There is a rising tide of nationalism around the world. And that’s bad news for Jews.
Over 65 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon on “The False God of Nationalism.” He said that nationalism was a “new religion,” and that it was causing people to turn away from the eternal God of the universe. He said that the religion’s preachers included Hitler, Mussolini, and McCarthy, preachers with great homiletic skill drawing astronomical numbers of converts. In that sermon, King said,
We live in an age when it is almost heresy to affirm the brotherhood of man. And so the new god marches on.
Yet, we all know of the great tragedies that have resulted from the worship of this false god of nationalism. More than anything else nationalism makes for war. And so long as this dogma obtains, men and nations will be plunged into the meshes of war. War, that dread force that leaves men physically handicapped and psychologically upset. War, that leaves our nations with orphans and widows. War, that piles our national debts higher than mountains of gold. War, that causes our moral standards to disintegrate. Such is the tragic consequence of nationalism.
Nationalism is identifying with your nation so strongly that you put the interests of your nation in such a supreme position that it excludes other nations.
Nation is not the same as country. A nation is a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture. The key point is a common culture.
Hitler’s nationalism defined the nation as not just German, but heterosexual, Christian, Aryan Germans who weren’t too extreme in their politics. Hitler’s German nationalism excluded Jews who had fought for Germany in WWI, it excluded homosexuals, it excluded Communists, all of whom were deemed “outside,” “other,” no matter how many generations they had lived in Germany.
The American nationalism of Joseph McCarthy that King mentioned was focused on “Christian America.” McCarthy said,
Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time, and ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down — they are truly down.
The “Godless Communists” McCarthy pursued, of course, included many Jews.
After the horrors of World War II, the tide started to turn against nationalism. In the 1960s young people protested the Vietnam War and American efforts to force our ways on others. The Europeans created a common trade area, culminating in the formation of the European Union in 1993. With the end of the Cold War in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved, many believed it would herald a new era of better relations between nations.
The age of internationalism was incredibly successful. In the over 70 years since the end of WWII, there have been no wars between major world powers. Some historians call this period of time “the long peace,” because the major world powers used to have wars all the time. Increasing global ties, increasing global trade, greater people to people connections encouraged by ever less expensive air travel fostered a weakening of nationalism.
Young people even pictured the world as a better place if we got rid of nations entirely, as John Lennon sang about in his song “Imagine:”
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
But the benefits of internationalism were not felt equally. Some people felt threatened as others made more progress than they did. Some people became resentful when their jobs were moved offshore as part of the globalization of the economy. Some people felt their cultures were under attack There’s a lot of fear.
Fear is one of the most primordial and powerful of human emotions.
Fear that Islam was under attack led to the rise of Islamic nationalism, Al Qaeda, and the attacks on 9/11, a day when over 3,000 Americans were killed, and our lives were changed forever. Reciprocal fear, that Muslims were all terrorists, led to the rise of Islamophobia and attacks on mosques. In the United States anti-Islamic hate crimes went from 33 in 2000 to 546 in 2001.
Politicians around the world are exploiting those fears.
The UK’s Brexit is a rejection of internationalism in favor of nationalism. Brexit happened because of the fears of British workers who believe people from poorer parts of the EU are coming to Britain and taking their jobs and changing their culture.
In France, Marine Le Pen, an avowed nationalist who has called Muslim prayers in the streets an “occupation,” came in second in the 2017 presidential elections. She’s playing on the fears of white French people that the immigrants from North Africa are going to remake France in their own image.
In India, Prime Minister Marendra Modi Hindu is an adherent of Hindutva, an ideology that says India is the homeland for the Hindus; others can only live in India under the Hindus. Many Muslims are scared. A NYTimes article quotes an Indian merchant:
“I could be lynched right now and nobody would do anything about it,” said Abdul Adnan, a Muslim who sells drill bits. “My government doesn’t even consider me Indian. How can that be when my ancestors have lived here hundreds of years?”
Here in America, President Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of “America First” and “Make America Great Again,” while charging Mexican immigrants with being rapists who bring drugs and crime and telling Democratic Congresswomen that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” He’s playing on the fears of white men who feel they are losing their privileged place as minorities became a bigger percentage of the population, and as high-paying blue-collar jobs that don’t need college are becoming an endangered species.
