On the National State, Part 1: Empire and Anarchy

By Yoram Hazony

In defense of the beleaguered idea of the sovereignty of nations.

There has been much discussion of the military and diplomatic implications of the ongoing violence in Israel, but its most important consequences must surely be the changes taking place in the worldview and self-conception of Israeli Jews themselves. It is no secret that many had long believed Arab hostility to the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East had largely declined or would soon do so; and that Arab leaders would be willing to make peace with the idea of a Jewish state in exchange for deep territorial concessions and the founding of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan River. Today these beliefs lie in ruins, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had brought them to their logical conclusion by offering precisely such peace terms at Camp David, recently presented the public with the conclusions he believes must be drawn from this experiment:
[PLO Chairman Yasser] Arafat accepts the fact that Israel exists. But he does not accept its moral right to exist. He does not accept the fact that there is a Jewish people, and he therefore does not accept Israel’s right to exist as the state of the Jewish people. What he envisions is a Palestinian state… that will continue to press claims against the very foundations of the existence of the State of Israel.1
Roughly the same view is expressed by Shlomo Ben-Ami, who served as foreign minister in Barak’s government:
What Arafat conceded to Israel at Oslo was only a formal concession. Morally and conceptually, he does not recognize our right to exist. He does not accept the idea of “two states for two peoples”…. In a profound sense, he does not accept us. Neither he nor the Palestinian national movement accepts us…. The process, from their perspective, is not one of conciliation… but of undermining our existence as a Jewish state.2
Faced with such conclusions, Jews in Israel have been forced to reexamine their understanding of the conflict in which they are now engaged. If previously the ongoing warfare and terror conducted against Israel had been understood by many as a struggle to overthrow Israeli rule over certain territories or Arab populations—on the whole a just cause, it was said, even if the methods employed by our enemies were often barbaric—this same war has now taken on a different aspect. For the first time in a generation, the issue is understood by many to be the existence of a Jewish state of any dimensions, and many Israelis have suddenly found themselves in a world which resembles that in which their fathers and mothers lived, and which they themselves had until now known only from history books: Not since 1948 have Israeli Jews been subjected to daily terror in our main population centers and on the roads between them; and not since those days has there been such an awakening to the possibility that the persistence of Jewish national life in Israel might not be a foregone conclusion.
By now these circumstances have begun to have effects far beyond politics in the limited sense, the most significant of which has been the pronounced reintroduction into the cultural mainstream of long-defunct ideas such as “Jewish patriotism”—a phrase conspicuously used by Ben-Ami in the same interview3—along with its cognates, “Jewish interests,” “Jewish sovereignty,” and, of course, “Jewish state.”4 There is no doubt that the great majority of Jews, including those who had previously found it uncomfortable to think of their country as a Jewish national state, are becoming progressively more open to a reexamination of the principles to which their parents devoted their lives.
Yet such a return to first principles is no simple matter when these principles have been obscured from view for so long. Thirty years of bitter argument over territorial questions—to the exclusion of virtually all else—have left our public discourse shallow and in disarray with regard to nearly every issue that did not relate directly to those questions. Thus we may know, as the former prime minister has declared, that the warfare in which we are presently engaged has as its cause the continued rejection of the idea of a Jewish state by Arab leaders. But not every intelligent person whose inclination is to take the side of the Jews on this issue is today likely to be able to give himself a persuasive account of why such an inclination is just or right. It has been too long since our public has been forced to discuss this subject of the Jewish state in a serious manner, so that even among its most ardent sympathizers, much that was once taken for granted can no longer be taken for granted.
Moreover, even if we were to find that the old formulations are still meaningful to us, the passage of decades has brought with it a profound change in the environment in which the case for a Jewish state must be made. For in those intervening decades, the European Union has made large strides towards achieving the dissolution, or at least the weakening, of many of the national states that were the model on which the Israeli state was based, and many who were once sympathetic to Israel’s cause are right to wonder whether this does not make the Jewish state, too, an anachronism. In this context, it is reasonable to ask whether the Jews need to continue making sacrifices for the sake of their state, when the French, Germans, and Italians, and even the English, seem ready to relinquish their respective national states for what many take to be the greater good. And one cannot ignore the fact that this question is being asked: Not only in Europe, but in America, Israel, and elsewhere, no small number of intellectuals have awakened from their previous fashion—according to which the national state was such an unmitigated good that “national liberation” had to be made to prevail in every corner of the world—to discover that, in fact, the precise opposite is true, and that it is the de-liberation of nations, and their submersion in vast multi-national polities, that should be our business.
The political order is the ground on which our lives are built, and one cannot introduce revisions of this kind in the prescribed character of the state without consequences that few seem to have considered. In the argument that follows, I will try to understand the political order upon which our national states have been built, in a manner that I hope will be of assistance not only to Israelis, but also to members of other nations that are now faced with concerns similar to ours. In doing so, I will seek to elaborate two principles concerning the national state: Of these, the first, the principle of national sovereignty, entails a general theory of the independent national state, which explains why civilized men should prefer a political order based on such states to the other options before us. Such a theory has no special applicability to the case of the Jews; it is a general theory, which strives to afford us insight into the enduring nature of the political order of mankind. As such, it would be equally true even if there were no Jewish state, and, indeed, it can provide no necessary grounds for determining that one of the number of independent national states should be a Jewish one. In the latter half of this essay,* I will turn my attention todiscussion of a second principle, that of Jewish guardianship, which is rooted in the Israeli political tradition, and which seeks to explain why one of these national states should be a Jewish one.
In choosing this method, of mixing universal political principle with principles dependent on the specific experience and circumstances of the Jews, I am departing from what has perhaps been accepted in recent years, whereby discussion of the national state is conducted almost entirely on the level of universals, treating at great length the needs or rights that are supposed appropriate to “all peoples” everywhere; or else almost entirely from the perspective of the requirements, character, and history of one particular people alone. But writings of the first type are premised on the assumption, surely false, that it is possible to base all aspects of the political order on abstract principles, taking little or no account of the realities prevailing in a given time and place. And I think it one of the gravest errors of statesmen and writers in the last century, that they have so often satisfied their own consciences, at the catastrophic expense of actual societies and human beings, by their too ready application of universal principle to problems that cry out for prudence above all else. Arguments of the second type, on the other hand, when taken by themselves, ignore the necessity of periodically transcending ever-pressing local concerns and establishing whether our ideals are in harmony with that which is generally true and right with respect to the affairs of nations. In making use of this mixed method, I think I can offer at least a certain improvement in the manner in which we are accustomed to discussing these subjects.

Israel was founded as a national state, the state of the Jewish people. As such, it is a specific case of an independent national state, and is indeed one of the classic examples of this kind of state. It is therefore relevant to discuss the Jewish state within the context of the question of the national state in general. Not many years ago, it might have been possible to dispense with such a discussion. For a century and a half, the national state had been seen as an instrument of great moral worth by leading political thinkers and statesmen in the West—so much so, in fact, that many had actively sought to create additional such states, at first seeking to give the gift of political independence to certain peoples or groups of peoples, and in the end seeking to establish states of this kind all over the world according to the principle that became known as the self-determination of peoples. Thus, for example, John Stuart Mill, in On Representative Government (1861), argued that the boundaries of independent states should conform to the geographic distributions of peoples, it being “a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of nationalities.”5

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