Can Democracy and Nationalism Be Understood Apart? The Case of Zionism and Its Critics

Gadi Taub. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 26, Issue 2. September 2007.

The modern nation-state is the most common, and so far the most stable, vehicle for modern democracy. The case of Zionism offers a unique opportunity for inquiring into this connection since mainstream Zionism consciously founded its institutions on the premise that democracy and the national state are mutually dependent. Moreover, ever since the early days of Zionism, opposing plans to separate the two—a non-democratic national state and a non-national democratic state—have been, and still are, hotly debated. This article surveys the origins of these ideas and argues that, both politically and theoretically, neither the party of non-democratic nationalism nor the party of non-national democracy offers a viable or even coherent plan. It would seem that non-national democracy will subvert democracy as well as nationalism, and non-democratic nationalism will undermine the national as well as the democratic character of the state.

After the horrors of the twentieth century it is not hard to see why, in the eyes of those who uphold the democratic worldview, nationalism has become suspect. We have seen so much destruction in the name of the nation, so much exploitation and oppression when nationalism slipped into imperialism, so much ethnic cleansing in the name of an ethnic-national or racial-national “purity,” that our suspicions are well founded. Increasingly, however, suspicion evolves into a simple assumption of opposition between nationalism and the democratic worldview, which, when taken to its logical conclusion, envisions a purely procedural democratic state, neatly separate from emotional attachment, national sentiments, or cultural identity. Such a non-national democracy, even anti-national democracy, misses the fact that democracy and nationalism are, as far as we can tell, mutually dependent. Though nationalism (when reduced to chauvinism) can destroy democracy by turning against it, it seems equally true that when democracy (reduced to a thin conception of individual rights) turns against nationalism, it is as likely to destroy itself.

The case of Zionism, and the central dilemma faced by the State of Israel since 1967—the problem of the occupation—offer a fruitful vantage point for looking into such questions because Israel was consciously founded on the assumption of a mutual dependence between democracy and the nation-state. It therefore also spawned conscious articulate criticism of this alleged interdependence. Such criticism acquired a new sense of urgency in the context of the controversy over the occupied territories. For many it began to make sense to see democracy and nationalism as opposing forces. The question of Jewish settlements in the territories became the focal point of this debate. Many observers of Israeli politics, scholars among them, took it for granted that the Jewish settlement movement in the territories is an expression of nationalism, and that it was the democratic worldview, attached as it is to the idea of human rights, that resisted settlement and, at long last, eroded the national chauvinism that lent the “Greater Israel” ideology the bulk of its support. According to this view, the more Israelis became suspicious of collective passions and sensitized to individual human rights, the more they became critical of the occupation; and when this process reached a critical point the scale was tipped against the settlement movement. “Democracy” (reduced almost entirely to liberalism) has thus triumphed over “nationalism.” Based, as I shall argue below, on a misunderstanding of American democracy, this logic, when taken to the extreme, turns into the ideal of a non-national democracy, a “state of all its citizens.”

This story of the triumph of democracy over nationalism is misleading, not because the spirit of democracy did not play a role in the struggle against the occupation—it clearly did—but rather because it did not play this role in opposition to national sentiments. On the contrary, the spirit of nationalism itself proved to be a decisive force, perhaps the decisive force, in resisting the colonial enterprise of “Greater Israel.” The settlements, Israelis gradually realized, are apt to lead them to a binational state, which would subvert Israel’s Jewish-national character. Thus, when a long-time Likud hawk like Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first announced the political conversion that led him to abandon the hope for a Greater Israel, demography, not human rights, was the main consideration he cited. The logic was simple: if Israel is to maintain its character as a Jewish democratic state it needs to confine itself to a territory where Jews are a clear majority.

These demographic considerations are, of course, tied to democracy, since the need to maintain a Jewish majority is only crucial when you envision a democratic polity where the whole population holds the vote. If one were willing to annex the territories and replace the democratic form of government with a formal Jewish apartheid, then the fact that Palestinians would be a majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would not constitute so acute a problem. But since very few Israelis seriously considered such an option, preserving the Jewish character of the state on democratic premises led to the conclusion that Israel would have to forsake the territories it had conquered in 1967. Nationalism and democracy cannot be separated here. Indeed it is precisely the fact that the occupation threatened to drive a wedge between them that finally led the majority of Israelis to opt for territorial partition: keeping the occupied territories would have eventually forced Israel to choose between a Jewish apartheid and a non-Jewish democracy, and this, in the eyes of most Israelis, was too heavy a price to pay. A non-Jewish democracy, like a Jewish apartheid, is more likely to lead to a Lebanon-like civil war than to a stable form of government.

The same logic appears in reverse regarding the staunchest supporters of the occupation, the extreme messianic core of religious settlers. We take it for granted, and rightly so, that this group is resistant to democratic values and the moral considerations they impose. But we tend to overlook the fact that the original view of Gush Emunim, the movement that embodied the messianic message, is also resistant to nationalism: messianic settlers see Judaism as a distinctly religious identity, rather than a modern national identity, and sovereignty as expressed in the national state is not, according to their theology, an end in itself. It is, rather, an instrument for implementing the religious commandment of settling the land. It is therefore no coincidence, as we shall see, that their settlement projects did not shy away from subverting the state, at times even directly assaulting it.

