In Defense Of Jewish Nationalism

by Robert Wolfe (May 2012)


Hardly anyone uses the term, “Jewish nationalism”, nowadays, yet it would not be difficult to identify various aspects of Jewish tradition and culture to which the term could legitimately be applied.

There is in the first place the teaching of the Jewish religion that the Jews were chosen by God to act as a “light unto the nations,” transmitting to them knowledge of God’s existence and wishes, until finally the whole earth will acknowledge God’s sovereignty. There is also the Zionist teaching that we Jews are entitled to a nation state of our own on the territory of the ancient land of Israel. And finally there is an amorphous cultural tradition which not only expresses a preference for Jewish cooking or a Jewish language or Jewish music but also asserts, in a somewhat defensive way, the superiority of Jews over non-Jews. Or as they used to say when I was a boy, “Jesus saves but Moses invests.”

In the past, the term, “Jewish nationalism,” was mostly used by Communists as an accusation intended to stigmatize Jewish socialists as not being sufficiently “internationalist” in their outlook. Ironically, once all the Jewish socialists had been killed in the Soviet Union, Soviet Jews were then routinely accused of being “rootless cosmopolitans.” As for Zionism, which the Communists at one time had also seen as a form of “Jewish nationalism,” Soviet antagonism to the state of Israel led to its redefinition as an imperialist enterprise whose association with Jewish national feeling was no longer emphasized. For these reasons, the Soviet use of the term, “Jewish nationalism,” as an accusation went out of style, but its lasting effect was to discourage use of the term by Jews who might otherwise have thought it an accurate description of their belief system. 

Many Jews are also reluctant to call themselves “nationalists” because so many right wing antisemitic parties in Europe have used this term to describe themselves. Yet nationalism is not necessarily a right wing concept. Even the Communists felt that there was such a thing as “revolutionary nationalism,” as typified by the National Liberation Front of Vietnam and similar movements elsewhere in the Third World.  Indeed, for much of the 19th century, nationalism in Europe was generally identified with the left, starting with the French Revolution and continuing with the efforts of various subject nations in the Austrian and Russian empires to achieve national independence. Jewish nationalism can be shown to contain both right wing and left wing elements; the question is not where it belongs on the political spectrum but whether it is good for the Jews.

Consider the actual situation of the Jewish people. Three of the dominant ideologies of the modern world - Christianity, Islam and Marxism - are all derived to one extent or another from Jewish tradition. Yet all three of these ideologies convey an essentially negative view of the Jewish people in general and Jewish nationalism in particular. Moreover, all three have given rise to offshoots - specifically Nazism, Islamism and Stalinism  - in which this negative view is carried to murderous, and in the case of the Nazis, genocidal extremes. Is there any other nation in human history that has been equally influential yet at the same time equally persecuted and despised?  I don’t think so.  If it is revolutionary for an oppressed people to struggle against an imperialist ruler, what is the right word for the struggle of the Jewish people against a whole series of imperialist rulers, most of whom cloaked themselves in an ideology derived from Jewish tradition, the better to eliminate the Jews? One thing is for sure: anyone who believes in the concept of national self-determination ought to be a strong supporter of Jewish nationalism, which has upheld this concept for some 3000 years now in the face of genocidal opposition. 

However, not all Jews are Jewish nationalists. There are many who feel uncomfortable with any form of nationalism. They view Judaism as an ethical philosophy essentially no different from other, equally worthy ethical philosophies. They see nationalism in general as something divisive, something which comes between people and prevents them from recognizing their common humanity. They don’t feel obliged to take sides in the Israeli-Arab conflict, preferring to regard themselves as impartial referees, judging both sides on the basis of the lofty ideal of “human rights.” In the final analysis they feel that Jewish nationalism is not good for the Jews, that it isolates us, creates resentment and makes us look bad. Yet without the Jewish nation there would be no Jewish moralists; and without Jewish nationalism there would be no Jewish nation.

Jewish moralizing has a long history stretching back to the prophets of the ancient kingdom of Judah, but it really came into its own with the rise of rabbinical Judaism. It was the task of the rabbis to console the Jewish people in exile with an explanation of why the Jewish nation had been overthrown and how it could be restored. The explanation was that the nation of Judah had been overthrown for its sins, and it would be restored when the Jewish people repented of their sins and merited the coming of the Messiah. This doctrine was at heart profoundly nationalistic but its immediate result was to foster a critical attitude towards everything that individual Jews said and did. Moreover it suffered from a fatal flaw, which was that no amount of Jewish moralizing could in fact suffice to wrest the land of Israel from its heavily armed Christian or Muslim rulers. 

This fatal flaw became painfully evident at the time of the 17th century Messianic movement associated with the figure of Shabtai Tsvi. This was the largest Messianic movement in Jewish history, embracing virtually the entire Jewish world, both in Europe and in the Middle East. Jews rolled in the snow, fasted and flagellated themselves in the expectation that these acts of self abasement would enable Shabtai Tsvi to compel the Sultan to hand over the land of Israel to the Jewish people. But instead the Sultan compelled Shabtai Tsvi to convert to Islam, and from this point onwards the doctrine that repentance would bring the Messiah lost its hold on the Jewish imagination. What persisted was, on the one hand, a tradition of relentless moralizing in Jewish culture, and on the other hand, a dawning realization that the ingathering of the exiles could only be achieved by secular means. 

