Navigate to News section

Coercive Cosmopolitanism

What the hysteria over Israel’s nation-state law really means

Liel Leibovitz
July 24, 2018
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the 'Jewish nation-state bill' in Tel Aviv on July 14, 2018.JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the 'Jewish nation-state bill' in Tel Aviv on July 14, 2018.JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

I have some news that may come as a shock to some of you: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.

You’d think that much should’ve been clear since at least the 14th of May, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion took the podium and announced Israel into existence. “By virtue of our natural and historic right,” spake the founding father, the nascent state’s representatives “hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

The recently passed nation-state bill does absolutely nothing but enshrine these ideas in basic law. It does not deprive a single individual of a single right. It does not deter someone like George Karra, a Christian Arab and a Supreme Court justice, from being one of the 15 most influential judges in the land. It does not curb the Israeli Arab tech scene from growing by a dizzying 1,000 percent, as it had done over the last 10 years. It will not stop Israeli Arab students from continuing to enroll at Israeli universities—their numbers have shot up by 78 percent in the last seven years. The only instance of illiberalism on display here, as Eugene Kontorovich wisely pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, “lies with the law’s critics, who would deny the Jewish state the freedom to legislate like a normal country.”

What is the outrage truly about? It’s not really about state religion, which the bill itself never mentions. Even if it did, however, it would only put Israel in line with more than a fifth of the world’s countries: According to a Pew survey released last year, 43 nations have an official state religion, including 27 Muslim nations and a host of European nations like England, Poland, and Denmark. Nor is the outrage really about ethnocracy, a favorite new catchphrase Israel’s critics like to shout out loudly and often: As Kontorovich notes, the Latvian constitution, for example, opens by declaring the “unwavering will of the Latvian nation to have its own State and its inalienable right of self-determination in order to guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian nation, its language and culture throughout the centuries,” a proposition that enrages neither the nation’s 25-percent Russian minority nor pundits in the mainstream American press. And finally, the opposition to the law looks stranger than ever when viewed through the prism of the last 20 years of peace talks: The demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state was widely recognized as inherently reasonable in the framework of a two-state solution. After all, the same set of ideas that holds a Palestinian state to be somehow necessary and just must also apply to Israel: If it is important for the Palestinians to exercise the right of self-determination and enjoy a national existence predicated on their own national institutions, their own flag, their own dominant language, their own religious culture, and their own historical narrative, then Jews are reasonably entitled to the exact same things. In the absence of a Palestinian partner, it seems hard to fault Israel for taking the timid step of recognizing itself as a Jewish state.

Instead, the ire directed at Israel for passing its nation state law comes from a deeper, darker place. The Jewish state’s sin this week was refusing to recite the dogma of globalist liberalism, according to which democracy must only and always serve as the handmaiden of unchecked multiculturalism.

If you believe, like too many do these days, that national identities are imaginary constructs that can only lead to xenophobia and bigotry while group identities are somehow authentic and pure, you see no real value for the state except to protect and promote the rights and benefits of said groups. Which, needless to say, makes a mockery of the entire idea of democracy, as it has no real use for the delicate and complicated and often painful processes that turn us from clusters of disparate tribes into a coherent unit predicated on shared values, beliefs, and goals.

These are complicated ideas, so it helps to have a real, live example of this madness. Thankfully, this week one was provided courtesy of Trevor Noah, the anchor of the closest thing the left has to a catechism, The Daily Show. Praising France for its recent accomplishment in international sports, the comedian went on air to offer his “congratulations to Africa for winning the World Cup.” If you look at the team’s players, Noah continued, you’d realize right away where they really belonged. “You don’t get that tan by hanging out in the South of France, my friends,” Noah quipped.

As Benjamin Haddad argued in The American Interest, it’s precisely the sort of sentiment that, until not too long ago, you would hear exclusively from Jean-Marie Le Pen and others on the far-far-right. Last time France won soccer’s top tournament, in 1998, Le Pen, in fact, said exactly what Noah’s now saying, stating that the French team wasn’t French but African and that it had “brought players from outside.”

This sort of mad oscillation that makes self-declared progressives sound a lot like the race baiters of old is what happens when you no longer believe in nations. And believing in nations isn’t easy. To believe in nations you have to believe in borders, and believe that you cannot, for reasons both practical and ideological, swing open the gates and let the whole wide world in. To believe in nations you have to believe in culture, and believe that it fluctuates wildly from one group of people to another based on a vast and complex set of variables. To believe in nations you have to believe in self-determination, and believe that democracy means permitting the majority of citizens to pursue their common beliefs and interests free of foreign intervention.

Those who call themselves world citizens—you’ll find them, on the left and the right alike, in corporate boardrooms and college classrooms and large newsrooms—read the above and find it appalling. To them, it’s all an invitation to rob the wretched of their rights and lord it over the different and the poor. It’s a pathology even the strongest facts cannot cure: If you see Jews cementing their historical homeland as their own by law and immediately see inevitable discrimination, contrary to all available evidence and observable reality, there’s little anyone can offer you as a balm.

Those who quiver at the news of Israel’s latest law, however, might take some comfort in the letter France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, wrote Noah in response to his joke.

“To us,” the ambassador wrote, “there is no hyphenated identity, roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team, it seems you are denying their Frenchness.”

As the disciples of coercive cosmopolitanism continue to blindly rail against people’s right for self-determination, you’ll find more and more nations taking preemptive measures like the one Israel just took in cementing its identity into law. And that’s very good news. A world in which tribes fight each other for supremacy and control over limited resources isn’t multiculturalism; it’s benightedness. Only a strong and cohesive democracy which guarantees the rights of minorities as staunchly as Israel currently does can deliver true liberty for all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or race.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.