In Defense of Jewish Nationalism

By Wolfe, Robert | Midstream, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Jewish Nationalism

Wolfe, Robert, Midstream

Hardly anyone uses the term, 'Jewish nationalism," nowadays, yet it would not be difficult to identify various aspects of Jewish tradition and culture to which the term could legitimately be applied.

There is in the first place the teaching of the Jewish religion that the Jews were chosen by God to act as a "light unto the nations," transmitting to them knowledge of God's existence and wishes, until finally the whole earth will acknowledge God's sovereignty. There is also the Zionist teaching that we Jews are entitled to a nation state of our own on the territory of the ancient Land of Israel. And finally there is an amorphous cultural tradition which not only expresses a preference for Jewish cooking or a Jewish language or Jewish music but also asserts, in a somewhat defensive way, the superiority of Jews over non-Jews. Or as they used to say when I was a boy, "Jesus saves but Moses invests."

In the past, the term, "Jewish nationalism," was mostly used by Communists as an accusation intended to stigmatize Jewish socialists as not being sufficiently "internationalist" in their outlook. Ironically, once all the Jewish socialists had been killed in the Soviet Union, Soviet Jews were then routinely accused of being "rootless cosmopolitans." As for Zionism, which the Communists at one time had also seen as a form of "Jewish nationalism," Soviet antagonism to the State of Israel led to its redefinition as an imperialist enterprise whose association with Jewish national feeling was no longer emphasized. For these reasons, the Soviet use of the term, 'Jewish nationalism," as an accusation went out of style, but its lasting effect was to discourage use of the term by Jews who might otherwise have thought it an accurate description of their belief system.

Many Jews are also reluctant to call themselves "nationalists" because so many right wing antisemitic parties in Europe have used this term to describe themselves. Yet nationalism is not necessarily a right wing concept. Even the Communists felt that there was such a thing as "revolutionary nationalism," as typified by the National Liberation Front of Vietnam and similar movements elsewhere in the Third World. Indeed, for much of the 19th century, nationalism in Europe was generally identified with the left, starting with the French Revolution and continuing with the efforts of various subject nations in the Austrian and Russian empires to achieve national independence. Jewish nationalism can be shown to contain both right wing and left wing elements; the question is not where it belongs on the political spectrum but whether it is good for the Jews.

Consider the actual situation of the Jewish people. Three of the dominant ideologies of the modern world--Christianity, Islam, and Marxism--are all derived to one extent or another from Jewish tradition. Yet all three of these ideologies convey an essentially negative view of the Jewish people in general and Jewish nationalism in particular. Moreover, all three have given rise to offshoots--specifically Nazism, Islamism and Stalinism--in which this negative view is carried to murderous, and in the case of the Nazis, genocidal extremes. Is there any other nation in human history that has been equally influential yet at the same time equally persecuted and despised? I don't think so. If it is revolutionary for an oppressed people to struggle against an imperialist ruler, what is the right word for the struggle of the Jewish people against a whole series of imperialist rulers, most of whom cloaked themselves in an ideology derived from Jewish tradition, the better to eliminate the Jews? One thing is for sure: anyone who believes in the concept of national self-determination ought to be a strong supporter of Jewish nationalism, which has upheld this concept for some 3000 years now in the face of genocidal opposition.

However, not all Jews are Jewish nationalists. There are many who feel uncomfortable with any form of nationalism. …

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