Nations and Nationalism

I have been reading an interesting book by Amos Oz in which he interviews different segments of Israeli about their attitudes towards the land of Israel. One of the main problems he tries to address is how to reconcile his support for Zionism with his negative views on nationalism. The two seem to be mutually contradictory. In one place in the book, he recounts an address he made to a group in Ofra (this was the first ‘settlement’ established in Samaria). He writes,

We can all agree, without difficulty, that what Zionism means is that it is good for the Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel and it is bad for that people to be scattered among the nations. But from that point on – we disagree….

This is the place to make my first shocking confession-others will follow. I think that the nation-state is a tool, an instrument, that is necessary for a return to Zion, but I am not enamored of this instrument. The idea of the nation-state is, in my eyes, “goim naches” – gentiles delight. I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations, each developing in accordance with its own internal rhythm, all cross-pollinating one another, without any one emerging as a nation-state: no flag, no emblem, no passport, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.

Amos Oz readily admits that his vision of a world without nation-states is an utopian dream; that in the real world he is, “forced to play the game of nations”, but he feels like a “old man in a kindergarten.”

His words remind me a little of John Lennon’s song,

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Since the unspeakable horrors of WW2 the West reacted to fascism by pretending that culture is neutral and irrelevant. This is an experiment that is ending badly as European nations will readily admit. The struggle to maintain an open and friendly society and yet maintain ones culture and laws is not new. For example, in Against Apion Josephus tried to defend his people against charge of being a closed society by arguing that the Greeks where no different than the Jews in this regards,

Plato also especially imitated our legislator [Moses] in that he enjoined his citizens to pay to nothing more attention than to this, that every one of them should learn their laws accurately; as also that they should not have foreigners mixing with their own people at random, but that the republic should be pure, and consist only of those who obeyed the laws.

Apollonius Molon failed to consider this, when he accused us of not admitting those who have their own preconceptions about God, and having no fellowship with those who choose to observe a different way of living to ourselves. For this method is not peculiar to us, but common to all men, not to Greeks only, but also to men of the greatest reputation among the Greeks.

From what Ive read of Amos Oz so far, the debate that Josephus was engaged in two centuries ago is alive and well today.

Pascals Memorial

Pascal was a brilliant guy. At just 19 years of age he invented an adding machine to help his dad with his work collecting taxes for Louis XVIII. His little box full of gears and levers became known as the Pascaline, the first functional calculator. In honor of his invention a programming language was named after him in the 1960’s. Pascal’s machine was a small commercial success, 20 of them would be made, but Pascal’s interest shifted to a scientific controversy that raged in his day: “Can a vacuum exist in nature?” His opponents, the Scholastics, reasoned that a vacuum could not exist based on certain assumptions about the nature of the world. But Pascal wasn’t convinced. Why did the Scholastic’s use reason to explain a natural phenomena that should be explained by physical means? With this in mind, Pascal conducted a series of experiments that conclusively proved that a vacuum could exist. (He had his brother-in-law carry a barometer up a mountain to prove the air has mass just like anything else) Today, units of atmospheric pressure are called ‘pascals’ in recognition of his discovery. Pascal is also famous for ‘Pascals triangle’ – as every high school student knows from algebra class. Pascals work on conics contributed to the discovery of calculus and his theories of probability, along with those of others, led to the formation of the first insurance agency. He also developed the first public transit system for Paris.

By his early thirties, Pascal was a star in the salons of Paris. But he had grown disillusioned with the empty and vain lifestyle of the honnet homme, the educated gentleman. Lonely, physically sick and having nearly driven his carriage off of a bridge, Pascal began to think more seriously about spiritual matters. One night while reading John 17, he had an experience that would bring about a profound change in his life. The impression was so vivid that Pascal scribbled some lines on a scrap of paper which he sowed into a shirt pocket. It was later found by accident after his death and would become known as Pascal’s Memorial. It offers a unique glimpse into the soul of Pascal during a difficult period in his life.

The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, Feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the martyrology, From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.


“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,

not of philosophers and scholars.

Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.

God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ.

My God and your God.

Thy God shall be my God.

The world forgotten, and everything except God.

He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.

Greatness of the human soul.

‘O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

I have cut myself off from him.

They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.

‘My God wilt thou forsake me?’

Let me not be cut off from him for ever!

‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’

Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ

I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.

Let me never be cut off from him!

He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.

Sweet and total renunciation.

Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.

Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth

I will not forget thy word. Amen

(Pascal, Pensees 913)

The Memorial wasn’t meant to be understood by anyone other than himself. But it is clear that over a period of two hours that night, Pascal exchanged human wisdom and philosophy for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He had read the likes of Montaigne and the French deists but emphatically turned his back on them. In place of the theoretical God of Descartes, the unmoveable First Mover of Aristotle, Pascal chose Jesus Christ, “the object of all things, the center towards which all things tend.” (Pensees 449)

The Dragon!

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

TS Eliot

A little boy went out to play in his backyard. It wasn’t long before he became bored with that small, confined area and wandered off across the countryside in search of something more interesting – like a dragon! But the dragons were hiding that day and even giants were hard to find.  With evening fast approaching, he turned back for home, his wooden sword swinging uselessly by his side.

He could see the lights of his house flickering against the grey hills. Behind them, tall mountains with their heads in the clouds retreated toward the horizon. Only then did the boy see the dragon. And no ordinary one at that!  But a big, fire breathing dragon whose fat body covered the entire hillside behind his house!  All he could do was stand there, mesmerized by its pitiless, unblinking eye.  Then like a great hero, he pulled the sword from the loop by his side and prepared for battle. The dragon reared up into the sky, brilliant streaks of yellow and orange, purple and red, lit up the sky, and then the dragon fled away leaving only darkness behind.

The boy hurried home with a slightly longer stride. It had taken a long journey for him to see the dragon in his own back yard!