It would seem, then, that at the two ends of the political spectrum, outside the Zionist consensus, we find the attempt to separate nationalism and democracy subverting both. The party of “a state of all its citizens,” the party of democratic anti-nationalism, is unable to produce a plan for a stable polity and leads to the subversion of the very democratic form of government it seeks to preserve. And on the opposite side, supporters of the occupation, who are willing to abandon democracy, end up putting the very national state they appear to protect in jeopardy.

The political problems posed by the attempt to separate democracy and nationalism are neither new nor unique to the case of Israel. In fact, modern democracy and modern nationalism were born together, and their interdependence was clear to political thinkers in the eighteenth century and to many leaders of the great democratic revolutions. This interdependence also played a crucial role in the origins of Zionist ideology. I will begin with some general comments on the way nationalism and democracy were understood on the eve of the great democratic revolutions as two aspects of the same political program. It is within this context that I will briefly discuss some central aspects of Zionism, directly relevant to this question. I will then move to the ideologies of both factions, which, in contrast to Zionism, tried to separate the democratic from the national aspects of Israel—the party of non-national democracy, popularly called “post-Zionists,” and the party of non-democratic nationalism, the messianic core of religious settlers. As I will try to show, the problem that we see in their political plans is already present in their ideological attempts to work out their ideas. These do not draw on the same tradition of political thought from which Zionism emerged. While the ideological roots of Zionism are primarily in Europe, and the party of post-Zionism is, for the most part, an offspring of American influence (or more precisely of a popular contemporary misunderstanding of American nationhood), the religious settlement movement is, at the extreme, a theological rejection of modern political thought, and of modern nationalism. Hence, at bottom it is also a rejection of Zionism. The discussion of the three elements will thus take us into very different traditions of thought, each requiring a separate discussion.

Early Origins

The promise of liberty and democracy—the idea that humans would be sovereign over their own fate, individually as well as collectively—was haunted throughout the early modern age by many fears: that liberty would mean chaos and a war of all against all; that self-government would turn into a tyranny of the majority; that civil society had irrevocably corrupted natural virtue; or that any radical break with tradition would end up basing authority on force rather than respect. Among those many concerns it was also generally assumed that republican governments can survive only in small polities. In the fashion of 1748 The Spirit of the Laws, it was taken for granted that in order to produce a sense of political responsibility in citizens—republican virtue—the community must be intimate and bound by solidarity, its public sphere familiar in detail, and the effect of public affairs on private lives immediate and palpable.

Montesquieu, we now know, was wrong, but not entirely so. He was wrong to assume that republics must be small, but it is a matter of debate whether he was not right to argue that a form of solidarity, an emotional tie, which binds the body politic together, is vital to democratic forms of government. In other words what eighteenth-century thinkers failed to see was that an emotional force can bind large communities too in bonds of public spirit and mutual responsibility, and that this force need not rest on a homogeneity of interests, or on personal face-to-face acquaintance. Which is only to say that they failed to anticipate the force of modern nationalism.

Historically the emergence of modern nationalism was indeed a part of the rise of republican (and later democratic) forms of governments. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, adopted by the French National Assembly in August 1789, directly ties “the principle of all sovereignty” which, it says, “resides essentially in the nation,” to the sanctity of individual rights, by making the nation the vehicle by which citizens bring their free and sovereign will to bear in the power of legislation. On similar grounds Thomas Paine favored the absolute supremacy of the legislature over a separation of branches with checks and balances: if citizens are free then the nation is the expression of their united wills, so that national unity, as expressed in a single governing body, the legislature, is the best guardian of the liberty of all. Checks on the legislature could thus only mean checks on the will of the people. The “honest patriot” is a most jealous guardian of the laws which guarantee his (and later also her) rights. He loves his nation because it is the expression of his sovereignty, and the means for exercising it.

In the eyes of those who participated in the great revolutions of Europe and America it was evident that patriotism and republicanism were two sides of the same coin. Patriotism meant caring about your country, and caring about your country is the reason why you could be trusted with voting. We may also note that this vision of patriotism was not considered by the revolutionaries in France’s and England’s New World colonies to be a negation of other nations or a form of chauvinism. The French revolutionary patriot rallied to the banner of a War of All Peoples against All Kings, as the American patriot believed himself to be part of the liberation of all peoples from the yoke of tyranny, part of the progressive march of democracy later enshrined in the idea of Manifest Destiny. Liberty was thus intertwined with solidarity: the liberty of individuals depended on a general spirit of patriotism to maintain their own freedom, and liberated nations depended on each other to resist tyrants who would turn the tide of liberation.

