The following is an excerpt from Yoram Hazony’s new book, “The Virtue of Nationalism.”
I have always been troubled by the prospect that a nation such as Britain, which has so often been a light to others in politics, philosophy, and science, should some day soon step down from the stage of world history forever. I see Britain, America, the Netherlands, and others as forming part of a family of nations whose continued independent existence is meaningful to me personally.
Nevertheless, my first concern is for Israel, and I would like now to try to understand what my country looks like when seen through European eyes — or rather, through the eyes of the new paradigm that provides an understanding of Israel to so many in Europe, and now also to increasing numbers of educated people in America and elsewhere.
Consider the Auschwitz concentration camp. For most Jews, Auschwitz has a very particular meaning. It was not Herzl’s Zionist Organization that persuaded nearly all Jews the world over that there could be no other way but to establish an independent Jewish state in our day.
It was Auschwitz, and the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of the Germans and their sympathizers that accomplished this.
From the horror and humiliation of Auschwitz, this one inescapable lesson emerged: that it was Jewish dependence on the military protection of others that had brought this about. This message was articulated with perfect clarity by David Ben Gurion in the National Assembly of the Jews of Palestine in November 1942:
We do not know exactly what goes on in the Nazi valley of death, or how many Jews have already been slaughtered. … We do not know whether the victory of democracy and freedom and justice will not find Europe a vast Jewish cemetery in which the bones of our people are scattered… . We are the only people in the world whose blood, as a nation, is allowed to be shed… . Only our children, our women … and our aged are set apart for special treatment, to be buried alive in graves dug by them, to be cremated in crematoriums, to be strangled and to be murdered by machine guns … for but one sin: … Because the Jews have no political standing, no Jewish army, no Jewish independence, and no homeland… . Give us the right to fight and die as Jews… . We demand the right … to a homeland and independence. What has happened to us in Poland, what God forbid, will happen to us in the future, all our innocent victims, all the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps mil- lions … are the sacrifices of a people without a home- land… . We demand … a homeland and independence.
In these words, the tie between the Holocaust and what Ben Gurion calls the “sin” of Jewish powerlessness is powerfully in evidence. The meaning of Auschwitz is that the Jews failed in their efforts to find a way to defend their children. They depended on others, decent men in power in America or Britain, who, when the time came, did little to save European Jewry.
Today, most Jews continue to believe that the only thing that has really changed since those millions of our people perished — the only thing that stands as a bulwark against the repetition of this chapter in the world’s history — is Israel.
Jews, however, are not the only ones for whom Auschwitz has become an important political symbol. Many Europeans, too, see Auschwitz as being at the heart of the lesson of the Second World War.
But the conclusions they draw are precisely the opposite of those drawn by Jews.
Following Kant, they see Auschwitz as the ultimate expression of that barbarism, that brutal debasement of humanity, which is national particularism.
From this point of view, the death camps provide the ultimate proof of the evil of permitting nations to decide for themselves how to dispose of the military power in their possession. The obvious conclusion is that it was wrong to give the German nation this power of life and death.
If such evil is to be prevented from happening again and again, the answer must be in the dismantling of Germany and the other national states of Europe, and the yoking together of all the European peoples under a single international government: Eliminate the national state once and for all, and you have sealed off that dark road to Auschwitz.
Notice that according to this view, it is not Israel that is the answer to Auschwitz, but the European Union. A united Europe will make it impossible for Germany, or any other European nation, to rise up and persecute others once again.
In this sense, it is the European Union that stands as the guarantor of the future peace of the Jews, and indeed, of all humanity.
Here, then, are two competing paradigms concerning the meaning of Auschwitz. Each is looking at the same facts: Both paradigms take it as a given that millions were murdered in Auschwitz by the Germans and their collaborators, that the deeds done there were utterly evil, and that Jews and others who died there were the helpless victims of this evil.
But at this point, agreement ends. Individuals looking at the same facts by way of these different paradigms see different things:
Paradigm A: Auschwitz represents the unspeakable horror of Jewish women and men standing empty-handed and naked, watching their children die for want of a rifle with which to protect them.
Paradigm B: Auschwitz represents the unspeakable horror of German soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests.
It is important to recognize that these two views, which at first do not even seem to be talking about the same thing, are actually describing moral positions that are almost perfectly irreconcilable.
In the one, it is the agency of the murderers that is seen as the source of the evil; in the other, it is the powerlessness of the victims — a seemingly subtle difference in perspective that opens up into a chasm when we turn these competing paradigms in another direction and look at Israel through their eyes.
Here are the same two paradigms, now with their attention turned to the independent state of Israel and what it represents:
Paradigm A Israel represents Jewish women and men standing rifle in hand, watching over their own children and all other Jewish children and protecting them. Israel is the opposite of Auschwitz.