The president is not responsible for white nationalism. It was around long before Trump ran for president. He does, however, exploit it, and the rise of white nationalism is clearly a grave danger to Jews. We have enhanced security here today because white nationalists whose vision of America has no room for Jews cold-bloodedly murdered Jews at prayer in Pittsburg and Poway.
The list goes on and on. Turkey, Hungary, Italy are also becoming more nationalistic. China has been fervently nationalistic practically since its founding, with repression of non-Han Chinese minorities including the Uighurs and the Tibetans.
And then there’s Israel. A headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz before the elections read, “Tell Us Which Minority You Hate, and We’ll Tell You Who to Vote For.” Arabs make up 20% of the population of Israel within the pre-1967 borders. They are full citizens of Israel, and they vote and have representation in the Knesset. Netanyahu’s nationalism is blatantly anti-Arab. He tried to rally his voters by warning them that “the Arabs are going to vote in droves.” Or by saying his opponents are “leftists” who’ll invite the Arabs into the government. As if that’s such a horrible thing that of course you have to do everything in your power to prevent it. Netanyahu’s strategy may have backfired – instead of inspiring his core, his greatest impact may have been on Arab voters, who were concerned about what four more years of Netanyahu would mean, so they turned out for this election in near record numbers, probably denying the Jewish right one or two seats in the Knesset.
Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of how nationalism leads to wars. But war is far from the only problem created by nationalism. The trade war between the US and China is at least partially driven by nationalism on both sides. Economists will tell you no one wins a trade war. Yes, China is losing jobs as their goods become less price competitive in the US. But US farmers are suffering and in an ironic turnabout the trade war has led some American manufacturers to set up shop in China because their goods aren’t competitive there with tariffs imposed.
Nationalism is also leading to an erosion of democratic institutions within countries. In Hungary Victor Orban has been tightening his grip on the nation’s media outlets, stifling any criticism of his ultra-nationalistic policies. In Turkey Erdogan simply arrests journalists that dare to speak up for minorities, such as Kurds.
What does Judaism have to say about nationalism? Isn’t Judaism as nationalistic a religion as they come? The chosen people and the promised land? Doesn’t seem to get much more nationalistic than that!
In Deuteronomy 14:2 Moses tells the people,
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured nation from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.
In Genesis chapter 17 God tells Abraham,
I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.
In Exodus chapter 23 we’re told God Himself will chase out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and Hitite. God tells us not to make a covenant with them and they are not to dwell in our land.
Sure sounds like the agenda of the far-right nationalists in Israel who have said we should expel the Arabs from our land.
But as you know, you can’t understand Judaism from reading only the Torah. Our tradition teaches we have two Torahs, the written Torah and the oral Torah, the Talmud, the teachings of the rabbis. And our understanding of what it means to be a Jewish nationalist has evolved, just as nowadays we worship God with prayer, not by killing animals.
The prophet Amos teaches us that yes, God “chose” us, but She also chooses other people for other things. God tells the people, through Amos:
You’re just like Ethiopians to me, you Israelites, declares the Lord. Yes, I brought Israel out of Egypt, but I also brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.
Maimonides in Mishneh Torah tells us explicitly that even in the days of Messiah, we’re not to rule over other people. He wrote:
The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Messianic era in order to have dominion over the entire world, to rule over the gentiles, to be exalted by the nations, or to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, they desired to be free to involve themselves in Torah and wisdom without any pressures or disturbances, so that they would merit the world to come.
Israel may have a central place in Judaism, and we feel powerfully connected to our ancestral home, but we’re also commanded over and over again in the Torah to be kind to the stranger. The Torah tells us 36 times that we should be kind to the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We’re told to have one law for the Jew and the stranger dwelling in our gates. We are told that we provide financial support for non-Jews as well as Jews, that we care for the sick non-Jews as well as the Jews, that we bury the dead of the non-Jews just as we bury our own dead, mipnei darchei shalom, for these are the ways of peace.
What Judaism encourages isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism. They’re not the same thing.
Patriotism is about country, not nation. A country is an entity that can contain many nations, which are cultural entities.
Nationalism in America is typically white nationalism, about the “Christian white nation” within America. But white nationalism is NOT the only kind of nationalism in America – there’s also the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam, an anti-Semitic movement that believes blacks should be given territory of their own within America. One analyst studied geographical voting patterns and found 11 nations within the country of the United States.
In Israel there are many more different nations than just Jew and Arab. Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Mizrahi Jews also have very different cultures, and those cultures have clashed in the past. Mizrahi Jews’ efforts to maintain their culture has been called “Mizrahi nationalism.”
Instead of nationalism, what we need is patriotism. Love of country with all of its many nations.
John Lennon’s Imagine is not the only alternative to ugly nationalism. You can be patriotic, and celebrate your country, without the need to put down other nations, or to put down some of your fellow citizens whose skin is a different color than yours, or who pray differently than you do, or who love differently than you do.
The prophet Isaiah teaches that in the days to come, the Lord’s House shall stand firm above the mountains, nations will gaze on it with joy. Many peoples will come to God’s holy mountain, and God will judge among the nations, and they shall beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, and they shall never again know war.
The prophet doesn’t say there won’t BE nations. He assumes they will still exist. He says the nations will live together, peaceably. And within our borders we will love our neighbor and love the stranger.
The Torah calls for 70 bulls to be sacrificed during the 7 days of the festival of Sukkot, coming up later this month. The rabbis teach us that those 70 bulls correspond to the 70 nations of the world. We offer sacrifices on behalf of the other nations, that they too should enjoy peace and prosperity. Our happiness, our contentment, does not need to come at the expense of anyone else.
Nationalism sees the world as a zero-sum game. Winners and losers. Every additional dollar you make takes a dollar away from me, and you can’t have it. Every right you have is a right taken away from me, and you can’t have it.
The global economy is not pie, where if I eat more someone else eats less. Global trade makes the pie bigger for everyone.
Human rights are not pie, where if you have rights it takes rights away from me.
In the long run, nationalism doesn’t even work out best for your own interests. It’s short-sighted. Some British citizens may see a short-term benefit from Brexit, but in the long run they’ll be worse off as growth slows and lack of job creation becomes a bigger issue than competition for existing jobs.
Jews can love both Israel AND America. We can sing Hatikvah and the Star-Spangled Banner because we know to love one does not mean you have to put down the other. And the same is true for every nation in the world.
As Franklin Roosevelt said in 1943,
The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.
Any nationalism that divides us, that says my people, whether that people is whites, blacks, Jews, Arabs, Hungarians, Turks, Kurds, whatever, is superior to other people and deserve to rule over other people, that kind of nationalism leads us down a dark path toward war and hate.
As Dwight Eisenhower said,
This world of ours… must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
We are all interconnected. There are many global problems – climate change, loss of biodiversity, demographic challenges with some parts of the world having an excess of old people and others an excess of children, the threat of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists, increasing automation and income inequality, and more.
If everyone is looking out for their own self-interest, we will all suffer, even if we don’t go to war. The Talmud brings a story of a man on a wooden boat who starts drilling a hole under his seat. People yell at him, “what are you doing?” He says, “what does it matter to you, it’s under my seat, not yours?”
We’re all on this boat called planet Earth together. Those who would divide us – wherever in the world they live – cause harm to all of us.
Let us be patriotic Jews, celebrating America, celebrating Israel, celebrating Judaism, while living up to the ideals of the Torah, the ideal of a world with many nations that live together in peace and harmony, a world where we appreciate diversity abroad and at home.
Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe, Harachaman, Compassionate One, help us to remember that we are all created in your divine image, grant our leaders wisdom and compassion that they may help our nation live up to its highest ideals, that the countries nearest and dearest to us, America and Israel, may both be beacons of peace and light and hope in a world increasingly torn by hate and bigotry. Help us to live up to our ideals, to be able to disagree with respect. Help us create a world where each nation can celebrate its uniqueness without needing to disparage others, whether within or without,