We may say, then, that national democracy was part of the attempt to make the principle of self-determination—human sovereignty over human life—internally consistent. Democratic forms of governments carried the promise of adjusting the private and public dimensions of human sovereignty: each citizen is sovereign over his or her private life, and taken together as a national community, all citizens are jointly sovereign over their common fate by controlling the political mechanism of the state.

This is not to say that there was no tension between the private and public dimensions of human sovereignty, or that democracy entirely eradicates this tension. Democracy does, however, greatly reduce it so as to form a dynamic balance. Collective sovereignty is understood to be an expression of the personal sovereignties of all citizens taken together, as the tradition of Lockean liberalism suggested, not a renunciation of the sovereignty of each, as Hobbes thought it must be. There is no need to recount here the many internal problems in this idea, except to note briefly that all liberal and democratic thought is preoccupied with its two central problems: that personal liberty and collective existence are often at odds, and that private lives always have a public dimension, so that no separation between the two spheres can remain neat for long.

It will suffice to say, for our purposes, that among the remedies assumed to address these problems two stand out: majority rule and the national patriotic sentiment. Majority rule would take care of the formal side of conflicts between mutually exclusive wills. But this political mechanism with its formal rules of the game is supported by a second element: a commitment to the existence of the collective itself labeled by the revolutionaries “patriotism.” The formal mechanism can work because preserving the collective existence is itself important to each individual. Adjusting the private and public sides of liberty and sovereignty, then, requires the kind of sentiment Montesquieu worried would not exist in large polities: a binding sense of community which makes individuals care about the fate of the collective.

Zionism: The Lesson of European Republics

To the extent that Zionism was the result of the failure of Emancipation in Europe, it was a result of the realization that democracy and nationalism are mutually dependent. Emancipation was supposed to make Jews members of the nations in which they lived by drawing a clear line between their private Jewish identity and their citizenship. The formula, which was to make them Germans of Jewish faith or French citizens of Jewish faith, etc., was never as naive as to believe there could be “a state of all its citizens” in the non-national sense that post-Zionists attribute to it today. It recognized that for German or French citizens partaking in political sovereignty was dependent upon seeing themselves, and upon others seeing them, as legitimate members of the nation. But when it came to Jews, for the most part, neither the Jews nor the gentiles among whom they lived could quite live up to that ideal. Herzl’s rude awakening to the prevalence of anti-Semitism has been made the exemplary case of this disillusionment, and the Dreyfus Affair its paradigmatic example. But anti-Semitism was only part of the story. The other part was that national identity, as fuzzy and hard to define as it may be, invades the private sphere to a very considerable extent.

I will steer clear of the attempts to explain the general nature of modern nationalism—whether it should be considered an extension of tribal and ethnic identities or whether it is a purely modern “invented tradition” and “imagined community”—since either explanation would do for my purpose here. However defined it seems hard to deny that as a form of identity nationalism defies the attempts to neatly separate the private from the public sphere. The case of European Jewry seems to make this abundantly clear. From the mundane to the spiritual, national identity clashed with Jewish identity: the day of rest in French or German schools was Sunday rather than Saturday; the food in those schools was not kosher; moreover, the school curriculum of European nation-states instructed children in their heritage, which, in the case of Jewish children, required giving up their own history and adopting that of European gentiles. In short Europe never really offered Jews a way to become part of the nations among whom they lived, unless they seriously compromised their own sense of what being Jewish meant. One could either preserve one’s private Jewish identity and remain excluded from the nation, and thus from the progressive march of democratic sovereignty, or one could join that march on the condition that one was willing to give up one’s private Jewish identity. The conclusion was, for Zionists, clear enough: to become sovereign over both political and individual fate, to access the promise of democracy which would make the two aspects compatible, or in short, to become modern and free, Jews would need a national state of their own. Why democratic participation depended on nationalism was thus strikingly clear to Zionists.

On the extreme left and the extreme right, among Marxists and Revisionists, on either side of the Zionist consensus, the connection between nationalism and democracy was, at times, less clear, and at times explicitly denied. Though most Jewish Marxists and other socialists in Israel remained Zionists and were able to reconcile their socialism to the thrust of the Jewish national-liberation movement, on the margin some retained the orthodox dogma that saw nationalism as a bourgeois ideology. This view stemmed, in part, from a wish to avert any conflict with the Arabs of Palestine by denying the national character of the struggle, and it rested on the theoretical assumption that the nation would necessarily bind the workers of each country in bonds of dependence, even bonds of superficial solidarity, to their oppressors. Such bonds would retard solidarity on the basis of “real” interest by preventing class unity across national boarders. This view lost much of its attraction over the years since the international solidarity of workers failed to materialize and, what is more, few (if any) viable forms of socialism and social democracy worked outside the framework of a nation-state. Some Israeli communists have retained their objections to the idea of a Jewish state, less because of the old Marxian ideology, and more for reasons that had to do with the status of Arab citizens. The rejection of Israel’s national identity, in other words, became less a question of class inequality, and more a question of ethnic inequality. And in this communists were joined by what seems like strange new bedfellows: radical liberals. The party of a non-national democracy, or post-Zionism, has in fact become dominated, at least in the intellectual sphere, by this latter group, which arrives at the same political plan for detaching democracy from nationalism on the basis of reasons that have nothing to do with socialism of any kind.

