As part of our launch on Substack, we’re thrilled to share this fascinating guest essay from the political theorist David Polansky. This piece, like everything we publish, aims to explore the sources of our deepest differences—and the example of Israel, past and present, illustrates these tensions powerfully. In case you missed them, earlier this week, we published Damir’s Monday Note on learning to love democracy as well as a spirited debate between myself and Damir on what makes “the people.”
Now on to David Polansky on what makes the nation. We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please join us in the comments to continue the conversation.
What makes a nation? In an age of nationalism (which ours still is), this remains a perennial question. It is implicit in anxious discussions over whether China will invade Taiwan. It becomes a central point of contention in debates over the causes of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–extending even to the domain of cultural achievement. And it remains very much a live issue whenever the subject of stateless groups like the Palestinians, Kurds, and Tibetans comes up.
Modern nationalist claims often imagine a past of grand peoples and nations—the Spartans or Athenians or ancient Ethiopians. But there is perhaps no single group that attracts this question like the ancient Hebrews. Ever since the Lord told Abraham He would make of his descendants a “great nation” (the usual translation of goy gadol) it has been conventional to retrospectively view the Israelites as more or less a modern nation avant le lettre. And with nationalism undergoing an ideological revival on the American right, this view has gained renewed attention. But just how accurate is this, and how would we know anyway?
My spoilerish answer is that it is inaccurate and anachronistic and most of all just plain unhelpful to think of the ancient Israelites as a nation in the modern sense. More tentatively, however, I would also argue that there is a specific reason—having to do with the broader development of modern nationalism—as to why we are so inclined to see a familial resemblance between ourselves and them.
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Of course, particularism is as old as we are; it has its roots in the natural family and extends outward from there: tribes, city-states, villages, dynastic kingdoms—all of these and more are collective expressions of our impulse toward what Socrates would call “love of one’s own.” (It is partly because of the near-universality of this impulse that so many remain attracted to Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction, which—erroneously in my view—makes this particularism the exhaustive criterion of political life.)
But whether it is useful speak of nations before nationalism in the same sense as modern ones is a different question. Because what we tend to have in mind here is not just a relatively coherent body of people, united by ties of genealogy, language, and custom. We also have in mind a body of people in possession of or deserving of a sovereign state (itself a modern construct). The matter is that particular peoples can and have existed throughout history without advancing the core nationalist claim that they must possess a sovereign state unique to that group. It was not until the early-modern period that peoplehood was assumed to be congruent with political boundaries.
Those who specifically look to the biblical Hebrews as forerunners of modern nationalism thus commit the error of ascribing essentially modern features to an ancient tradition. For, however much the Old Testament may be read as the particularistic expression of the Jewish people, it is another thing entirely to read it as nationalistic. The latter is ultimately a political distinction—for it requires not only that a particular group be accorded recognition of some kind, but that it be allowed to actively govern itself.
Indeed, the defining quality of the ancient Hebrews was not nationhood, much less “representative government,” but their unique acceptance of laws of their God. Thus, neither the deliverance from Egypt nor the revelation at Sinai were illustrations of some universal right to self-determination on the part of all the world’s peoples—concepts that have no meaning within the pages of the Hebrew Bible or anywhere else prior to the modern era, for that matter. Certainly, the rabbinic tradition of biblical exegesis did not produce a nationalist interpretation; the diaspora Jews’ obligation was to keep the faith of their fathers rather than to refound the Kingdom of Judea. Beginning with Theodore Herzl, modern Zionism was very much a secular project that rejected ancestral religion in favor of adopting a sovereign state “like the other nations”—and it was rejected at the outset by pious Jews in turn.
One might think that the claim for ancient Jewish nationalism is on stronger ground when it comes to the historical record—just look at the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids, or the First Jewish-Roman War, which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70. The broad assumption here is that the Hebrews’ ancient version of nationalism made them difficult subjects for imperial rulers—akin to the difficulties that nationalist resistance movements pose for foreign occupiers today.
Yet, here too, the question is not whether the Jews were a troublesome lot—the Lord himself calls them a “stiff-necked people”—but whether they possessed a concept of national independence. The fact is that the Israelite kingdoms waxed and waned amidst the great Near Eastern and Mediterranean empires: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Seleucid, and Roman. They did not aspire to take their place as a sovereign state within a system of states, as modern nationalists do, because no such thing existed. The difference may not be as extreme as that between lightning and lightning bug, but it is fundamentally misleading in the same way that it is misleading to use city-state to refer to both ancient Thebes and modern Singapore.
