Nationalism

Rosh HaShanah 5779
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

The story of humanity begins with a singular human couple  – Adam (Adom from the earth) and Eve (Hava – life).  The rabbis describe Adam’s creation as the gathering of earth from the four corners of the world: white, black, yellow and red soils – so that no person could say that their skin color was superior to others. Further, French philosopher Emanuel Levinas explains that the text first states that God created “man” and only afterwards, cleaves this “Adam Kadmon” (or primordial man) into male and female.  Here, too, since we all proceed from one entity, no-one can claim that he or she comes from superior stock.  Thus, the description of the world in Bereshit, Genesis, as created and populated, begins as a universal world (parsing the word “uni” as singular – a single world).

In not too many generations, this universalism leads to insurrection – not against each other, but against God.  The humans conspire to build a tower to reach heaven, to threaten “God’s abode.” Genesis 11:1-9:

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words….  3They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.— 4And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” 5The Eternal came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, 6and God said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. 7Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 8Thus the Holy One scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9That is why it was called Babel, because there God confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the God scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Seven generations after Noah, we meet Abram who becomes Abraham, as God’s covenantal partner.  As part of the covenant, God tells Abraham, “and I will make you a great nation.” Today we read of Isaac who will go on to sire Jacob, called Israel.  All three generations become identified with the nation Abraham first establishes.

During the story of Isaac, we meet Ishmael, who the rabbis remind us creates the linkage to the Muslim nation.  Jacob’s twin Esau, receives his name as a result of his ruddy complexion – that red color in Hebrew is Edom, which the rabbis associate with Rome, thus linking Esau with the Christian nation.

On the journey from enslavement to the Promised Land, the nation Israel encounters many “nations,” many bent of Israel’s destruction or subjugation. Once Israel settles the land promised to Abraham and his nation, the “nation-state” of Israel (now land and people merged) repeatedly must defend itself from many invading nations.

What constituted a nation? An identity based upon a place or central figure, a leader to rally the populous, a value system that led to a legal system, and a government that imposed and enforced that legal system.  Nationalism is a political, social, and economic system characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining sovereignty over land. The political ideology of nationalism holds that a nation should govern itself, free from outside interference and is linked to the concept of self-determination. Nationalism is further oriented towards developing and maintaining a national identity based on shared, social characteristics, such as culture and language, religion and politics, and a belief in a common ancestry.

It was nationalism that led to the first Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) which resulted in the destruction of the 2ndTemple.  And nationalistic urges led to the Bar Kochba revolt (132-136CE).

Closer to our own time, it was a little over 240 years ago, that our American forefathers and foremothers threw off the yoke of British colonialism; the French revolution of 1789; German nationalism led to a revolt against Napoleonic control (1805-1814), and Britain asserted itself in 1830.  Listed among the causes of WWI was competing nationalisms – and unresolved issues left over from the conclusion of that war led to WWII. And clearly, the resultant horrors suffered by our people, led to the founding of the modern State of Israel.

All of these events and more were fueled by nationalistic passions: desires for self-determination and self-definition, the assertion of the dominant culture and language and mores.  And, inevitably, all to the detriment of whatever minority the majority created.

Today, these nationalistic urges have re-emerged in Hungary, Poland, Russia vs the Ukraine and Crimea, Brexit….  The list goes on.

And while, in each and every case, there is a purity to the initial establishment of these “nations,” there is inevitably a toxic impact made on those who do not fit the profile defined by the majority.

Here in the United States, from its roots in D W Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” there has long been a strain of nationalism within the White Protestant community in the South and Mid-West. Granted license in the recent past by a change in the rules of public rhetoric and discourse, marchers in the streets of North Carolina have chanted “Jews will not replace us”, while also attacking people of color.  So, while America fought for its independence 240 years ago based upon a shared value of tolerance, it is intolerance that is driving this modern iteration of American nationalism.

And just over a month ago, a bill that has floated around in Israel’s Knesset for almost 12 years, was ratified, declaring the Israeli “Nation-State.” Making de jureconcepts that have long been de facto, such as the declaration that Israel is the nation of the Jewish people, the flag is blue and white with a Star of David in the middle, Hatikvah is the national anthem, and Hebrew is the dominant language … all of these, long accepted as the reality of Israel. Yet in this bill, the minority status of non-Jews is articulated, the secondary status of Arabic as a language, and other realia are now concretized. So, this “nationalistic” urge has culminated with the embers of civil unrest within, and criticism as well as support from the Jewish community without.