“Post-Zionism” is thus a label that confusingly fuses two opposites: a small faction that arrived at a rejection of nationalism via the hope of international solidarity among all workers, and a large faction that arrived at the same rejection of nationalism, at the idea of “a state of all its citizens,” via the ideological opposite of socialism, namely liberal individualism. The small faction wishes to transcend nationalism in favor of a larger form of solidarity, while the large faction wishes to dissolve nationalism because it is suspicious of any form of solidarity: solidarity, in this view, is but another term for restricting private liberty in the name of collective commitments.

What those views from the two opposing poles of the ideological spectrum, the extreme social right (liberal individualism) and the extreme social left (communism), share, is the aspiration to a non-national state and a dovish attitude to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. This was enough for most Israelis to classify post-Zionism on the “left.” The term has been reduced in Israel’s political discourse to denote objection to the occupation, and has thus helped, in this case as well as others, to conceal the demise of left-wing social-economic causes.

At the other end of Israel’s political map, what is referred to as “right” also denotes a position on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, that of hawks. And at this end too, among the advocates of territorial expansion, a tension between democracy and nationalism again becomes palpably felt. On this side of the spectrum the presuppositions are the same, but the conclusion is reversed: many supporters of the continued occupation feel that the danger is not that nationalism will undermine democracy, but rather that democracy and its “tender” humanistic values are a potential threat to national vigor. As with Marxists and other socialists, here too the majority of Revisionists remained firmly within the Zionist movement. Just as most Marxists refused to abandon the national character of the movement, so most Revisionists refused to abandon democracy. Only the very extreme margins slipped away into a full-fledged conception of a “national will” understood, as it was by some extreme European nationalists, as mystically arising from the organic body of the nation. According to this view, any attempt to reduce the national will to a sum of individual votes only fragments and weakens the united body of the nation.

Despite fiery blood-and-soil rhetoric on the part of Revisionist leaders, the movement’s political action does not testify to any aspiration of transcending, or abandoning, national democracy. The commitment to democracy, which Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky consistently affirmed, became manifest when his heir, Menachem Begin, at the head of the Likud Party, took power in 1977. Despite expansionist rhetoric and solemn pledges never to leave Judea and Samaria, Begin’s administration never attempted to annex the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Begin remained an enthusiast of settlements, but he too saw clearly enough that annexing the territories would force Israel to choose between preserving democracy at the expense of the Jewish character of the state (because the large added Arab population would undermine the Jewish majority) and renouncing democracy and installing a permanent, formal Jewish apartheid. Begin’s party too, in other words, upheld a vision of sovereignty where nationalism and democracy could not be neatly distinguished, much less divorced from each other.

Very few on the margins of Revisionism were willing to cross the line into a full-fledged, anti-democratic form of extreme nationalism. And here too, as on the margins of the dovish “left,” extremists were joined by strange bedfellows—the messianic core of religious settlers—who were also willing, for very different reasons, to abandon the democratic creed of Zionism. The spearhead of the religious settlers’ movement demanded annexation and the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the occupied land, and though for the most part it did not explicitly call for renouncing the democratic form of government, this was clearly implied since citizenship would follow sovereignty into the territories only with Jews. Palestinians residing beyond the pre-1967 international border, the Green Line, were to remain non-citizens. As on the dovish “left,” where the new post-Zionist liberal faction (contrary to its own self-image) was not really an extension of anything we can call left, so on the right, as we shall see, the religious settlers were not really an extension of radical hawkish nationalism of the revisionist kind.

Here, then, are two variants of the attempt to separate nationalism and democracy, both based on the sense that there is an elemental opposition between the two: the non-national democracy of post-Zionists, and the national non-democratic polity envisioned by settlers. Both ultimately fail, politically as well as ideologically, in formulating a coherent policy. I will discuss each separately, since they emerge from very different intellectual roots. I will also try to show why the rejection of democracy is at bottom also a rejection of nationalism, and the rejection of nationalism is, at bottom, a subversion of democracy.

A Non-Democratic Nationalism?

The origins of messianic settler ideology lie with the revolutionary teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook. Unlike most Orthodox theologians Kook did not see secular Zionism as a rebellious abomination and an opposition to the Jewish faith. He attempted to explain the anomalous fact that the return to Zion was undertaken by a secular movement, within an ambitious dialectical scheme: in his view anti-Zionist orthodoxy and secular Zionism were actually two parts of a larger synthesis which still lay dormant in the future. Orthodoxy represented the principle of tradition and Zionism the dynamic force of transition, and only after the secular movement achieved its breakthrough would both realize that they were actually complementary parts in a larger process of redemption. The state, when it came to see its religious mission, would manifestly become a vehicle for the larger religious cause, the redemption of the Israelites, as well as the whole world.

