Rabbi Daniel Gordis
Rabbi Daniel Gordis

By Sam Sokol
Middle East Correspondent

Pure nationalism or pure universalism, each left uncorrected by the other, leads to extremism of various sorts, says Rabbi Daniel Gordis, the senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, during a breakfast interview. He pauses to take a bite from his omelet and continues explaining why both tribalism and universalism can lead to barbarity if not balanced out in the form of an enlightened ethno-nationalism.

Gordis’s new book, The Promise of Israel, deals with issues of nationalism and self-identity that have come to the fore in the postmodern period in which nationalism has come to be regarded as a form of government past which mankind’s political systems must evolve.

The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, Gordis notes, believed that nationalism is a great evil and only one stage on any polity’s journey toward true civilization. Kant, whose ideology has become dominant during the contemporary period, said that peoples are destined to go through periods of anarchy, statehood and, finally, moral maturity, in which they would join together in a worldwide government that transcended mere national identities.

Gordis’s book, which he sat down with me to discuss, is the latest in a long line of his books and explains why, to his mind, Israel’s nationalistic character–which he calls “its seemingly greatest weakness”–can more accurately be termed the country’s “greatest strength.”

Rather than penning another apologetic for Israel, Gordis treats the country as an archetype, one of several competing models on which a polity may be formed.

Rather than a defense of Zionism, Gordis has stepped back and recognized that a dominant worldview among the political classes in many Western nations is a rejection of nationalism, per se, and that the fight over Israel is really about symbols.

Israel, he says, represents the flourishing of an ideology that has been discredited in Western eyes. According to Gordis, the debate over Israel’s right to exist is really a referendum on the right of various ethnic groups to self-determination.

Gordis places a great deal of importance on the debate over Israel, asserting that, as the Bible states, Israel can serve as a “light unto the nations” both politically and morally.

“What is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy,” he writes, “is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but quite possibly human freedom as we know it. The idea that human freedom might be at risk in today’s battles over Israel might seem far-fetched or hyperbolic. This book will argue that it is not, and that human beings everywhere thus have a great stake in what the world ultimately does with the Jewish state.”

While “the idea of a state for a particular ethnicity strikes many people as problematic, immoral, and contrary to the progress that humanity has made in recent decades,” he believes the diversity of approaches to the fundamental questions of the human condition that can be applied in the laboratories of individual ethnic nation-states is of immeasurable importance.

Universalism seems to have failed, he notes, pointing to the post-nationalist character of the Soviet Union and the current rising levels of nationalist sentiment in the member states of the EU.

While acknowledging that nationalism, like any ideology given free rein, can result in violence and horror, so can universalism, as seen in the conquests of imperialist societies and the homogenization enforced by the Soviet Union.

Expressing great admiration for the American model of a non-ethnic, ideologically based state, Gordis said that such a model cannot work universally and that it must be balanced by the existence of states that can nurture people who are not, as popularly asserted, “largely the same.” Different groups have different values, tastes, and aspirations and people are tribal by nature. It is when we nurture this tribalism but leaven it with a universalist message as well, he says, that nationalism will really come into its own.

Citing Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, and his thoughts on the balance between universalism and particularism, Gordis said that he thinks Israel’s mission is to show that, as “a country that is openly rooted in a religious [and] cultural tradition,” it can prosper and coexist with a democratic political process. This, he writes, “defies the predictions of secular scholars and pundits who believe that religion and ethnicity are the handmaidens of imperialism and fascism.”

Without first coming to identify with a nation, which is a group identification in tension between tribalism and universalism, one cannot come to love all men beyond that initial fealty.

“What we are facing now is an extremism of the universalist sort, when Jews can’t speak about anything particularly Jewish,” he tells me. “They can’t articulate something about what the Jews have to say. Jews today, and a lot of Israelis too, [don’t know] what Judaism has to say about [the political order].”

A foundation of Western civilization, the Hebrew Bible is normally not considered as a source of political theory, Gordis argues, saying that nothing could be further from the truth. “I wrote chapters about the Bible [in my new book] because you cannot speak about the importance of the State of Israel without knowing some Bible.”

These chapters are largely based upon an article that Gordis wrote for the journal Azure in 2010, in which he makes a case for the Tower of Babel narrative as the Torah’s blueprint for the ideal political structure, or in his words “an eloquent argument in favor of the ethnic-cultural commonwealth–a precursor of sorts to the modern nation-state–as an indispensable condition for human freedom and self-realization.”

While this brief review is too short to do justice to Gordis’s Biblical exegesis, his article (which can be found at azure.org.il/article.php?id=536), like his new book, makes a compelling case for both the relevance of the Bible as a political text and the ancient origins of Jewish nationalism, widely considered a 19th-century phenomenon.

Gordis’s latest work, which on its face would appear to be a book concerned with hasbarah, has instead shown itself to be a strongly crafted argument in favor of a political order that, he asserts, is a part of the Jews’ Biblical heritage.

During a period when Israel is viewed as a “chauvinistic anachronism,” it is rare to see a work dealing with the underlying ideas that fuel this antipathy and whose author understands that less than facts or events in the news, views on Israel are based on widely held ideas and ideologies that are accepted due to the lack of a compelling argument over the moral and pragmatic utility of the new worldview.

In the end, Gordis’s book is less about Israel as Israel, and more about Israel as an example of ethno-nationalism that is held up for ridicule in a war of ideas–a war that he believes the nationalists must win for the sake of human freedom. v


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