Addressing the conceptual crisis in Israeli politics

Joseph Agassi Liberal Nationalism for Israel: Towards an Israeli National Identity. Gefen, Jerusalem, 1999.

This book is a passionate call for a public debate in Israel and elsewhere to resolve some fundamental and crippling disabilities in Israeli politics. It first appeared in Hebrew in 1984 and it does not appear that the message has made much progress since that time. The atmosphere of ongoing crisis tends to preclude any consideration of first principles that could clear the way to make progress with the obvious problems.

The author is a philosopher and his first step is to make a distinction between the theory of the liberal nation state that derives from the Enlightenment Movement and the chauvenistic concept of the Romantic Reaction. In the liberal theory it is the welfare of individuals that matters and the state is a kind of administrative convenience or perhaps a necessary evil that looks after some essential public services and polices non-discriminatory laws. For the romantics the state is the proud and (hopefully) triumphant expression of the spirtual, intellectual and military powers and virtues of the People, the Volk, and this view is manifest in the ethnic nationalism of modern times.

In the liberal state we are supposed to have separation of  church and state, also separation of powers, and no discrimination by the laws of the state along political, ethnic or religious lines. This principle is violated in Israel, partly because the original founders operated with a mix of liberal and romantic ideas. Hence Israel has a political identify crisis, stuck midway between theocracy and the liberal state. This is one of the vexed issues addressed in historical context by this book.

Next month I travel to Israel as the (unlikely) member of a touring party organised by the Australian Council of Christians and Jews. At the end of the tour I will spend a week in Tel Aviv with Joe Agassi and his wife. So I have to read this book before I go away, and will give out some of the arguments in installments.

Joe Agassi grew up in Israel, studied science and turned to the philosophy of science. He was Popper’s research assistant for several years in the 1950s and he has a huge record of publication across a wide range of topics from the philosophy of physics and the history of ideas to the social sciences. As a young activist he met Hillel Kook, (known in the US as Peter Bergson) who was one of the pivotal but almost forgotten figures in the independence movement.

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