Posted on March 18, 2019

Two Cheers for Israel

Scott McConnell, American Conservative, March 15, 2019


But there is an even more important reason to give two cheers for Israel and to think of it, despite its excesses, as exemplary: Israel is nationalist. It desperately does not want to die. Its leaders are fierce in their concern for their own people. It is not wallowing in guilt. It is not in the least bit tempted to go in for population replacement. All nationalisms can be belligerent and excessive, needlessly violent, unwilling to consider the legitimate concerns of other peoples, and under its current leadership, Israel at least borders on many of these failings. {snip}

The late Tony Judt, a distinguished historian, published an important and controversial essay in 2003 in which he argued that Israel was built upon an outdated idea. Not only was the peace process dead (killed, as he correctly put, it by the Israeli Right) but the type of state that it was, a nation state privileging a certain ethnic group, was outdated in today’s world. Judt’s key paragraph reads:

[Israel] has imported a characteristically late 19th century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state” — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges and which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded, is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.


But it’s worth revisiting this critical paragraph. In what sense can we now be optimistic about the world that’s “moved on” to “open frontiers” and “international law” — the world that Israel has rejected? Since Judt wrote these words, there has been a surge of Islamist terrorism in Europe, such that banal activities like a festive Christmas market must now take place surrounded by concrete anti-vehicle barriers and under the watch of armed guards. In France especially, the middle- and working-class Jewish community in the near Paris suburbs has been more or less driven from schools and public spaces, due to hate crimes perpetrated by recent immigrants and their offspring. Increasingly large neighborhoods in major European cities have been become zones of effective dual sovereignty, where officials have little sway over the culture and practices of the Muslim residents. At the same time, a surge of Africans into Europe, redolent of the dystopian novel Camp of the Saints, intensifies unabated. A great part of Europe’s elite, heavily influenced by the discourse of “international law,” cannot even find a vocabulary to argue why this wave, which if continued will bring about the end of Europe as a cultural entity, should be resisted. Meanwhile native European birthrates, for a variety of reasons, have plummeted to far below replacement levels in some countries.

If all these trends were visible in embryonic form when Judt wrote, their full implications were less so. Some of the verdict is now in — and a strong case can be made that Israel was more right than wrong in rejecting such a future.

Israel has resisted this brave new world of international law and open frontiers in many ways. In 2013, faced with a surge of migrants from Sudan, it built a fence across the Sinai, stopping the flow immediately. Five years later, it toyed with the idea of giving some 50,000 African migrant asylum seekers a choice between jail or a lump sum payment and a plane ticket to an undisclosed African country. The measure was held up in the courts, but remains popular. In any case, Israel has made itself the most resistant to the asylum/refugee claimant industry. In 2017, of its 54,600 requests for asylum, Israel granted 33. In contrast, Europe granted refugee status to 90 percent of asylum seekers. Which model, one might ask, is more likely to bequeath an acceptably self-governing nation to one’s children and grandchildren?

While the West can learn something from Israel about building fences and discouraging bogus asylum claims, perhaps Israel’s greatest achievement has been its birthrate. Contrary to the trend throughout the West, fertility in Israel is rising. Many, even some demographers, thought that this was due to high birthrates among ultra Orthodox Jews, but recent research shows this is not the case. The greatest rise in Israeli fertility is among traditionally observant and even secular Jewish women — which, contrary to the pattern seen in every other advanced nation, lies at or above the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. Israeli women participate in the workforce in as high percentages as in any other OECD country, so this can’t be explained by some sort of enforced kitchen-children-church dogmatization.

{snip} Yet whatever combination of national spirit, child-friendly culture, natalist policies, and a social welfare net are at work, this is something the West needs to learn from and seek to emulate if it wishes to survive.

The queasy dread Western voters are exhibiting over high rates of immigration and multiculturalism is now beginning to be reflected in shifting alignments among conservative intellectuals. Yoram Hazony, a right-wing Israeli educated at Princeton and president of the Herzl institute, recently published an important book called The Virtue of Nationalism that resurrected arguments of classical political theory, positing that individual rights are better protected in nation states than in multinational empires. Hazony’s book has won high praise from across the American Right, in a kind of dual embrace by both neoconservatives and paleoconservatives that has not occurred in recent memory.