Ethno-Nationalism and Diaspora Jews

Much virtual ink has been spilled regarding the results of Israel’s elections and the advent of the far-right parties Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, and their leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. The fear is that these two Jewish ultra-nationalist leaders, both of whom have advocated Israeli annexation of the West Bank, the transfer of Israel’s Arab population, and have opposed LGBTQ rights, will threaten the image of Israel as a democratic state and undermine the support of Israel among Americans, particularly among American Jews.

But there is much more for American Jews, and diaspora Jews generally, to worry about than Israel’s democratic bona fides. Israeli ethno-nationalism may actually undermine the political status of Jews in the diaspora. Let’s remember that following the Charlie Hebdo/Kosher Market attack in France in 2015, Bibi Netanyahu addressed French Jews at the main synagogue in Paris. Did he tell the community that Israel was committed to the safety and well-being of all Jews everywhere? Did he tell them that Israel would battle antisemitism in France and around the world? No! He told them that they are not safe in France and that they should all move to Israel. After all, is that not the Zionist dream? The response of the congregation that day was the singing of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. No, Bibi, they responded, we are French!

That’s by way of background. Now let’s consider Israel’s so-called “Nation-State Law” enacted by the Knesset in July 2018. Item 2 under Basic principles reads in part: “The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People…” Wrong!! I’m the Jewish people, and Israel is not my nation state; the United States of America is my nation state. I love Israel. I visit it regularly. I study modern Israeli Hebrew, read Israeli novels and online news both in Hebrew and English, but Israel is not my nation state. So when Donald Trump and others addressing Jewish audiences calls Israel “your country” and the prime minister of Israel “your prime minister,” he is simply ratifying one of the basic principles of Israel’s Nation-State Law; that Israel is the nation state of American Jews.

No wonder American Nazis and other White Christian Nationalists love Israel so much. Consider White Nationalist leader Richard Spencer, who hailed Israel’s Nation-State Law, tweeting that the law is a model for Europeans and telling Israel’s Channel 2 news that he is a “white nationalist.”

“I care about my people,” he proclaimed. “I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves. Just like you [Jews] want a secure homeland in Israel.” (“White Nationalist Richard Spencer Backs Israel’s Contentious Nation-state Law,” Haaretz, July 22, 2018).

In other words, Israel as an ethno-nationalist Jewish state is just fine with White nationalists, since it simply adds credibility to America as an ethno-nationalist White Christian state.

Jews should beware. Ethno-nationalism, whether in the US, Israel, Poland, Hungary or elsewhere, is never good for the Jews.

About the Author
Richard Lederman holds a BA in Religion from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from the Annenberg Research Institute, now the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. After nearly 30 years as a Jewish communal professional, including a post as Director of Publich Policy and Social Action for the United Synagogue of Conservative Juddaism, Lederman is now retired. He blogs at and