Daniel Gordis’s case for Israel as a modern Jewish nation-state convinced exactly none of my friends at this week’s Limmud NY conference. And it's not because these liberal twenty-somethings are definitively opposed to the idea of a Jewish state. As far as they’re concerned, there may be strong arguments in favor of it—Gordis’s arguments just weren’t that strong. That’s a shame for Gordis, because this cadre of young, smart, political Jews—who are often inclined to reject the ethnic nation-state as an outmoded construct—is exactly the audience he’s trying to convince.
To defend the idea of the nation-state in general and of the Jewish nation-state in particular, Gordis takes a two-pronged approach. First, he tries to make the positive case for Israel by showing, through a close literary reading, that the Bible itself is “an eloquent argument in favor of the ethnic-cultural commonwealth—a precursor of sorts to the modern nation-state—as an indispensable condition for human freedom and self-realization.” According to Gordis’s reading, biblical tales about the Tower of Babel, Abraham’s nomadism, and the exodus from Egypt all come to teach us that, without a national homeland, it’s impossible for a people to really thrive and cultivate its identity.
That this reading is politically motivated—as all readings are—is obvious from an essay Gordis published in 2010:
This biblical vision is especially pertinent today, when the nation-state is commonly rejected as a thing of the past, and national identity as a prejudice humanity must learn to transcend. Israel, specifically, is reviled as a chauvinistic anachronism; the Jewish state, once a paradigm of the struggle for liberation and self-determination, is now associated with colonial conquest and the violation of human rights. Such a view has become increasingly popular even among Jews themselves, many of whom regard Israel’s national particularism as a moral aberration and an abandonment of Judaism’s universal values. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The insistence on the importance of the ethnic-cultural state lies, we have seen, at the very core of the Hebrew Bible.
The problem with this argument is that Jews who reject ethnic nationalism couldn’t care less that that idea may be “at the very core of the Hebrew Bible.” And why should they? The “eloquent argument” for nation-states that Gordis sees in the Bible is not unique to that text; it’s well known and widely circulated, and as such it’s already been considered and rejected by the opposition. Showing that the Bible is the locus classicus for an argument that’s already failed to convince is probably not the best way to sway the opposition or punch holes in their case.
Maybe because Gordis knows this, he supplements his positive case for the Jewish nation-state by making the negative case against the Diaspora, arguing that Diasporic life has not enabled the Jewish people to fully realize and promote its unique message. To this end, he enlists the help of political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote, “I will never believe that I have heard what it is that the Jews have to say until they have a state of their own.” See, the argument goes, even Rousseau understood that the Jewish nation-state is a necessary platform for communicating that people’s message to the world!
But here’s the problem with the Rousseau gambit: applied to today’s world, it makes no sense. Maybe the political philosopher never heard of the Babylonian Talmud—the greatest compendium of Jewish lore and law, which was penned not in a Jewish state but in, you know, Babylonia. Or of the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative codification of that law, which was authored under Ottoman rule. Or of the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, which was written in Spain. Living as he did in the 18th century, when Jewish texts were less widely circulated and translated, Rousseau can perhaps be forgiven for not having heard their message. But the same doesn’t hold true today. In the internet age, if you’re not hearing the message, you’re not listening.
Yes, a Jewish nation-state can help develop and promote that message. Yes, it can project that message to the world in a different way than can Diasporic Jewish communities. But the stronger claim, which pitches a sovereign Jewish state as absolutely indispensable to the project of self-realization, is much harder to justify.
Fact is, “what it is that the Jews have to say” has gotten said the loudest precisely when Jews didn’t have “a state of their own.” For millennia, Diasporic Jewish communities were the strongest producers and mouthpieces for Jewish religion and culture. And it was the loss of Jewish sovereignty and the rootlessness of exile that forced them to write down and codify their tradition in the first place.
The cadre of Jews Gordis is trying to convince know all of this, and that’s why his arguments ring hollow to their ears.