There is nothing illiberal about nationalism

Israel is a safe haven but it is just as important to hold state, tribe and community dear


Israeli demonstrators celebrate with foam the passing of a Knesset vote confirming a new coalition government during a rally in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on June 13, 2021. - Featuring Israeli political veterans and a record number of female lawmakers, a motley coalition including two left, two centre, one Arab Islamist and three right-wing parties came to power Sundayin an eight-party alliance united by animosity for outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

June 24, 2021 13:08

During lockdown, I discovered my seven-year-old daughter’s passion for history. It was only when we started reading about the World Wars in her encyclopaedia that I realised I had not given much thought to age appropriateness and Holocaust education. Do I read the paragraph which says how the leader of Germany wanted to kill all the Jews or do I airbrush it out until she is older? The look of horror on her face when I did made me wish I’d waited.

I recounted this episode to a friend and it turned into a discussion about Israel, the Holocaust, Zionism and nationalism. I was questioned as to whether I would be a Zionist if it was not for the Holocaust. I had never been asked that before, but I did not hesitate to respond — of course! I am a Zionist because I believe in nationhood, and Jews as a people should be no exception to that. The Holocaust was a catalyst for a movement already underway.

When I am asked to list the biggest challenges facing the Jewish community, one of the issues which is repeatedly raised is the perceived dwindling of support for Israel amongst the younger generation.

It is clear that the further away we get from the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, the harder it is for successive generations to feel a sense of urgency for Jewish sovereignty. This is not about unconditional support for Israel. People will of course criticise Israel for policies which do not align with their own values, especially as the issue of Palestinian statehood remains unresolved. This is not just legitimate but healthy. This is about support, or lack thereof, for the very concept of Israel.

This is perfectly illustrated by the Canadian actor Seth Rogen who said in a podcast that Israel “seems an antiquated thought process” and that “if it is for truly the preservation of Jewish people, it makes no sense”. His argument being that concentrating people in one volatile space to keep them safe is illogical.

If you see Israel through the lens of the Holocaust — as a refuge rather than as a homeland for the Jewish people — this chimes. As most diaspora Jews live in countries with good rule of law and the freedom to be openly Jewish, this can be seen as an achievement of sorts. The threat of antisemitism is real, but Jews are living in the golden era. Indeed, when threats to survival diminish, people prioritise freedom over security and this is part of the reason Jews are more ambivalent towards Zionism or Jewish nationalism. Israel “makes no sense”. Nationalism, in an era of globalisation is seen as parochial, regressive, and embarrassing and Jews have come to perceive it — often with good cause — negatively.

The horrors of the Second World War understandably make Jews uncomfortable about nationalism and today’s populists are once again scapegoating Jews and lacing their narratives with antisemitism, sometimes overtly. The rootless cosmopolitans versus the loyal nationalists. The Jew versus the patriot. Indeed, there is a common-sense reason for Jews’ liberalism — when Jews were emancipated, they understood that they needed to live in societies where everyone was emancipated because if others were not free, they were not free. Everyone or no one. But liberalism and nationalism are not mutually exclusive. Zionism and nationalism are not at odds with liberalism, even if it sometimes appears that way. The desire to belong is a fundamental human motivation and national attachment is part of that. In Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man, he claimed that the victory over communism would be a permanent state for the whole of humanity. What he did not foresee — and now concedes — is that people want more than peace and prosperity. They want to belong.

By holding those who crave belonging in contempt, we unleash the backlash of the rise of populist movements. Far too often, this is at Jews’ expense. We should celebrate those who hold state, tribe and community dear. This has always been the Jewish story and the reason for our survival and flourishing. I celebrate my freedom to be Jewish in a country I love, but I do not take it for granted because I know my history and I do not assume that the status quo is immovable. Society changes but progress is not always linear. Our hard fought for freedoms will always need protecting and Israel will always be needed — as a safe haven but also as a homeland.

Claudia Mendoza is the co-CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council


June 24, 2021 13:08

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