On the National State, Part 2: The Guardian of the Jews

By Yoram Hazony

A national home is more than a place of refuge.

In the first part of this essay I argued that the institution of the national state, together with the political order based on it, is the foundation of the liberty that characterizes the free states of the West; and that this order of national states is clearly preferable to the imperial and anarchic orders that are its rivals.1 In the pages that follow, I explore the reasons that one among the order of national states should be a Jewish state.

Peoples vary greatly in their self-understanding, traditions, and laws, and at the heart of the conflict between the principle of empire and that of national sovereignty is a dispute as to how far such differences should find expression in the way in which peoples are governed. It is a hallmark of imperial states that they strive to bring the laws of all peoples under the rubric of a single will; while the principle of national sovereignty tends in the opposite direction, regarding the differences among nations as a desirable reflection of each people’s efforts to advance itself in knowledge, justice, and honor in accordance with the unique tools at its disposal. Indeed, it is a premise of the order of sovereign states that each state is unique, and that states will necessarily differ in the purposes for which they are founded and, consequently, in their internal constitutions. Thus while every state bears the same obligation to care for all who are in its charge, sovereignty means independence not only with respect to the more superficial aspects of national custom, but also with respect to the deeper questions of national constitution and purpose.

It is this variation of purpose that makes the independent nation at once truly different from all others, and at the same time potentially worthy of imitation. In this regard, Montesquieu writes concerning the purpose of various states that “although all states have the same purpose in general… yet each state has a purpose that is peculiar to it: Expansion was the purpose of Rome; war that of Lacedaemonia; religion that of the Jewish laws; commerce that of Marseilles; public tranquility that of the laws of China; navigation that of the laws of Rhodians; … the independence of each individual is the purpose of the laws of Poland, and what results from this is the oppression of all. There is also one nation whose constitution has political liberty for its direct purpose”and this last observation, of course, is the beginning of his famous inquiry into the English constitution.2

Israel, too, is a state founded with a unique purpose that distinguishes it from other states. This purpose is to be what Theodor Herzl called “the guardian of the Jews,” the one Judenstaat (or “Jewish state”) whose laws, institutions, and policies would be directed towards the advancement of the interests and aspirations of the Jews as a people.3 It is this idea that stands at the center of Israel’s political tradition, and it is this that brought Jews the world over, as well as the statesmen of many other nations, to give their support to the birth and consolidation of this state.

Many years have passed since the heyday of the theoretical disputes that surrounded the establishment of Israel, and some, as we know, now feel they have no further need to investigate this topic. One may, of course, love one’s country as a child loves his mother, without understanding her. But such an innocent love of country is insufficient to many, both Jews and gentiles, and it is especially so in these times, in which the Jews of Israel are being called upon to devote ever more of our attention and resources to ensuring that this state will continue to exist for the generations to come. Under such circumstances, it is important to remind ourselves of the reasons why we should accept the burden of building and sustaining such a Jewish state, and even of making very real sacrifices on its behalf. To establish our loyalty to the idea of the Jewish state on firmer foundations, it is necessary to understand the purpose of this state, and it is to such an exploration that I will devote the remainder of this essay.

In the Zionist political tradition that preceded the establishment of Israel, this purpose of Jewish guardianship was conceived in threefold fashion, with the hoped-for Jewish state envisioned as a polity that would: First, ameliorate the condition of persecution that had afflicted the Jews in their dispersion; second, permit the establishment of an independent Jewish national culture based on the unique perspective of the Jews; and third, assist the Jews in developing a character suitable for a life of self-reliance and independence. Although these three facets of the idea of Jewish guardianship can be, and in practice often were, treated as though each were an end in itself independent from the others, it is helpful to think of them as being dependent on one another in a hierarchical fashion: It being understood that the ability to maintain a Jewish state concerned with the condition of diaspora Jewry is ultimately dependent on the development of a unique Jewish vantage point or culture; and that both of these are dependent on the development of a strong Jewish character. It is in this fashion that I suggest we think about the different aspects of Jewish guardianship, each of which I will examine in turn.



A generation ago, a good case might have been made for understatement in everything regarding the most familiar aspect of Israel’s purposive character, its mission as guardian of the physical well-being of the Jewish people. To discuss it would have been to raise questions whose answers were too obvious to benefit from extended inquiry; and at the same time, there was a certain dignity to be found in discretion concerning such matters, as is always the case when civilized men speak of power. But there is a fine line between that silence which is born of quiet knowledge, and that which is born of unfamiliarity, or of an inability to address the subject coherently, or of indifference to it. In recent years, the location of this line has been lost, much that was obvious has ceased to be so, and we no longer dignify the subject of Jewish strength by our reticence. Today there is a great need for speaking of these matters plainly.

By now, however, it is not easy to reconstruct in our imagination the circumstances of Jewish life in the centuries prior to the establishment of Israel. The exile has in many ways ceased to be real for us, and this fact has made it difficult to fully comprehend the idea that the Jewish state exists to ameliorate the conditions of that exile. In this regard, it is useful to recall the views of Edmund Burke, the great eighteenth-century British philosopher and statesman. For Burke, as for many others, there was no question but that the intolerable circumstances of the Jews resulted from the lack of the diplomatic and military instruments that would be afforded by a sovereign Jewish state. The British and Dutch, he argued before Parliament in 1781, have their army, fleet, and foreign service to protect the individuals belonging to those nations. But the Jews have no such recourse:

Having no fixed settlement in any part of the world, no kingdom nor country in which they have a government, a community and a system of laws, they are thrown on the benevolence of nations…. If Dutchmen are injured and attacked, the Dutch have a nation, a government, and armies to redress or revenge their cause. If Britons be injured, Britons have armies and laws, the law of nations… to fly to for protection and justice. But the Jews have no such power and no such friend to depend on. Humanity, then, must become their protector and ally.4

It is important to notice that Burke’s conception of the service rendered by the state to the members of a given nation is quite different from the “safe haven” of traditional Zionist parlance. This old catch phrase is itself a reflection of a profound insecurity, which permitted Jews to imagine that the advantage of a Jewish state would be that within its borders, at least, the Jews would finally be “safe” from harm. The British, of course, did not build up the might of their military and foreign services in order to make of their island the one place where an Englishman might hide from the dangers of the world. As is evident from the above passage, the purpose of British power was to make the world safer for the subjects of that nation, so that no matter where their affairs might lead them, their enemies would have to take account of the very real possibility of British interventionand, indeed, of British vengeance. By the same token, it was the absence of such an independent Jewish power which made the existence of the Jews so terrible in every corner of the world, and which moved men such as Burke to raise the possibility that a civilized state might serve not only as the protector of its own people, but of the Jews as well.

From the

Cruel BritanniaAnti-Semitism in Britain has gone mainstream.
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Secret of the SabbathIt isn’t about R&R. It’s about how to be a creative human being.
The Political Legacy of Theodor HerzlBefore the melting pot, a different vision of the Jewish state.
Far Away, So CloseHow the commandments bridge the unbridgeable gap between God and man.

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