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Two Cheers for Israel

They're having children and defending their culture without apology. The West could learn a thing or two.
Israel Jerusalem

The recent episode over Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s allegedly anti-Semitic remarks has probably prompted a lot of people to reexamine their feelings towards Israel—even if they hope never to encounter the word “trope” again. In one respect, the affair substantiates something the late Harvard professor and neoconservative Nathan Glazer wrote long ago. Among Glazer’s many interests was immigration, its history, and its impact on national culture and policy. He believed unambiguously that there was a clear connection between a country’s foreign policy and its ethnic make-up, and that immigration was thus a strong predictor of a nation’s future moves on the world stage. Elsewhere, almost as an aside, he remarked that if the United States came to resemble in its population the United Nations General Assembly, its attitude towards Israel would veer in that direction as well.

In truth, Israel evokes mixed feelings both among individuals and political parties. I’ve visited it (and the occupied West Bank) on two occasions, have read a fair amount of history and analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and generally favor what is, or at least was, the mainstream American establishment view: Israel should be supported, but shouldn’t build settlements on the West Bank and should negotiate seriously a two-state solution.

But there are different ways of holding this view. It can be held as a form of lip service to the now-dormant peace process, a cover for thinking that the occupation should go on forever and that the American special relationship with Israel should remain unchanged. This is probably the default position of most American politicians. Or it can be informed by serious criticism of the occupation and lead one to incur the ire of the Israel lobby in order to advocate for a two-state solution. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are embodiments of this second position; Barack Obama began along that path as well, but retreated in the face of resistance from the Israeli government and much of the Democratic establishment. President Donald Trump, after some interesting early sallies that expressed a desire to serve as a disinterested broker, has gone all the way in the opposite direction. He has largely broken with the two-state consensus, and, guided by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, doesn’t even pay lip service to Palestinian aspirations for independent statehood.

Beyond the so-called question of Palestine, there is the issue of America’s Mideast policy more broadly conceived. Here the main and ancillary organizations of the Israel lobby, as well as Israel itself, push the United States to be more aggressively involved than its national interests demand. One of the most memorable chapters in John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s invaluable book The Israel Lobby contained precise documentation of the many Israeli politicians coming to America to advocate for the Iraq war in the months after 9/11. Those interventions weren’t decisive, of course, but they do point to one of the things one thinks about when one thinks about Israel: the tendency of our government and media establishment to defer to it as our savvy and experienced guide to the unruly Middle East.

For the past generation, Israel’s government has used this status to try to steer the United States into war with one or another of its regional rivals. So it was with Iraq as now with Iran: Benjamin Netanyahu hardly bothers to hide that an American war with Iran is more or less at the top of his foreign policy agenda. Of course, much of the Israeli security establishment does not favor war with Iran, and much of it was satisfied with the deal restraining Iranian nuclear enrichment. But that is nuance. What many Americans end up hearing is that Iran is an “existential enemy” to Israel and the West, a point drummed incessantly both by the Israeli government and its many supporters in Washington.

And yet, despite the contributions of Sheldon Adelson, the efforts of John Bolton, the exertions of the “formerly terrorist” Iranian exile group MEK, and Netanyahu, we may not be pushed into war with Iran. Much of the world would oppose such a conflict, as would the American military and much of the country, and Trump, whatever his failings, is not deaf to public opinion.

So for the sake of delving deeper, let’s put aside the machinations over Iran. Let’s also put aside the question of the Palestinians. That matter might be difficult—but it is certainly fair to stipulate that one shouldn’t define Israel by its relations with the Palestinians any more than one should define the United States by its history of slavery and racial discrimination, even when those were active policies.

I am also not suggesting that we should attend to the usual arguments made by Israel’s main backers in the United States: that Israel is technologically creative and sophisticated, or that it supports gay rights. Both points are true and count in its favor. But Israel, particularly secular Tel Aviv, is culturally pretty much a European country and its social liberalism is more like France’s, England’s, and Germany’s than its neighbors. As for technology, it isn’t surprising that a people that have contributed disproportionately to science and intellectual life in the West should continue doing so after becoming Israelis.

But there is an even more important reason to give two cheers for Israel and to think of it, despite its excesses, as exemplary: Israel is nationalist. It desperately does not want to die. Its leaders are fierce in their concern for their own people. It is not wallowing in guilt. It is not in the least bit tempted to go in for population replacement. All nationalisms can be belligerent and excessive, needlessly violent, unwilling to consider the legitimate concerns of other peoples, and under its current leadership, Israel at least borders on many of these failings. Some believe that such excess is baked into Zionism, but I’m not persuaded. Israeli nationalism can and should be modulated and tempered, but even in its arguably excessive mode, it has exemplary aspects.

The late Tony Judt, a distinguished historian, published an important and controversial essay in 2003 in which he argued that Israel was built upon an outdated idea. Not only was the peace process dead (killed, as he correctly put, it by the Israeli Right) but the type of state that it was, a nation state privileging a certain ethnic group, was outdated in today’s world. Judt’s key paragraph reads:

[Israel] has imported a characteristically late 19th century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges and which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded, is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

When I read that 16 years ago, I agreed at least partially—with the caveat that a two-state solution was needed to ensure that a Jewish majority was still possible, and that a smaller-majority Jewish Israel could be a state for all its citizens and still be meaningfully Jewish.

