In defense of ethnic nationalism, especially Zionism

First, a consistency check. Why is Israel’s ethnic nationalism problematic but Palestinian nationalism – which is equally ethnic – is sacred? Canada and the US are exceptional. Most Islamic countries are heavily ethnic and frequently religion- based theocracies. Most European countries are particularistic too, with crosses on many flags and the ethno-religious glues to particularist nationalism you see at shrines like the Tower of London. Now, American campus speech-fascists are labeling the phrase “melting pot” hostile to African-Americans, Hispanics and others.

Nevertheless, Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, is politically incorrect.

The Zionist response goes beyond the “look at what the other guy does” defense.

While cherishing the openness of civic nationalism as implemented in North America’s Promised Lands, we also can champion the rootedness of ethnic nationalism thriving in the original Promised Land, the land, now state, of Israel.

In his charming, cascading, compelling “philosophical rampage,” John Lennon and the Jews, Ze’ev Maghen endorses “the kind of love that means the most to me … preferential, distinguishing love.” When you woo your spouse, you don’t say “I love you as much as I love everyone else.” Love only really works when it is special, focused, preferential, among people and peoples.

“The world,” he writes, “should optimally resemble a tapestry of distinctive families, or groups, or people, or nations.” Because, he insists, “to love all people equally is really advocating the removal of all love worthy of the name…. No one gets turned on by universal love.”

Being honest, Maghen admits that what he finds most special about the Jews is that he belongs. He doesn’t consider Jews better or Judaism better. He just likes his community. Asked “why the Jews,” he replies, “I don’t know – it’s emotional not rational. I am smitten.” Again constructively blurring family and community, he says: “You are my family and you mean everything to me.”

Maghen and other Zionists also recognize the benefits of this particular form of ethnic particularism. Rejecting “Imagine,” John Lennon’s song evoking modern America’s great delusion, that you can live without heaven or countries or religion, Maghen says being Jewish “cures” the resulting “affliction” of “living for today” and just for yourself.

A more grounded, practical, yet equally compelling writer, Seth Siegel, demonstrates the tremendous power – and universal good – resulting not just from particularistic love but from ethnic nationalism, specifically Jewish nationalism.

Siegel’s delightful, informative new book Let there be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World, traces Israel’s transformation from a water-have-not to a water-have nation, now helping more than 100 countries cope with water shortages.

Clearly, the story involves science, technology and business acumen, as Israelis apply the smarts lionized by Dan Senor and Saul Singer in their blockbuster, Start- Up Nation, to conserving water and finding new water sources. But Siegel, Senor and Singer understand that this concerns a particular culture, a particular nationalism.

Israel’s “water-conscious culture” isn’t just about the arid Israeli desert, it’s about the rich Jewish culture Zionists inherited, which for thousands of years developed a “reverence for water,” rain, dew. From the Hebrew Bible mentioning water 600 times to the Zionist folk songs and dances seeking water, water, everywhere, “this concern became ingrained and part of the Jewish communal world view.”

Zionists also conserved water as a national imperative. Siegel resurrects perhaps Israel’s greatest unsung hero, Simcha Blass. In 1939, trying to refute the British White Paper saying the Palestine could never support millions of Jewish settlers, Blass sketched a “fantasy water plan” that became “the nation’s water plan” – to this day. Once retired, Blass also helped develop the miraculous Netafim drip-irrigation system now conserving water worldwide.

Israel’s technology wasn’t unique; the “extent to which” Israel adopted these techniques and this mindset was. Building a National Water carrier, developing a culture of conservation and cooperating to solve the national water shortage inspired the young nation. Siegel writes: “Whether landing a man on the moon or rebuilding after a terrible hurricane, large infrastructure projects that are completed on time and on budget give the larger public a feeling of civic pride and enhance national identity. They also provide a widespread sense that other communal challenges can be overcome, and can unify a country.”

This intense expression of Zionism offers a textbook case of particularistic nationalism also redeeming the world. With water shortages menacing developing nations in Africa and sophisticated US states like Texas and California, Israel is leading in improvising solutions and implementing them. Here, Siegel notes, the motivation has been and remains “mostly altruistic and an outgrowth of Israel’s Zionist philosophy.”

My mother insulated me against John Lennon’s “Imaginism,” by warning: if you’re too open-minded your brains fall out. Israel’s amazing experiment in altruistic liberal nationalism shows that, sometimes, by closing in, by building your own community, your own culture, your own particular pride, you can nurture the closeness humans crave while also tackling some of the great challenges that vex us in this world. Ultimately, then, I trust particularistic Zionism more than universalistic do-goodism to bring good into our still tribal, familial, preferential-love based world – and Israel proves that it works.