Israel under a microscope II

An essay by Yoram Hazony asks why Israel is consistently vilified in ways that other nations are not.  I think that his answer considers something that I did not when I discussed why Israel finds itself under the microscope.  I said that the rise of human rights and anti-colonialism as ideas of global importance were critical.

Hazony adds a different dimension which is at least as important as these two, at least in Europe: Israel is a nation-state in an age where the original nation-states (in the modern sense of the word) are disappearing into the European Union.  Here is the crux of Hazony’s reasoning:

The defeat of the universalist ideal in the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 led to the establishment of a new paradigm for European politics—one in which a revitalized concept of the national state held the key to the freedom of peoples throughout Europe. By the late-1800s, this idea of national liberty had been extended to the point that it was conceived not only as a governing principle for Europe, but for the entire world. Progressives such as John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson championed the sovereign nation-state, which would have the right to defend its form of government, laws, religion and language against the tyranny of imperial actors, as the cornerstone of what was ultimately to be a new political order for humanity. Herzl’s Zionist Organization, which proposed a sovereign state for the Jewish people, fit right into this political understanding—and indeed, it was under British sponsorship that the idea of the Jewish state grew to fruition. In 1947, the United Nations voted by a 2/3 majority for the establishment of a “Jewish State” in Palestine. And the birth of Israel was followed by the establishment of dozens of additional independent states throughout the Third World.

But the idea of the nation-state has not flourished in the period since the establishment of Israel. On the contrary, it has pretty much collapsed. With the drive toward European Union, the nations of Europe have established a new paradigm in which the sovereign nation-state is no longer seen as holding the key to the well-being of humanity. On the contrary, the independent nation-state is now seen by many intellectuals and political figures in Europe as a source of incalculable evil, while the multinational empire—the form of government which John Stuart Mill had singled out as the very epitome of despotism—is now being mentioned time and again with fondness as a model for a post-national humanity.[7] Moreover, this new paradigm is aggressively advancing into mainstream political discourse in other nations as well—even in countries such as the United States and Israel.

Hazony bases much of his essay on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a paradigms and paradigm shifts: people fit facts into a paradigm, rather than adjusting their paradigm when contradictory facts emerge.  He argues that Israel and European post-nationalism both emerged from a reaction to the evil of Auschwitz.  He succinctly summarizes each view:

Paradigm A: Auschwitz represents the unspeakable horror of Jewish women and men standing empty-handed and naked, watching their children die for want of a rifle with which to protect them.

Paradigm B: Auschwitz represents the unspeakable horror of German soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests.

Here are the implications of each view for Israel, in his opinion:

Paradigm A: Israel represents Jewish women and men standing rifle in hand, watching over their own children and all other Jewish children and protecting them. Israel is the opposite of Auschwitz.

Paradigm B: Israel represents the unspeakable horror of Jewish soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests. Israel is Auschwitz.

Look at his whole essay to see his discussion of the historical and philosophical underpinnings of nationalism and post-nationalism.  It’s really quite impressive.  For discussion of the importance of European nationalism to Zionism, see one of my posts here (in which I less impressively summarize some information from an impressive book that I read on Zionism).

One weakness, I think, is that Hazony focuses too much on the Holocaust as the turning point.  The Holocaust wasn’t the only thing, in my view, that caused Europeans (or at least post-WWII European elites) to change their minds about the nation-state.  The Holocaust was the most horrible and extreme outcome of European nationalism, but one has to think of the material, human, and cultural devastation brought about by both world wars.  Europeans weren’t only looking at Auschwitz at the end of World War II, they were looking at massive casualties, destitute refugees, destroyed cities, all powerful counterarguments to the narrative of European progress and superiority.  I wouldn’t be surprised if studies showed that these factors were more important than the Holocaust in the push for European unification.  So I don’t think it’s as simple as comparing European and Jewish responses to the Holocaust.

I’ve also said that reading Hazony’s argument adds another dimension to my thoughts.  But how do post-nationalism (in Hazony) and anti-colonial nationalism (in my argument) fit together as causes for the way that people view Israel?

