Nahum Goldmann

The Jewish Paradox





A critical view of the state of Israel by one of the most important figures behind its creation.



I have been asked if my criticisms of the state I helped to create are due to the fact that I have never been a leader of it. I don't think this is so, but the answer lies in the field of psychoanalysis. Now, I have doubts about psychoanalysis, and I detest poking about in people's intimate thoughts, conscious or not. But frankly, as far as I am concerned, I do not believe that I am motivated by jealousy.

At the very worst, if I had never been offered any official position it could be argued that my point of view was dictated by some sort of rationalized resentment. But that cannot be the case, because the parties have been after me for years to become a minister — not only the small Liberal Party, but even Begin [1] and Herut [2]. But if I had been a minister in Ben Gurion's cabinet [3] we would have made life pretty hard for each other, and I would undoubtedly have ended up by resigning, because I have insufficient taste for power to bicker night and day with Ben Gurion.

All the same, it is true that a lot of Israelis resent the fact that I have not taken part in the political life of the state and have not settled in the country. For them, it is next door to being unpatriotic. I understand them, and it is the only reproach I do accept — even if at the same time I can reproach them in my own turn for not understanding my independence of character.

But there in something further. You know that some schools of psychology, Adler's in particular, claim that power is a stronger drive than sex. It is a point on which Adler disagrees with Freud. For me, power is one of the most dangerous and diabolical temptations of all. Without it, no idea can be put into practice, but to my mind the true Messianic era will begin when ideas can be put into practice without one first having to be in power, without power even existing. Which is what Lenin was proposing with the notion of the abolition of the state, an absurd idea on his part, since it is his own disciples who have been the most brutal exponents of state power.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely [4]. My experience proves to me that it corrupts masses and peoples more than it does individuals. During a revolt or a revolution, when the people 'scent’ power, they become hysterical and brutal, so that collective power in often more dangerous than individual power. A single individual is generally more susceptible to reason and rationalism, so he can be influences. With the masses it is a more difficult matter. That is why the most cruel wars of all are civil wars. They are worse than foreign wars because they are directed not by a minister, a general, or a king, but by the masses themselves.

That being said, the great danger in modern politics has to do with the power in the hands of every politician. The twentieth century might be the worst in all history, because anybody can start a world-wide conflict. The wars of ancient times, the Middle Ages and even the nineteenth century were local, The Germans and the French, for example, have often clashed, but it had little to do with other countries, and nothing with other continents.

Today, military technology threatens the survival of the species. Because of science, humanity can be wiped out, and each time a local conflict breaks out there is a risk of it degenerating into world war. The proof in that when the Arabs and the Israelis fight, everybody raises the possibility of a planet-wide extension. In Vietnam, a world war was barely avoided; it was the same with Korea, and with Cuba,

There has been a terrifying growth of power of all states; that is why I am a deadly enemy of the notion of the state, and particularly of its modern conception. In the past it was not the state which dominated the citizen's life, but religion. It might be cruel and brutal, but at least it had a certain moral legitimacy; when it killed people, it was in the name of faith in God. Today we kill for the big banks, the arms manufacturers, and for the extension of the power of the state.

My ideal is for the state to become an ordinary instrument, a tool. Unfortunately it is hard to get rid of it, because modern life has become too complex for the citizen. Communications and collective technologies can only be conceived and realized by a centralized state. No little backwater region can handle technically sophisticated developments. The other side of the coin is that the more centralized the state becomes, the less does democracy express itself.

America is a democracy mainly in name — not only because Johnson was a neurotic and Nixon a crook, but by the nature of things. Perhaps the America of Jefferson was a democracy, as Switzerland is today because of its several cantons. In a small province it is possible to hold plebiscites, but in a country of two or three hundred million inhabitants, where power is concentrated in one capital and has to deal with military as well as social problems, how much sense would that make?

The extent and complexity of the jobs to be done, and the expenditure they represent, confer on the modern state a constantly expanding power. The corollary is the temptation to abuse this power. That is why it is impossible to have a modern democracy without corruption. When tens of thousands of civil servants can exercise so much power, how are they to resist it? In a small state the complement of public servants is controllable, but what about the United States, where they are numbered in millions?

In our own time, the state has become the absolute ideal. The deplorable fashion, born at the end of the nineteenth century, should continue to spread. I am convinced that fifty or a hundred years from now the notion of the sovereign state will have disappeared, so as to forestall the outbreak of world nuclear war, and with it the death of civilization.

When the United Nations Organization was founded there ought to have been an attempt at least to abolish the sovereignty of states and to constitute a sort of world power. Remember that despite appearances the scale is beginning to tip that may. State sovereignty is only a dangerous theory, but the reality is the Common Market, the Warsaw Pact, the Organization of American States, the Organization of African Unity, and so on, proving that every state has to give up in vaunted sovereignty little by little because of the complexity of the threats that concern us all.

But do not misunderstand me: when I speak of abolishing the state I mean the political state, not the cultural entity it represents. For instance, I could not imagine a world state all of whose citizens spoke the same language. That would be the end of civilization: Shakespeare and the Psalms of David can exist in a national idiom, but not in Esperanto. So the trend should be towards the theoretical, ideological and practical rehabilitation of the nation at the expense of the state. Nations alone, not states, create civilizations. Of course a state can subsidize theatres or universities, but it is not creative, it is only a technical tool.

To speak more precisely of Israel, I believe that the worship of the state does Israel harm. After all, one of the greatest Talmudists of our own day has declared that the worship of the state in modern Israel is the equivalent of the idolatry of ancient times. In one or two generations this will undoubtedly pass sway. For the time being, it amounts basically to the inevitable and natural reaction of a people deprived of statehood for two thousand years, while other peoples had it. But the Judaic ideal ought to mean taking the lead among those who struggle against the state. This seems to me to be the great revolutionary movement of tomorrow, and not a movement deriving from Marxism, which is in decline now and will have disappeared in fifty years' time. The struggle against the arrogance of the state takes precedence over all the rest. Fulbright has written a good book on the subject, The Arrogance of Power.

Anyway, the sovereign state is not an eternal notion: it stems from a theory of Hegel, who in my opinion was Hitler's precursor in this domain. From Hegel to Hitler there is a continuity, because once you allow Hegel to claim that ‘the state is the summit of human evolution’ how can you blame Hitler for proclaiming that the ‘thousand-year Reich is the one important value'?

But as I have said, we appear at present to be witnessing a general tendency towards enrolling states into broader units. There are a few nostalgic left, especially in Israel and France, so that I was able to tell Ben Gurion: There are still two people in the world who believe in the sovereignty of the state; they are you and de Gaulle." But from that point of view things have moved on: Pompidou was no de Gaulle, and Giscard is no Pompidou.

Right now, those most jealous of their own sovereignty are the young states, precisely because of their youth, but the virulence of some nationalist movements is a phenomenon borne out by history. An idea, a class or a people becomes most extremist at the moment that precedes its fall. If the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy had not been extremist before yielding their place, if they had known how to make concessions, there would never have been any revolutions. In a few generations' time, the sovereign states will have had their day and a system of supranational entities will have taken their place.

It is true that at present the United Nations Organization looks rather farcical, but the principle of its existence is important. Take the more modest example of the European Community. It is hardly surprising if it is taking time to organize. I have often explained to American friends surprised that the Europeans do not unite more quickly that Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy are heirs to a long history. For them to give up, not their identity, but their absolute sovereignty, is no easy matter. I am sure that fifteen years from now there will be a unified Western Europe, although like de Gaulle I have a preference for a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. In the same way, within a generation or two there will be a UN with real power.

In an organization of that kind, minorities — not just states — will have to be represented. The state is a good delegate for political and military questions, but the minorities will have to make themselves heard at the level of culture and education. Their identity and their particularity must both be assured: for the whole of human civilization the disappearance of the minorities would mean a great impoverishment; for the Jewish people it would mean the end.




[1] Menachem Begin (1913-1992) was an Israeli politician, founder of the Likud party. He has been prime minister of Israel from June 1977 to October 1983.

[2] Herut (Freedom in Hebrew) was the major nationalist political party in Israel from 1948 until its merger into Likud in 1988.

[3] David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) was a preeminent leader of the Jewish community in British-ruled Palestine from 1935 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. He has been the first prime minister of Israel.

[4] “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton, Letter to Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887)


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