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Israeli Independence Day

Israel as a Nation-State

Panorama of Tel Aviv. Photo: Raphael/Wikipedia.

A distinction has to be made between enforced and spontaneous nationalism....

Today, Israel celebrates her Independence Day according to the Hebrew Calendar. It was truly a remarkable event in the history of mankind when the Jewish people returned to their ancient homeland after two millennia of exile and persecution. But how can the 1948 foundation of Israel be reconciled with classical liberal principles? Zionism is a branch of nationalism, and the state of Israel was built squarely on the principle of national sovereignty which certainly is controversial among classical liberals, although congenial to most conservatives. As a young man, I was much influenced by liberal thinkers Friedrich A. von Hayek and Karl R. Popper who both strongly rejected nationalism. In fact, Popper told me that the only country that seemed to be a fully-fledged nation-state was my own country, Iceland, because the Icelanders all spoke the same language, all were of the same race, all professed the same religion, and all shared an unbroken history of a thousand years. In no other country did a nation fully coincide with a state. Popper added that the Icelandic situation was unique because the North Atlantic Ocean isolated as well as protected the country, while the Icelandic state did not even maintain a military, relying instead on the Americans to defend the island.

Popper certainly had a point. Both he and Hayek had grown up in the Habsburg Empire which had encompassed many tiny nations relatively peacefully and successfully, at least compared to the several small states that replaced it after the Great War. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were artificial entities. Suddenly, in late 1918, Sudeten Germans and Slovaks were told that they now were to become citizens of a new state dominated by the Czechs. Something similar happened to the Slovenes and the Croats and the other nationalities which found themselves in Yugoslavia, dominated by the Serbs. Again, suddenly the protection that the cosmopolitan Habsburg Empire had provided to the scattered Jewish communities within its boundaries was removed, leaving them tragically vulnerable, as history was to show. But what the disintegration of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in late twentieth century illustrates is, I think, the difference between enforced and spontaneous nationalism. Hayek and Popper were right in rejecting enforced nationalism, imposed from above. But their strictures hardly apply to spontaneous, non-aggressive nationalism, however assertive it may be. The Slovaks were not Czechs, and the Croats were not Serbs. These and other nations wanted to inhabit their own states, not to subdue other nations. This is what had taken place earlier in other parts of Europe. The Norwegians separated from the Swedes in 1905 because they considered themselves to be Norwegians, not Swedes. The Finns proclaimed their independence in 1917 because they wanted to be Finns, not Russians. The Icelanders formed a sovereign state in 1918 because they identified as Icelanders, not Danes. Similar considerations inspired the Baltic nations and the Poles to establish their own states at the end of the Great War.   

I think that generally speaking political theorists in the Anglosphere do not fully comprehend the challenge of nationalism, perhaps with the exception of Oxford philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, a Zionist. Those theorists speak English, the standard language of the world, as if nothing was more natural, and they take their cultural heritage for granted (as well as its superiority, perhaps correctly); it does hardly occur to them that it might require a justification. For them, their Englishness is self-evident and therefore not a discussion topic. Thinkers from other parts of the world may have offered deeper insights into the power of nationalism. It was the French writer Ernest Renan who persuasively defined the nation not by a common language, race or creed, but rather by a common will of a group to identify as such, mostly because it shared a history. Therefore a nation was a daily plebiscite, Renan said. it depended on choice. You could leave it, both as an individual and as a group. Thus, Zionism was based on the common will of the Jewish people to return to their ancient homeland instead of trying fully to assimilate to the societies of other nations and to lose their identity in the process.

It is little known that Iceland played a small but not totally insignificant role in the foundation of Israel, as Israeli diplomat Abba Eban describes in his Autobiography. In 1947, Iceland’s delegate to the UN, Ambassador Thor Thors, had been appointed rapporteur for a committee on the partition of Palestine, a necessary measure if Israel was to become independent. ‘The key to this turning point in the first part of the UN meeting would lie in the hands of a small island country in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,’ Eban wrote. ‘Our future as a people depended on its most decisive day on the momentum or atmosphere which would be created by a representative of Iceland.’ Before the meeting, Eban went to see the Icelandic delegate who turned out to be much more sympathetic to the Jewish cause than he had expected. Ambassador Thors told Eban that Iceland ‘was a stubborn and tenacious democracy, guarding its national particularity within its rain-swept island boundaries for century upon century—a people determined to be itself, sharing its language and literature with no other nation.’ He added: ‘Such a people could be relied upon to understand the perseverance with which the Jewish people clung to  to its own specificity and to the recollections of its own patrimony.’ The matter hung in the balance. But Ambassador Thors, an accomplished public speaker, gave an outstanding performance at the UN meeting, and a plan for the partition of Palestina was adopted. Israel could proclaim her independence, as she did the following spring.  

Indeed, relations between Iceland and Israel have been quite friendly since 1948. For example, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion paid a memorable visit to Iceland in 1962 where he was received by Prime Minister Olafur Thors, Leader of the centre-right Independence Party and brother of the Ambassador who had played such a crucial role fifteen years earlier. The two prime ministers went to Thingvellir, the site of the old Icelandic parliament, established in 930. For more than three hundred years, until 1262, Iceland had been a Commonwealth, under the law, but without government. Thors proudly told his colleague that many of the Icelandic sagas took place at Thingvellir. They, along with the historical chronicles by Snorri Sturluson and others, were a marvelous cultural heritage, cherished by modern Icelanders. The Icelanders could still read them in the original. Ben-Gurion remarked that it could be said that Israel was the land of the Book, and that Iceland was the land of the books. The Book was the Hebrew Bible, he explained, and the books were the old Icelandic sagas and chronicles.

For a political theorist, Israel is not only remarkable as a nation-state, almost miraculously preserving, protecting and developing the rich Jewish cultural heritage, and as the only vibrant democracy in the Middle East. It is also the place of a fascinating political experiment, as American political philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out: Who would choose socialism? Nozick and other classical liberals have no quarrel with persons who want to be socialists provided their socialism is non-compulsory. The famous Israeli kibbutzim, collective communities where property is held in common, is a real experiment in socialism. It turns out that around six per cent of the population want to belong to such a collective. This is the real answer to the question who would choose socialism: six per cent. Here, as elsewhere, what is crucial is the opportunity to leave. You must be able to vote with your feet no less than your hands. Therefore, to return to my main topic, nationalism has to be combined with cosmopolitanism. We should love our country (and work for her to be lovable) and be at the same time citizens of the world. Within the nation-state it is the opportunity to leave that hopefully will restrain the rulers sufficiently that you may want to stay. The nation-state is better as a home than as a prison.

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