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  • Liberal Nationalism for Israel: Towards an Israeli National Identity
  • Sapir Handelman
Joseph Agassi. Liberal Nationalism for Israel: Towards an Israeli National Identity, Jerusalem and New York: Gefen, 1999. Hardcover $24.95. ISBN 9652291900.

Questions of identity have gained a notable place in the history of the Jewish people. Indeed, central issues concerning Jewish life relate closely to different interpretations of the very notion of Jewish identity. For example: What does it mean to be a Jew? Is it a national identity? An ethnic identity? A religious identity? Can I be a Jew and a German at the same time without any contradiction?

Of course, searching for one’s identity, roots, and origins is hardly unique to the Jewish people, and so it is no surprise that identity, or more precisely “social identity,” arouses controversy. For this reason, Professor Agassi sketches the broader picture of this controversial discussion for his readers before he enters the debate over “Jewish identity” and it relationship to the state of Israel. He first describes the broader historical debate in the social sciences [End Page 107] that, at least in its modern version, emerges between two extreme approaches: Individualism and Collectivism. As strange as it may sound, those two classical approaches leave no room for discussion about identity, or more precisely “social identity.”

The individualistic approach, whose origins date to the Enlightenment, centers on individuals’ ability to choose and take responsibility for their decisions. Individualists stress that people can choose their identities freely. To them, Agassi claims, identity is a private matter, not a social issue. To put it differently, “social identity” is a habit of thought that mature human beings can overcome if they so choose. One practical implication is that ‘Jewish identity’ is imaginary, because every individual can decide whether he or she wants to be a Jew, a Christian or anything else.

Agassi contrasts the individualistic approach with the collectivistic approach, which emphasizes that social relations make human beings out of individuals. All individuals must have social origins that connect them to certain traditions and cultures. Otherwise, they are not human. Therefore, the collectivistic approach recognizes only one type of “social identity”–one determined by society according to tradition and social roots. A notable example is national identity as introduced by the Romantic Movement, during which every human being was considered to have only one identity: the nation. For example: one can hold a German identity or one cannot be considered a human being. Thus Jewish people, who claim another identity aside from the national one, are not human beings. A familiar expression of this paradigm is the view that Jewish people, who are not human beings, endanger the national spirit. The solution in its extreme version is the Nazi regime’s ‘final solution’ i.e. to exterminate everything and everyone connected to Judaism.

Agassi claims that these fundamentally contradictory approaches, individualism and collectivism, can be presented in quite an appealing manner. Nevertheless, one can easily show that both paradigms, at least in their most radical extremes, can lead to absurdity. Indeed, in contrast to individualism and collectivism, it is quite clear that every human being, in almost every situation in life, has certain degrees of free choice, as well as some social restraints that cannot easily be shed. To put it another way, every individual has freedom of choice within a framework of certain conscious and unconscious social constraints. It follows that a more reasonable approach to analyze individual-social relations, in general, and the question of identity, in particular, must synthesize individualism and collectivism. And such a synthesis, often called pluralism, recognizes the existence of individuals and social groups simultaneously. Pluralism must answer a basic question: where do social constraints (conscious and unconscious) end and free choice (particularly self-determination) begin?

This question doubtlessly depends upon many factors and variables, including social circumstances and individual characters, and because it is such a broad notion, it will clearly mean different things to different people. However, the common denominator remains that pluralism is neither individualism [End Page 108] nor collectivism but a synthesis—but how can such a synthesis, a mixture of individualism and collectivism, ever yield any coherent approach? Liberal...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1946-2522
Print ISSN
1939-7941
Pages
pp. 107-109
Launched on MUSE
2009-06-17
Open Access
No
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