As I was reading the various analyses of the Brexit vote yesterday, I remembered an article I had read back in 2011 by the International Affairs scholar, Stephen M. Walt. His basic thesis was that despite all of the new global trends in 21st century, nationalism was still “the most powerful political force in the world.”
Unless we fully appreciate the power of nationalism, in short, we are going to get a lot of things wrong about the contemporary political life. It is the most powerful political force in the world, and we ignore it at our peril.
I recall being a bit irritated when I that article. Like many, I believed that the world had certainly learned its lesson from two cataclysmic world wars and that for all the problems that came with globalization, nationalism was a relic of the past.
But I’m convinced now. And at the risk of sounding too apocalyptic about it, I’m wondering if the peril we’ve ignored is now at our door.
It’s hard not to see the increasing national fervor developing all around us. Great Britain has voted to exit the European Union and other member countries are threatening to follow suit. Nationalist parties are making big gains in countries around Western Europe and Vladimir Putin has whipped a strong nationalist fervor in Russia. Many countries throughout Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Far East are led by leaders who use nationalist rhetoric to win elections and promote their domestic policies.
I’ve never been a fan of nationalism. I accept that nation states are part of the social, political and economic fabric of the modern world – but I’ve long believed that the nation-statism too often fuses with tribalism – particularly during time of economic instability. This phenomenon, as we know all too well, has inevitably led the modern world to dark and destructive places.
As a Jew, I view the ultra-right nationalism that increasingly grips Israel’s political culture as the inevitable outcome of a nation that predicates its identity on one specific group of people. And as an American, I’m watching the toxic, seething national fervor unleashed by Donald Trump with genuine alarm.
In his article, Walt suggested that the US isn’t as susceptible to overt nationalism as other other countries:
Because American national identity tends to emphasize the civic dimension (based on supposedly universal principles such as individual liberty) and tends to downplay the historic and cultural elements (though they clearly exist).
Yes they clearly do exist in this country. Even if Trump loses in November – and I do believe he will – the sick nationalist fervor he has unleashed will not vanish overnight. Nor will the nations around the world that are currently increasing xenophobia, racism and fear of the other.
Now more than ever we need to stand down the sorrows of nationalism. I don’t think its too alarmist to suggest that we heed the lessons of the past lest it become an unimaginable future. As journalist Ed Fuller recently wrote in the aptly titled article: “Nationalism: Back Again Like a Bad Dream:”
I can’t help but think about the political excesses of the 1930s, the protectionism and the xenophobic zeal that were all part of the Nationalistic wave that swept the world following the First World War. It ultimately resulted in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, ending with Hiroshima. Something to think about as we grapple with the challenges facing our world today.
By all accounts, Bibi Netanyahu will be the winner of the upcoming elections on January 22 – after which he will proceed to form the most right-wing/ultra-nationalist coalition in Israeli history. The only question that remains is by what degree.
Among new political figures on the scene, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi (“Jewish Home”) party seems to be garnering the most attention. Even as Bibi’s Likud-Beiteinu party drops in the polls, HaBayit HaYehudi (a restructured version of the old National Religious Party) is growing in popularity – and will almost certainly become an important player in a new coalition.
If you’ve never heard of Bennett, you will soon. He’s the son of American immigrants, a successful hi-tech businessman, Bibi’s former chief of staff (they’ve since had a high profile falling out) and the former head of the West Bank settlers’ Yesha Council. Bennett raised some major dust last month when he told a television interviewer that he would personally refuse orders to evacuate settlements or outposts in the West Bank while on reserve army duty. He also is on record as advocating the annexation of Area C of the West Bank. Under his plan, Palestinians already living there would be given the choice to accept Israeli citizenship or leave.
While he was roundly criticized from many political quarters for his remarks about army service, his party has become the most popular Israeli party with young Israelis under the age of 30. Clearly, Bennett and his views represent Israel’s future – one that seems to be skewing further and further away from democracy and ever closer to apartheid policies.
Take a look at HaBayit Hayehudi’s English language campaign video ad at the top of this post. As Don Futterman recently observed in Open Zion, it’s a canny attempt to gloss over the more odious aspects of Bennett’s ideology with a legit and cheerful veneer designed specifically to appeal to American immigrants to Israel:
This ad, which is part of a campaign to create different and more positive associations with the name HaBayit HaYehudi (the Jewish Home), is an invitation, not a polemic. It mentions buzzwords—Jewish values and Zionist ideals—and one issue from the party’s platform—Jewish education—but does not harp on any of them. You wouldn’t guess that HaBayit HaYehudi has any connection to the national religious right in Israel, and you might even miss the single reference to West Bank settlements (“I live in Samaria”). You certainly wouldn’t suspect that Bennett has promised he would go to jail rather than evacuate a settlement.
Watching the video, I was also struck that it made repeated references to the importance of Israel’s Jewish character without explicitly explaining why this should in any way be considered a political issue:
If you want to bring Jewish values and Zionist ideals to Israel, then the Bayit Yedudi is your home…If you believe that every Israeli child deserves a quality Jewish education, the Bayit Yehudi is your home.
While on the surface, remarks such as this sound perfectly innocuous, they mask a profoundly troubling agenda. What about the Palestinians citizens of Israel who do not adhere to “Jewish values” or “Zionist ideals?” It’s certainly sounds noble to say that Israeli child deserves a quality Jewish education, but what about the considerable percentage of Israeli children who don’t happen to be Jewish? The answer, of course, is not too difficult to understand. These Israeli citizens simply don’t fit in the xenophobic ideology advocated by Naftali Bennett and HaBayit HaYedudi.
In a recent post for +972 mag, Noam Sheizaf makes a perfectly reasonable argument – but given Israel’s current reality it would likely strike many as radical in the extreme. Pointing out that in 64 years of Israel’s existence, no government has ever included one of the Arab parties in a coalition, Sheizaf concludes:
Cooperation between Palestinian and Jews is by far the greatest, most important challenge in this country. Every element of Israeli life – from the education system to zoning plans – is constructed to promote ethnic separation, with politics being just the tip of the iceberg…Therefore, the ability to create joint structures and partnerships is the single most important element that would determine the chances of survival and the quality of life for the entire society.
The necessary conclusion for me is that it is simply forbidden to vote for parties which are not shared by Palestinians and Jews, or for ones that preserve the policy of separation between Palestinians and Jews. There are no perfect parties, but this should be the basic condition, just as an American shouldn’t vote for a party that doesn’t accept black people.
Alas, voices like Sheizaf’s are but a whisper in the Israeli wilderness. According to the latest polls, Arab-Jewish parties will garner only a small sliver of votes in the upcoming election. When it comes to the Israeli electorate, the ideology of Jewish supremacy is clearly the order of the day.
For comparison purposes, take a look, below, at this campaign video ad for the Da’am Workers Party – one of the few Arab-Jewish parties of which Sheizaf spoke. I’d say their values provide a powerful contrast to ethnic exclusivism of HaBayit Hayehudi:
(This) movement is our hope, everyone’s hope that here will arise, in the State of Israel, for the first time in history a political, social, economic alternative, sane, human, fair, that knows how to be part of the region where it’s located. For 64 years we’ve lived in a ghetto. The time has come to get out of the ghetto! Israel has to stop isolating itself…We say no! We’ll bring down the wall of Occupation, the wall of racism, and the wall of violence. We want to be free in our land indeed, and our land is the entire world, and this world needs one unique answer, it needs a revolution!
Recently read an interesting blog post by Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz of Congregation B’nai Shalom (Reform), in Westborough, MA, in which she expresses her disapproval of clergy who endorse candidates for public office.
Exhibit A: “Rabbis for Obama:”
Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’ … I will tell you now, my name is not on that list. And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it. I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right.
I’m not a constitutional scholar either, but I’m fairly certain clergy don’t endanger their 501 c3 status as long as they make it clear in their endorsements that they are speaking as individuals and not on behalf of their congregations. But be that as it may, Gurevitz’s real issue with such endorsements is less legal than philosophical:
Each individual candidate and the parties they represent, hold diverse views on a very wide array of subjects. It is simply not true – it cannot be – that one side is ‘right’ and the other side is ‘wrong’. This is the case whether we are speaking in terms of ethics and morals, or whether we are speaking about issues of social equity and justice. Our political arena has become polarized enough already. We do absolutely no service to this country, to the well-being of our society, or to the legitimacy and value of the religious traditions we serve and represent when we add to that polarization by picking sides.
Rather exacerbate our national polarization, Gurevitz suggests, rabbis should take their cue from Jewish/Talmudic tradition, which values diversity of opinion and debates “for the sake of heaven” – and not, as she puts it, “debates for the sake of winning.”
