Yesterday I was sitting in the Piazza del Duomo in Milan, Italy. It was a warm and lively evening, as hundreds of people milled about with their beer and gelatos. Meanwhile, the dominating white edifice of the Duomo Cathedral hung over everything, its stained glass windows lit from within. My attention was distracted from it, however, by the bright rocket/helicopter toys that street vendors would launch into the night sky to attract the lustful eyes of children. Over and over the toys flew through the air like shooting stars…(or like flares announcing the start of war? I can see the soldiers leaping from their trenches into the maw of the machine guns, their blood spilling upon the soil that is undistinguishable but for the fact that it is their soil, for their nation…).
Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of race and nationhood. The mythology of the Romantics and fascists alike is powerful: that people form discreet groups or ethnicities based upon a homeland (and therefore usually also a language, history, and set of stories). Germany for the Germans, France for the French, Italy for the Italians, Israel for the Jews… The implication of this is that these people groups each have an essential, eternal, almost spiritual identity, not an artificial one created through normal processes of history.
This was very clear to me yesterday when I went to an art and history exhibit about Italy’s wars for independence (their 150th year as a nation is this year). While I couldn’t understand all of the Italian in the descriptions, what I gathered was quite patriotic. The Italians fought for their land against the French and Prussians, with a common ethnicity, language, music, and colors binding them together. By blood and force the new nation had been forged.
But after World War II, it seemed that the concept of the nation-state had been dealt a deathblow. The radical fascism of Italy and Germany had proved disastrous, so most of the world united around universal values instead of the nation-state. The Western bloc chose the values of political freedom and sought to promote those, the Eastern bloc chose economic freedom from the claws of capitalism.
But meanwhile, hidden beneath the tide of universal values that rose up in the post-war period, one anomaly entered the system. The nation of Israel was founded, a homeland for the Jews scattered around the world. Finally, after 2000 years, the Jews would no longer be a minority in other lands! The verse I’ve heard applied by Israel’s founders comes from 1 Samuel 8:5, where the Jews want to be “like all other nations” (The fact that this displeased God is ignored). However, established in its founding charter as a “Jewish, democratic state”, Israel has sacrificed some democratic values to preserve its Jewish character, for example by forbidding non-Jews from immigrating and by banning non-Jews from getting married. Thus I believe that while Israel is obviously quite democratic compared to its Arab neighbors, it is not an American-style democracy. It is a Jewish nation-state with many democratic tendencies.
This has many interesting implications besides the marriage and immigration limitations mentioned above. A one-state solution in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no longer on the table because high Arab birthrates mean that there would be too many in the “Jewish” state. This also reveals itself in a well-documented bureaucratic effort to keep Palestinians from ‘taking over’ Jerusalem. Building permits for expansions of housing or schools are usually denied to Palestinians in East Jerusalem, while almost always approved for Jews. The result is over-crowding and poverty for these families in East Jerusalem, or else being forced into the even poorer cities Ramallah or Bethlehem.
However, any Jew who questions any of Israel’s policies as unbefitting of a democratic state is labeled by many as a “self-hating Jew”. Why? Because by not supporting these policies of excluding non-Jews, they are undermining the concept of a solely Jewish state. Once that concept is gone, the theory goes, Jews will once again have nowhere to be safe and will inevitably face another Holocaust, one that will wipe them out for good. This is the basis I’ve heard over and over of all the fears of losing Israel’s solely Jewish character. So thus the ‘self-hating Jew’ is thought of in Zionist and neo-Zionist thought as an anti-Semite, therefore on the side of those who wish to complete Hitler’s Final Solution.
In fact, merely by writing this blog and other blogs that are mildly critical of one or two of Israel’s policies (such as the Security Barrier built on Palestinian land that economically crushes Palestinians), I have been personally called out for in essence being an anti-Zionist (AKA an anti-Semite). The fact that some people label would place me in the same camp as the Nazis is a bit scary and shows that no middle ground currently exists in the minds of modern-day Zionists. “Either you are with us or you are against us.” In their view, criticisms by leftist Jews or neutral people like me, intended to help Israel become an even better nation, must be completely silenced lest they serve as moral ammunition to the Hitlers who wait at the doorstep.
But perhaps, we see recently that Israel’s nationalist policies are not that deviant. Throughout the West there is now a trend towards preserving the “nation” from those “outsiders” who threaten it. In France and Germany, PMs Sarkozy and Merkel have each proclaimed that “multiculturalism has failed”. Throughout Europe, racism abounds against Muslim and African immigrants who threaten their singular national character. In France Muslim headscarves are banned, while racist parties gain power in Denmark and Switzerland. Goodbye freedom; hello nationalism.
To what extent is ultra-nationalism present in America? We see it in fears against Mexican immigrants and the need to preserve jobs for “true” Americans. That’s interesting because America is one of the few states in the world that was not founded on a singular nation of people. A mix of Europeans created a state built on the theory of freedom for all, regardless of race or religion. But perhaps America is in fact a nation like all other nations; the only difference being the rationale given for waging war. Instead of for a given “nation”, we wage war for “freedom”. Same violent results.
Is there an answer? Must every group of humans necessarily become violently exclusionary to preserve it’s own identity? How does this apply to me as a Christian? If you’ve talked to me about these types of issues within the past year or so, I think you can guess what my solutions might entail. Hint: they do not involve a Church with political power. Instead, there must be a Church that is anti-political, on the side of the excluded, the lepers, the poor, the shunned. NOT to empower the outsiders politically, as that would ultimately lead to the same problem. But we are only called to love them, free them, and be among them.
(On a side note, I am frustrated by Christians who worry constantly about the direction America is heading politically. They’re afraid of the wrong things! The soul of a single person is infinitely more important than whether America continues to have Christian bling like Ten Commandment displays, “in God we trust” coins, or “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. I hate to say it, but America is not eternal. The soul of every single person is. So unless one thinks that angrily fighting gay marriage tooth and nail will somehow lead people to God, then one is fighting the wrong battles.)
Pardon me for the tangent. The conclusion to this long essay is that there is a way to avoid the temptations of nationalism. Nationalism is beautiful, and patriotism is surely a more beautiful idol to worship than drugs, alcohol, or sex. But for that reason it’s much more deadly. Thus we must renounce the nation state and choose to live in the world but not of it. To always challenge the systems of power that dominate and exclude. To unconditionally love the rejected.
I don’t believe in the myth of the Nation State anymore. And it saddens me to see that the Jews, God’s chosen people, have chosen to go the route of all other nations instead of deciding to be different, a light to the rest of the world. “It is not you they have rejected as their king, but me,” God says to Samuel (1 Sam. 8:7). The desire for a supposedly secure homeland trumps the desire to be uniquely God’s people, showing compassion to others.
May Christians not follow into the same error, and repent if they already have.