Israel today is facing a growing military threat, the likes of which it hasn’t seen for years. The Syrians and Iranians, together with their proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, are becoming increasingly more bellicose in their threats to use large and accurate long-range missiles against Israel. Considering that such a threat places nearly all of Israel within missile range, it should come as no surprise that the Israeli government recently began distributing gas masks to its citizens. Moreover, the addition of a belligerent Turkey to the above axis only heightens the tension in the region.
As pressing as this external threat is, internally Israel faces a challenge of a different nature. Amongst its populace there exists a great divide in understanding and relating to the subject of Jewish nationalism. More than just a difference of opinion, this division has been particularly destabilizing for years, preventing Israel from forming a unified consensus. However, if Israel wishes to survive, especially in the dangerous neighborhood where it is situated, it is incumbent that this rift starts to be mended. A nation internally divided, constantly facing external threats, can only hold on for so long.
Unfortunately, since two seemingly irreconcilable worldviews are involved, little attempt is usually made to understand the other with attacks frequently replacing dialogue. Nonetheless, with the current external threats rapidly mounting, Israel can no longer afford to sweep the issue under the carpet. The time has come to finally deal with and overcome this problem as a precursor for building a much-needed consensus.
For those who view Jewish nationalism positively, it is seen as the continuation of the never-ending Jewish dream, the return to Zion. This strong identification with Jewish nationalism is often expressed by ardent support for Jewish settlement in all of the land of Israel. Moreover, it holds the belief that Israel needs to firmly stand its ground and not capitulate to any external pressure that they consider anti-Israel. First and foremost, Israel must do what is good for Israel regardless of what anyone, even America, might say.
Opposing this view is a group that loathes the term Jewish nationalism. For them nationalism of any type, Jewish or not Jewish, is inherently bad. One only needs to look at history, they claim, to see how much blood has been shed as a result of nationalism. Moreover, since nationalism causes one to primarily focus on what is best for one's own people and country, it usually leads to distrust or hatred of the “other”. Thus, left unchecked nationalism can conceivably turn into chauvinism or even devolve, in its extreme form, into fascism. Not surprisingly, this group seeks to downplay the solely Jewish nature of the country and rather aspires to be more “human” or "international", finding commonalities that connect Israel and its citizens to the rest of humanity.
Light unto nations
The key to overcoming the rift is the understanding that both worldviews possess aspects of truth, yet both are also lacking. Since according to Judaism settling the land and building a sovereign state in the land of Israel is a central tenet for normative Jewish living, the nationalists are clearly on the right path. However, the same Judaism also makes it clear that this nationalistic aspect of Judaism is not an end-goal in and of itself but rather a platform that will enable us to fulfill our lofty "international role" of being a light unto nations. Many in the nationalist camp unfortunately forget this "international" aspect of Judaism.
Switching over to members of the internationalist camp, based on their worldview they seem to be concerned that many in the nationalist camp might be taking Jewish nationalism in a dangerous direction. Thus they recoil for what they perceive as overly aggressive tendencies when dealing with the "other." However, by rejecting the uniquely Jewish component altogether, they are shooting themselves in the foot since the modern state of Israel has little chance of surviving in a predominately Muslim neighborhood without it retaining its uniquely Jewish nature.
Like in any sporting event where one needs to focus on the present moment while simultaneously having an eye towards the ultimate goal of winning the championship, so too here. The nationalists need to continue focusing on the immediate goal of strengthening Israeli's sovereignty and its Jewish nature but at the same time they also need to have an eye towards the long-term goal of helping to elevate the rest of humanity.
The internationalists, however, need to realize that in order to have a meaningful interaction with the rest of humanity based upon a genuine respect of the fact that they are Jewish, they first need to strengthen the uniquely Jewish aspect of the country. Otherwise they will just blend in with the rest of the world and be exploited in order to damage, and not help, Israel. Quite simply, both positive aspects of the two opposing camps need to be merged.
A proper understanding of this dual aspect of Jewish nationalism is sorely lacking from the public discourse in Israel. Not surprisingly, the internal division continues to paralyze Israel. Moreover, "standard nationalism", the type that exists throughout the world and that most people continue to mistakenly attribute to Jewish nationalism, cannot succeed in uniting or inspiring the nation. For this reason it is essential that the real meaning and goal of Jewish nationalism is quickly brought to the forefront of public knowledge.