The Meaning of Auschwitz image

The Meaning of Auschwitz

Yoram Hazony's new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is fascinating in all kinds of ways. His argument is that nationalism is virtuous rather than vicious, broad and inclusive rather than narrow and tribalist, and that the alternatives—anarchy on the one hand, or imperialism on the other—are far worse. His portrayal of today's bien pensant as fundamentally imperial in nature, with a universalist vision and the desire to impose a specific set of values on the rest of the world (whether through international bodies like the UN, IMF, WTO and EU, or through wars, nation building and "interventions" abroad), will obviously go down like a lead balloon in many quarters. His biblical argument for nation states, based on the unification of families into clans into tribes and then into nations, is also intriguing. But perhaps his most provocative point comes when he considers the meaning of Auschwitz.

For most Jews, Hazony argues, “the meaning of Auschwitz is that the Jews failed in their efforts to find a way to defend their children … Today, most Jews continue to believe that the only thing that has really changed since those millions of our people perished—the only thing that stands as a bulwark against the repetition of this chapter in the world’s history—is Israel.” Auschwitz, for Jewish people, is an argument for the nation state. Without an independent and secure nation, Jews were vulnerable to being massacred. With one, they are far safer.

For most European liberals, however, the meaning of Auschwitz is the exact opposite. The Holocaust is one of the strongest arguments against the nation state, for they see it “as the ultimate expression of that barbarism, that brutal debasement of humanity, which is national particularism.” National self-determination is how you get National Socialism. “From this point of view, the death camps provide the ultimate proof of the evil of permitting nations to decide for themselves how to dispose of the military power in their possession.” (Hazony is not overstating this; this critique of nationalism in Commonweal two days ago, for all that it makes a number of incontestable and important points, took just two paragraphs to mention Germany in the 1930s.)

The comparison is even more on the nose when it comes to the nation state of Israel today:

Paradigm A: Israel represents Jewish women and men standing rifle in hand, watching over their own children and all other Jewish children and protecting them. Israel is the opposite of Auschwitz.

Paradigm B: Israel represents the unspeakable horror of Jewish soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests. Israel is Auschwitz.

Hazony is not, of course, arguing that objecting to nationalism is antisemitic. He is arguing that if we believe that national self-determination is a return to barbarism, and that taking up arms to defend one’s nation is illegitimate, then the (tragically common) comparison made between the nation state of Israel and the Nazis is no coincidence.

There are plenty of things in The Virtue of Nationalism to disagree with, have questions about, or shake your head at. But Hazony’s case for nationalism, elucidation of the alternatives, analysis of some of the implications of either championing it or pillorying it, and sheer clarity of argument, make the book well worth reading nonetheless.

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