Kook’s son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook, was persuaded by the “miracle” of Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War that redemption was already underway. According to Kook the son the return of the Israelites to the sites where God had pledged the Land of Israel to be theirs signified that this physical return was a crucial step in the process of redemption. He reinterpreted his father’s mystical vision with an emphasis on “redeeming” the land, and his interpretation now found a political outlet: redemption would proceed by settling the newly acquired territories. This vision charged his messianic followers with immense political energy: settlement became “God’s politics” and, as Kook the son asserted, no “earthly politics could counter it.”

Labor governments, though ambivalent about the settlers’ extra-legal tactics, at first supported, or at least granted retrospective approval, to grass-roots settlement initiatives. But the settlers’ ambitions far exceeded what the Labor government was willing to stomach, and friction soon turned to clashes over the hills of Samaria. Increasingly the settlers’ alliance with Begin’s hawkish opposition party, Likud, became necessary. The blood-and-soil rhetoric of the expansionist ideology of the Likud seemed to make the convergence natural: both spoke, it seemed, the language of high-nationalism.

The difference between the two regarding the question of democracy was at first latent. Not only because the Likud, so long as it was not part of the government, paid little attention to the problem of the Arab population of the occupied territories, but also because the settlers themselves actually came up with a plan to annex the territories without changing the democratic structure of government. When, three years before the Likud came to power, the settlers formed a political movement named Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) they wrote up a platform. The platform suggested Israel grant citizenship to all Arab residents of the territories who refused to leave the territories and emigrate (with Israel’s financial assistance), on condition that they accept army service or an equivalent “national service” (such as community service, public work, etc.) of the kind Israel’s Jewish citizens are required to undertake. But this flirtation with the idea of granting citizenship to the subjects of the occupation was short-lived. A few years later, with the Likud in power, when the Judea, Samaria and Gaza Council (the Yesha Council in the Hebrew acronym) became the movement’s center of gravity, the settlers no longer clung to their old naiveté. The Council clearly demanded annexation but shed all pretense of making it compatible with democracy: it demanded the extension of Israeli jurisdiction to the land of the occupied territories and to the Jews who lived on it, but not to the Arab inhabitants. This form of nationalism thus seems to conform to the type we find in Europe’s radical right: it relies on a mystical bond between the people and their land, it is exclusionary of all Others, and it places the national will apart from the democratic creed of universal self-determination. It thus seems to free nationalism from all constraints imposed upon it by the concerns of individual rights.

But one should be careful of collapsing the religious idea of redeeming the land into the general category of romantic blood-and-soil nationalism. Despite the ringing demands for the extension of state sovereignty, religious settlers had their eyes focused on something quite other than a national will expressing itself through a national sovereign state: they believed, rather, that settlement was God’s politics, a means for promoting redemption. The difference is by no means slight. The higher law to which even the state is subordinate is not a national will, it is a religious commandment. The national state is thus not the supreme embodiment of a national spirit, it is a means for fulfilling a religious obligation. As Hanan Porat, one of the movement’s early leaders put it: “The mitzvah [religious commandment] of settling the land has several aspects to it, among them Jewish sovereignty over the whole Land of Israel.” To the extent that religious settlers remained faithful to this messianic view, they were willing to renounce not only the democratic form of government, but also the very sovereignty of the Jewish state. The state, as the radical among them insisted, would lose its legitimacy if it were to part from God’s politics.

As it gradually turned out, the majority of religious settlers would not follow through on the radical implications of Rabbi Kook the son’s original vision. They subverted the state’s authority by extra-legal settlement, and they often clashed with the army, but when the government held its ground against them most yielded. What was true of the majority, however, was not true of those who held fast to the original doctrine. Some of these die-hard believers defied state authority and even employed terrorist tactics (as was the case with the so-called Jewish Underground in the early 1980s, Baruch Goldstein who slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer in 1994, and Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in 1995). Many other radicals, who did not revert to terrorism, nevertheless announced that the state lost its legitimacy when it gave away portions of its territory to foreigners. They insisted that such territorial concessions were “illegal” even if the state’s sovereign institutions thought otherwise.

Those settlers who most explicitly accepted the state’s authority also tended to be the ones who recognized the creation of a modern national Jewish identity, and the authority of its democratic institutions. For them Jewish peoplehood is not simply restricted to its religious basis. The expression of the common will as embodied in the nation-state carries enough weight with them to count them as nationalists in the modern sense. On the other hand, those who refused to accept the modern conception of national identity also tended to reject democracy along with the authority of the sovereign state. Motti Karpel, editor of the settlers’ monthly Nekudah, for example, explains that democracy is an alien, Western, form of government, and that one should hope it would be replaced some day by a religious leadership, which would then be authentically Jewish and lead Jews back to a life based on the Torah. At bottom such believers remain more akin to Orthodox diaspora Jews who rejected the Zionist revolution and resisted any attempt to create a national Jewish identity under the auspices of the secular institutions of a national state. They yearned instead for pre-Zionist conceptions of Jewish identity, as defined by religion, and pre-Zionist conceptions of a Jewish Kingdom, at the center of which the resurrected temple would stand.

