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This ability to travel from west to east Jerusalem is something in which Israelis take great pride, as between the end of Israel’s war of independence and 1967 the low ground marked the heavily militarized ‘green line’ between Israel and territory controlled by Jordan. The Six Day War ended that. The situation since has been a source of continuing grief, not only for Palestinians, but for fashionable academics, journalists, and politicians all over the world, who deplore the state of Israel for its success, and believe that its pretensions to a pluralist liberal-democracy conceal a nationalist and colonialist reality that the world would be better off without.
In recent weeks such people have felt vindicated by a proposal from the Israeli right to pass into law a “Jewish nationhood” bill. The bill—various drafts of which would define Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” drop Arabic as an official language, and enshrine Jewish law as some sort of “inspiration” for other Israeli laws—gives the lie, in the left-wing view, to the notion that Israel is a true liberal-democracy.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether the law is imprudent on the whole or goes too far in its parts. It is widely understood here that Netanyahu used the bill to stoke the passions of his partners in government and thus to collapse his parliamentary coalition, and that the bill serves a tactical purpose for Likud which undermines any deeper meaning that it might have.
Let it be so stipulated. But the bill, and the objections to it, are nonetheless meaningful. The global left’s shock comes less from any particular aspect of the bill so much as it comes from the bill’s embrace of nationalism in principle, that the law would legally secure the obvious cultural fact on the ground, that Israel has a predominant culture and religion, which is Judaism.
A too-easy but nonetheless true response to this shock is that the global left, and in particular the European left, are complete hypocrites in this matter. They are perfectly happy for other countries with minority populations to enshrine their national cultures in law. In Afghanistan, to take an example where the United Nations actually helped write the constitution with the locals, the law of the land is that Sunni Hanafi Sharia ought to be the source of all legislation. This is the case despite the presence in Afghanistan of large numbers of Shia Muslims.
So: Islamic law is okay, but Jewish law is a problem.
This response is too easy because the left’s rejoinder to it is serious: Afghanistan is simply at an earlier stage of progress. Israel’s elites are, for all intents and purposes, western, and thus should be held to the same standard to which Europeans and the American left hold themselves. Europe has moved beyond nationalism and religious chauvinism, and so Israel, too, should assume its place among the global transnational left—a thesis with which a fair few Israelis agree.
It is here that the left misses an important point—really, a paradox of modern politics that is not often enough repeated. If Israel becomes too Jewish then, by definition, it will no longer be a liberal democracy. But, if Israel ceases to be Jewish enough, it will also cease to be a liberal democracy. The marriage of liberal democracy and sympathetic nationalisms is a necessary one. This is certainly true here, where a “one state” solution would lead rapidly to the end of a Western model of governance. But it is also universally true.
The case of Europe is instructive. Rather than being a successful post-national experiment, the European Union is beset by a revival of local neo-fascist movements, left- and right-wing anti-Semitism, radical Islamic immigrants, and a dangerous and belligerent neighbor to its east. The antiseptic Brussels model can neither satisfy its citizens’ deepest needs for identity and solidarity nor defend itself from its enemies, because—bizarrely—it believes that radical Muslims and Russian plutocrats basically want the same things Europeans do.
Europe’s uncertain situation is a fine illustration of the insufficiency of liberalism, which needs some powerful source of identity and solidarity beyond itself to make citizens love their state. (In the United States, the sense of identity is derived from a unique sort of civic nationalism, but in general around the world, lasting sources of identity are ethnic and religious.) Liberalism without national identity is defenseless. But national identity without liberalism is ugly. A balance is needed.
Here in Israel, thinking on such matters is generally clearer due to the proximity of the country to its mortal enemies. For all that the Palestinians and Gaza occupy the moral imagination of the international left, they are at best a secondary, and probably more accurately a tertiary concern in the hierarchy of Israel’s security issues. The prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb looms over everything here, and with it the threat of a new holocaust.
Even if Iran were to get the bomb but not use it preemptively, the outcome—a regionally hegemonic neo-Persian Empire—would still be unacceptable to Israel, not to say most Arabs. So Israel will have to act, if the United States and the international order will not. The consequences of such a campaign are unclear—perhaps, yet another broad regional war caused by the recent weakness of the international order.
Such a prediction may seem panicky and fevered to those in the United States, where it is harder to picture the severity of the threats to the Western model of governance and civilization, because those threats are relatively distant. Israel is effectively our front line. Europe is embarrassed by the legacy of the West—with its whiteness and colonialism and capitalism—and probably would be happy to see Israel disappear or change its character in such a way that the Jewishness of the Jewish state is certain to disappear.
But Europe itself is faltering. At an event I attended this week, Natan Sharansky–the former Soviet dissident and Israeli author and politician–made the following observation in response to a query about resurgent anti-Semitism: “People always ask me, is there a future for Jews in Europe? But I’m more worried about the question, Is there a future for Europeans in Europe?”