In Defense of Nationalism

Yoram Hazony's new book provides a welcome defense of Herzl's sophisticated understanding of Zionism and its relevance today.

This is one half of a duel review. For the other half, please see here

“This is a groundbreaking moment in the history of Zionism and the history of the State of Israel. 122 years after Herzl published his vision, we have passed the basic principle of our existence into law,” said then Prime Minister Netanyahu, immediately after the passing of the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People bill by the Israeli Knesset in July 2018. Isaac Herzog, then leader of the opposition, retorted: “We are very sad that the principle of equality, which is a pivot of Israel’s diplomatic defense strategy, is absent from this law.”

The Nation-State Bill aroused strong and emotional argument during its debate in the Knesset, eventually passing despite opposition from the left and center. Some wondered how an allegedly consensual law aroused such controversy and assumed it must have been a consequence of the rise in extremist political discourse in Israel over the past few years. This, though, is a much older debate, one that goes all the way back to Herzl’s vision of Zionism.
The rise of Jewish nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century is sometimes presented as a natural extension of the European nation-state trend of the era. However, as the subtitle of Dr. Yoram Hazony’s A Jewish State: Herzl and the Challenge of Nationalism hints, the ideology has always posed a meaningful theoretical and practical challenge for the Jewish world in exile.

Hazony, a philosopher, Bible scholar, and political theorist, is the founder of the Shalem Institute (today the Shalem College) and the Herzl Institute, and is president of the latter. In his new book, published in Hebrew last year by Shibolet Press (full disclosure—the Tikvah Fund supports both Shibolet Press and Hashiloach, where I am an editor), he tries to systematically analyze Herzl’s philosophical doctrine.

According to Hazony, Herzl was acutely aware of the liberal political philosophy which dominated late nineteenth-century intellectual thinking (and has remained influential until today), and its limitations when applied to the Jews. As a result, this man of practical vision—who also believed strongly in the power of ideas—invested serious effort in establishing a theoretical-philosophical vision for the idea of a Jewish State. In his book, Hazony seeks to extract these political-philosophical principles from Herzl’s writings, placing particular focus on The Jewish State. At this point, we should note that the Hebrew translation for this book- “The State of the Jews” (מדינת היהודים) is rather different from the English one. Hazony convincingly claims that an exact translation of the original German (in which it was written), Der Judenstaadt, would be The Jewish State ( המדינה היהודית). Hazony makes this point in the third and final part of his book, where the semantic issue is just the starting point of his analysis of the main controversy between two ideas: on the one hand, a neutral state with a Jewish majority, and on the other hand a national Jewish state whose primary purpose is to help the Jewish people. There is no doubt, according to Hazony, that Herzl, just like the rest of the Zionist movement, followed the second approach.


The fascinating first part of the book covers Herzl’s biography and the world in which he lived. Herzl’s success as a law student and then as a playwright, a man proud of German culture and committed to its advancement, was accompanied by many painful reminders of the growing failure of emancipation. He was the social chairman of the largest student organization in Vienna, and was accepted as a member of the Fraternity Albia, but resigned from the latter in disgust, after its president delivered an antisemitic speech at a memorial ceremony for Richard Wagner. He then worked as a journalist in France, where antisemitism was on the rise even before the Dreyfus Affair. These events had a tremendous impact on him.

Pondering the possibilities, Herzl came to understand that the problem of the Jews in Europe wasn’t going away. Full emancipation wasn’t possible, he thought, because as soon as it succeeded a new wave of antisemitism would begin. An assertive standing by individual Jews against antisemitism was also doomed to fail. He began to believe that a Jewish state, an ancient idea embedded in Jewish culture since time immemorial, was necessary for escaping this trap. “The foundation of a state lies in the people’s desire for a state…territory is merely the physical infrastructure. Even in a place where there is territory, the country is always something abstract,” he wrote in his diary. In order to realize this idea in the modern era, though, Herzl first had to overcome a number of obstacles. Here, we return to the roots of the intellectual debate over the idea of a Jewish state, and the main innovation offered by Hazony’s book: an analysis of Herzl’s political-philosophic worldview.