One may conclude, then, that this attempt to formulate a Zionism without democracy, an expression of the will of the people apart from the idea of democratic self-determination, was entangled in a rejection of modern nationalism as well. Not only do the politics of settlers lead to binationalism but their ideas also point away from modern nationalism as embodied by the sovereign state: the dismissal of democracy ends up with different degrees of disregard for—sometimes downright assault upon—the sovereign authority of the national state. The state is reduced to an “aspect” of, or an instrument for, fulfilling religious imperatives.

A Non-National Democracy?

The non-democratic conception of the nation on the extreme religious hawkish right and the non-national conception of democracy on the extreme dovish side of the spectrum are intimately connected. This is true not only on the plane of ideas where both see democracy and nationalism as virtual opposites, but also in the more difficult to define but nevertheless palpable realm of political sentiments. The more the symbols of nationalism were recruited in support of the occupation, and the more the state was implicit in it, the more tempting it became to throw out the baby with the bath water. For many the symbols of the nation became increasingly tainted by the settlers’ enterprise, and consequently secular doves tended to detach themselves from anything that smacked of nationalism. What formerly seemed to embody the principle of universal self-determination was increasingly described as a form of “colonialism.” In this way the critique of the occupation slipped into a rejection of Jewish national self-determination.

This anti-national view acquired a new idiom with the rise of the new academic paradigms of postcolonial studies and multiculturalism. “Discourse” now became the focus of analysis, and nationalism was understood as a “hegemonic narrative” designed to exclude all forms of identity not compatible with the one favored by the state. In the case of Israel that hegemonic discourse is “the Zionist narrative.” Being an Orientalistic narrative, so the argument goes, it helped construct an identity based first and foremost on conceiving the Arab as the despised Other, an alien and an enemy. Borrowing heavily from Edward Said, proponents of this view now described this narrative as an imperialistic and colonial ideology, masquerading as a national-liberation movement. The interpretation of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict proceeded along the lines of a model borrowed from the Algerian struggle for independence and it was therefore deemed especially audacious on the part of Zionists to reverse the roles: Israel, which actually played the role of France, described itself as having played the role of the Algerian liberation movement. Under this guise of a national-liberation narrative, Israeli nationalism justified the exploitation and expulsion of Arabs in the days of struggle for statehood, and continued to self-righteously justify and sustain the occupation after 1967.

But Palestinians were not, in this view, the only victims of Zionism. The Zionist narrative was also exclusive of many other Others: for example it indulged in the negation of the diaspora, describing Zionism as the “normal” way of being for Jews, deeming other ways short of normal, and it imposed a European-based Ashkenazi culture on Jewish immigrants from Arab countries via the policy of a melting pot. Much of this criticism was not new. But the new framework, with its emphasis on discourse, derived all forms of exclusion and oppression—anti-Arab sentiments, male chauvinism, imperialism, discrimination against Sephardic Jews, condescending attitudes of ruling elites toward immigrant and diaspora Jews, and much else—from a single source: nationalism, now understood as a unifying hegemonic narrative. Correspondingly, countering all those evils converged on a single solution: doing away with the hegemonic narrative, the narrative that is attached to the state, namely, the national narrative. This meant detaching the authority of the state from the narratives of identity, thus facilitating a kind of democracy of narratives. If no narrative were adopted by the political structure of power, none would be privileged. National identity would stop being a meta-identity subordinating all other identities to its all-encompassing power. Politically this would mean a non-national state of all its citizens, and a political structure that was limited to democratic procedure and the securing of individual rights. Since this conception owes so much to a (misleading) self-conception of the United States as a multicultural polity where identity is detached from statehood—that is, as non-national—clarifying the problematic nature of these views requires a discussion of American multiculturalism in some detail.

Clearly, the local Israeli version of the critique of the melting pot in the name of a plurality of narratives is an adaptation of American multiculturalism. But it is also worth noting that the view of the state as detached from identity has a much longer tradition in America of which multiculturalism is but a recent incarnation: the traditional American view of the question of church and state. According to this view the state should detach itself from questions of faith and refuse to support any single denomination, thus opening the “market” of religion to something like consumer choice. Individuals would then be left free to choose their own religious affiliation. Applying this solution to cultural identity seemed like its natural extension. America, according to this view, is understood not so much as a nation but rather as a loose confederacy of subcultures. The American polity would then seem to defy Montesquieu’s dictum: it preserved democracy by being big, not small, and by being pluralistic and diverse, rather than uniform and united.

This view of diversity as the guardian of democratic liberty also has roots beyond the question of religious freedom. It was self-conscious and articulate at the very birth of systematic political philosophy in America. In a direct and explicit assault on Montesquieu’s view, James Madison, author of the Constitution, rejected the notion that republics must be small because unity is their precondition. In a masterfully argued essay, “The Federalist No. 10,” he cut through Montesquieu’s logic in one fell swoop. Tapping an instinct already well established in Europe, and even more so in America, a sense that centralization spells despotism, he worked out the conclusion that republicanism is best preserved by internal division. Republics should not be small and uniform, they must be large and diverse, so that no interest or group can form a majority able to impose itself on all the rest. It should be a loose constellation of minorities, and it is plurality that will vouchsafe the liberty of all. Government, in this view, should refrain from representing any single interest and restrict itself, more or less, to the role of arbiter between competing groups (this same logic would be duplicated by multiculturalists who believe the state should avoid supporting any specific identity).

