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

By Yoram Hazony

A national home is more than a place of refuge.

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n 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.

Yoram Hazony is President of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and author of The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (Basic Books and The New Republic, 2000). The third and final part of this essay will appear in the coming issue of AZURE.

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