ethnic nationalism inevitably breeds hate
Via Gawker. As Gawker is quick to point out, you shouldn’t take the lame drunken ramblings of some small slice of any population as dispositive of anything at all. All we know from watching stuff like this is that this sentiment exists; it doesn’t say anything at all about what percentage of the people in any area think. My instinct is that this is a very, very small slice of young Israeli opinion. You can go anywhere and find some very ugly attitudes and ideas, if you look hard enough.
But neither do I join with those who think that this is just an irrelevant gotcha, or who think, as some of Gawker’s commenters do, that making this video or finding it interesting is proof positive of anti-Semitism. There’s a bigger point here: ethnic nationalism inevitably breeds extremism. I look at these kids and I see people who have been radicalized by the ideas of ethnic nationalism. The identification of a national project with any particular ethnicity is a disaster for egalitarianism and democratic principles. But worse, it leads to racism and separatism and the worst kinds of identity politics– not the kind where people whine about accusations of racism or affirmative action, but the actual politics of identity, where the world is divided into good people and bad, and the work of government becomes the sorting of one or the other, and the application of aggression against the unfavored.
When people ask me if I support the existence of the state of Israel, the honest answer is, it depends. Do I support the continued existence, security and prosperity of the Israeli state? Absolutely, unequivocally. Israel must be defended, and it must thrive. There is no question in my mind about the need to stand against threats to Israel. And, fortunately for us all, Israel is not meaningfully threatened. It is an economically and socially secure state with one of the most advanced and powerful militaries in the world, a sizable nuclear arsenal, and the patronage of the preeminent military power in world history. Compared to the state that is widely regarded as the biggest threat to its safety, Iran, Israel enjoys a large military and strategic advantage, even without considering the adamant support of the United States. And that makes me happy, because I believe in Israel, and I demand its continued safety and prosperity.
But I do not and will not support the idea of Israel, the explicitly Jewish state, because I do not believe that states should have an explicitly religious or ethnic character, and we can afford no exceptions to the basic tenets of democracy. To understand my disagreement with racial or ethnic or religious identities for national bodies, you need only consider the entirety of Enlightenment thought, John Stuart Mill, the Declaration of Independence, the charter of the United Nations, and the entire philosophical underpinnings of the American project. Egalitarianism is the lifeblood of democracy. Trying to have a democratic state without equal recognition of all people, regardless of creed or color or caste, is an exercise in futility. That’s why I’m opposed to mullahs making law in Tehran, why I’m opposed to the continued unspoken application of caste to political decisions in India, why the fantasy of a caliphate remains dangerous, why I don’t believe the United States should be referred to as a Christian nation. Any notion that a state has a distinct religious, ethnic or racial character is corrosive to genuine democracy.
So to those who believe in a secular and fully egalitarian Israel, I stand with you in the need to defend Israel, at almost any cost. But to those who believe that Zionism entails making Israel an explicitly Jewish state, I can’t defend that, just like I can’t defend the Muslim state of Saudi Arabia. It is inimical to my first principles. Israel must be a home to Jews, and a beacon of strength and protection for the Jewish people, but it must not be a Jewish state itself. Some people think that the distinction is mere nomenclature, and say that as long as Israel offers equal protection under the law to all of its people, it doesn’t matter whether it calls itself an explicitly Jewish state. Israel has an admirable record when it comes to fully extending rights to all of its citizens, certainly far and away better than its largely Muslim neighbors. (This admirable extension of citizenship rights to non-Jews makes the treatment of those in the Palestinian territories that much more perplexing.)
But as long as a governmental distinction exists, it’s inherently contrary to true equality, even if symbolic; see again the push by some to label the United States a Christian nation. And, as I have said, I believe the identification of ethnicity with nationalism is inherently radicalizing and incubates anger, animosity and extremism. It’s true in Iran, where legitimate grievances are combined with illegitimate ones, national pride, religious extremism and anti-Semitism to make a really noxious brand of rhetorical aggression. And, I fear, it could be true in Israel as well, despite the country’s moderate and reasonable core.
To those who would say that I am once again holding Israel to higher standards than the largely Muslim neighbors which are its frequent antagonists, I can say only, yes, it’s true. I hold Israel to higher standards. I expect more from Israel.
Update: To make my reasons for holding Israel to a higher standard clear: I hold Israel to higher standards because it is a robust, practicing liberal democracy with a history of protection of minorities and a decent respect for civil rights. Few or none of these things is true in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt.