I truly enjoyed the nationalism debate between Jonah and Rich at last week’s National Review Institute Ideas Summit. It will be the debate that spawns a dozen essays (I’d urge you to read Kevin Williamson’s piece posted weekend), but I’d like to make a short point based on an argument Rich made about the nation of Israel.
In the midst of the debate, Rich channeled Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony’s book and argued that the example of ancient Israel stands not just as an enduring example of the power of nationalism but also that God essentially ordained nationalism when he chose Abraham to be his servant, shepherded Israel through captivity, and established the laws that ordered and governed Israel.
Writing in Mosaic, Andrew Koss summarizes the argument:
Hazony’s story begins with ancient Near Eastern kings and pharaohs desirous of bringing security and prosperity not just to their own but also to surrounding lands — a vision that centuries later would be expressed in the phrase pax Romana and later still in the conduct of one empire after another. By contrast, the Hebrew Bible offers an opposing vision in which God gives His laws not to humanity as a whole but to a single nation. The Israelites are commanded to live according to these laws within their own carefully delineated borders (Numbers 34:1–15), ruled by a king “from among your brothers” (Deuteronomy 17:15). Moreover, God specifically commands them to respect the borders of the Edomites and Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2:4–24), to whom He has assigned their own lands.
I’m not sure that God’s selection of a particular, chosen people — the people who were to bring forth the Messiah from the line of David — is necessarily a precedent for a proper view of nationalism as an independent good. After all, despite Israel’s mandated respect for the Edomites and Ammonites comes after it was also directed to essentially wipe out the Canaanites. God imposed strict rules on intermarriage with people from other nations. Moreover, it was through repeated, supernatural intervention that Israel survived when competing nations and tribes are lost to the dustbin of history.
God was preserving a people, not a form of government applicable to other peoples. Abraham isn’t a model for Bismarck. To have enduring value, nationalism always has to be trumped by something else — a higher value beyond the self-interest of its people. For the nation of Israel, that something else was God’s specific purpose and calling for the Jewish people. For the United States of America, it’s the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
Indeed, the great meaning of the Civil War wasn’t that it was a nationalist triumph over secessionists (a competing nationalism movement), but rather that the the triumph represented a “new birth of freedom.” The nation could have survived merely by defeating Confederate armies and suppressing the rebellion. But the greater virtue was the transformed polity.
Yes, there are moments when nationalism is vital. Wars for national survival come to mind. But the enduring unity of a people must be based on something greater, and the value of the nation is measured by factors well beyond its mere existence. Israel stands as a symbol of the power of the virtuous purpose and divine providence, not of divine preference for national governments.