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‘A Normal Country’

When I lived in Israel in the 1990s, reformers of various kinds were always saying that whatever outrage they were protesting “wouldn’t happen in a normal country,” by which they seem to have meant an idealized image of America. I wonder what they’re saying now, when the far right that used to be ostracized in Israel stands to make big gains in the November 1 elections, while America’s far right now constitutes four in ten American voters.

For Israel, this complex about being or not being “a normal country” has deep roots in the Zionist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which sought to turn Jews from a persecuted and powerless people into a “normal” people with its own nation-state. The nation-state they attained; the normality eluded them. But what, after all, is “a normal country” in the twenty-first century?

Zionism was an outgrowth of nineteenth-century European nationalisms, which systematically excluded Jews by definition from the volk, no matter that Jews had lived in Europe long before modern nations or even languages came into existence. All right then, we’ll establish our own country, Zionist Jews reasoned. Their movement mirrored European nationalist movements in many respects, including the built-in contradiction of being liberalizing and yet exclusionary. Yet Europeans never accepted Zionism or the state of Israel it produced as members of the club, except for a brief period when they were motivated by guilt over the Holocaust, between the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967. These days, it is common for Europeans to scapegoat Israel and Jews for everything they hate in their own societies, such as a history of colonialism; but that is nothing new in the history of Jew hatred. What is new is the global context in which this deadly and ancient form of prejudice now operates. We are living in a bewildering era of internationalist nationalism and parochial universalism, as not-so-neo-fascists from traditionally hostile countries like France and Germany cheer each other on, while the would-be saviors of our common humanity often can’t see out of their own ivory towers or past the “COEXIST” bumper stickers on their electric cars. Dangers crowd in on every side, and we cannot even seem to call things by their right names.

If we would resist the terrifying return of aggressive nationalism and the persecution of minorities that comes with it, the very last thing we need is for Jew hatred to infect the resistance. Aggressive nationalism is best countered by the defensive nationalism that is true patriotism; and no peaceful patriot seeks to disestablish other nations, still less to order national (or “ethnic”) minorities to “go back where you came from.” We will know that we are winning when so-called antisemitism, whether of the “left” or the “right” variety, begins to fade once more.

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