Two Visions of Jewish Nationalism

French National Slogan

French National Slogan

Trump vs. Clinton; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in France; the “Jewish State” Law in Israel. What do these three conflicts have in common? All three cases mark a centuries-old conflict over divergent views of nationhood.

The Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, helped define the modern nation-state. The treaty recognized the sole sovereignty of a ruler within a particular territory and declared that no other power — including a religious power — could exercise sovereignty in that territory. The kingdoms that entered the Treaty, all theocracies, ended the immense bloodshed of the Thirty Years’ War by setting agreed borders across what we know today as Western Europe. One of the sources of the conflict had been Catholic nations trying to force Protestant nations to return to Catholicism. But something else besides sovereignty was at stake. Beyond the question of the borders was the definition of what constituted a nation.

In the 17th century, the nation was defined in terms of a people’s ancestral roots to a territory, and a connection based on language, culture, ethnicity and religion. Borders defined the sovereign power of the state, but not the underlying concept. The Treaty continued this essentially tribal design for the map of Europe.

The Enlightenment and its political ramifications — the French and American revolutions in particular — sought to change the definition of nation. These two nations were the first to define the state as a republic. No longer dependent on ancestral ties to land, language and religion, nationality was to be seen in terms of citizenship based on loyalty to the state and its principles. Citizenship guaranteed equality and afforded the individual certain universal human rights. Members of different historic tribes, even some with a history of animosity to each other, could be united on the principle that “all men [and women] are created equal.”

In the U.S., which knew no version of the earlier nationalism, this post-Enlightenment republican version has had the greater chance of success. Nonetheless, while no one in the U.S., other than Native American Indians, can claim an ancient, ancestral tie to the land and its language and culture, the American body politic had been dominated by white Protestant men of European descent. Gradually, with the advance of civil rights and a new wave of immigration, particularly from non-European countries, this white Protestant preeminence is being threatened. By mid-century, non-Hispanic whites are projected to be a minority in America.

The heart of Trumpism is a response to these trends, flirting with the earlier version of nationhood. It is a version of American nationalism that equates “American” with white Protestant of European descent. It peaked in response to the election of America’s first African-American president, whom Trump and others labelled un-American.

No doubt issues of economics, including unemployment, income inequality and trade policy all serve to exacerbate the problem. However, at the heart of the matter is a revolt of white Protestants, who feel that they have lost their dominant position — their definition of the American nation — to a more egalitarian (ironically, one might say a more republican) vision of America that the Democratic Party champions.

The French experience is a bit different, and this may explain the high levels of both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the land of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. The French revolution was fought not only against the monarchy, but also against its natural ally, an entrenched Catholic Church. The French have developed a principle that they call laïcité, (secularism) which my Cassell’s Dictionary translates “Undenominational character [of schools].”

But as writer Paul Berman explains in “Why the French Ban the Veillaïcité is a concept more far reaching than non-denominational schools. As part of the French rejection of the tyranny of both the king and the clergy, laïcité came to imply what might be called a radical secularism; not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.

The truth is, as Berman explains, the veil for Muslim women was not an issue in France when Muslim immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa began arriving in the 1960s. These Muslim immigrants were rather thoroughly “francicized.” It was not until the 1980s that a true Islamic movement began among the Muslim citizens of France, a movement that sought to inject a fundamentalist religious ideology into French laïcité. It is not the veil per se that the French reject; it is the fundamentalist religious movement that the veil represents.

A quite similar situation may prevail among French Jews. Reporting in The Forward several years ago, Robert Zaretsky, professor of European intellectual history at the University of Houston, notes a similar shift to a more insular and fundamentalist Jewry in France. As with Muslim citizens of France, this is partly a result of the influx of more traditional Sephardic Jews from North Africa.

Zaretsky recounts an incident in the 1990s in which the Jewish residents of an apartment building in Paris insisted that all of the residents pay to replace digital keypads with keyed locks, since the digital pads violated Shabbat. Obviously, the non-Jewish residents were not happy with this request.

What we see as French anti-Semitism — as well as alleged Islamophobia— may be a broader movement. It may be a kind of Trumpian counter-attack on French republicanism. Liberté, egalité, and fraternité may not prevail against laïcité, leaving both the veil and the Kippah un-French—violations of French nationalism in the older sense of the term.

All of this presents a confounding problem for Jews. It seems that Israel is also confronted with a choice between these two visions of nationhood.

For years, various governments of Israel have debated several versions of a so-called “Jewish State” Law. In proper Jewish fashion, the debate has never been resolved; it remains a debate. While it has been dormant of late, the discussion was shelved by Prime Minister Netanyahu in October of 2015, it is bound to raise its head again in the near future.

The debate might seem arcane and theoretical, filled with disputes over the inclusion of red-button language like “nation-state of the Jewish people,” “democracy” and “equality.” After all, who can be against democracy and equality?

However, as explained by Times of Israel Senior Analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, these words are at the heart of the controversy.

The law that had been under consideration defined the State of Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” declaring that “The right to the fulfillment of national self-determination within the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” “But what about the Arabs?” critics of the law protest.

Apparently, even the word “democracy” is controversial. The law’s detractors see it as a pretext for what they consider to be ultra-liberal judicial activism. The word “equality” is resisted by the Orthodox establishment as tending to undermine religious authority in the state, even though, as proponents of this wording point out, the word is used several times in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

This debate is about the meaning of citizenship in a nation-state. The conflict pits proponents of the older understanding of nationalism against the republican understanding. Is the State of Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people based on an ancestral attachment to a land, a language, a culture and a religion, or is the State of Israel a democratic republic dedicated to ensuring the equal rights of all of its citizens?

We Diaspora Jews need to ask ourselves, to which version of nationalism do we ascribe? While we may beam with pride over the reconnection of the Jewish people to our ancestral land and ancestral language, is that version of nationalism good for the Jews? Good for French Jews? Good for American Jews?



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