Leon Wieseltier has fallen victim to the Harvey Weinstein storm. He has lost funding for his new magazine venture, and he lost his position as a senior editor at The Atlantic. Thanks to a one minute vignette for T-Magazine with Chelsea Handler, back in April 2016, we get a pretty good sense of Wieseltier’s brand of inappropriate sexual-at-work-play. No matter how we view Wieseltier’s alleged sexual transgressions in the workplace, or that T-Magazine vignette, these are not all the sins Wieseltier has to answer for.
Back in August, 2017, Richard Spencer, the White Nationalist who lead the march in Charlottesville, gave an interview to Israel’s Channel 2 trying to justify what he is about. “As an Israeli citizen,” Spencer told his Israeli interviewer, “someone who understands your identity, who has a sense of nationhood and peoplehood and the history and experience of the Jewish people, you should respect someone like me who has analogous feelings about whites. I mean, you could say that I am a white Zionist in the sense that I care about my people. I want us to have a secure homeland that’s for us and ourselves just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”
Spencer has been making the analogy for some time now. E.g. at the University of Texas A & M on December 6, 2016, where he flummoxed Rabbi Matt Rosenberg.
The comparison hits a nerve with American Jews, as it should. “It’s an analogy with superficial plausibility. It’s also a malicious lie, and a deliberate one,” said Yair Rosenberg in a Tablet article. But Rosenberg fails to meet Spencer’s challenge head-on. Jane Eisner, the editor-in-chief of the Forward, also took exception. She did no better: “Like the anti-Semitism at its core, this ugly syllogism will not die,” said Eisner. Ditto for Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
So I listened with some interest when I stumbled on a Park Avenue Synagogue Lecture Series interview with Leon Wieseltier (from November 8, 2011) wherein he outlined his fundamental justification for Israel as a Jewish state. Wieseltier, the literary editor for The New Republic from 1983-2014, now at Brookings, is always interesting and worth listening to. He made his comments five years before Richard Spencer provoked Jews with his syllogism, but he made Spencer’s argument for him.
Everybody knows the latest talking points for defending Israel, lamented Wieseltier back in 2011, but no one knows anymore how to defend Israel as a Jewish state from basic principles. In the video–starting at 12:40–he proceeds to lay out those basic principles from his point of view. It could be Richard Spencer talking:
- There is a people, the Jewish people;
- The Jewish people are one of the primary people in the history of the world;
- The Jewish people, like all autonomous people, have a unique history;
- In the modern period (i.e. 17th century onwards) “peoples” began to be redefined as nations;
- If you are a nation (i.e. people) you should have a state;
- In order to create a nation state, a national movement has to be created;
- Zionism was the national movement for the Jewish people;
- Jews have a state like other nations (i.e. peoples) have a state;
- The idea was that cultural boundaries would coincide–they don’t–and this creates a problem of minorities. Nation states always contain some people of “other nations;” and Israel has a problem of minorities no different from any other people.
That is, in fact, exactly what Richard Spencer says about the United States. Christian Northern White Europeans are a people, they founded America, and its their nation state. We in the U.S. have a pesky problem of minorities–but nothing that can’t be managed by excluding Muslims and people of color from the country, favoring Christianity (“saying Merry Christmas again,” as Trump puts it), and perhaps shipping Jews off to their nation state–Israel.
But note the sleight of hand in Wieseltier’s argument at points 4-8. He is correct in suggesting that the modern nation state emerged in part from the Peace of Westphalia, which settled a century of sectarian religious wars ignited by the Reformation. We think of the Peace of Westphalia as having established a world order of independent sovereign states. The Peace of Westphalia set forth a norm against interference by states in the internal affairs of other states–not that Putin is listening. Matters of religion, political rights, etc. would be left to each sovereign, who would rule over an area with fixed borders. All this is correct, . . . but this new order did not equate the nation state with “the people making up its majority population.”
Our idea of a modern nation state has come to include other Enlightenment ideas. The Enlightenment, cemented by the American Revolution and the French Revolution, gave us the notion of universal human rights. Napoleon emancipated the Jews and made them equal citizens of the state. France became a nation of its citizens–not the nation of its white Roman Catholic subset, as Wieseltier suggests. The American Revolution declared “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” America became a country of its citizens–and after the Civil War of 1861-65 this included everybody. America is not the nation state of its majority white Christian Europeans, as Richard Spencer would have it.
From the Magna Carta to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, to the American and French revolutions, and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a lot has changed and matured in our conception of the nation state. Along the way this Enlightenment tradition jettisoned the notion that the nation state is by and for “peoples” of a particular ethnic or religious grouping. We fought World War 2 in order to defeat the pernicious notion that teutonic Aryan defined a nation state.
This nine-point Wieseltier argument for Zionism says teutonic Aryan is a nation state. The argument channels the White European Radical Right of the late 19th early 20th century: Ernst Haeckel, Oswald Spengler, Enrico Ferri, et al. His argument provides inadvertent cover for these demons of the White European radical right which are trying to make a come-back in our politics today. We must reject those demons, for America, for Israel, for the world.