While I appreciate Rabbi Gurevitz’s desire to mitigate the polarizing discourse in American political culture, I don’t think it’s quite fair of her to assert that rabbinical endorsements automatically translate into (as she puts it), “I’m right and you are wrong, therefore we are good and you are evil, therefore we speak in God’s name and you don’t.”
This is certainly not the message – in content or tone – set by the Rabbis for Obama website, which merely contains a list of rabbis, various links, along with this fairly mild statement:
This group of over 613 rabbis … from across the country and across all Jewish denominations recognize that the President has been and will continue to be an advocate and ally on issues important to the American Jewish community. That is why they are committed to re-electing President Obama and actively doing their part to move our country forward.
That’s a pretty far cry from “We speak in God’s name and you don’t.”
In truth, when I think of rabbis who have publicly endorsed candidates over the years, I’m hard pressed to find many who have done so in an overly polarizing or patronizing manner. In this regard, I still remember well the words of the venerable Reform Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, whose last major public statement was an article for the Jewish Week entitled “My Neighbor Barack” – in which he voiced his support for Obama during the 2008 campaign. (His article was particularly meaningful because it was published during a period in which Obama was under withering attack from certain neo-conservative quarters of the Jewish community.)
On a deeper level, however, I think Gurevitz fundamentally misreads the legacy of rabbinic debate “for the sake of heaven.” While the rabbinic discussions of Talmud do indeed provide a graphic representation of this legacy, I would suggest that our job as rabbis is not to emulate a page of Talmud, but to engage in the debate itself.
There is no question that the issues discussed during election cycles are of profound significance for our national community. None of us can afford to stand aloof from these issues – least of all rabbis. Indeed, by advocating for candidates who support the policies we believe will best serve the common good, we advocate for the sacred values we purport to cherish as religious leaders. If we preach about social issues from the pulpit, why should it be inappropriate for us to endorse the candidates who are directly responsible for enacting the policies related to these issues?
I certainly agree with Gurevitz when she exhorts clergy to must speak out against “the polarizing and vindictive narrative of political debate when we see and hear it.” But I’m not at all convinced we must stand on the sidelines during election season in order to do so.
Here is a post I co-wrote with Rabbi Alissa Wise for the Forward Thinking Blog of the Jewish Daily Forward:
The Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel this week urged a group of rabbis supporting President Barack Obama’s reelection to purge members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council from its ranks. The conservative groups claimed they were shocked by the inclusion in the “Rabbis for Obama” list of those whose “values are representative of a small and extreme group of anti-Israel activists.”
We are deeply dismayed by this cynical attempt at political gain through smears, half-truths and innuendos that only serve to create division in the Jewish community.
It is certainly true that many of on the JVP Rabbinical Council are deeply critical of Israeli policy (and the U.S. policy that too often enables it). It is not at all true, however, that such criticisms are “extreme” or marginal. Indeed, increasing numbers of Jews and Jewish leaders are finding the courage to speak out publicly against Israel’s practice of home demolition, forced eviction, settlement expansion and administrative detention, as well as its widespread restriction on Palestinians’ freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza.
Jewish Voice for Peace rabbis were not the only ones singled out by RJC and ECI’s smear. William Kristol included members of the J Street Rabbinical Cabinet and Rabbis for Human Rights as well. There are many perspectives within the American rabbinical community about how to create a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. At the same time, we share a commitment to open and honest conversation about how a negotiated solution can ensure security and human rights for all.
By a margin of more than 2 to 1, according to the Public Religion Research Institute American Jews say that good diplomacy rather than military strength is the best way to ensure peace (63% vs. 24% respectively).
This reality stands in sharp contrast to the Jewish donors to the Republican party, such as Sheldon Adelson, who has reportedly asked Romney to state publicly that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are a “waste of time.” Adelson is also pressing Romney for a firmer commitment to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in what would be a de facto recognition of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. These views lie far outside what most Americans would tolerate or expect from an American president.
We are saddened, but not surprised, by these smear tactics. They have long been the stock in trade of a Jewish establishment that demands lock-step agreement from Jewish rabbis and leaders – and Jewish neo-conservatives who do not hesitate to use divisive rhetoric and slanderous allegations against their own community members to achieve their political goals.
We are proud of the diversity of the American Jewish community and voice our hope that it will make room for all those who are dedicated to a future of peace, justice and dignity in Israel and Palestine. We are heartened that that by resisting calls to purge individual rabbis from their ranks, the leadership of “Rabbis for Obama” is remaining true to this inclusive vision.
