Alan Silverstein

Is Israel an Anti-Democratic ‘Ethno-National State’?

Israel’s enemies accuse the country of being an anti-democratic “ethno-national” state, an obstacle to advancing the dream of one unified world community.

These accusers falsely equate Israel’s government with right-wing coalitions — periodic UN allies — in control in Hungary and in Poland, with Donald Trump’s “America First” ethos, with the Brexit movement in the UK, and with right-wing nationalist stirrings across the globe.

Pankaj Mishra, in his “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” surveys instability around the world that is attributable to autocratic nationalism and its strivings: the Hindu supremacism of India’s PM Narendra Modi; advocates of eviction of Afghan migrants in Pakistan, Gabon, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea, as well as would-be secessionists “in the nooks and crannies of Europe,” as in, for example, Catalonia, Spain’s northeast province.

What is the origin of the concept of “ethno-nationalism”?

At the conclusion of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson spoke about this global conflagration being “the war to end all wars.”

He offered a vision of permanent peace based upon liberal national self-determination for each and every group. A new era of national self-expression had become possible due to the collapse of centuries of unified area-wide governance. The Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed. So, too, were the British and French colonial structures eroding.

Wilson’s new world order harmonized with the rise of the League of Nations and of numerous liberal expressions of nationalism. Yet it failed to bring peace. Instead, the interwar years, the 1920s and 1930s, gave rise to extreme forms of autocratic nationalism, Communism (Soviet Union), Nazism (Germany), Imperialism (Japan). Militarism and global conflict erupted into World War II with Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

In the aftermath of WWII, an alternative vision of world peace surfaced. Western European intelligentsia and American elites promoted a global utopia. In place of nation-states, governance was to be placed into the hands of multinational bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union.

In his 2012 book “The Promise of Israel,” Daniel Gordis summarizes this utopian philosophy:

“Human beings are largely the same…. We may speak different languages, but our aspirations are very similar. We may cherish different memories, but the future we create can be a shared one.

“Because human beings are essentially similar, this argument goes, the countries that separate peoples and cast a spotlight on their differences should now be dissolved.

“John Lennon put this idea to music in his song ‘Imagine’: ‘Imagine there’s no countries/ it isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.’”

The obstacles to a blissful humanity, notes Daniel McCarthy — in an article subtitled “Why Zionism Irks World Elitists” — are presented by “the nation-state itself, national borders, sovereignty, the right of self-defense, and cultural continuity.”

McCarthy identified Zionism as a contrast to this world-wide ideal. In lieu of global “oneness,” Zionism represented the desire to preserve each people’s difference and uniqueness. Jewish self-determination was one among many emerging nation-states replacing care-taker “mandates” by the British, the French, and others.

As Daniel Gordis illuminates, at odds with Western elites, “Jews drew the opposite conclusion from the horrific century they had just endured and barely survived…. Jews emerged from the Shoah with a sense that more than anything, they needed a state of their own.

“Just as some of the world thought that it might move beyond nations, the Jews” — after dreaming of a restored Zion for two millennia — “now intuited that nothing could be more urgent than finally re-creating their ancient state.

“Zionism and postwar Europe were…destined for conflict…. At issue was…the whole question of human differentness….” — common language, land, heritage, customs, and religion.

Zionism, while granting equality to all citizens, did grant special status to the majority group of the new nation, the Jews.

Like so many other rising Middle Eastern nation-states, one dominant ethnicity enabled the overall polity to be defined by a shared heritage, common language, common faith, and common ancestry.

The evolution of Ethnic Nationalism became evident in repatriation laws.

Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Serbia, Turkey, and others provide automatic or rapid citizenship to members of their ethnic diasporas.

A specific ethnicity/religion (Islam) was codified for Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates.

State-affirmed Christian churches were codified in Argentina, Costa Rica, and throughout much of Latin America and in European Christian bastions such as England, Denmark, France, Spain, and Vatican City. Africa, too, witnessed a similar Christian pattern in Zambia, Tonga, and elsewhere.

Liberal nationalists like social science professor and author Michael Walzer has said that “everybody who needs a state should have one, not only the Jews but the Armenians, the Kurds, the Tibetans, the South Sudanese, and the Palestinians.”

Yet some aspiring groups have not had their dreams of nationhood fulfilled: the Kurds, Basques, Catalans, Kashmiris, Tibetans, Lombards, Uyghurs, and dozens of other aspirants for self-determination have no sovereign nation.

The urge for nationhood remains widespread. In her book “Why Nationalism,” Yael Tamir elaborates on the thesis that “citizens have a psychological need for membership in a particular place, a human need to belong to something more than oneself.”

In an extensive volume titled “The Virtue of Nationalism,” Yoram Hazony advocates for the nation-state even in the face of growing opposition by European intellectuals and American left-wing theoreticians.

This stands in conflict with a highly influential volume penned by historian Tony Judt, “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” in which he declares that the nation-state is a anachronism, not applicable in the future:

“There could be no going back to the world of the autonomous, free-standing nation-state, sharing nothing with a neighbor but a common border. Poles, Italians Slovenes, Danes — and even the British — were now Europeans.”

Similarly in 1945, best-selling British author Emery Reves wrote “The Anatomy of Peace,” which includes “An Open Letter to the American People.” Reves makes the case for universal institutions of governance in place of individual nations. “We must aim at a…world-wide legal order if we hope to prevent an atomic world war.”

So, too, in the 1990s, Strobe Talbott, a former US deputy secretary of state, wrote about “The Birth of the Global Nation.” He stated that “within the next hundred years…nationhood as we know it will be obsolete.”

The anti-Israel United Nations General Assembly, International Court of Justice, Security Council, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency place Israel and its allies against “progressive” forces advocating globalization.

As Daniel Gordis observed in “The Promise of Israel”:

“Although many people deny the importance of ethnic [national] groups, Israelis take pride in the ingathering of Jews from around the world and the re-creation of the Jewish [independent] nation. The academy may argue that the idea of the nation-state has literally saved the Jewish people, re-creating one people from the fragments scattered around the globe.”

At its core, this ideological attack upon the Jewish state alleges to be based upon a commitment to democracy, with Israel depicted as authoritarian. In reality, however, the Israeli polity is the most democratic among any number of Middle Eastern governmental structures. A few years ago, “New York Times” editorial writer Bret Stephens addressed a cluster of anti-Israel university students. He asked them to raise their hands if they supported:

Women’s rights

LGBTQ+ rights

Equal individual rights for citizens of all faiths

Equal individual rights for people of color

Freedom of the press

Freedom of assembly

Regularly scheduled and free elections

Stephens concluded by telling the students that if their hands were raised for these hallmarks of a democratic nation, then in the Middle East they should prefer the State of Israel, where human rights and democracy are most prevalent.

Israel is not a right-wing “ethno-national state”; it is, rather, the Middle East’s best example of a liberal democracy!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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