First of all, I’d say that they are countercurrents stirred up by the turmoil of the 20th century.  The world wars called into question the claims of the European nation-state and of European empires.  They both represent the erosion of Western confidence over the course of the 20th century.  Neither of these made as much sense anymore.  Out-of-control nationalism had led to the horrors of the wars, and these horrors had undermined not only the military and financial strength of empires but also the European narrative of “civilization” that had helped to underpin colonialism.

Also, I think that post-nationalism and anti-colonialism have fueled different types of critics of Israel.  Post-nationalism is probably more important for European critics and anti-colonialism is probably more important for Third World critics, although there is probably significant crossover.

Hat tip: Michael Totten.  Totten also includes an interesting video defending Israel that’s embedded in his post.  Totten adds this important caveat, which I would echo:

It may be useful, then, for Europeans and other Westerners who find Israel so exasperating to step outside their own paradigm and take a look at how Israel views itself. The following six-minute video is an excellent place to start. It’s not comprehensive, it avoids the tough questions, and the Palestinians have their own counter-narrative, but when Israel looks in the mirror, it sees this…



  1. Wow. I haven’t read through Hazony’s essay yet but your summary is very insightful. Thanks for sharing it. You’ve expanded my perspective of the rationale behind these movements.

    You are probably right about Hazony’s excessive focus on the Holocaust, particularly from a practical perspective wherein nation-states failed to protect their citizens from invaders and Europe needed external rescuing.

    Nevertheless, from a theoretical perspective used for rational justification, I think the Holocaust stabs at the heart of nation-state sovereignty to a degree beyond inter-state aggression, since it powerfully exhibits that citizens (residents?) must be protected from their own government, intra-state. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the common solution is to build a (creeping) universal government from which no one can be protected.

    On a related tangent, I was recently reminded of the list of countries who do not recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court. Among various unsavories was the US and Israel.

    When asked whether the United States should join the International Criminal Court, Barack Obama (then a Senator), stated:

    Yes[.] The United States should cooperate with ICC investigations in a way that reflects American sovereignty and promotes our national security interests[2].

    Remarkably, he starts with “Yes” but by my parsing he seems to mean “No, but we will help you when we agree with you”.

  2. I’m glad that you found it interesting. I did too. Given the influence Western categories of thinking have in international relations, and especially in international bodies, his analysis seems to be an important one.

    I think you’re right that the Holocaust provides the ultimate theoretical objection against the nation-state, but I think historically it was the devastation wrought by European nationalism that had more of an impact in the formation and “selling” of European internationalism. The Holocaust (targeted at Jews, Eastern Europeans, Roma, the disabled, homosexuals) didn’t generally strike people in the power centers of Western European society, whereas the devastation of interstate warfare affected them much more. And I don’t think it was anger at a lack of protection from invaders, but rather a dissatisfaction of elites with the European state system as it existed, believing that it had inherent flaws. Fitting with their beliefs as progressive internationalists, they believed that they had a more rational way to organize it. As you point out, this does create a government with nothing to balance it. But that’s OK because it will be so rationally organized that nothing will go wrong. 🙂

    Thus, the stated (and, I think, sincere) purpose of the European Coal and Steel Community that evolved into the European Economic Community and then the EU was to link up the economies of Europe to create interdependence and prevent war; two of the original members were France and Germany. In my textbook, one of the EEC founders is quoted as saying that the purpose of the EEC was to “prevent the race of nationalism, which is the true curse of the modern world.”

    On the ICC, that’s a really good observation. It’s interesting that the US has never really bought into internationalism and even our most internationalist presidents like Clinton and Obama don’t feel that we can really get on board. Even though FDR and Truman helped to create the UN, American political culture has never really supported our full participation in them.

    There’s an interesting book on the contrasting international perspectives of the US and Europe: “Of Paradise and Power” by Kagan. It’s short and interesting if you are interested in one way to look at the contrast.

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