Liberal Nationalism

By Gil Troy

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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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).

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