Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Europe, Israel and the Nation-State

In what is becoming a standard trope for Israeli leftists, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit today decries the “savagery” of Israel’s “rising political forces,” who are “alien to the new West’s values.” To which my response is, “thank God”–because the “new West’s values” are antithetical to the very existence of a Jewish state. And if that sounds far-fetched, just consider European Commission President Manuel Barroso’s speech last week when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on the European Union’s behalf.

Quoting the commission’s first president, Walter Hallstein, Barroso declared that 20th-century history showed “The system of sovereign nation-states has failed,” because “through two world wars it has proved itself unable to preserve peace.” Therefore, Barroso said, “nations needed to think beyond the nation-state” and create “supranational institutions.” Later, he reiterated this point by quoting one of the EU’s founding fathers, Jean Monnet: “The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present,” Monnet said, and even the EU itself “is only a stage on the way to the organized world of the future.”

Nor is Barroso alone. Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland echoed this idea in his presentation speech. “After the two world wars in the last century, the world had to turn away from nationalism,” he declared. And though Europe is currently experiencing a crisis, “the solution now as then is not for the countries to act on their own at the expense of others.”

Barroso and Jagland obviously don’t speak for every European, but they do represent the dominant worldview of the European elite. And a worldview that believes “The system of sovereign nation-states has failed” clearly has no use for a country that defiantly proclaims itself a Jewish nation-state and insists on pursuing vital interests–like protecting its citizens from rocket fire–even “at the expense of” the Palestinians who are launching the rockets. Nor, incidentally, does this worldview have much use for an America that similarly insists on preserving its sovereignty and refuses to sacrifices its interests to the global collective’s whims. The Barroso-Jagland worldview thus goes a long way toward explaining European hostility to both Israel and America.

Nor does the growing popularity of European separatist movements contradict this worldview. Even in Scotland and Catalonia, where pro-independence parties recently won clear majorities, most voters’ support for “independence” is conditional on their new country receiving automatic EU membership. In other words, they want “independence” only on condition that they not actually have to exist for even a day as a fully independent country. The unavoidable conclusion is that even among ordinary Europeans, this worldview remains alive and well.

Hence for the foreseeable future, understanding it will remain vital for understanding Europe. To that end, I recommend two important essays published by Yoram Hazony in 2010. The first, drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, explains the paradigm shift that created this worldview and its implications for Israel. The second uses Immanuel Kant’s philosophy to explain why this view doesn’t contradict Europe’s ardent support for, say, a Palestinian nation-state (here’s the two-sentence, vastly dumbed-down version: European post-nationalists view the nation-state as a stage primitive peoples must go through en route to enlightened supra-nationalism, so for tribal Arab societies, becoming nation-states would be a step forward. But it’s unconscionable for Israel, having achieved this stage, to want to stay there instead of moving on to the next).

The bottom line, however, is clear: Israel’s survival as a Jewish state depends on its very willingness to reject “the new West’s values.” And European antipathy is the unavoidable price it will have to pay for that choice.