The death this past Saturday morning May 5 in a plane crash of the president of Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken, caused me to see something I otherwise would have missed, which is Panken's remarks from the New York graduation ceremonies on May 3 (HUC has multiple campuses). As reported in the Hebrew Union College press release announcing Panken's death, those comments included this passage:
Our celebration comes, this year, amidst a particularly challenging and painful world, one that in many respects transcends anything I have seen in my lifetime. We now live in a world in which truth is distorted, basic institutions of American life like the press, the courts, the electoral system, the FBI, the beautiful mosaic of immigration that made this country what it is, the dignity and value of public leadership and civil service, egalitarianism and a woman's right to choose, and so many others, are threatened in ways we simply could not have imagined a mere two years ago. We see countries long civilized reverting to policies of nationalism and tactics of scapegoating reminiscent of our darkest times. We labor under the challenges of privacy and the ability for noxious leaders to spread their message ever more broadly and more efficiently through warped use of social media, cynical and often violent supremacist protests, and through targeting innocent immigrants as vicious criminals.
There's plenty to unpack there, but one piece of it that particularly caught my attention was the part about "We see countries long civilized reverting to policies of nationalism." This dichotomy between civilization and nationalism may itself be a distortion of truth, or at least a misguided juxtaposition based on a misunderstanding. A valuable corrective is Yoram Hazony's forthcoming The Virtue of Nationalism, which, among other insights, argues that nationalism (of which Zionism is a variety) is actually better for liberty and human welfare than trans-national, universalist ideologies (Soviet Communism, radical Islam, Nazism). As the Panken passage suggests, this liberal confusion about, or apprehension about, nationalism isn't just some kind of side issue for intellectuals when it comes to current American political headlines. It's right there at the center of it all.