As Israelis and Jews around the world mark Yom Haatzmaut, we must recognize the power of our principled particularist vision
“Why do you need Israel so much, anyway? Why can’t Jews just be like everyone else, assimilate and strive to be part of a peaceful, cross-cultural global community?”
The questions, asked by a non-Jewish American friend of mine a few years ago, still ring in my head as I contemplate the meaning of national identity and the line distinguishing the universal from the particular, upon Israel’s 73rd Independence Day celebrations this week.
The problematic nature of such questions doesn’t necessarily stem from their overlooking of history — the uninterrupted connection of a people to its homeland, a past teeming with Jewish suffering and powerlessness in exile, the Holocaust, etc. Rather, the issue seems to go even deeper, to a mainstream Western misunderstanding of Jewish identity, and an overall disconnect from the concept of particularism, and more specifically, nationalism — that it is a good thing for peoples constituting nations to exercise sovereignty, promote their culture and look out for their interests.
(I would like to point out here that in Hebrew, the word for “nationalism” — leumiyut — refers to the positive virtue of self-determination and sovereignty of peoples, while leumanut — “ultranationalism” — refers to extreme ideologies that promote xenophobia and worse. This distinction is very important when discussing the topic at hand.)
The competing, universal vision which my friend was proposing sees a world of liberal values, minimal borders and a relatively free market, in which all nations slowly come together under a shared identity that minimizes difference and promotes global brotherhood. Such a world eschews antiquated ideas such as nationhood, tradition, religion and particular culture, in favor of a universal vision of peace through increased uniformity.
This international, liberal idea remains popular in many parts of the West — primarily North America and the European Union (notwithstanding, or perhaps a reaction to, the fact that Europe is made up of over two dozen nation-states with particular identities at their core). These ideals rejecting particularism in favor of universalism have gained traction in the last century through both academia and pop culture. And ironically, in their scope and effect, these ideals join other attempts at drowning out the particular in favor of the universal, ideals such as communism, political Islam, Christian imperialism, and even ideologies of supremacy such as Nazism, which sought to create its version of world peace through a “New Order” ruled over by “Aryan” principles.
Perhaps one of the best-known pop cultural examples of a Western universalist position in recent decades is John Lennon’s “Imagine”, a song which this year will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Recorded between May and July of 1971 on Lennon’s solo album of the same name, “Imagine” quickly achieved cult status among the youthful idealists of the day, and has retained a special place in the consciousness of each subsequent young generation since. A couple of choice verses from the song go as follows:
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothin’ to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace…
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…”
Growing up, listening to these lines inspired me, as they invited thoughts of a peaceful world devoid of the old-fashioned ideas and divisions which are supposedly at the root of all conflict. But the song also made me a bit uneasy. The “brotherhood of man” sounded like a beautiful vision — but did it have to be predicated upon the erasure of human diversity and the emptying of meaning from life? Could thousands of years of culture and civilization, which had brought humanity to the stage where a large portion of it was now adopting such enlightened, liberal values, simply be wiped out as part of a plan to create a utopia?
With time, I understood that it was my Jewish upbringing that caused me to question these ideas.
The Israeli Answer
Today, as we begin celebrating modern Israel’s 73rd birthday, I would like to mount a Jewish, Israeli challenge into “Imagine” and its utopian vision, along with my friend’s liberal internationalist approach and the additional universal templates being promoted across today’s Western world.
In the last week, Israel’s citizens and Jews around the world have marked a very special period in our national calendar, one that expresses our modern history and hopes for a brighter future. On Yom HaShoah, we remembered the genocide of our brethren, while highlighting stories of bravery by those who fought back against the Nazi murderers. On Yom Hazikaron, we mourned our fallen soldiers and countrymen who have given their lives to secure the State of Israel’s existence. And on Yom Haatzmaut, we celebrate independence and our regained sovereignty in our homeland.
The Israeli scholar and intellectual Rabbi Donniel Hartman has called this period the “New High Holidays” of modern Israel: our additions to the Jewish calendar, which commemorate and celebrate Jewish national history and advances in the modern era. This is a fitting classification, largely because the modern holidays and memorial days of Israel are a direct extension of a more traditional period in the Jewish calendar that remembers and celebrates the national narrative, alongside salvation and rebirth.
This traditional period is centered around the Land of Israel’s spring season — a season of renewal for the land and for its people. In the lead-up to this time, we have the holiday of Purim, celebrating our salvation from genocide as a diaspora people in ancient Persia. Next, on Passover, we tell the story of our people’s origins as a nation — the narrative that follows our ancestors from slavery in a foreign land, to the exodus and the journey towards freedom and sovereignty as an independent people in its own homeland, living under its own laws. And finally, during Shavuot in another month, we celebrate the people of Israel receiving the Torah, a national document that outlines their way of life and those very laws necessary for their future national existence.
These holidays, both the traditional Jewish and the modern Israeli, are all components of a larger whole — the overarching Jewish national narrative which tells the story of slavery and freedom, of destruction and rebirth, of exile and return. And these holidays, repeated year after year, solidify the identities of those who mark them and ensure the continuity of the collective to which they belong. A particular, national collective which is proud to preserve its own unique identity among the mosaic of global cultures.
In The Virtue of Nationalism, his book advocating for a Hebrew Bible-inspired world order made up of national states, political philosopher Yoram Hazony outlines the uniqueness of this Hebraic vision as expressed by Moses, the first “national” leader of the Jewish people:
“It is remarkable that Moses, who speaks with the Lord of heaven and earth, nonetheless initiates no universal conquest, and presents himself as legislating for Israel alone. The prophets of Israel certainly understood that the tora had been given for the betterment of all mankind. And yet Hebrew Scripture maintains a permanent distinction between the national state sanctioned by Moses in Deuteronomy, which is to govern within prescribed borders; and the aspiration to teach God’s word to the nations of the world, which takes place when the nations come to Jerusalem to learn Israel’s ways, and is associated with no conquest. How different is this biblical sensibility from what we find among the empires of antiquity, which always have their eyes set on conquest, and seek to impose their vision of peace and prosperity on the nations at whatever cost!” (Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism, p. 225)
In summary, while the Torah does have a universal message for all of humanity, its main focus is a specific message and vision aimed at a particular people, which is meant to live and perpetuate its culture in a particular land, without expanding or seeking to coerce others into joining its domain. In the text, Moses’ position as a national leader of Israel, rather than a universal prophet of God, is ever evident when he goes so far as to argue with God in order to save his people, causing God to reconsider destroying them following their sin of the golden calf (Exodus 31: 11-14).
The story being expressed, while it most definitely has global and universal ramifications, is also an overwhelmingly specific, particular, national narrative.
Hazony contrasts this national model with a universal position he calls “imperialism”. Universalist, imperialist ideologies, he writes, all have in common “the assertion that the truths that will bring deliverance to the families of the earth have at last been found, and that what is needed now is for all to embrace the one doctrine that can usher in the longed-for redemption” (Hazony, 229).
Jewish thought, although containing many universal ideas, sticks to a particularist vision aimed at developing and maintaining a specific collective’s identity and way of life. It makes no attempt to force other nations to accept its doctrine. In fact, doing so would be contradictory to its very mandate as a national ideology.
As a modernized extension of traditional Jewish thought, the democratic State of Israel is also uncompromisingly particular, asserting its identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people. And, contrary to the falsehoods that some anti-Israel propagandists may spread, Israel also has no desire for conquest, whether regional or global.
Answering the Question: Diversity
The inherent theme of particularism pulsing through modern Israel and traditional Jewish culture need not scare away outsiders. The call for honoring cultural heritage and history, promoting self-determination, ensuring national survival and passing along tradition to future generations is not a call for complete isolation, and certainly not a call for xenophobia.
The very Jewish texts that promote particularism also demand respect for outsiders: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22: 20). Passages to this effect appear a full 36 times throughout the Torah, providing the people of Israel with a clear prohibition of xenophobia and a requirement to treat others with decency.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence sets the stage for a Jewish and democratic state — a modern expression of the particular with aspects of the universal — by summarizing the history of the Jewish people, their identity and their connection to the Land, alongside a promise of full and equal citizenship for all minorities and an appeal to peace and cooperation with the new state’s neighbors.
The internal diversity of the Jewish state, and its openness to international cooperation, is but one example of the balance that can be struck by societies that wish to preserve the particular, while not completely sidelining the universal.
So let’s go back to my old friend’s first question: “Why do you need Israel so much, anyway?”
I – we – need Israel because it is the realization of an age-old dream, that of an exiled indigenous people, hounded throughout the world, wandering, yet with the long-term mission of one day returning to its homeland and regaining mastery over its own fate. That’s first and foremost.
Yet we also need Israel because without it, there is a real risk of the Jewish people disappearing. In fact, the answer to my friend’s first question can be found in his second one: “Why can’t Jews just be like everyone else, assimilate and strive to be part of a peaceful, cross-cultural global community?”
The question itself exposes a different system of values, a different mindset, than the one cemented over thousands of years of Jewish existence. Maybe not all people strive to be “just like everyone else”? Maybe assimilation is not seen as a virtue by all, and losing one’s identity in a global hodgepodge of confused attempts at uniformity is not necessarily the way forward?
Without preserving the particular, diversity will vanish as everything turns into the same shade of gray. How can that be the only way towards world peace?
The Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks commented on the importance of maintaining such diversity, and preventing coercive uniformity, in his book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations:
“Just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.” (Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 62)
And yet, there are civilizations which do claim to hold the pinnacle of spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind. Some of these civilizations, whether passively or coercively, do tend to try and push their way on the rest of us, and especially on those who stubbornly refuse to accept their supposedly enlightened guidelines.
Jewish identity and Israeli statehood recognize the intrinsic value of diversity in a global order made up of peoples, nations and collectives of all shapes and sizes. This vision stands at the core of our civilization, and at various times it has found support among statesmen the world over. It has also been the secret to our survival in an environment of competing universal ideologies trying to pull us in and cause our assimilation and gradual dissolution. Whether in our homeland or in Diaspora, where the insistence on maintaining a particular, different culture was often seen as primitive or even antisocial, it is these values that have allowed the people of Israel to continue existing for over 3,000 years, while the great empires of yesterday have all vanished.
John Lennon had a dream: no countries, no religion, nothing to fight or sacrifice for, no possessions…a world of people, of individuals, living as equals with no past and no future — living for today.
Meanwhile, the 73-year-old State of Israel, the modern expression of the Jews’ sovereign existence on their native soil, takes inspiration from the past as it works to create a brighter future for its people and the world, through contributions in the fields of science, technology, law, philosophy and literature, among others. While expressing and safeguarding the particular, it does not cut off access to the universal, but rather tempers it with the weight of history, tradition and a distinct worldview. Even through internal political stagnation, its diverse population unites when needed, whether when fighting enemies in wartime or fighting off the devastating effects of a pandemic.
On Yom Haatzmaut, the culmination of the Jewish and Israeli spring holiday season, when we celebrate our freedom and independence, we can also imagine a world in which our version of principled particularism — of steadfastly holding on to who we are and expressing this both culturally and politically, while respecting the identity and dignity of the stranger — becomes an admired vision and model for other nations around the world. A diverse brotherhood of man.
“Imagine all the peoples, living life in peace…”
Happy Independence Day! !חג עצמאות שמח