Israeli philosopher and conservative thinker, Yoram Hazony, in a recently published essay in the Wall Street Journal (Aug 25, 2018 – the essay anticipates a book that will soon be released) states:

Nationalism is on the rise across the globe. It is key to Donald Trump’s appeal in the U.S. It is the driving force behind resistance to the European Union and its policies in Britain, Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary….  Many critics see this revival as the greatest political danger of our time. But it is a mistake to think of nationalism as an inherently regressive or destructive political force. In fact, nationalism was the engine that established modern political liberty, and it has been a spur to diversity among nations…. A world in which independent nations are permitted to compete freely with one another is a world in which diverse ways of life can flourish….

In response to Hazony’s opus, Walter Russell Mead, distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute and professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, suggests in his reply to Hazony that there are flaws in both Universalism and Nationalism – two countervailing theories, each susceptible to corruption (published in the American Interest 9-24-16)

“…{[O]ften and perhaps usually the case in human affairs, we have here two alternatives—let’s call them, respectively, cosmopolitan universalism and national self-determination—and they’re both flawed. Really, deeply flawed: vulnerable not just to mistaken impulses but to vile and ugly deformations.

Thus, in the case of cosmopolitan universalism, you can get to the point where a king or emperor or supreme leader like Nebuchadnezzar decrees that anyone who doesn’t pay obeisance to the realm’s designated idol will be subject to punishment up to and including execution. That has surely happened more than once in human history, and there are significant numbers of people today who would like to make it happen again.

As for the case of national self-determination—that is to say, Hazony’s preferred antidote to cosmopolitan universalism—just look at the map of Eastern and Central Europe. In the late 19th century, four large multi-national, multi-confessional states—the Ottoman, Russian, Austrian, and German empires—dominated the region. A little over a century later, after the deaths of a “mere” 100 million or more people in war, and after another 30 million were driven from their homes, we have 40 or 50 nice, democratic, nationalist, ethnic states. History suggests that there are a great many problems with the national state as well.”

Mead further reminds us that nationalistic states often treat minorities poorly, and he cites many examples of when Jews bore the brunt of xenophobic urges.

Returning to Israel’s nation state bill – which has clearly divided the Jewish world – one wonders how the bill as it stands embraces the eternal ethics which have defined the Jewish people – a people whose command to love the stranger as oneself became the rallying cry of those who advocate universalism.  The forces on each side of the debate line up quite simply: critics of the Judeocentric message, label the bill and its supporters as “racist” while those who support the bill, label the critics as “anti-Zionist.” And Rabbi Avi Weiss (with whom I have almost always differed) has called for both sides to listen more deeply, recalling the message of the shofar blessing – it is not enough to sound the shofar – one is commanded “lishmoah” to listen.  He then offers a proposal that could potentially harmonize the polarity: “[I] believe that the new law should be amended to include a simple but important phrase from Israel’s Declaration of Independence: ‘[Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.’ I suggest this addition because these rights are absolutely central Jewish values.” (JTA July 16, 2018)

For the past six decades, humans have been able to escape our atmosphere and begin the exploration of space.  One astronaut after another has commented on the fact that borders between countries are not visible from space. All have added their hopes that we can rise above the petty differences to embrace one another as fellow citizens of the blue orb they saw from on high. That universal message was shattered when the first astronaut from India, Ron Garan, in 2006 looked down on his homeland – and visible even from miles above was the illuminated fence that divides India from Pakistan. “When viewed from space, Earth almost always looks beautiful and peaceful. However, this picture is an example of man-made changes to the landscape in response to a threat, clearly visible from space.” (“It Turns Out Some Borders Are Visible From Space” Nancy Atkinson Sept 8, 2011)

As Israel wrestles with the impact of its Nation-State bill, and on these shores a segment of our population seeks to marginalize those who are non-white, and Hungary and Poland legislate against their minorities, we need to find that balance between national identity and shared values.  This balance was once envisioned by the prophet Micah (3:1-4)

But in the end of days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of God’s house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and many peoples shall flow unto it.
And many nations shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Eternal, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and God will teach us of Holy ways, and we will walk in God’s paths’; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Eternal from Jerusalem.