But it’s worth revisiting this critical paragraph. In what sense can we now be optimistic about the world that’s “moved on” to “open frontiers” and “international law”—the world that Israel has rejected? Since Judt wrote these words, there has been a surge of Islamist terrorism in Europe, such that banal activities like a festive Christmas market must now take place surrounded by concrete anti-vehicle barriers and under the watch of armed guards. In France especially, the middle- and working-class Jewish community in the near Paris suburbs has been more or less driven from schools and public spaces, due to hate crimes perpetrated by recent immigrants and their offspring. Increasingly large neighborhoods in major European cities have been become zones of effective dual sovereignty, where officials have little sway over the culture and practices of the Muslim residents. At the same time, a surge of Africans into Europe, redolent of the dystopian novel Camp of the Saints, intensifies unabated. A great part of Europe’s elite, heavily influenced by the discourse of “international law,” cannot even find a vocabulary to argue why this wave, which if continued will bring about the end of Europe as a cultural entity, should be resisted. Meanwhile native European birthrates, for a variety of reasons, have plummeted to far below replacement levels in some countries.

If all these trends were visible in embryonic form when Judt wrote, their full implications were less so. Some of the verdict is now in—and a strong case can be made that Israel was more right than wrong in rejecting such a future.

Israel has resisted this brave new world of international law and open frontiers in many ways. In 2013, faced with a surge of migrants from Sudan, it built a fence across the Sinai, stopping the flow immediately. Five years later, it toyed with the idea of giving some 50,000 African migrant asylum seekers a choice between jail or a lump sum payment and a plane ticket to an undisclosed African country. The measure was held up in the courts, but remains popular. In any case, Israel has made itself the most resistant to the asylum/refugee claimant industry. In 2017, of its 54,600 requests for asylum, Israel granted 33. In contrast, Europe granted refugee status to 90 percent of asylum seekers. Which model, one might ask, is more likely to bequeath an acceptably self-governing nation to one’s children and grandchildren?

While the West can learn something from Israel about building fences and discouraging bogus asylum claims, perhaps Israel’s greatest achievement has been its birthrate. Contrary to the trend throughout the West, fertility in Israel is rising. Many, even some demographers, thought that this was due to high birthrates among ultra Orthodox Jews, but recent research shows this is not the case. The greatest rise in Israeli fertility is among traditionally observant and even secular Jewish women—which, contrary to the pattern seen in every other advanced nation, lies at or above the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. Israeli women participate in the workforce in as high percentages as in any other OECD country, so this can’t be explained by some sort of enforced kitchen-children-church dogmatization.

There seems to be no single explanation but a combination. Israel has good prenatal care and a culture that encourages child-bearing. A significant role is probably played by the sense of Jewish rebirth that Israel avidly cultivates, hardly surprising in view of the Holocaust. Israel is not plagued by notions of guilt and unearned privilege, and Israelis have somehow acquired the idea that having children to strengthen the next generation is a good thing. On my first visit there, I was surprised to learn that a young woman who headed an important human rights organization had three young preschool children. This arrangement, difficult to contemplate in Europe or America without great personal wealth, was possible in Jerusalem. Yet whatever combination of national spirit, child-friendly culture, natalist policies, and a social welfare net are at work, this is something the West needs to learn from and seek to emulate if it wishes to survive.

The queasy dread Western voters are exhibiting over high rates of immigration and multiculturalism is now beginning to be reflected in shifting alignments among conservative intellectuals. Yoram Hazony, a right-wing Israeli educated at Princeton and president of the Herzl institute, recently published an important book called The Virtue of Nationalism that resurrected arguments of classical political theory, positing that individual rights are better protected in nation states than in multinational empires. Hazony’s book has won high praise from across the American Right, in a kind of dual embrace by both neoconservatives and paleoconservatives that has not occurred in recent memory.

Hazony does not limit his argument in favor of nation states to Israel, and his book can be read as a response to Tony Judt’s point that delegitimization of the national idea in the West does not bode well for Israel either. One might even see a parallel kind of recognition in the recent work of David Frum, long a bellwether of establishment conservative opinion journalism, who has written sensible essays about the need for immigration controls to serve the national interest (as opposed to impugning the patriotism of antiwar conservatives). One can note comparable developments elsewhere: the French journal Causeur, eclectically conservative and quietly pro-Israel, is producing some of the most trenchant analysis of the increasingly dire multicultural situation in which France now finds itself.

Do such developments change the way one thinks about Israel? Inevitably they do, not least because they mitigate what has long been the single most irritating quality common to many (but not all) neoconservatives—a tendency to espouse for American policies that are exactly opposite to those they embrace for Israel. They thus make plausible an idea that would have seemed to me either crudely propagandistic or oversaturated in esoteric Protestant theology 20 years ago: that the fates of Israel and the West are connected in deep ways. To turn Judt on his head, if the idea takes root that it is illegitimate for Israelis to have their own state, it begins to seem at least somewhat outlandish for the English and the French and the Hungarians to make any special claim to their homelands.

Of course, it’s easy enough to envision events that could halt such lines of thought. To the extent that it is encouraged by Israel, a war with Iran (which, whatever the faults of Tehran’s divided government, has the most pro-Western and secular younger generation of any Mideastern country) would exacerbate sour sentiments about the Jewish state. So too, probably less decisively, would Israel’s continued refusal to reach any reasonable accommodation with the Palestinians. Hazony’s important book recognizes—how could it not?—the evils and excesses to which unbridled nationalism can lead. To be blunt, national self-determination and independence does not require ignoring or suppressing the claims of other peoples, or taking the maximum one can get away with. Compromise can be a nationalist virtue.

The West is at a malleable and critical moment. It may go under, hypnotized by the false notions that progress and freedom require open frontiers and free movement of peoples and that individual rights will somehow thrive in some sort of post-national imperium. Or it may summon from within and without the sources for its own revival. If it does manage to endure, I’m increasingly persuaded that the Israeli example will turn out to be a vital component of Western renaissance.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcConnell9.