Paradigm B: Israel represents the unspeakable horror of Jewish soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests. Israel is Auschwitz.
In both paradigms, the fact of Israel takes on an extraordinary significance because of the identity of the Jews as the victims of the Shoah. For Israel’s founders, the fact that the survivors of the death camps and their children could be given weapons and permitted to train as soldiers under a Jewish flag seemed a decisive movement of the world toward what was just and right.
It could in no sense make up for what had happened. But it was just nonetheless, granting the survivors precisely the empowerment that, had it come a few years earlier, would have saved their loved ones from death and worse. In this sense, Israel is the opposite of Auschwitz.
At the same time, Israel takes on extraordinary significance in the new European paradigm as well. For in Israel, the survivors and their children took up arms and set themselves on a course of determining their own fate.
That is, this people, so close to the Kantian ideal of perfect self-renunciation only a few decades ago, have instead chosen what is now seen as the path of Hitler — the path of national self-determination.
It is this that lies beneath the nearly boundless disgust so many feel toward Israel, and especially toward anything having to do with Israel’s attempts to defend itself, regardless of whether these operations are successful or unsuccessful, irreproachable or morally flawed.
In taking up arms in the name of their own national state and their own self-determination, the Jews, as many Europeans and others now see it, have simply taken up the same evil that led Germany to build the camps.
The details may differ, but the principle, in their eyes, is the same: Israel is Auschwitz.
Try to see this through European eyes. Imagine being a proud Dutchman today, whose nation held high the torch of freedom in that hopeless uprising against Catholic Spain, a war of independence that lasted eighty years. “Yet I am willing to give this up,” he says to himself, “to sacrifice this heritage with its dreams of past glory, and to say good-bye to the state founded by my forefathers, for the sake of something higher. I will make this painful sacrifice for the sake of an international political union that will ultimately embrace all humanity. Yes, I will do it for humanity.”
Yet who is it that stands against him? Who, among the civilized peoples, would dare turn their backs on this effort, blessed by morality and reason, to attain at last the salvation of mankind?
Imagine his shock: “The Jews! Those Jews, who should have been the first to welcome the coming of the new order, the first to welcome the coming of mankind’s salvation, instead establish themselves as its opponents, building up their own selfish little state, at war with the world. How dare they? Must they not make the same sacrifices as I in the name of Enlightenment and reason? Are they so debased they cannot remember their own parents in Auschwitz? No, they cannot remember — for they’ve been seduced and perverted by the same evil that had previously seized our neighbors in Germany. They have gone over to the side of Auschwitz.”
Thus it is not just by coincidence that we constantly hear Israel and its soldiers being compared to the Nazis. We are not talking about just any old calumny, chosen arbitrarily or for its rhetorical value alone. In Europe, and wherever else the new paradigm has spread, the comparison with Nazism, absurd though it may be, is natural and inevitable.
This answers the question of how it can be that, at some very fundamental level, the facts do not seem to matter: How it can be that even where Israel should easily be recognized as having justice on its side — where it acts in self-defense, and with painstaking restraint — the country can be pilloried in campaigns of vilification that bite deeper and hit harder with every passing year. How it can be that after the destruction of the Israeli security zone in South Lebanon, and after Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the hatred of Israel only grows more full-throated.
The answer is that while hatred for Israel may, at a given moment, be focused quite sincerely on certain facts about the security zone or the Gaza Strip or the Turkish blockade runners, the trajectory of international disgust or hatred for Israel is not driven by these facts.
It is driven by the rapid advance of a new paradigm that understands Israel, and especially the independent Israeli use of force to defend itself, as illegitimate down to its foundations.
If you believe that Israel is, in some important sense, a variant of Nazism, then you will not be very impressed by “improvements” in Israeli policies or public relations. An improved Auschwitz is still Auschwitz.
One may well ask: If this is right, and the comparison between Israel and the most odious political movement in European history is hardwired into the new paradigm of international politics that is quickly advancing upon us, then will not individuals who subscribe to this paradigm reach the conclusion that Israel has no right to exist and should be dismantled?
The answer to this question is plain. Of course this comparison leads to the conclusion that Israel has no right to exist and should be dismantled.
And why not? If Germany and France have no right to exist as independent states, why should Israel?
And if so many are prepared to remain dry-eyed on the day that Britain and the Netherlands are finally gone, why should they feel differently about Israel?
On the contrary, while Jews and their friends continue to speak in dread of “Israel’s destruction,” this phrase is no longer feared among those who have embraced the new paradigm — some of whom are already permitting themselves to fantasize in public about political arrangements that will permit the Jewish state to cease to exist.
Yoram Hazony is an Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar and political theorist. He is President of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem.