Israel Must Choose Between Enlightenment and Romanticism

Israel's right wing, to an ever growing extent, tends toward the position that Israel should not approve the language of individual human rights accepted today in international politics.

Political discourse in Israel is governed by the presumption that Israel needs to decide whether it will be a Western state or a Jewish state. Ostensibly the question is: should Israel be more Jewish or more democratic? And the subtext is that this a choice between a state governed by the language of individual human rights, or by a specifically Jewish language.

This assumption is false. Israel is not about to choose between being Jewish or being democratic but rather which of two European traditions to embrace: that of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on universal individual rights and division of powers, or that of political romanticism with its emphasis on the connection between an entity called 'the nation' and land.

Israel's right wing, to an ever growing extent, tends toward the position that Israel should not approve the language of individual human rights accepted today in international politics, but that it should insist on its right to be a purely ethnic state.

It keeps pressing the point that Jews have an inalienable right to certain parcels of territory, particularly those that are mentioned in the Bible, most of which are in Judea and Samaria, and that a Jewish national home cannot be at the same time a home for individuals of a different ethnic background.

The Israeli right today is blissfully unaware (or perhaps, more disturbingly, chooses to ignore ) that in fact it adopts the language of romantic nationalism that swept Europe in the 19th and the early 20th century. Germans, Russians and Serbs used precisely the same language to claim that they had some right that goes deeper than mere political sovereignty which transcends any claims of an international order.

There is nothing "Jewish" about political romanticism - if anything Jews were among its most prominent victims.

After two terrible wars in the first half of the 20th century, Europe came to realize the destructive power of romantic political language. It realized the devastating consequences that understanding sovereignty as the idealized expression of an ethnic group's connection to its land creates. Instead Europe has chosen to make the effort to define sovereignty in purely legal terms. It realized that the only viable alternative is to think about the state as a legal entity that accords all those who are citizens the same rights, no matter their ethnic provenance.

This is why the free world took very unkindly to Serbia's claims that Kosovo had been Serbian in times long gone, and that the time had come to redress the injustice done to Serbs in the Battle of Kosovo in 1983, and that Serbia had to reclaim its ancestral homeland.

This seems to raise the question: Isn't the right of the Jews to their ancestral homeland the foundation of Zionism, and the only justification Jews have for their own state? Is this not the very reason the Israeli right adopts political romanticism, the belief that that there lies some deep connection between land, peoplehood and sovereignty? Otherwise, the argument runs, we have no right to be here.

This is a completely wrong idea. One of the greatest achievements of classical Zionist diplomacy was the recognition accorded by the UN to the creation of Israel in 1947. The UN and indeed the international community realized that Jews have a need and a right for a state which they call their homeland, and in which they can fulfill their need for national self-determination. It did not do so on the ground that Jews had lived in historical Palestine two millennia earlier but looked to the needs and rights of the Jewish people today. Israel is an internationally recognized state, not on the basis of ancient history, but due to the recognition it enjoys as part of the international legal and political order.

The right's reaction to this is "Don't you see that the world is delegitimizing Israel's existence? Don't you understand that we cannot rely on the legitimacy of the international order if Israel is to survive? Only our insistence that Israel is an ethnically Jewish state can provide justification for Israel."

Wrong again. The reason Israel is so isolated today is not that the world doesn't recognize Israel's legitimacy. It is that it doesn't accept Israel's breaking international law; its continuing occupation of Palestinians without giving them the rights that the world has come to take for granted for every individual.

The choice, therefore, is not between a state that is truly Jewish and a state that is truly democratic. It is the choice between political romanticism with its disastrous consequences and between the very legal order that enabled Jews to return as full agents to the international community.

Paradoxically, those who insist that they want Israel to be more Jewish don't realize that they are endorsing a European conception that has been left behind in the free world, and for good reason. It's adoption by the Israeli right is what threatens to turn Israel into an anachronism.

The writers are both professors at Tel Aviv University.