To achieve a diverse structure for the new republic, Madison turned back to other elements of Montesquieu’s thought. Pessimistic as he was regarding large republics, Montesquieu did offer the principle of diversity for large monarchies, as a guardian against tyranny. In the traditional form of French monarchy the many intermediate institutions based in the old feudal geographical units—he was himself an officer of such an institution, the parliament of Bordeaux—were the effective check on the king’s power. Worrying that a return to that kind of political pluralism was impossible after Louis XIV, he wanted to check power by installing another kind of dispersion—a division of sovereign power into branches according to the different functions it performs (in a fashion slightly different from that suggested earlier by John Locke). Madison’s plan of government, which relied first and foremost on diversity of interests, also adopted both the old and the new checks Montesquieu discussed: sovereignty is divided among the branches of government, in the very way Montesquieu recommended, and it is also divided between the center and smaller geographical units, namely, the states. Wherever you look, then, pluralism—religious, geographical, economic, political (recently ethnic and cultural too)—is entrusted with preserving American democracy. If uniformity and centralization are the enemies of liberty, diversity is its guardian. So long as the mechanism of government is detached from any unifying force, liberty will remain safe.

But this is, alas, a highly misleading view of America. Individual rights are not preserved in the United States by a diversity of beliefs, but by a shared, passionate belief in individual rights themselves. This belief does not stand above, or apart from, identities. It is a central part of Americans’ self-conception and of the common cultural bedrock. Pluralism is juxtaposed over a thick layer of shared beliefs: a progressive faith in democracy, in free market economy, in practicality, and in a vision of individualism derived from a deep-rooted Protestant heritage. None of those could be understood separately from the rest, or apart from the larger cultural context—the American Way of Life—in which they are embedded.

It was Jefferson who realized that, without a common faith, Madison’s procedural structure would fall apart. So while Madison sought to preserve liberty by default, and leave politics devoid of a shared ideology and identity, Jefferson grasped with exceptional clarity the need for a positive faith in liberty itself. “Can the liberties of a nation,” he wrote, “be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the mind of the people that their liberties are a gift of God?” For Jefferson even American religious diversity was preconditioned on a presupposition of uniformity. His defense of religious freedom did not rest on the idea that no one can claim to have access to the one and only religious truth, or that the state cannot be the arbiter of controversies over faith. Rather he thought one overarching truth was certain. The law of religious freedom he drafted for Virginia made this abundantly clear: “Almighty God,” Jefferson wrote, “hath created the mind free.” Religious freedom itself was ordained by Jefferson’s God. Americans have many Gods and religions, but behind them, or above them, always looms the one larger faith: Jefferson’s liberal civil religion, itself grounded in God.

To this day, democracy for Americans is, indeed, a civil religion. The idea that it is but a procedural political arrangement, and that it transcends ideology, faith or identity, is a tempting mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. American democracy is preserved not by Madisonian pluralism of interests, but by Jeffersonian uniformity of faith, not by a plurality of relative truths but by one absolute truth: “We hold these truths to be” nothing short of “self-evident”—”that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So ingrained is this in the American mind that you would hear college kids tell you that “every person has the right to hold his or her own values,” without suspecting that, in this very statement, they also express the great unifying faith, itself a value which no person is permitted not to hold: individual liberty. So the American case affirms, rather than negates, Montesquieu’s insight: that democracy is dependent on a bond of national sentiment. America, when all is said and done, is not a non-national state, detached from identity and faith. It is a highly national one, relying on an American national identity, and a strong American faith.

When this view is artificially imported to Israel ironies abound, because it is easy to use the rhetoric of plurality, of liberty and of tolerance as if it is to be taken at face value, without its roots in its cultural context, namely, the covert premises of uniformity and the shared faith on which it rests. It is tempting, for example, to recommend for Israel an American-style separation of church and state. But the model’s compatibility with Jewish identity in America does not mean it can work as well in the case of Israeli Jews. Importing it wholesale to Israel ignores the fact that for Zionism Judaism is a national identity beyond, and apart from, the religious conception of Judaism. So that while in America the separation of church and state affirms America’s national identity and shared beliefs, and enables Jews to take part in the national creed, in Israel the same formal arrangement would do the opposite. Since being Jewish in the Zionist sense is a national identity in Israel, relegating any definition of Judaism to the private sphere alone is tantamount to denying Jews the right of collective self-determination. It would be as feasible as an attempt to relegate Jefferson’s civil religion to the private sphere and forbid the federal state to express it in its institutions.

