On the National State: Part 3: Character (Yoram Hazony, Winter 2003, Azure)
The preceding sections of this essay explored two aspects of the ideal of Jewish guardianship, which is the purpose of the Jewish state-the first, according to which Israel offers diplomatic and military assistance to Jews everywhere in times of need; and the second, which sees in Israel a natural shelter under which a unique Jewish way of understanding and living may be brought into being. In the last part of this essay, I will examine a final aspect of Jewish guardianship: The aim of raising up Jewish men and women of a character sufficient to these ends. As the early Zionists were sharply aware, the idea of a Jewish state cannot be divorced from the question of individual character, both because character is a precondition for maintaining political and cultural independence over time, and because this quality of personality is more readily cultivated under conditions of national sovereignty. In the discussion that follows, I will argue that these claims are, if anything, even more relevant today than when they were first made a century ago.
Character is not a subject much discussed these days, and this is no surprise. The more one is preoccupied with equality as an ultimate political end-and such a preoccupation is no less visible in the Jewish state in our time than in any other Western society-the more difficult it becomes to admit of the existence of qualities such as honor, virtue, or character, which are usually recognized from the fact that some individuals possess them in a greater degree than others. In other words, these are qualities that are distributed unequally in any given population, so that in praising or otherwise seeking to encourage them, one becomes vulnerable to the accusation of harboring illicit republican or even aristocratic sympathies. And if it is in a Jewish context that one insists on raising such issues, the discussion is all the more difficult. For by now, any discussion of Jewish character is immediately said to recall all the old talk of the “new Jew” who was supposed to spring into being in Israel, and especially the calls of Brenner and others to reject the inheritance of our fathers who lived in the diaspora. At times the mere mention of the need to develop a more resilient character is enough to provoke accusations of “negation of the diaspora,” or even of anti-Semitism.
Such hesitations may be justifiable, but they have also had an increasingly baneful effect on our public discourse. Because of them the Jews have become a people expert at juggling abstractions such as “justice” and “rights” and “independence,” while avoiding any treatment of the concrete qualities that may be required for such political ends to be possible in practice. All these high ideals are presumed to be obtainable out of thin air, or else because we sincerely want them and frequently express ourselves to this effect. The possibility that our society may not be comprised of the kind of individuals who are capable of securing these things, and that some change in ourselves may be required if we are to attain and keep them, is seldom mentioned.
To my mind this reticence is ill-considered. We live in difficult times. And while there are things that are not in our hands, it may also be that if we are dissatisfied with conditions in the Jewish state we have built, it is because the materials with which we have been building are not what they might be. If so, a fundamental improvement will not be possible until we ask if we are the kind of men we need to be, given the tasks ahead of us. In this I do not propose that we necessarily adopt the severity of Rousseau writing of the French, Dostoyevsky of the Russians, Nietzsche of the Germans. But we must be able to point to our failings, not only with regard to this or that person, but also with regard to our people more generally. We Jews excel in pillorying every individual who takes the reins of power among us. But we are impatient when it comes to making an accounting of our collective faults. These are habits of mind that are not only imprudent but also dangerous when one lives under a democratic form of government, in which the qualities of thepublic, as much as those of any elected leader, may well determine the course of events. For these reasons it seems desirable that we revisit a question that was of such great concern to the founders of our state. […]
Every human association, if it is to persist and attain its purposes in the face of adversity, depends on individuals capable of maintaining their commitments under duress. In this sense, the association is like any other instrument. Like a hammer or a chain, it becomes worthless the moment any part of it begins to deform under the strain of events. Thus the family can no longer serve its purpose of sheltering and educating children once disputes between the parents break into the open; a business enterprise cannot survive if the partner entrusted with the books alters them out of consideration for his own financial needs; a military formation collapses once the soldiers begin to suspect that each of them cares only for his own survival. For this reason every human association, if it does not perish, eventually begins to become conscious of the need for character, and to develop methods of inculcating it in its members.
