The Israeli Right’s ‘Post-Nationalism’ Excuse

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 25, 2010, issue of September 03, 2010.
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George Will, the conservative Washington Post columnist, was in the Israeli prime minister’s office a few weeks ago and came away with a fascinating new take on Israel’s image troubles. Israel is hated in Europe, he wrote on August 12, quite obviously channeling the prime minister, because Europeans are tired after centuries of slaughtering each other in wars and have fled into a “transnational” or “post-nationalist” era. Israel, “with its deep sense of nationhood, is beyond unintelligible to such Europeans; it is a stench in their nostrils.”

Luckily, Israelis have Benjamin Netanyahu, the modern-day incarnation of Winston Churchill, the Davidic kingdom and the Patriarchs (I didn’t make this up), to stand up and say no.

It’s a nifty argument, because it gets Israel out of an increasingly difficult bind: how to dismiss European pressure for Israeli compromise as clueless and hostile without calling Europeans a bunch of Nazi pogromists. The traditional accusation that Europeans are irredeemably anti-Semitic — that they imbibe Jew-hatred “with their mother’s milk,” as former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir once put it — is wearing out its usefulness. Europeans have begun taking it as an insult rather than a rebuke. You know your diplomacy isn’t working when it leaves people madder at you than they were before. Talking post-nationalism, on the other hand, lets you dismiss Europeans and their “transnational progressivist” buddy Barack Obama as hostile to Israel, while making it sound vaguely like a compliment.

We’ll be hearing a lot more of this nationalism-vs.-post-nationalism argument in the months ahead. It’s the topic of a major paper released in early July by Yoram Hazony, founder of the Shalem Center, a pro-Bibi think tank. Hazony’s paper, “Israel Through European Eyes,” is a lengthy academic treatise that cites everyone from John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant and Jurgen Habermas to Queen Elizabeth I. He calls post-nationalism a new “paradigm,” a fundamental shift in the way people understand and explain the world. Israel, he argues, is a creature of the old paradigm, the nation-state.

Hazony’s bottom line isn’t merely to pooh-pooh Obama and the peace processors, as Will seems to be doing. Hazony ends his treatise with a call to change the way the world is taught and understood, starting with a purge of leftists from Israeli universities. But the underlying explanation is the same. Hazony, Will and Netanyahu agree that Europe is living in a new historical moment, while Israel insists on sticking with the old one. Israel for them is, in the most literal sense, “an anachronism,” as the late Tony Judt put it.

As elegant as it sounds, though, the Hazony-Judt thesis doesn’t hold water. Yes, many Europeans display an unseemly antipathy toward the Jewish state. Yes, most of Europe has banded together in a continental union, which tries to carry out some of the roles of a nation-state. But most Europeans are quite happy as citizens of their own nation-states and wouldn’t sell them for all the euros in the Deutsche Bank. Nobody seriously advocates dissolving France or Sweden, much less the newly independent Estonia and Lithuania. Europeans welcomed the collapse of transnational Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia by inviting the emerging nation-states of Slovakia and Slovenia into the union. They went to war to protect the emerging nation-state of Bosnia.

In addition, Hazony’s arguments undermine the rhetoric of his allies in the campaign to restore Zionist pride to Israel’s social-science faculties by clearing out the post-nationalists. Many of his fellow advocates of such a purge insist it’s not an anti-democratic witch-hunt because it’s targeting opinions that go beyond free speech into the realm of subversion and treason. “I do not believe that any other state in the world would allow this kind of ‘academic freedom’ to run wild through its academic institutions,” writes Ynet columnist Haim Misgav, a lecturer at Netanya Academic College. “A sense of nationalism is among the inalienable assets of any country; it serves as the glue that unites its citizens. No nation in the world would give it up.”

If Hazony is right about Europe’s post-nationalist paradigm, then the peoples of Europe have not only allowed those subversives to run wild on their campuses but actually elected them their leaders. On the other hand, if Misgav is right about the hardiness of nationalism, even disregarding his cramped views on academic freedom, then Netanyahu just sold George Will a load of malarkey.

Actually, they don’t disagree. In reality they’re all after the same thing: resisting pressure to leave the West Bank, while trying to banish or explain away the growing cost of staying there.

Israel’s troubles in Europe didn’t start in 1948. Its reputation started eroding after 1967, when it captured the territories. Even then, though, European antipathy began as a fringe phenomenon, growing only slowly as decades passed, as the explosive situation dragged on and patience ran out. Everything was forgiven when Yitzhak Rabin made a visible effort to defuse the problem by negotiating a deal with the Palestinians. Half the crowned heads of Europe attended his funeral. It was after 2001 that the impatience erupted into hatred, due to a combination of George Bush’s ham-handedness, Ariel Sharon’s tanks and shrewd pro-Palestinian advocacy. Whatever the justice of your cause, there’s no way to erase images of tanks facing off against children. It’s just not a crowd-pleaser.

It wasn’t Kant that turned Europeans against Israel — it was the pictures on their tellies.


I mistakenly wrote in my August 20 column, “Remembering Tony Judt, Heartsick Lover of Zion,” that the late historian had criticized Israel in a 1983 essay as a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state.”

There was no 1983 essay. The “belligerently intolerant” phrase appears in his 2003 essay, “Israel: The Alternative,” as something that Israel “actually risks” becoming at some point under certain circumstances (meaning it isn’t right now). The error appeared in the Associated Press, and I reproduced it. In the spirit of Elul, ashamnu.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com


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