Contemporary debates on the nature of American nationality—are we a people possessed of a shared tradition and culture, or are we simply a mosaic of ethnic groups that function in a common system?—find their counterpart in contemporary Israel. The legitimacy of Israel as “the Jewish state” is called into question not by Palestinians or Israeli Arabs but by Israeli Jews, most of them children of several generations of Zionists. These “post-Zionists” seek to transform Israel into a mere political contrivance rather than a “Jewish state.”

The very legitimacy of the Jewish state has been challenged by Israeli intellectuals: philosophers and lawyers, poets and novelists, journalists and television personalities. The belief that a sovereign Jewish state is illegitimate enjoys wide acceptance in Israel.

The implications of post-Zionism transcend the particularities of Jewish politics. At stake—as in Germany, Russia, America, Canada, and Australia—is the nature of the nation-state. Canadians and Australians have decided to treat their national cultures as negotiable; Russia, Germany, and America are struggling with the notion that a nation represents more than an agreement among diverse people to share common real estate and a common market. Is it acceptable not to regard English as central to American life? Do Americans have a common history, a narrative that all of us tell about ourselves and our country, even though not all of us have ancestors who participated in that story? These are the issues in America that parallel the Israeli debate. And just as American history is supposed to teach that the United States was always wrong, so Israeli historians seek to dismiss the notion of the Jews as a unitary and distinct people.

Yoram Hazony, in a remarkable new book, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, documents the ongoing attempt to dismantle the intellectual foundations of Israel as a Jewish state. He names names and outlines the history of this anti-Zionist worldview. He finds the sources of today’s intellectual anti-Zionism in the universalism of German Jews from the 19th century forward. He traces the transfer of that ideology to the state of Israel through Martin Buber and Gershom Seholem, among others, and singles out the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as the center of post-Zionism. It is not surprising that he could not get his book published in Israel until it had created a sensation in the United States.

The book contrasts the Zionist with the post-Zionist definition of Israeli education. Jewish nationalist aims of the school system involved teaching “the values of Jewish culture,” “love of the homeland,” and “loyalty to the Jewish people.” Now, the goals are “to work to realize democratic values . . . to work to realize human rights and civil rights . . . to be involved in the affairs of the public and of society.” Hazony finds “disproportional emphasis on purely universal values as opposed to Jewish ones.” The Ministry of Education has just issued To he Citizens in Israel, which presents the idea of Israel as a Jewish state as merely one option among many: “Nation-states” are simply a matter of choice. Hazony cites Asa Kasher, a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University:

“A Jewish state ” is a state in whose social coloration there is found the clear expression of. . . the Jewish identities of its citizens. In a “Jewish and democratic” state this social coloration is not created by force nor in the law but rather through the aggregation of the free choices of the citizens.

Hazony argues that the intellectual assault on Zionism, Americanism, and other definitions of the nation-state that link people to culture, language, tradition, and history finds its source in Rousseau, who

set in motion the principles of the great revolution that would sunder the ties binding the peoples of Europe to their past. . . [H]e advanced the claim that there exists only one legitimate political constitution, universally applicable to all countries, which we may call a “social-contract state”: a political regime in which all individuals, regardless of the differences of nature and history that divide them, renounce these differences, so that “all become equal through convention” under a state that obliges all equally on behalf of all.

No wonder, then, that the same debates rage throughout the world on the meaning of the nation-state: for instance, in Germany, in the form of the dispute over citizenship; and in the United States, over immigration policy and the positive reading of the American experience in history.

American Jews have taken two positions. In America, we have tended to favor a social-contract state, leaving ample space for minorities to maintain their distinct identities: Canada is the model. In Israel, American Jews favor the Zionist policy, affirming die Jewish people as an empowered political entity and the state of Israel as the instrument of that empowerment. While the language may shift, the issue endures, and the debate will continue.