from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Parallel Thinking of Two Great Men on Nationalism

November 4, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

In 1935, the great Jewish leader, Zionist, and nationalist Vladimir Jabotinsky wrote in a letter to David Ben Gurion about the paramount need to establish a Jewish state:

 

I can vouch for there being a type of Zionist who doesn’t care what kind of society our “state” will have; I’m that person. If I were to know that the only way to a state was via socialism, or even that this would hasten it by a generation, I’d welcome it. More than that: give me a religiously Orthodox state in which I would be forced to eat gefilte fish all day long (but only if there were no other way), and I’ll take it. More even than that: make it a Yiddish-speaking state, which for me would mean the loss of all the magic in the thing—and if there’s no alternative, I’ll take that, too.

 

It was the founding of the state that counted, above all else.

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This passage reminded me of the remarkably similar language Abraham Lincoln used in a letter in 1862 to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and a passionate critic of Lincoln for his failure, up to then, to end slavery.

Lincoln’s famous reply included these words:

 

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

 

For both men, the nation --a dream for Jabotinsky, a reality imperiled by civil war for Lincoln-- embodied the hopes of millions and their own hopes. They saw in the nation the hope for liberty and survival. Every other pressing cause came second.

All states are greatly flawed, and the attacks on the United States not least in this election year and on Israel in every year are often fierce. But in their understanding that true hope lay in establishing and preserving the nation, and in their absolute determination to protect it, both men demonstrated their greatness. The similarity of language and of thinking here is striking and memorable.

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