The second irony is that while the assumption of uniformity is not articulated in the rhetoric of diversity, it is nevertheless implied, so that behind the post-Zionist rhetoric of diversity one often hears the demand for uniformity of faith in the values of liberalism. Thus it seems that while hegemony is to be blamed for imposing uniformity, the marginalized groups as post-Zionists tend to describe them somehow stand for a (uniform) devotion to diversity, and hold a firm (uniform) faith in liberal values. But in truth liberalism, now incarnated in its American reformulation as multiculturalism, is not the ideology of the margins in Israel, it is the ideology of a new elite, which then projects it on the margins it claims to represent. This new elite, in other words, presents its own project, as it were, upside down: it does not give voice, as it says it does, to the actual margins of society. It is, rather, bent on promoting the new hegemonic center—a “multicultural” form of liberalism in which the values of diversity, tolerance, gender equality, personal empowerment and so forth would be shared by all. This is the view that the winds of globalism and the free-market tendency to privatization they bring with them have carried across the ocean. Members of this elite are themselves part of a this trend: a cosmopolitan educated class, many of them academics whose reference group is composed of academics in other countries, and their private careers dependent on a peer group dispersed around the globe. They travel often and feel comfortable in a world that minimizes the significance of national borders and looks down upon parochial perspectives. Multiculturalism is thus fashioned after themselves.

It is hard to ignore the fact that their criticism of nationalism approves only of such identities as are detached from the political structure of the state. So while multiculturalism is often called a “politics of identity” it is actually promoting the depoliticization of identity by removing all questions of identity from the political mechanisms of the state. The shared sphere becomes, it seems, an imagined community, formally constructed around procedure but in effect based on liberal values, in accord with this new elite’s individualistic way of life. The American context from which these values were imported would reemerge through a state apparatus restricted to the protection of individual rights and resistant to competing worldviews. But what in America expresses a consensus over values is, when imported to Israel, a negation of Israel’s shared values; what in America is a form of self-determination is, when imported to Israel, an attempt to prevent the indigenous form of self-determination and replace it with a set of values imposed by a liberal state (through the Supreme Court, in many cases) from above.

The solution derived from this view for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, “a state of all its citizens” between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, would, in practice, deny national self-determination to both Palestinians and Israelis. Little wonder then that this radical liberal solution fails to address the needs of the general population of Israeli Jews and of Palestinians. For two movements of national liberation, so deeply scarred by the traumas that a lack of sovereignty has brought upon them, this attempt to impose an American-inspired liberal system that would, in effect, prevent both populations from achieving national self-determination, does not feel like a satisfactory solution. In this light this view seems not so much an attack on imperialism and colonialism as an agent of the new global forms of cultural imperialism. The “state of all its citizens,” which is meant to protect democracy, ends up undermining it: it defies the very principle of self-determination that democracy is supposed to embody because the demos loses its vehicle for exercising sovereignty.


Both attempts to separate nationalism from democracy in Israel—the attempt to formulate nationalism without democracy, or a democracy without nationalism—were rejected by Israel’s electorate. Though Israelis have been tolerating the occupation for decades, the majority have never seriously contemplated a national state that would not be democratic. Israelis have also, overwhelmingly, rejected any conception of the state that would do away with nationalism. As we have noted, the increasing realization that the occupation would have to end stemmed from the inability to separate the democratic form of government from nationalism because only when taken together do they bring the ideal of self-determination to full, coherent realization.

Would it be justified, then, to generalize from the case of Israel to nationalism and democracy in other times and places? The answer can never be an unqualified yes. Some features of the Israeli case are clearly local and idiosyncratic. It cannot be inferred from the fact that the extreme religious right in Israel ends up undermining the ideal of the nation-state that any non-democratic form of nationalism is bound to do the same. To the contrary, experience has shown that there were, and still are, many non-democratic modern nation-states, whether fascist, populist, or communist. But though nationalism and national states can stably endure without democracy, the opposite seems less likely. We have yet to see what such experiments as the European Union would mean in terms of preserving democratic control over international institutions. The experience of transnational institutions—international courts, international financial institutions, and multinational businesses—is not, for the time being, encouraging: they all tend to transcend democratic control precisely because they transcend the national state.

Though there are exceptions to the rule (such as Switzerland, Belgium, arguably Canada too) modern democracies are almost universally national. The case of Israel in this respect follows a norm, as does that of America. Since both are immigrant societies, and since in both “the nation” was a self-conscious self-creation, the role of nationalism in self-determination has only been more explicit, not categorically different from that of other nation-states. Both Israel and the United States demonstrate what is also felt in those countries where Emancipation failed, and in most other modern national democracies: that self-determination cannot be neatly separated into a private and a public sphere; that therefore a political apparatus wholly divorced from any sense of identity becomes a violation of the principle of self-determination rather than a fulfillment of it; and finally that democratic citizenship is binding only when a sentiment of community and belonging (i.e. identity) is attached, at least to some extent, to the political apparatus. When all is said and done, Montesquieu’s insight, and the instincts of early revolutionaries, still stand: democratic citizenship would be put in jeopardy in the absence of patriotic sentiments.