Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
So begins the iconic song written by John Lennon in 1971. A generation later it is still sung earnestly by those who believe that the best way forward is a kind of post-national, citizen-of-the-world universalism.
With characteristic intellectual rigor and original thinking, Gordis proposes that human beings live richer and more meaningful lives in the nation-state, where the majority of its citizens share a common history, language, culture and sense of purpose. When coupled with democratic freedoms and protection of minority rights, such countries preserve both human diversity and freedom. Gordis writes:
“Human diversity will be protected most by an amalgam of countries, each of which exists for the flourishing of a particular people, culture, way of life and history and, at the same time, engages in an open and ongoing dialogue with other cultures and civilizations.”
Gordis argues persuasively that Israel has fallen out of favor precisely because it runs against the current of universalism that has taken hold. After World War II, Europe lost its taste for nationalism at the very time that having a country of their own was of paramount importance to Jews. The establishment of the Jewish national home, Israel’s deep belief in itself, and its success against all odds have served as fertile sources of resentment among those who think that the nation-state has run its course.
Recent history provides powerful support for Gordis’ arguments: the breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic states, and the formation of some fifteen ethnic-based countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union all defy the notion that the nation-state is finished. Rather than malign the plucky little Jewish state, Gordis asserts that Israel offers a compelling model which others, especially the Palestinians, should emulate.
Gordis is candid about Israel’s flaws and its obligation to fully integrate the Arab minority. “Our own sovereignty must be an opportunity to assist others in their quest, not to subvert them…Some appreciable measure of what statehood has done for the Jews must also extend to the substantial minorities who live in its midst.” Gordis is adamant that Israel’s minorities should have every opportunity to flourish.
The most moving and personal passages in the book describe the deep sense of belonging that is part of life in Israel, and that, in Gordis’ view, is unparalleled. From a casual encounter with a punk-looking, multi-pierced salesclerk at music store to the nationwide celebration upon Gilad Shalit’s release from captivity, each anecdote resonates with a sense of shared history, culture, and meaning.
Gordis is concerned about a distancing between diaspora Jews and Israel, especially among young American Jews. While frustration with the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians is a cause of this shift in attitude, Gordis suggests that something more is at work- a sense among young Jews that they simply don’t need Israel any longer. According to Gordis, nothing could be further from the truth. The ease that Jewish Americans enjoy is directly due to the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state.
“What Israel has done is to change the existential condition of Jews everywhere, even in the United States. Without the state of Israel, the self-confidence and sense of belonging that American Jews now take for granted would quickly disappear.”
That a thriving Jewish homeland has dramatically altered the condition of Jewish people is a fact that many Jews have lost sight of—or simply never realized. Gordis warns: “American Jewish life as it now exists would not survive the loss of Israel.”
Because he believes that Israel offers a model that the international community can learn from, he feels that a different kind of dialogue is now in order. “A new conversation, reframed in terms of what Israel does for Jewish flourishing and how it models a profound conception of the life well lived to humanity at large, is long overdue.” This represents a paradigm shift from traditional hasbara or exclusive focus on the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
Gordis concludes with his own version of “Imagine”, very different from Lennon’s universalist call:
“Imagine that the Palestinians have the courage to create a country in which Islam and the West, meet, in which Muslim tradition and democratic liberal values are in dialogue in the public square, just as Israel has done for Judaism and the West. Imagine a world in which Palestine does for the Palestinians what Israel has done for the Jews.”
Gordis’ beautifully written, extensively researched, and fully annotated new book, is a must-read for anyone who loves Israel and imagines a better future for everyone in the region.