So why then do so many insist on viewing the ancient Hebrews in this way? Here I am probably on less firm ground, but my answer is that we are viewing them across a long process of nationalization from out of the universal world of Christian Europe—what Eric Voegelin called “the process by which the Western ecclesia dissolves into political subentities.” But it is not simply that we read the present into the ancient past (though we do); it is that the biblical image of the Hebrews was integral to this same process. Writers, thinkers, theologians, and even rulers began to cast about for ways to articulate meaningful accounts of particularism in a context of Christian universalism, and they found in the Hebraic example a useful template for their projects.
The sermons that Renaissance friar Savonarola (of “bonfire of the vanities” fame) delivered to 15th-century Florentines are probably the earliest instance of holding up the Israelites as a political model to be imitated. From there, the Israelites would serve as the paradigmatic example of peoplehood across a remarkable variety of texts. In his famous treatise, The Prince, Machiavelli would liken the nascent Italians to the Hebrews seeking liberation and look to Moses as the founder par excellence. The back half of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (the part nobody reads anymore) is an extended disquisition on the Hebraic Kingdom of God as a model for the new commonwealth. The Monarchomachs, 16th-century French Protestants rebelling against both the Church and the Crown, would use the unified Israelites as the basis for their highly influential theories of popular sovereignty. Benedict Spinoza derives his account of national culture from their religious laws. Jean-Jacques Rousseau will refer to it over and over for his account of civil religion, and so on.
This concept of nationhood—basically a hybrid of biblical imagery and modern political thought—gets locked in by the revolutionary period of the late-18th century. The full flourishing of nationalism that follows in the ensuing two centuries will see this idea take expression in a variety of contexts. This tradition of thought does not begin with but was crystallized by the larger concept of representation as the sole legitimate basis for modern government. For our concept of the state is organized around the idea of representation: to have a state, one must be a people; and to be a people is to be like the ancient Israelites. As the historian Yuri Slezkine rather hyperbolically puts it:
The principal religion of the Modern Age is nationalism, a faith that represents new society as the old community and allows newly urbanized princes and peasants to feel at home abroad. Every state must be a tribe; every tribe must have a state. Every land is promised, every language Adamic, every capital Jerusalem, and every people chosen (and ancient). The Age of Nationalism, in other words, is about every nation becoming Jewish.
It has to be emphasized that this story is not one of a true recovery of an ancient tradition of nationalism; it is rather a powerful distortion of the biblical text for contemporary political and philosophical purposes. Zionism is consequently a latecomer to this process of global nationalization, because it is the ancient and not the modern Jews who are the exemplar of the modern nation. How ironic, then, that the modern Jews, rather than enjoying some special privileged connection with the ancient Israelites, had to imitate the gentiles of Europe to access this understanding.
We are the heirs of this process, and looking back from the end of it we cannot help, it seems, but naturalize the ancient Israelites as the “original nation.” In the process of doing so, we overlook the long interpretive tradition that made them appear so to us. More important still, we strip them of their defining feature: the connection to God and God’s law.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, this is more or less the argument I made in my doctoral dissertation. All of which is to say that, yes, I probably would think that the ancient Hebrews played a key conceptual role in the development of modern nationalism, without actually being a true nation in the modern sense. But to my mind this account just explains a good many things, including the strange sense of familiarity we have when looking at the ancient Israelites. For we look and think, “they are us.” But it would be closer to the truth to say, in a highly qualified sense, that we are them.
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Admittedly, I don't mind being contrarian, but it seems that Ancient Israel was very much a modern nation. It was not, and never was, intended as a multicultural society. In fact, it takes this notion a bit further, into true nationalism, by seeking to really serve only Jews. The fact that that definition is more expansive than religious Jews would like, merely reflects that the larger community defines their religious affiliation more expansively, as children of Abraham, which is actually how the Bible would define it. The covenant was with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and there were expectations, and consequences for non-compliance, but no expulsions. Today Israel is obliged to accept pre-existing, non-Jew populations, but it is has been a source of contention and controversy, since Israel's founding in 1948.
Contrary to viewing them through European eyes, Israel is, and was, a model for the modern nation. Whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate, but it's a thing.
No nation, despite it's greatest efforts, is pure, but for both ancient and modern Israel there were different sets of laws and standards for Jews and non-Jews. However, ancient Israel was supposed to be pure--no gentiles. That never wholly worked out. It was also supposed to be a theocracy, which it was, to varying degrees of success, and failure. The question now, particularly from a religious perspective, is that when Abraham went into the Promised Land, who told him to go? The Lord! When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, who told them to go? The Lord! When Jews returned after the Babylonian Exile, who told them to go? The Lord! This time, who told them to go? As you point out, today, Israel is both a secular idea and execution. As for nationhood, it's flawed like any other.
I dunno . . . seems like Ancient Israel was a nation in the context of the ancient world in the same way that Israel is a nation in the context of the modern world. Then, yes, religion was one of the demarcations defining the boundaries between nations, whereas now, it's more about geography. But in both cases, there was a political entity under common rule, a sense of membership.