The Author


The concern for nationalism is deemed by segments of the world to be inherently unethical even as nationalism is recognized as necessary. This explains why many nations, including Israel, have such a difficult challenge on the world stage.

Many of us find it difficult to understand how various nation states arrive at the ethical standards which they then seem to apply in making decisions. There is an attitude that a nation may, in the interest of its citizens, act in any manner possible, regardless of the effect on others. But, we also find an attitude which maintains that countries, in determining their actions, should consider the effect on all humanity almost without any special consideration for its citizens. These are two diametrically opposed outlooks and, yet, nations seem to easily slide between them. I find this to be a most troubling problem which also gravely affects the treatment of Israel.

Modern day ethics generally grew out of a perspective which focused on the individual without a consideration of an ethical value in sub-groupings within humanity – groupings such as nations or even families. The sole ethical focus was the equality of all human beings, all individuals. While the equality of all humanity is indeed a fundamental principle of ethics, an issue, though, emerges in that human relationships – and, as such, society — would seem to be built on the formation of special bonds connecting certain individuals. Family, community and nationhood are such examples. The further challenge is that such bonds do inherently lead to distinctions between individuals within the grouping and those outside. If we accept a value in such sub-groupings, we have to accept that we will treat people differently based upon their connection to us in these variant sub-groupings. The result can be an unclear ethical vision of how to balance the needs of these sub-groupings, such as a nation, with universal and individual concerns. An appropriate contemplation of this ethical component is then often sorely lacking.

At one extreme, indeed, exists a view that countries, really, should only be concerned with their own citizens and no others. Former French President Charles De Gaulle’s famous words — that nations do not have friends, only interests — reflect this outlook. As friendship flows from the consideration for another — which is a cornerstone of the general ethical perspective — what this assertion would seem to further imply is that nations need not be concerned with the ethical as simply defined within the noted perspective. They can act solely in their own best interest. The implication would seem to be that sub-groups of humanity — such as nations — really do only have to be concerned with the needs of the members of their own sub-grouping. They are, almost by definition, deemed to be outside the realm of the universal ethical.

At the other extreme are those, though, who maintain that ethics, as generally understood, should, of course, still apply to nations. As this base Western ethical structure is tied to a universal equality of all individuals, this ethical motivation would still also, of course, have to sidestep the tension of the sub-group. Within this perspective, the need to forge the thoughtful balance necessary to weigh the needs within the group with the needs of those outside the group is also similarly ignored. As the base ethical standard still declares all individuals equal regardless of group identity, this standard applied to nations inherently, however, demands a challenge to the very identity and rights of nations. The value inherent in the very nature of human sub-groups, which demands precedence to members of the sub-group over others, is not integrated into such an ethical structure. The resultant effect of the ethical voiced to nations from this perspective, is simply a call to ignore nationhood.

The yardstick that applies to nations thus sways between national interest — without an ethical balance between the national and the universal — and universal concern, with an ethic defined solely in universal terms — again without an ethical balance between the national and the universal. Is it any wonder that the world has such difficulties dealing with the human sub-grouping of nations in consideration of a recognition of the value and ethic of nationhood? People intuitively seem to know that a true and honest ethical perspective must give value to the legitimate sub-groupings within humanity, such as family and nationhood, alongside a recognition of a value in an equality of universal humanity. The problem is that they were never given the cognitive methodology by which to achieve an ethical understanding and system reflecting this perspective and necessary balance.

Pro Israel US

(AP/Cliff Owen)

This problem really explains why many nations including Israel have such a difficult challenge on the world stage. The concern for nationalism is deemed by segments of the world to be inherently unethical even as nationalism is recognized as necessary. That the Israeli army then ethically considers the universal even as it upholds the national is also often not comprehensible to elements of the world. Promoters of national interest can’t understand because this is deemed not a place for consideration of the universal. Those who promote the simple Western ethic also can’t understand because this ethic is deemed not a real place for national interest. Yet Israel strives to balance the national and the universal – for it believes in an ethic for nations, for it believes in a value of human sub-groups within the universal.

This, of course, emerges from traditional Judaism. Torah sees value in this world and, as sub-groups within humanity are necessary for the development of this world, it must be God’s Will that such sub-groups exist. Balancing particular interests within the group with universal concerns, as such, must be part of the true Divine system of ethics. This is indicated within Judaism in many ways.  This is also indicated by the very fact that universal humanity is referred to, within Torah thought, as the ‘Seventy Nations”. The universal is inherently seen as a collection of the sub-groups of nations for nations have value.

A human being is meant to exist as a member of a sub-group and this must be integrated within the ethic of humanity. Ethics, as such, is not just about the universal but must also recognize the sub-group – such as nation and/or family – and integrate the balancing of these variant concerns into the human ethic. Both internally and in terms of our external connection with other nations, we cannot allow, what we may term, a De Gaullist national perspective to drive us to adopt rigid and dogmatic nationalistic outlooks. We also cannot allow the universal perspective of Western ethics to drive us to adopt rigid and dogmatic universalistic outlooks. We must continue to be a Jewish state, in this regard reflecting the uniqueness of Jewish values. This may also be why much of the world, with its limited and variant ethical perspectives, has difficulty understanding the ways of the Jewish nation. We must still, though, be a Jewish nation.

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Article by Benjamin Hecht

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the founding director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see and You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.