 11 of the 16 participants pulled out – the Jewish state’s hollow victory came from defeating minnows like India, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Iran, who had refused to play Israel that year, ironically won the first of their three consecutive Asia Cups by defeating Israel in the finals in 1968. In a promotional video about the history of the Asia Cup released by the AFC in 2015, the organisation shamelessly made no mention of the tournament in 1964.

Israel qualified for the World Cup in 1970 but again, its path was marred by politics – North Korea refused to play in Israel and was disqualified. Although Israel finished at the bottom of their group, they managed to hold Sweden and football powerhouse Italy both to a draw in Brazil.

In 1974, Israel was expelled from the AFC after a motion led by Kuwait found 17 supporters against 13 naysayers and six abstentions. In 1994, Israel was finally admitted into the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) but not before they played in World Cup qualifications in East Asia for 1978, Europe in 1982, and Oceania in 1986 and 1990. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has been trying for years to have Israel expelled from FIFA altogether.

The two other anomalous members of UEFA are Turkey and Kazakhstan: the first might be understandable as it is, technically, a transcontinental state, but the latter, as a landlocked Central Asian state who shifted from the AFC to UEFA in 2002, remains a bit of a mystery.

Israeli football officials remain adamant that they are not interested in returning to the AFC but the fact remains that Israeli footballers have faced occasional anti-Semitism during their matches in Europe. In 2003 in Bosnia, for example, spectators chanted “Sieg Heil!” and in 2013 in Budapest, the crowd shouted “Heil Benito Mussolini” and called the team “stinking Jews.”

From the angle of the sport itself, Israel’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup from Europe diminish significantly because the continent is home to most of football’s powerhouses – just England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain have won between themselves 12 of the 21 titles since the beginning of the tournament in 1930. Some of Europe’s teams who fail to qualify could easily win against the best teams of Asia despite FIFA’s regional representation calculus allocating over thrice the spots (six times before 2006) for Europe than for Asia. Israel’s record against Asian teams, on the other hand, has been much better.

Israel’s footballing story ought to lay to rest any notion that sports help build bridges and mend fences between hostile nations. International attention is no less motivated and focused on issues of political convenience. For example, while FIFA has generally kowtowed to the majoritarian impulses of the Muslim members of the AFC, there has been no outcry over the daily human rights abuses in the same countries that call for Israel’s boycott.

For a month and a day, the world revelled in the beautiful game in Russia. Yet a closer look at the World Cup and its history reveals the ugly tentacles of non-conventional warfare Islamic states and their fellow travellers have long waged against Israel without any reprobation from the international community. The message is clear – there is no purity of sport, nor is there any cost for targetting the Jewish state in any way whatsoever.