In praise of nationalism

Yesterday I talked about universalizing the Holocaust, and how it obscures an important lesson for the Jewish people: that we cannot place the responsibility for our defense in other hands.

A reader has pointed me to another piece which made a similar point, but expressed in in more general terms. Daniel Greenfield (‘Sultan Knish’) wrote this (but read the whole article):

The Jewish response to the Holocaust fell into these two categories. Never Again and Teach Tolerance. And the two responses were segmented by population. Never Again became the credo of Israel and Teach Tolerance became the credo of the Western Diaspora.

There were many Israelis who believed in teaching tolerance and many Western Jews who believed in self-defense, but for the most part the responses were structural because the divide between Nationalists and Universalists predated the Holocaust. …

Never Again made the Holocaust a teachable moment for Jews. Teach Tolerance made it a teachable moment for all mankind. The Nationalist and the Universalist draw two opposite lessons from the Holocaust. The Nationalists focus on resistance while the Universalists focus on persecution. The Nationalist aspires to be a ghetto fighter while the Universalist aspires to be a good German. …

The Holocaust did not heal the divide between the Universalists and the Nationalists; it deepened it. The Universalists still insisted that a better world was coming and that the Holocaust made it more urgent for us to work toward it, while the Nationalists saw the world as a cycle of civilizations that had to be survived, with no respite, except for the religious who awaited a final transformation of the world and everything in it.

The nationalist/universalist distinction is a good one, much more illuminating of today’s war between the Jews than the more usual ones of Right vs. Left or Conservative vs. Liberal.

As Greenfield notes, the universalist believes in progress — he sees human society as perfectible, and indeed, moving in the direction of a better, more humane world. He often believes that the main obstacles to progress are barriers to communication; all humans are at bottom similar with similar wants and needs (mostly economic), and if we only understood each other we could work together for the common good. He prefers to avoid making moral judgments on other cultures.

The nationalist understands several things that the universalist does not:

  1. Cultures may have very different ideas of what a desirable world looks like — it isn’t just a communications problem.
  2. It’s irrational to make unilateral concessions to an adversary with opposing objectives (the universalist doesn’t believe that others really have opposing objectives)
  3. History tends to be cyclical. The idea of continuous progress is a myth
  4. It’s hard enough to perfect one’s own society; it’s foolhardy to try to do it for the rest of the world

If we compare Western and Islamic cultures, we find that universalist attitudes are common in the former and rare in the latter. But of course there are plenty of nationalists among westerners. Compare the nationalist Binyamin Netanyahu with the universalist Shimon Peres.

I think this distinction is more fundamental than the right/left divide. It is also very firmly ensconced in our psyches, and it is not easy to change. How else can you explain the so-called “architects of Oslo” who — after several wars and thousands of lives lost to terrorism — continue to think that a two-state agreement with the PLO will bring peace? Or the 100 American Jewish ‘leaders’ who signed a recent letter calling for Israel to make ‘painful’ concessions?

Other things being equal, a struggle between universalists and nationalists will favor the nationalists, because they understand that their goals are different from those of their adversaries. Israel’s enemies are ‘nationalists’ in this sense, even if they are Islamists. They are happy to pocket concessions, give back nothing, and make further demands.

The universalist is easy prey to doubts. After all, he thinks, if the other side believes in its position so strongly, maybe there’s something to it? So Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf comments on Amira Hass’ controversial article which applauds Arab stone-throwers with one of the most craven statements I’ve heard in a long time:

…it’s not for Israelis to set the rules for the ways Palestinians should challenge our oppression, especially at times when Israeli society clearly lacks any interest in changing the status quo. Our role is to end the occupation. [my emphasis]

A perfect example of a universalist trying so hard to ‘understand’ that he more or less accepts his enemies’ ‘right’ to bash his brains out!

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One Response to “In praise of nationalism”

  1. NormanF says:

    The Arabs and the Jews have different beliefs, values and national character. They do not see the world through the same eyes.

    Those differences alone are enough to make peace impossible. People are who they are and its reflected in their particular human nature.

    A conflict cannot be resolved without a common frame of reference. None exists in the Middle East.

    And the existential nature of the dispute between the Jews and the Arabs ensures no outcome that makes both sides happy exists.

    What the nationalist understands that the universalist doesn’t, is that some things in this world have no real solution to them. Pursuing peace talks therefore neither fulfill both sides needs nor bring them closer together.

    Both Western diplomats and Israeli Leftists refuse to accept the fact they are tilting at the proverbial windmills in a region in which reason, tolerance and goodwill have never had the upper hand.