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Ahead of the Curve: Like Its Security Measures, Israel’s Nationalism Is a Model to Emulate

Israel has one glaring problem: lousy timing. Most of Israel’s apparent problems, certainly the ones its critics claim it has, emerge from Israel’s repeated inability to be synchronized with prevailing global moods. But patience has its rewards—over time, as challenges facing Israel turn out to be global rather than local, Israel’s failings appear so much less so, if at all.

Consider, as an appetizer, the minor but remarkably annoying issue of airport security. During the 1990s, when I was working on projects in Israel for a global consulting firm, senior partners of the firm would arrive in Israel for a two- to three-day stay to oversee the projects. They would invariably arrive angry. Fuming, really. “What is this crazy security you have at your airports? How dare they look in my bag? How do you ever expect to be part of the global economy if you carry on this way?” The Israelis among us would bow our heads in shame, apologize profusely and mumble something about necessity and terrorism.

Cut to 9/11. Cut to the shoe-bomber. Cut to the liquid terrorism plots. Having spent, since 2011, cumulative hundreds of hours waiting in airport security lines around the world, I can safely argue that that Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport is one of the world’s sanest. No need to take off shoes or belts. No fussing with tiny liquid bottles. Ben-Gurion has a security system that has been honed through decades of battling terrorism, yet designed to enable the existence of an open society.

Indeed, consider the battle against terrorism more broadly: For much of its existence, Israel had to face not only terrorism, but also persistent criticism that it is too heavy-handed in its dealings with terrorism, too prone to “disproportional” response. The Patriot Act and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have been sufficient to put that criticism to bed, but for me, it took having a close-up experience of terrorism abroad to better appreciate Israel’s response. Several months ago, while on an extended stay in France, I was several feet away from the largest terrorist attack ever perpetrated by a single attacker, the Bastille Day massacre in Nice. A nineteen-ton white truck rampaged through a crowd of tens of thousands, killing families for two kilometers while meeting no resistance. As people were already lying dead, families throughout the Nice Promenade were enjoying the festivities, given no warning and having no sense of the impending danger.

In response, France declared an extended state of emergency, sent its army and various security forces to the street, mixing it with a bizarre campaign to hunt down women in burkinis on its beaches. Some officials even excused the gross incompetence that enabled the massacre by wondering, “How long could a country have its guard up?” To which one response was “The State of Israel, 68 years and counting.” Indeed, witnessing the French response, I wanted nothing more than to return to Israel, and soon. I wanted to go back to a country where people knew that when a massive truck rams into a crowd, it is not a traffic accident—and the driver is shot on sight. I also wanted to live in a country that fights terrorism while enabling its Muslim minority to dress as they will.

Consider finally the question of nationalism. For years, if not decades, Israel has been subject to criticism for its supposed retrograde insistence on maintaining and fighting for a nation-state of the Jewish people. Jewish nationalism, also known as Zionism, was subject to a sustained onslaught as a singularly depraved idea. Even at its most benign, the criticism looked down on Zionism and Israel as a last vestige of a past world, where humans still cared for their nations and peoples, and were willing to sacrifice their very lives to sustain them. Quite a few critics conveyed the sense it was distasteful, bad manners really, on behalf of the pesky Jews to insist on their right to self-determination in a nation-state of their own. In a world committed to a post-national universalist vision, Israel supposedly stood out uniquely as an eyesore.

In fact, over the years, I have been asked by students of the world’s top universities, why we in Israel were still insisting on this “passé” idea of a nation-state. My response was that as much as I share their desire to live one day in a John Lennon world with no religion and no countries and all the people living as one, I do get suspicious and somewhat antsy when the Jews are asked to go first.

It turns out that not only are the world’s nations not embracing John Lennon’s vision, but quite the opposite. Whether it’s called populist nationalism, economic nationalism, or the return of the closed society, there is no doubt that this is the rising global tide. From Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, it is becoming increasingly clear that faced with globalization, immigration, and economic uncertainty, people have a greater need for a specific sense of belonging to something, whether it is a tribe, a people, or a nation. This basic need of all peoples can be expressed in a variety of forms, from the benign to the mean-spirited, but when it is ignored and even denigrated, it is more likely to manifest itself in supremacist and racist ways.

Taken against this backdrop, Israel’s Jewish nationalism emerges as reasonably balanced: providing people with a sense of specific belonging to a people and a nation, while addressing ongoing challenges of immigration, integration, and the existence of large minorities who possess, at best, ambivalent attitudes towards Jewish nationalism. Decades of dealing with these enormous challenges under the world’s magnifying glass while being subjected to scathing and often sinister criticism mean that if anything, Israel and the Jewish people are positioned to provide a model of a relatively benign form of nationalism. It is not that Israel does not exhibit distasteful expressions of nationalism; they are not cause for pride, but they can no longer be considered cause for specific shame. There is nothing in the Jewish need for a sense of tribal and national belonging that makes it inherently better or worse than that need among other peoples, tribes and nations in the world.

Ultimately, if there is anything particularly Israeli or Jewish about the state of Israel, it is that when global phenomena are addressed in Israel, it is with a bit of Jewish kvetch and Israeli improvisation. Those who criticize Israel as if there is something uniquely wrong with the Jews, Israel, and Zionism, simply miss the fact that our only real fault is lousy timing, and that it is all coming, sooner or later, to a theater near you.

Einat Wilf was chair of the Education Committee and member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the 18th Knesset, has a BA in government and fine arts from Harvard University, an MBA from INSEAD in France and a PhD in political science from the University of Cambridge. Previously, she served as a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a foreign policy advisor to then-vice prime minister Shimon Peres and a strategic consultant with McKinsey & Company. Wilf is the author of three books that explore key issues in Israeli society, including My Israel, Our Generation (BookSurge, 2007).

[Photo: zeevveez / flickr]