Today, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, we celebrate the foundation of the modern state of Israel. For religious Jews and secular Jews alike, this historical event is of great significance. On Yom Ha’atzmaut we celebrate our political independence, when for the first time in millennia we are free again to make our own decisions and to defend ourselves. Our nation finally has its own land in which she can prosper in peace without the ever present threat of expulsion, extermination, or discrimination. We feel very patriotic towards our state, and no matter where we live, a part of us is always in Israel. When it comes to Israel we are nationalists. We have a special spot in our heart for the state of Israel, and we would give it and its citizens priority in many matters. To sum it up, we are Zionists.
We are also humanitarians. We believe that all humans have equal rights. We believe that when it comes to the safety and health of people there is no hierarchy; no one is more important than another, and no one’s experiences are more significant than others’. We see all of humanity as brothers and sisters sharing the gift of life and fighting its struggles. We reject any notion of supremacy or chosenness, and we understand that any form of racism, whether positive or negative, is potentially divisive and dangerous.
But aren’t these two ideologies contradictory? Can one be a nationalist humanitarian? Can one be a zionist humanitarian? From a humanitarian point of view, what good can nationalism bring? Isn’t the very idea of zionist nationalism a form of divisiveness and supremacy? And this brings me to the very idea of celebrating our Jewish identity. Why make a deal out of something that has historically been the cause for so much hate and xenophobia? Why focus on what makes us different from other people, rather than on what we have in common?
There are even more nagging questions; are we really proud with all that we did as a nation, and as a state? We feel proud to be Jewish, and we feel proud to have a state of our own, but, hey, let us not pretend that everything is great. We have plenty to be ashamed of. We did terrible things, both in modern times and in ancient times. The massacres at Dir Yassin and other Palestinian villages are not libels made up by our enemies to blacken our face, neither was the way that we related to our gentile neighbours throughout the ages great, and, no, it was not only them to blame. So what are we to make of all of this?
For many Jews, especially liberals, the answer is very simple: disaffiliation. They see the whole nationalist idea as holding on to historical notions of chosenness and supremacy, which should be replaced by modern views of humanitarianism and equality. They see any Jewish identity as embarrassing and potentially leading to divisiveness. They objectively look on to the way history has shaped us, and they find it hard to see in it anything worthy of celebration.
In some way, I really respect this view. Admittedly, this is an honest and objective approach to our history. It is a universal approach, one that any historian, Jewish or not, can take part in, argue about and have an opinion of their own. Some might come to different conclusions than others. Some will see us as victims, others as culprits, but either party will try and look at the facts, and then cast judgement, and neither will necessarily see a cause for celebration.
But is it possible though to be a nationalistic Jew with a strong Jewish and Zionist identity, whilst not compromising on humanitarian values and intellectual honesty? I think that the answer lies in what it means to be nationalistic and patriotic. Nationalism is very much like family. It is about feelings – not claims, about emotion – not objective truths. One loves their family not because they think that their family members are better than other people and more worthy of love. One will defend one’s family despite being well aware of its shortcomings. Feelings towards family are meant to be deeply subjective, and to some extent unrelated to objective reality. Emotions begin where intellectual objectivity ends.
Nationalism would have been problematic had it attempted to make factual claims. Indeed, claiming chosenness or superiority is crossing over the boundaries from feelings to claims, and is therefore incompatible with any form of humanitarianism or equality. But that is not what zionism is about. Zionism and Jewish nationalism is about celebrating our family story and identity as a people, whilst not claiming the story to be any better than the story of other peoples.
As humanitarians we can see our story as just one amongst many, and our people as just one amongst many, and yet, it is our story, and it is our people. We can be honest and acknowledge that we haven’t always been perfect, and that perhaps there are still areas in which we need to improve as a nation and as a state, and yet, we love Israel and its people because we are family. We don’t need to be rational and objective when it comes to family because for family members we have unconditional love.
Israel, you might not be perfect and you might not be better, but you are our’s!