Liberal Nationalism

By Gil Troy

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The worldwide campaign to rob Israel of its good name has strained Zionism’s historic linkage with liberalism. Too many progressives have attacked Israel and Zionism, especially in academia. Palestinians have cleverly hijacked the rhetoric of human rights to rationalize that great human wrong, terrorism. The new, politically correct position of demonizing the Jewish state and Jewish nationalism, combined with the Palestinians’ turn from negotiation toward terrorism, has inaccurately stereotyped all Zionists as conservatives. In fact, liberalism and Zionism remain mutually reinforcing.

Both liberalism and Zionism are modern post-Enlightenment movements with deep Biblical roots. Just as Zionism begins with “lech lecha,” Abraham’s mission to “go forth” to Israel, Western ideas of social justice stem from Biblical notions of equality. Critics like New York University professor Tony Judt, who recently reduced Zionism to a Middle European sideshow in an article in the New York Review of Books, misread history to associate Zionism with Serbo-Croation bloodthirstiness. In fact, Zionism and liberalism are intertwined with a third mainstream movement — nationalism.

Theodor Herzl harmonized these three intellectual currents. This enlightened Viennese progressive is remembered for jumpstarting Zionism in reaction to the antisemitism of the Dreyfus trial. Yet in his 1896 book “The Jewish State,” Herzl dreamed of the Jewish state as a liberal light unto the nations. “Whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind,” Herzl wrote, applying the romantic nationalist message that communities provide effective structures for implementing high ideals. The American experiment proves how nationalism facilitates idealism.

Yet somehow, in today’s crazy world, European or Canadian nationalism is nice, multicultural and natural, and American nationalism is chauvinistic — but Jewish nationalism is racist. People who would not dare suggest uniting Canada and the United States, and historians who forget the bitter failures of Lebanon and Yugoslavia, blithely propose a “one state” absurdity combining Israelis and Palestinians.

Of course, there is a tension between universalism and particularism. But it is odd that often the same Chomskyite forces that celebrate Palestinian nationalism negate Zionism. It is particularly odd considering Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler’s insight that the Jews are the original aboriginal people, still speaking the same language, still developing the same culture, still tied to the same land after thousands of years. Nationalism remains the defining “constitutive” force of the modern world, as Boston University professor Liah Greenfield writes. To single out Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, as the only illegitimate form of nationalism is bigotry.

Herzl was not the only nineteenth-century Zionist. Zionism was a many-splendored thing, a rollicking conversation about Judaism, modernity, nationalism, liberalism, rationalism, socialism and capitalism. Zionism was a bold experiment to realize these ideals. Zionists were radical intellectual pioneers, fighting the world’s evils while making the desert bloom.

It demeans Zionism to judge Israel by the oppressive examples of her self-righteous Arab neighbors. And Israelis themselves are quick to detail their state’s shortcomings. But it has been, overall, a gloriously successful experiment, carving out a liberal democratic oasis in a forbidding totalitarian desert.

Critics should be ashamed for singling out Israel merely for acting like any other modern nation-state. Many myopic critics are blind to Jewish suffering and Palestinian violence. Even many Israelis, especially far too many Israeli academics at home and abroad, lambaste Israeli “oppression” while ignoring Israel’s risks for peace during the Oslo years and the Palestinians’ lethal rejectionism.

These days, critics indict Israel for the “pre-crime” of transfer. Judt, for one, reasons that this is Prime Minister Sharon’s only option. Such premature indictments may pass muster in the Hollywood of Tom Cruise’s “Minority Report.” But “thought crimes” should be anathema to academics, and especially historians.

Suspiciously, while demonizing the Jewish state, liberal critics overlook the restrictions most European countries impose on non-Europeans. Europe is no model — not because of its horrific past, but because of its hypocritical present.

France has closed more than 50 professions to non-European Union citizens, according to the International Herald Tribune, including “pharmacists, midwives, architects, airline pilots, funeral home directors and anyone who wants to obtain a license to sell tobacco or alcohol.” Other European countries have similar restrictions.

Israel can proudly compare its record of openness to immigrants, and even its openness to its Arab minority, despite hostile conditions. Progressives can and should continue to delight in Israel’s democratic vitality, its vigorous press, powerful courts, creative universities, outspoken dissidents, dynamic population and sophisticated economy — in short the ease, freedom and equality of so many of its citizens, including Arabs.

Of course, Israel is imperfect, like every nation-state, like all human creations. But shame on so many liberals, and so many academics, for jumping on the intifadist bandwagon, magnifying every Israeli imperfection to delegitimize the Jewish state while forgiving so many other countries’ shortcomings. Liberal Zionists can and should proudly celebrate Israel’s many accomplishments, while prodding it to do even better.

Gil Troy is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today” (Bronfman Jewish Education Centre).






Find us on Facebook!
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.