Just happened to glance at a blog post I wrote during the 2008 Presidential General Election campaign entitled “Go Rabbis for Obama!”
Man, what a difference four years makes. I think I can safely say it will be impossible for me to summon the kind of excitement I expressed in that giddy blog post just four short years ago.
Actually, if truth be told, it was just one year into his presidency when I concluded that Obama, from a foreign policy point of view at least, was essentially Bush 2.0. Now as his first term comes to a close, I’m daring to consider the possibility that he might actually be worse.
I’ve already written a fair amount about my disillusionment on this score – most pointedly in my Yom Kippur serrmon from earlier this year:
For some Americans the most salient lesson of 9/11 was that the world is a dangerous place and we must use military power to mitigate the danger. I include myself among those who learned a very different lesson: 9/11 taught us that when we intervene militarily abroad, we beget blowback here at home.
Many of us had hope that Obama truly believed this as well – that he would turn back the Bush doctrine and steer our nation’s foreign policy toward a saner course. But as it has turned out, the very opposite has happened. He has embroiled us in even more Mideast wars and has deployed even larger numbers of special operations forces to that region. He has also transferred or brokered the sale of substantial quantities of weapons to these countries and has continued to build and expand US military bases at an ever-increasing rate.
He also promised to prosecute the so-called “War on Terror” with greater attention to civil liberties, but that hope has been fairly dashed as well. During his campaign, note what he had to say about this subject:
“As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”
Well, it’s over two years later and Guantanamo is still open. This past March, the Obama administration announced it would be resuming military tribunals there. And just last week, we learned that our President did something truly unprecedented – our President actually approved the extra-judicial assassination of an American citizen in Yemen.
And it’s gotten even worse since then. More recently, we’ve learned that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Obama has been personally been maintaining a drone “kill list” which, according to the NY Times:
counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. (Emphasis mine).
Even more recently, the NY Times has revealed that President Obama has been secretly overseeing a massive cyber-war initiative against Iran (known as “Olympic Games”) that, among other things, almost assuredly represents the official kickoff to a global cyber-weapons race. As the article correctly concludes, the blowback to our nation from Obama’s cyber-adventures could potentially be devastating:
(No) country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.
But my disillusionment in the Obama administration is most profound when it comes to its handling Israeli-Palestinian peace process. I’ve written about this issue over and over as well – but if you still need more convincing that this administration has utterly caved to the Israel lobby and has abdicated any semblance of “honest broker” status in this process, it was recently reported that Obama unabashedly assured a group of Jewish orthodox leaders that his administration is “decidedly more attentive to Israel than it is to the Palestinians.”
All this to say that I’m in a very different frame of mind as Obama now runs for reelection. The giddiness has been replaced with a dose of hard, cold realism about the role of the President in the 21st century national security regime:
Again, from my Yom Kippur sermon:
I’m focusing these observations exclusively on our Commander-in-Chief, but of course I realize that this issue is much, much larger than just one man. I know it’s natural to look to our primarily to our President, but in truth what we call “Washington” is really a massive bureaucracy that includes a myriad of interests. It’s a far reaching power elite that includes not only the federal government but the national security state, as well as the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. It also includes big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors, major corporations and any number of lawyers, lobbyists former officials, and retired military officers, all of whom hold enormous influence over our foreign policy.
So as we swing into summer and we listen to Obama and Romney trade salvos over foreign policy, don’t be fooled – at the end of the day there is less than an inch of daylight between the two. Mideast analyst Aaron David Miller, in a Foreign Policy post entitled “Barack O’Romney” only half jokingly suggested that if reelected, Obama ought to consider making Mitt Romney his new Secretary of State. Another respected analyst, MJ Rosenberg, has gone as far as to suggest that President Obama would actually be more likely to bomb Iran than a President Romney.
What should we do with all this hard political realism? As for me, I’m taking my cue from the classical Jewish text, Pirke Avot:
Love work. Hate authority. Don’t get too friendly with the government. (1:10)
And for good measure:
Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress. (2:3)
The events of these last four years have provided a painful education for me. I’ve learned more than ever that it is not politicians who create socio-political change – it is, rather, the people and the movements who make it impossible for them not to.
Yes, there are some important domestic issues at stake in this election (not least of which are potential Supreme Court appointments) but let’s not be fooled into thinking that the future of US foreign policy fundamentally depends on who we choose to be our Commander in Chief.
The real difference will depend on our readiness to hold him accountable once the election is over.