These tense days, the situation in Israel is exacerbating the social rifts and divisions in the country. While some people decry the loss of national pride, others warn that Israel is becoming a nationalistic, racist state. Is there a healthy dose of patriotism and national pride that does not infringe on the rights of other people? Baal HaSulam says there is, but we must first understand what nationalism and national pride mean for Israel.
Even before the tragedies of World War II and the Holocaust took place, the great 20th century thinker and kabbalist, Baal HaSulam, warned of the consequences of excessive nationalism, fascism, and communism. In June 1940, nine months into the war, he published a paper that he titled The Nation. In the paper, he dedicated a section to discussing the balance between patriotism or as he defined it, “national love,” and humanism.
In those days, before the establishment of the State of Israel, Baal HaSulam felt that denying patriotism altogether would jeopardize the forming Jewish state. At the same time, the dangers of excessive patriotism were already evident. To address the issue, Baal HaSulam suggested “new, fundamental national education,” in order to “reveal and ignite once more the natural national love that has been dimmed within us.”
However, Baal HaSulam stressed that his definition of nationalism was not the one we normally use. In his words, “Here I must stress concerning the above-mentioned national education: Although I aim to plant great love among the individuals in the nation in particular and for the entire nation in general, in the fullest possible measure, this is not at all similar to chauvinism or fascism. We loathe them, and my conscience is completely clear from them. Despite the apparent similarity of the words in their superficial sounds, since chauvinism is nothing but excessive national love, they are essentially far from one another as black from white.
“To easily perceive the difference between them, we should compare them to the measures of egoism and altruism in the individual. …Clearly, the measure of egoism inherent in every created being is a necessary condition in the actual existence of the being. Without it, it would not be a separate and distinct being in itself. Yet, this should not at all deny the measure of altruism in a person. The only thing required is to set distinct boundaries between them: The law of egoism must be kept in all its might,” but only “to the extent that it concerns the minimum existence. And with any surplus of that measure, permission is granted to waive it for the well-being of one’s fellow person.”
Eighty-two years after those words were written, it is clear that we have not found the balance. We still use nationalism to the point where it becomes chauvinism, as Baal HaSulam defined it, or deny it altogether, and risk losing our identity altogether.
I think it is time we introduced healthy nationalism. We should begin with the smallest unit: the nuclear family. First we must rekindle the feeling of natural, instinctive affinity the way families (ideally) feel toward each other. Once we establish what a close family feels like, we should begin to expand this feeling to broader and broader circles until it encompasses the entire nation.
However, we should focus only on the positive, on strengthening our unity, and not only uniting against other parties. It is very easy to unite against a common enemy. However, this is not real unity, and in the absence of an enemy, the union will dissolve at once. We will be able to focus on unity, only if unity is the prime value in and of itself, regardless of external circumstances.
Particularly in Israel, unity must be nurtured to a level that guarantees the existence and security of the State of Israel, but not beyond what is necessary for Israel’s survival. The rest of Israel’s energy should be directed toward advancing the value of unity throughout the world.
Israel’s unique position in the world, due to the constant attention it receives, places it in a unique position to become a model of social cohesion and solidarity that no other nation has. When Israel is united, the nations appreciate and welcome it. Conversely, when Israel is divided, the nations disparage it, claim that it is a racist and nationalistic country, and blame it for everything that is wrong with their lives.
Now that unhealthy nationalism is re-emerging in the world, Israel must set the right example. The more extremist the world becomes, the more it will blame Israel for it.
Therefore, Israel must put its entire focus on internal unity so as to be a model for the world. For this purpose, and only for this purpose, it must defend itself from those who seek to destroy it.
If Israel does not exist, there will be no model of unity for the world. This is why Israel must build its unity, and this is Israel’s only justification for its existence. This is the only possible balance between nationalism and humanism—when nationalism serves humanism.