Why are so many of our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters so obsessed with Israel? You could take their protestations at face value, and believe it’s a mere coincidence that these crusaders for social justice single out the world’s only Jewish state for calumny rather than focus on, say, the evils of China or Syria. You could press rewind and argue that this faddish obsession is merely the most modern manifestation of a very ancient hatred. Or you could acknowledge a thornier, more complicated, and often ignored truth that subtly shapes this entire debate: Any way you look at it, Israel is the most legitimate state on Earth, and therefore the pillar on which the legitimacy of the global order of nation-states rests.
Does this strike you as just a bit of overblown hasbara? Think again: The debate about Israel is heated precisely because it’s not about Israel at all, but about the shape of the world, the nature of virtue, and the future of everything from economic structures to international relations.
All of those are very big things, the sort of concepts that can keep departments full of historians and political theorists busy for decades. But if you want to understand why Israel matters—and is so obsessively reviled—sit back, relax, and turn your attention away from the contemporary Middle East, to the city of Münster in the year 1648. There, the Peace of Westphalia was instrumental not only in ending the Thirty Years’ War that decimated the populations of some parts of Europe, but also in birthing a new kind of creature: the independent nation-state.
To the hilariously misnamed Pope Innocent X, the nation-state was an affront to the very notion of sanctity. The only world order worth pursuing, the church unsurprisingly believed, was one closely regulated by the vicar of Christ. Any attempt to imply that humans had any inherent right to inhabit their native lands where they might govern themselves according to their own beliefs, customs, or interests, Innocent famously quipped, “was, is and forever will be, null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, and entirely devoid of effect.”
The pope wasn’t only fuming about his church’s loss of worldly influence, which would never be restored. He was crying out in defense of one vision of organizing the world, and against another. The political philosopher Yoram Hazony expounds on this point in his excellent book The Virtue of Nationalism. “For centuries, the politics of Western nations have been characterized by a struggle between two antithetical visions of world order,” he writes. “An order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding; and an order of peoples united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.” Whether it’s Sweden and Saxony versus the Habsburgs, or Nigel Farage versus the European Union, the conflict that the Treaty of Westphalia sought to end remains as central today—if at times less bloody—as it was in the 17th century.
Yet unlike those who cheered for empire, supporters of a system of independent nation-states didn’t have a long and storied tradition to draw on, no Rome from which to borrow ways and means to rule the world. What exactly was a nation-state anyway?
Johann Gottfried Herder—the philosopher who made his debut in the 1770s by calling on his countrymen to “spew out the ugly slime of the Seine; Speak German, O you German!”—had a pretty solid answer. “The most natural state,” he wrote, “is, therefore, one nation, an extended family with one national character.” States that attempted “endless expansion” or “the wild confusion of races and nations under one scepter” were doomed to fail—“a human scepter,” Herder warned, “is far too weak and slender for such incongruous parts to be engrafted upon it.” In an insight still hotly debated today, Herder was arguing in part that a state is more than the sum of its revenue or armies; to thrive, it needs something else.
So what does it need? To answer that question, Herder believed, was to ponder the essence of what it meant to be human. Unlike Kant, who believed that we understand the world using reason alone, Herder argued that we shape our view of reality based on our experiences, which is why what we’re taught and how we’re taught it are both crucial to who we become. “Every individual,” he waxed poetic, “becomes man only by means of education.” And education, to Herder, meant the transmission of tradition. When this is done well, you get the Volksgeist, the national character that breathes life into the dry bones of borders and institutions and turns them into the foundations of a living nation-state. When this happens, people have “their own mode of representing things,” he wrote, “because it is adapted to themselves, is suitable to their own earth and sky, springs from their way of life, and has been handed down to them from father to son.” A nation, in short, is organic, not synthetic; it’s a living thing, not an intellectual construct; it’s a product of the collective culture of a group with its own unique language, history, traditions, and beliefs.
The Jews, of course, got there first. Flip open Pirkei Avot, the majestic bit of mishna containing the collected wisdom of our great teachers, and you’ll see a detailed accounting of the mesorah, the transmission of our tradition. “Moses received the Torah at Sinai,” we’re told, “and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.” To continue and pass it on, the Israelites might’ve chosen to continue to dwell in disparate tribes. Or they could’ve argued that now that the Almighty had pointed to them as His chosen people, it was their mission to share the good news with all the peoples of the Earth, making everyone Jewish. Instead, their covenant called for something radically different, the world’s first nation-state.
“One does not have to accept the biblical account to recognize that Israel set a precedent for all the states that followed,” David Goldman wrote in Tablet in 2018. “It united a group of tribes around a common religion and priesthood with a universal God, eschewing the worship of family or clan gods that otherwise was universal in the ancient world. Tribes, clans, and even city-states may unite for self-defense, as did the Greek city-states, but no other nation like the biblical Israel arose in the ancient world with a unified monarchy, a unified legal system and unified religion.”
Give or take a few differences—instead of a monarchy, for example, a raucous democracy—modern Israel, like contemporary Japan and a few other places, remains a legible embodiment of this ancient idea, which was revived by 17th-century Europe to stanch the bloodshed of its religious wars, and which was codified by Herder, who gave expression to our modern idea of a national culture.
