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What About Jewish Nationalism?
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What About Jewish Nationalism?

Does Israel deserve a carveout from arguments against nationalism?

The Israeli flag with a wall plastered with images of Israeli hostages in the background, outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on October 16, 2023. (Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images.)

Over the past few years, I’ve regularly argued against nationalism, especially Christian nationalism. I don’t think it’s any government’s business to enforce a specific cultural template at the point of law. But one question remained: If Christian nationalism is wrong, what about Jewish nationalism?

The validity of nationalism isn’t really at stake in the Israel-Hamas war for the same reason it isn’t at stake in the Ukraine war. Defending your country against invasion or attack isn’t “nationalism;” it’s just self-defense. You can fight for your country without buying into a political ideology about the role of government and its relationship to culture. After all, Israel is a pluralistic nation: Non-Jewish Israeli Arabs, some of whom were among those killed by Hamas’ attack on October 7, make up 20 percent of its population. Israel’s right to self-defense is a right that belongs to Israeli Arabs as much as Israeli Jews.

Nonetheless, Hamas’ attack on Israel is a fresh reminder, if any was needed, of Israel’s right to exist and of the reasons that originally inspired the Zionist project of establishing a homeland for persecuted Jews worldwide. And so it is a fair question. For critics of nationalism like me, is Israel allowed to exist as a specifically Jewish state? If yes, does that contradict my argument against nationalism?  

I suggest three ways of defending Israel’s Jewish identity. The first is to consider national languages. “The ability to speak to one another and communicate in the public square is an important prerequisite to a shared political endeavor,” I argued in my book, The Religion of American Greatness. Israel defines itself as a Hebrew-speaking state, which heavily predisposes it to sustaining a Jewish identity. All well and good and entirely consistent with my argument against nationalism.

That probably feels insufficient, however, given the extent of threats that Israel faces. And so a second possible argument is simply to carve out an Israel-sized exception to the general writ against nationalism. Governments should reject nationalism, except for Israel. Governments shouldn’t enforce a specific religio-cultural template, except for Israel. Governments should embrace cultural pluralism and define themselves creedally, except for Israel.

That’s a bit of a cheat, though an understandable one. Israel gets an exception because of the exceptional history of antisemitism; it is fair to seek special protection for Jewish identity in the face of the special enmity directed toward it.

But are Jews the only people whose culture has been threatened with destruction? Antisemitism may be unique in its persistence and barbarity, but there are other victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing. If Israel gets an exception, why not other peoples who have faced extreme threats to their collective identity? 

So here’s the third, more principled argument. As I argued in my book, projects for cultural renewal are good. All cultures should sustain themselves, including their traditions, their beliefs, and their ways of life across the generations. Usually, that’s best done through the voluntary efforts of cultural, not political, institutions, for all the reasons I outlined in the book. But for small cultures in the face of deliberate attack—either violent attack or an orchestrated campaign of cultural reengineering—cultural survival may require the help of a government’s power. 

The Chinese government seems intent on wiping out Uyghur identity, not by mass killing but by razing mosques and sending Uyghurs to reeducation camps. It would be obtuse to refuse the Uyghurs the right to use their local government (should they ever escape Chinese tyranny) to revive their culture and rebuild their landmarks. 

Between a quarter and a third of the Latvian population are ethnic Russians who speak the Russian language. Given the history of Russian imperial oppression in Latvia, who would begrudge the Latvians for using their government to sustain and reinforce the Latvian language, Latvian literature, or Latvian folkways? This amounts to a plea for small-people nationalism, or perhaps oppressed-people nationalism. 

Two words of caution are in order. First, the argument for oppressed-people nationalism is easily abused. Everyone loves to be seen as the victim, to use their victimhood to claim the moral high ground, and to plead for special treatment. Giving allowance for oppressed-people nationalism should not become a license for everyone to burnish their victimhood credentials. It should not be a loophole through which majorities reimpose old-style nationalism or entrench their tribal privilege in the face of cultural change.

For example, many American Christians feel like a persecuted minority, and use that to argue for Christian nationalism. It’s true that traditional Christianity is often the butt of ridicule, mockery, and ostracism in secular and elite circles, and the demographic decline of Christianity (especially white Protestantism) in America is real. Does that justify Christian nationalism?

No, I don’t think so. Cancel culture and ostracism are bad, but they are not the moral equivalent of the Holocaust. Losing culture war battles over social policy is not the same as being occupied by an foreign army for a century, as the Latvians were. American Christians are not a minority and conservatives are, in fact, winning many important culture war battles, such as those over abortion and religious liberty. 

It strains credulity to compare the plight of American Christianity to Christians facing actual persecution in, say, Afghanistan, and it makes an unpersuasive case for American Christian nationalism. Oppressed-people nationalism should be reserved for those with no other option, for those who would be powerless without it. It seems especially unsuited to groups when some of their predecessors were, a generation or two ago, the perpetrators, not victims, of past oppression.

And now the second caution. The record of oppressed-people nationalism actually confirms my broader thesis: Nationalism is illiberal and tends toward oppression. While I don’t begrudge the Latvians their efforts to protect Latvian culture, Latvia has not always been kind to its Russian minority. It feels unseemly to point it out, but oppressed people and small nations are very much capable of being illiberal and oppressive in turn.

The case for oppressed-people nationalism, again, should not be license for turnabout, for eye-for-an-eye vengeance by minorities against their erstwhile majority oppressors. There’s no moral virtue in granting small populations the right to protect themselves if protection simply means becoming the very thing they sought freedom from. 

Israel has a right to exist and sustain itself as a distinctly Jewish state, which does not lessen its responsibility to protect the civil liberties of its non-Jewish citizens.

Oppressed-people nationalism is a concession to reality. The threats small peoples face often come from big-state nationalism. If there was no big-state nationalism from Russia or China, small peoples like the Latvians or Uyghurs wouldn’t need nationalism to defend themselves. Without 19th century European nationalism—which usually came with antisemitism—Zionism would likely have remained a cultural, not political, project. 

In my book I noted the destructive, self-reinforcing spiral between minority groups’ identity politics and majority groups’ nationalism. They amount to the same thing—demanding political recognition for group identity. The more majorities do it, the more they compel minorities to respond in kind as a survival mechanism. But the more minority groups do it, the more majority groups double down for the sake of national solidarity and cohesion.

The same dynamic applies internationally. Nationalism is internal imperialism, but often, sooner or later, it turns its attention outward. When it does, small nations outside the empire are in the same position as subcultures within it, fighting for their lives and their cultural particularity. Without the imperial threat, they wouldn’t need to use the tool of government to defend their cultures. We can hardly blame them when they do—but the effort is still fraught with peril.

Click here for more coverage of the war in Israel.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University.