The most popular conception of the state during Herzl’s time in France and Germany, and especially among Jews in Western Europe, derived from Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Social Contract. Rousseau, one of many influences upon the ideas that led to the French Revolution, believed that a state exists in a certain territory on the basis of an implied contract between its residents, whereby they give up their demands and identity on a personal level in exchange for a collective entity that is responsible for all citizens equally. This idea led to the emancipation of the Jews, as was outlined in the French National Assembly in 1789: “To the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as a nation—nothing.”

After Napoleon began to conquer the rest of Europe, these ideas were imported to German-speaking lands. Jews living in these areas, who benefited from the new ideas of equality and progress, quickly became enthusiastic supporters of the idea of the social contract. Despite this, however, liberation was only partial and was accompanied by antisemitism.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Hazony explains, the idea that the Jews were a nation was officially denied by the Jewish leadership in every western European country. Herzl’s peers, senior business figures and well-known philanthropists, all believed that Jews should integrate into the countries they lived; at most, it was incumbent upon them to alleviate the material suffering of their fellow Jews in eastern Europe, who still hadn’t experienced emancipation and who suffered from pogroms and antisemitism, by assisting in their worldwide resettlement. Ultimately, though, his many attempts to convince the Jewish elites didn’t succeed, and he was compelled to change course. Herzl’s departure from relying on Jewish business and banking elites towards popular politics remains a source of inspiration.

Herzl wasn’t only opposed to the idea of the social contract because of his difficulties in convincing the Jewish elites to support his ideas. He found it difficult to accept the idea that the state draws its legitimacy from the “social contract”; and he definitely didn’t think that this was the way that freedom and the right to equality before the law were granted in reality. His personal experiences, living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the antisemite Karl Lueger was elected democratically as the mayor of Vienna despite Emperor Franz Joseph’s disapproval, indicated otherwise. Therefore, Hazony explains, “it was clear [to Herzl] that liberalization was an initiative of the Kaiser and sections of the nobility, but despite this every step towards giving the right to vote to the remainder of the population only led to greater support for reversing the laws of equality that were adopted by the new constitution.”
In order to establish the legitimacy of the state, Herzl used the Roman legal concept of Negotiorum gestio, a form of spontaneous agency in which an agent, the “gestor,” acts on behalf of and for the benefit of the owners of the property —but without his or her consent. This power of attorney doesn’t come from the owners themselves but through the principal of “high necessity,” where everyone is permitted to become gestio—a director of affairs for the benefit and welfare of others. Take, for example, someone whose field catches fire while he is away from home. The ‘gestor’ is responsible for putting out the fire, even without the owner’s permission.

This one-sided action taken to a national level can establish sovereign rule—a “Guardian State”—and is the justification upon which Herzl relies for the idea of a Jewish state. In The Jewish State he wrote: “At present, the Jewish people is prevented by its dispersion from conducting its own public affairs. Yet it is in a condition of more or less severe distress in a number of places. It needs, above all things, a guardian…And that is the Society of Jews…from which the public institutions of the Jewish state are to develop.” To my mind, this is the most important aspect of the book, and it is a pity that it only receives passing attention. It is also a pity that a clear connection between this discussion and the third section of the book, which addresses the distinction between “the Jewish state” and “the state of the Jews,” is missing, leaving the final section as a somewhat standalone piece, which often repeats paragraphs and quotes from the previous sections.

I would like, therefore, to try and clarify the meaning of the “Guardian State” idea. Many questions arise from this concept. First, what is the meaning of sovereignty in the “Guardian State” while there is no state? What should be the level of consent from the people enabling its operation? Finally, what are the details of this unilateral contract? “The welfare of the people” is a vague concept. What conditions must the state meet in order to provide the guard in question?

