The decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union—announced as the EU edges ever closer to disintegration—is a clear attempt to breathe new life into a deeply challenged alliance. In Israel, as in much of the West, the decision has been portrayed as virtually comical, the latest in a series of Peace Prizes to recipients who simply did not merit the honor.
But the Nobel Committee’s decision is no mere foolishness—it reflects a worldview that is largely responsible for Israel’s marginalization in the international community. And as long as Israeli leaders fail to understand that what divides Israel and the EU is much deeper than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel will continue failing to make its case in the international community.
The Nobel Committee noted that “the dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe.” Who understood that better than the Jews, millions of whom had been exterminated in Germany and Poland with little response from the rest of the world? But as they staggered out of what remained of postwar Europe, the Jews drew conclusions about their future that immediately put them at odds with Europe’s forward-thinkers. European intellectuals decided that the nation-state was a model that needed to be relegated to the ash-heap of history; the Jews, in contrast, decided that the only thing that would avert their continual victimization was creating a nation-state of their own.
Thus, the Jewish state, without question the world’s highest-profile example of the ethnic nation-state, emerged onto the international stage just as Europe had decided that the model had run its course. That is why historian Tony Judt called Israel “an anachronism,” urging that it be dismantled. Widespread European disdain for Israel, while certainly fueled by both the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Muslim immigration to Europe, was thus all but inevitable. Yes, Israel affords civil rights and freedom of worship to its many minorities; but it makes no attempt to deny that there is one specific people, one particular narrative, one religion to which is it most centrally committed. The State of Israel is, to paraphrase Lincoln, “by the Jews, of the Jews and for the Jews.” How could those who labored to create the European Union not consider the very idea of a Jewish state anathema?
The Jewish state is much more than a Jewish refuge created in response to the horrors of 20th-century Europe. It is a country built on a conception of human flourishing utterly at odds with that at the heart of the EU. Perhaps no one has put it better than George Eliot, who wrote in Daniel Deronda, “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge . . . a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection.”
The sounds and accents that haunt each of us, the narratives that shape our dreams and our fears, are not universal. They are the ultimate particular allegiances and the most deeply held convictions that make us human. A family that has lived in Bavaria for centuries has different traditions, memories, and very different conceptions of loyalty, honor and love, from a family that has deep roots in Tuscany. They will raise their children differently, and urge them to read different books. They will worship in different ways, and they will be willing to die for different causes.
When John Stuart Mill wrote that “the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of nationalities,” he was essentially making the same claim that George Eliot did. And both were expressing the fundamental insight that is at the heart of Zionism.
Yes, a new Europe was needed after World War II. But was the transcendence of human difference really the solution? Was the problem the nation-state, or the absence of democracy? Thirty years ago, in two articles still considered classics, Michael Doyle noted that with almost no exceptions, liberal democracies do not go to war with each other.
The European Union represents a vision of the future in which peace is achieved by diminishing the importance we attach to our uniqueness and our differences. The Jewish State is predicated on the belief that it is human difference that makes humanity majestic, and that it is our specificity which gives us reason to live, to defend ourselves and to educate future generations.
The recent Nobel Prize decision ought to be a reminder to Israeli leaders of the huge chasm that separates the Jewish State from the EU. Zionism, Israel’s leaders must begin to insist, should not be seen as the last gasp of a discredited worldview, but rather, as a millennia-old claim that human difference is noble and that the preservation of ethnic distinctiveness is a deep-seated and natural human aspiration.
Israel is unlikely to change many European minds, but such a claim would at least free Israel from its current hopelessly defensive posture, and would engage the Western world in a principled conversation that would enrich Europe no less than it would serve the Jewish State.