Israel’s citizens, the first indigenous people in recent memory to return to their ancestral homeland, cultivate a stretch of the Earth over which they can claim ownership by summoning everything from the Bible to reams of archaeological discoveries empirically confirming it had once belonged to their forefathers. They’ve gathered in from different corners of the Earth, yet they defy the noxious contemporary obsession with race by erecting a society in which Jews with roots in Vienna and Jews whose grandmothers were born in the Atlas Mountains and in the deserts of Yemen all see themselves as belonging to the same extended family. The family speaks the same language. With varying degrees of observance, it practices the same faith. On the radio, hit pop songs draw on the Talmud, say, or the poetry of Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. On the streets on a Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approaches, you need no other sign that you are in a Jewish state. The law books, while solidly rooted in Western jurisprudence, correspond with Halacha. Everything in Israel springs naturally from its people’s way of life, which is a product of a national culture shaped by a collective narrative and shared traditions. Herder would’ve approved.
Everything in Israel springs naturally from its people’s way of life, which is a product of a national culture shaped by a collective narrative and shared traditions. Herder would’ve approved.
Herder’s critics, and the critics of nationalism more generally, pointed out that the idea of a Volksgeist was, to use the contemporary academic’s favorite term, problematic—not least because it assumed the ability of disparate human beings to come together under the wings of some unifying but particularistic spirit. Herder acknowledged all of this, but responded firmly that when people spoke the same language, occupied the same territory, developed a national character that was observable if not ubiquitous, took “noble pride” in their political sovereignty, and forged their own shared myths, then no matter which individual preferences they preserved, they still belonged to a larger unit called a nation.
Do we, as Americans, belong to a nation? Our territory is shared by people of vastly different cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds; our languages are many. Our myths are everywhere in dispute these days, collectively recognized only as battlegrounds in culture wars. More and more, we ask what binds us together; increasingly, we find it hard to answer. Neither can many Europeans, citizens of a newly forged union that attempts to recreate the dreams of the popes under secular auspices by smoothing out national distinctions.
Enter the elites. Now, as ever, our wealthiest and best educated are here to warn us that talk of national character, or, indeed, of nationalism in general, is nothing more than a thinly veiled invitation to exclude the most vulnerable—minorities, say, or immigrants—from the national story, a racist and xenophobic undertaking that should be excoriated. On this point, capitalists and communists have often agreed: Nation-states have been equally hostile to the church of free trade, and to the dream of uniting the workers of the world. For elites, as for Herder’s critics, nation-states remain problematic.
Racist, ethnocentric, provincial, oppressive, retrograde—opponents of the nation-state have found no shortage of epithets to denounce their bête noire. Speaking in 1933, the Swiss diplomat William Rappard, a high-ranking official in the League of Nations, complained bitterly about a world that chose to abandon the universalist utopia proposed by him and his friends. “When contemporary statesmanship shall have exhausted the cruelly disappointing possibilities of the exclusive nationalism to which it is condemning the world, it may well revert to the Covenant [of the League of Nations] and find therein both consolations and exhortations similar to those which the surviving politicians of the Southern Confederacy, after the Civil War, doubtless found in President Lincoln’s speeches and messages.”
Rappard, of course, very soon turned out to be wrong: The beasts that devoured the world shortly after his speech were imperial, not national. Hitler, Stalin, Hirohito—each exploited national feeling for purposes of political power and wartime mobilization, but what they each dreamed of was “endless expansion” under “one scepter” that would span the Earth. They didn’t want strong nation-states with natural limits; they wanted global empires under their personal control.
For a brief moment in the late 1980s, with communism passing away in Europe and Central Asia and its serf states breathing free, you may have been forgiven for assuming “The End of History” was correct, that the debate about which worldview best guarantees peace and prosperity had been decided, and that proponents of global empire would henceforth speak more softly, if at all. But then came the European Union, the cheerleaders of a hegemonic Pax Americana, an increasingly confident and expansive China, and the captains of the global oligopoly, all braying praises to their new world orders and warning us that attempts to resist them meant returning to carnage and chaos.
If such resistance could be embodied in a state, it would be the Jewish one. Israel may be an enthusiastic participant in international diplomacy and the high-tech global economy, but it is not in any danger of being assimilated into the borg. Its upper crust still sees itself as committed primarily to national interests, not cosmopolitan pieties. And it is not afraid to defy an empire or two for the sake of its survival—as it did, for example, when it bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and was rewarded only with condemnation from the United States, the United Nations, and everyone in between.
But even more than Israel’s actions, it is the country’s essence that is so troubling to advocates of a global moral and political order that preaches sameness, not difference. Israel’s existence, and its continuing success, are an intimation that the light unto the nations may shine not from the embrace of universalist dogma, whether proclaimed from on high in Brussels or Beijing or Cupertino, but rather from a small nation that insists on living by its own traditions and happy to simply lead by example.
The idea that particularism is not an atavistic survival technique from a benighted past, but in fact the wellspring of human culture and social process, is as wicked to the Davos set as the Peace of Westphalia was to the Roman Catholic Church. To those who despise the idea of national sovereignty and national character, to those who want us all to watch the same shows, buy the same goods, and obey the same regulations and standards of virtue promulgated by a single authority, there can be no greater threat than the continuing existence of a strong, prosperous, and free Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem. And what case can be made for a particularistic national existence in countries like Japan and France—to say nothing of more brittle constructions like Nigeria, Brazil, or the United States of America—if Israel is judged to be illegitimate?
Israel’s continuing success in the face of universal condemnation and scorn is a reminder that Herder’s celebration of difference was a solution to the universalist dreams of Pope Innocent X and his ideological successors, who nearly drowned the world in blood. Today, the universalist set foolishly insists that there is no greater crime than the belief that people and nations are and should continue to be different rather than the same. Feel free to ignore them.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.