But of all forms of human association, it is the nation and the state that have the greatest need for individuals of character. Nowhere else is there a demand for individuals of character in such great numbers; nowhere else is there so consistently the need for these individuals to be able to endure every kind of physical and psychological violence without significant distortion in their original commitments. In its diplomacy, in its military and police actions, and in the operations of its organs of law and taxation, the state achieves its purposes under duress; and on each of these fronts and others, it can succeed only to the degree that it operates through persons who can maintain their bearing and commitments under the most trying circumstances. An official assigned to enforce the laws, or an officer in command of soldiers, or a statesman enduring the displeasure of foreign contacts built over long years-all stand under excruciating pressure to relent in their pursuit of state policy, acceding instead to a course that is, for them personally, more comfortable or more profitable. Unless they are of strong character, the official will soon begin to shape the laws so as best to suit his political or financial interests; the officer will seek to preserve his own life and that of his men at the expense of the nation’s ability to wage war; and the statesman will quietly give away his country’s independence in exchange for the applause of foreign dignitaries. In each case, to hold firm is to maintain the integrity of the state, while every failure of character brings the state that much closer to dissolution.10
This, then, is the challenge that the national state lays down before a people that wishes for independence: Produce ten thousand men of superb character for your cause, not once but in every generation. This alone can secure your independence. This alone can sustain it.
Now this is a formidable challenge even for the greatest of nations. It is not obvious that diplomacy or war, or any of the hardships commonly associated with statecraft, poses a greater difficulty than does this fundamental educational challenge. Indeed, this may well be the central political problem of the state: How can character be made to appear with such frequency in a citizenry, one generation after the next?
What Mr. Hazony says of Israel is no less true of America. But just as the Israelis prefer not to look within when they perceive the shortcomings of the state of their state, so too in America we’d prefer to blame others.
For instance, we understand that multi-culturalism and political correctness and the like are afflicting our society in general but our schools in particular. Do we blame ourselves for allowing intellectual elites to inflict this damage while we slept the slumber of the affluent? No, we seek instead to ban the folk of other cultures, thinking if only we can get rid of the easily identified other we’ll purify the culture. Not only would we be destroying an important facet of our own national character in doing so–the universalist beliefs stated in the Declaration–but we’d be sidetracking ourselves from the much harder task of repairing the damage the multiculturalists have already done. The solution to our sense that the unity and coherence of the American citizenry is in decline is not less but better citizens.
Israel, on the other hand, needs many more, and better, citizens.
-ESSAY: On the National State, Part 1: Empire and Anarchy: In defense of the beleaguered idea of the sovereignty of nations. (Yoram Hazony, Azure)
-ESSAY: On the National State,
Part 2: The Guardian of the Jews: A national home is more than a place of refuge. (Yoram Hazony, Azure)
-ESSAY: Did Herzl Want a “Jewish” State?: Even after Herzl’s deconstruction, the answer is still yes. (Yoram Hazony, Spring 2000, Azure)
-ESSAY: The Jewish Origins of the Western Disobedience Tradition: Civil disobedience did not, as we are taught, begin with Socrates and Antigone, but with a Hebrew Bible that rejected the supremacy of human law. (Yoram Hazony, Summer 1998, Azure)
-ESSAY: ‘The Jewish State’ at 100: Does anyone remember the ideas that founded the Jewish state?
(Yoram Hazony, Spring 1997, Azure)
-ESSAY: The End of Zionism?: The ideology that built the State of Israel has given way to a Post-Zionism that sanctifies Jewish disempowerment. (Yoram Hazony, Summer 1996, Azure)
-PROFILE: Yoram Hazony and Zionism (David N. Myers, June 2, 2000, JEWISH JOURNAL OF GREATER L.A.)
-PROFILE: THINK AGAIN: A Textbook Example of How Not to Eat Crow (Jonathan Rosenblum, April, 25 2001, The Jerusalem Post)
-ARCHIVES: “Yoram Hazony” (Find Articles)
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