In this context, it seems that the ‘Guardian State’ means simply to protect the lives of Jews, and it certainly does not imply a Halachic state or a theocracy. In this sense, the contradiction between “The state of the Jews”—a neutral state with a Jewish majority—and “the Jewish State” isn’t so significant.

Of course, there is clearly a tension between the liberal-theoretical justification of a state’s legitimacy, which grants absolute equal rights to all its residents, and “The state of the Jews,” which requires at a minimum the Law of Return and the obligation to protect the Jewish majority using the state’s institutions. But in practice, with the exception of the far left, there is still broad support for these principles in Israel.

It would seem that the distinction between these two approaches is mostly a matter for academics. However, this is not the case. Two or three steps down the line of argument this supposedly small gap becomes an ideological gulf. This brings us back to the dispute over the Nation-State Law.

Throughout the book, Hazony provides two complementary foundations for the Jewish nation-state. One can be called “nationalism as a means,” the other “nationalism as a value.”

According to “nationalism as a means,” for a “Guardian State” to be established as a refuge for Jews around the world, the state must preserve the national idea which justifies its existence. In order to preserve the idea that the Jews are a nation, which is not universally accepted, the Law of Return is insufficient. In order to protect it, a symbolic and cultural base must be preserved: a Hebrew calendar, Jewish symbols, the anthem, language, official ceremonies, and a public sphere which supports Jewish culture. What about classical liberal values of liberty and equality before the law, which Herzl supported, and have been supported to this day by most of the national right in Israel? In the book, Hazony doesn’t expand on this issue, but in an article co-written with Dr. Ofri Haivri, “What is Conservatism?” (published by American Affairs in 2017), Hazony details how the values of equality before the law, freedom of religion and expression, and property rights all have a conservative basis.

At the same time, Hazony hints at an approach which sees nationalism as a value in itself. Herzl, in his diaries and writings, demonstrated a real affinity for this approach, because he saw the Jewish State as more than a mere state of refuge. He thought that building it on the basis of nationalism would allow Jews to contribute to the world on the basis of their special characteristics “By means of our state,” he wrote in his diary, “we can educate our people for tasks which still lie beyond our horizon. For God would not have preserved our people for so long if we did not have another destiny in the history of mankind.”

Now, those who put their trust in liberal principles for building a state and society, and reject the approaches described above, might be able to loosely justify the Law of Return but in the long run will surely struggle to justify the Israeli laws related to Jewish symbols, institutions, national ceremonies, and Hebrew. This will lead them to label the Nation-State Law as at best unnecessary and at worse racist legislation. It’s enough for the state to give an open entry ticket to Jews, they will argue, in order to guarantee their physical well-being. Beyond that, there should be total equality between citizens. Since there is a significant Jewish majority in Israel, the Jewish culture that will form organically will wax and wane according to the desire of individuals. This can explain the different attitudes in Israeli public debate between the right and left – those who based their justification for the Jewish state on liberal grounds will see every infringement on the principals of equality and human rights as undermining the legitimacy of the state itself, and see the Nation-State Law as undermining the Zionist enterprise. However, the proponents of the “Jewish State” seek from the outset to cater primarily to the needs of the Jews and even see the realization of nationalism as a value in and of itself.


Hazony’s book convincingly demonstrates how supporters of a liberal Zionist view sooner or later arrive at a theoretical deadlock. This isn’t to say that the argument about the tension between liberal and national values is unnecessary or tasteless. But it is important to remember that, the same way that support from the liberal left for the law of return doesn’t turn them into fascists, nor should support for the establishment of Jewish nationalism on a wider basis—language, public sphere, national holidays, and ceremonies (especially when it has a much more solid conceptual foundation) – turn the right into racist extremists. Beyond intellectual integrity, this should be a respectful public debate.

Naturally, the more solid the national position is, then the feeling of dismissal and onslaught will not be met with defense or restrained rage but steadfast assurance. Hazony’s book is a welcome step in this direction.

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