Stripped of its traditional religious garb, modern Zionism eventually found a new rationale in the concept of Israel as a model nation. It was Herzl who first enunciated this ideal in his book, Old New Land, and Ben Gurion after him made it an article of faith in Israeli culture. Israel was to be a Jewish state but also a progressive liberal democracy with equal rights for all its citizens, socialist and cooperative institutions and a commitment to excellence in all fields. To what extent Israel has succeeded in living up to these ideals can be debated, but what is certain is that they provided a whole army of Jewish social critics with the opportunity to moralize about Israel’s failings in the search for model nationhood. Yet from a Jewish nationalist point of view, model nationhood was never the issue. The issue was justice, and what Jewish history teaches is that if you want justice, you must take it, because no one is going to give it to you.

Model nationhood was not a new concept in Jewish history. The Jewish Scriptures are basically a description of the concept of model nationhood evolved by the descendants of runaway slaves (called Habiru in ancient cuneiform inscriptions) who founded the kingdom of Judah about 3000 years ago. But the kingdom of Judah was overthrown by the Romans, and although Christianity and Islam both drew heavily on Jewish culture for their own self image, they rejected Jewish nationhood as a threat to their authority. All the same, the fact that Christianity and Islam were both so strongly influenced by Jewish tradition gave the Jews themselves a reason to persevere in the face of the discrimination, slander and murderous assaults to which they were subjected by the followers of both religions, especially the Christians. This history of perseverance in the face of persecution is our title deed to the land of Israel, and when the time came to claim what was rightfully ours, we did so. Neither God nor Balfour nor the United Nations gave us the land of Israel, but rather we ourselves, who took it.

Today the United Nations systematically condemns everything Israel does, but when Arab armies invaded the land of Israel in 1948 to drive us into the sea, the United Nations was nowhere to be found.  When Egypt and Syria massed troops against us in 1967, the United Nations did not lift a finger, nor did any country anywhere in the world come to our rescue. If the United Nations will not defend us, then it is not entitled to tell us how to defend ourselves. If ever a nation had the right to self-determination it is the Jewish nation. And Jewish self-determination means Jewish sovereignty over the entire land of Israel. It would be to the advantage of the Arabs living there to accept a status as a minority with full democratic rights, but whether they accept it or not, Israel needs to control the entire land of Israel in order to survive.

But is such control a realistic goal in the face of the massive international pressure to force Israel to surrender the greater part of Judea and Samaria to a Palestinian state? It all depends on the strength of the Jewish national movement. Right now this movement is composed of three distinct although overlapping tendencies. They are:

(1) Religious nationalists. A majority of the Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria believe that Jews have a religious duty to settle the entire land of Israel. These settlers and their supporters in the Jewish Orthodox community constitute the most prominent and widely recognized component of the Jewish national movement. They are the ones whom opponents of Jewish nationalism always point to as typical of the movement as a whole.

(2) Secular nationalists. Although not recognized as such, this is probably the largest component of the Jewish national movement. It includes not only a considerable percentage of the settlers in Judea and Samaria but also a clear majority of the membership of the Likud, Israel’s governing party. The secular argument for the retention of Israeli control over Judea and Samaria and also the Golan rests on the fact that militarily these hilly regions command the coastal plain on which most Israelis live. They also provide the source of a large part of Israel’s water supply and formed the historic heartland of the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

(3) Jewish loyalists. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora there are many Jews who may not have strong views on the question of Jewish sovereignty over the entire land of Israel but whose natural tendency is to take the Jewish side in any dispute. They resent the endless pressure for a “two state solution” emanating from the “international community” whose dependence on Arab and Muslim oil they cannot help but notice. The more they are told that surrendering Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians is for our own good, the more inclined they become to support the Jewish nationalist position on this issue. 

What is lacking in this picture is a conception of Jewish nationalism with some appeal to non-Jews. Control of Judea and Samaria is vital to Israel’s security, but Israel’s security is not of real concern to most non-Jews. What kind of society does Israel intend to create in the conquered territories? There are now some 300,000 Jews living beyond the 1967 boundaries. It is the goal of the Palestinians, supported by the “international community”, to uproot all or most of them and return Judea and Samaria to the Judenrein condition which prevailed there (due to the Arab massacre of the previous Jewish settlers) prior to 1967. Israel cannot allow this to happen, yet this is precisely what is intended by the proponents of a Palestinian state. In order to defeat this scheme, Jewish nationalists need to put forward a positive alternative to a Palestinian state, one with some appeal to non-Jews as well as Jews.

In particular, there is no longer any way to evade the necessity of explaining just how the Arabs living in Judea and Samaria are to be integrated into a system which entails Jewish control of borders and air space and Jewish responsibility for preventing terrorist attacks against the Jews who live there. Menachem Begin, a Jewish nationalist if ever there was one, agreed at Camp David to a large measure of autonomy for the Arabs while leaving ultimate control of Judea and Samaria in Jewish hands. It seems unlikely, however, that the Arabs would ever accept any form of autonomy without some option for Israeli citizenship as well. In any case, clear proposals need to put forward to spell out in some detail just what is the Jewish nationalist alternative to a Palestinian state. Israel cannot accept such a state no matter what, but the chances of successfully opposing it would be much greater if Israel had a viable alternative to propose.

Are we talking here about yet another model of a model state? Probably not. Experience teaches that from a Jewish point of view, survival is more important than perfection. Israel faces too much pressure from the Arab and Muslim world, reinforced by the international community of hypocritical oil consumers, to achieve any kind of ideal status any time soon. Mere survival after 2000 years of exile and persecution would be a sufficient achievement, and one which is likely to continue to have a significant appeal for other small nations struggling for national self-determination. But there is no reason not to seek to be as ideal as possible under the circumstances. Jewish nationalism is the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and the constant striving for a better way is what has given it its enduring appeal.

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