Many Zionists, people who support a state for the Jewish people in our historic homeland, may want to read The Virtue of Nationalism for intellectual arguments that support their Jewish nationalist view through a broader perspective, supporting the concept of independent nation-states as an organizing principle for the world.
However, they will find that The Virtue of Nationalism’s author Yoram Hazony, president of Jerusalem’s Herzl Institute, has done a disservice to many of Israel’s supporters and to anyone else who leans towards nationalism, but doesn’t share his extremely narrow view of what that means.
While most of Hazony’s book does not directly deal with Israel, he presents Israel as one test case for his main thesis, advocating nationalism, and he views Israel’s standing in the world through this lens.
He writes that hatred of Israel is not about policy or public relations, which have fluctuated between better and worse over the years, while anti-Israel sentiment, at least among educated Westerners, has only increased. The undermining of Israel’s legitimacy as a nation-state, he argues, trends with the decline in support for nationalism.
That is a point well worth making. Israel was conceived as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and as the debate and polling about the recently passed Jewish Nation-State Law confirms, this is still an idea that most Israelis support. Even most of the law’s opponents in the Knesset suggested alternatives that keep that element intact.
But some of today’s major political debates in the West are over gradations in nationalism. In recent elections in the US and Europe, we’ve seen those who think the good of the nation means doing things its own, independent way, battling those who support subsuming their states to various international frameworks, even if they chafe at national character. The EU is the most obvious example of this tension: its success in keeping peace between nations that were historically at war with one another is undeniable – as is the rising tide among citizens of its member states that feel it is forcing its ideas on them and trying to smooth the rough edges of national character into a European monolith. When US President Donald Trump says “America First,” many are reasonably disturbed by the use of Charles Lindbergh’s antisemitic group’s slogan, but the policy debate over the usefulness of NATO or trade protectionism is a legitimate one.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation,” and adds that in many cases it refers to “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”
Although “nationalism” has become a dirty word for much of the Western Left and has come to represent the extreme Right in the common political parlance, it would be disingenuous to present the current political climate as one debating whether nation-states should exist or not. It’s generally a question of how strict should standards of immigration be, rather than one of doing away with borders entirely. The New York Times’s now-infamous column earlier this year may have said nations are “made up,” but the political scientist Benedict Anderson who came up with the term “imaginary communities” to describe nations was not an opponent of nationalism, he was alluding to the bonds between members of a nation who have never met one another.
Yet it is against this very straw-man argument, that the nation-state should not exist, that Hazony positions himself.
Hazony takes much longer to explain what nationalism means than Webster does, and on the way, he alienates many who may have felt well-disposed toward the basic concept of nationalism. This isn’t because the dictionary definition is too simple. Hazony’s is also simplistic – but it is stark and rigid in a way many people who instinctively love their country and want to put its interests first will not find familiar, and he defines nationalism more by what it isn’t than by what it is.
Much of Hazony’s analysis is academic and theoretical, and when it’s applied to the real world, does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Hazony describes a spectrum with liberalism at one end, imperialism at the other and nationalism as a perfect middle.
His argument against liberalism is that man is not an island, and the social contract described by Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and Locke, in which individuals express their consent to be joined in statehood, is unrealistic. After all, it is natural for people to feel loyalty to their families and communities, so there are levels of organization between the individual and the state, which in turn, join to form the nation for their mutual betterment and protection.
But when one moves from philosophical exercise to a more practical sphere, finding the thought experiment that Enlightenment thinkers used as a jumping-off point to be weak does not necessitate opposing the conclusions they drew. In the real political world it is not only possible, but common, for someone to adhere to classic liberal concepts, like individual rights and freedoms, while being a nationalist. And while calls of a “danger to democracy” have been driven into boy-who-cried-wolf territory, if people broadly believe that individual liberty and nationalism are inherently contradictory, the impact could truly be perilous.
But Hazony doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned with democracy. He also claims that liberalism has become a form of imperialism, in part because of US and European military actions to stop tyranny in other parts of the world. This brings an element of moral relativism into his idea of nationalism. It’s easy to draw the conclusion from his writing that some nations have evolved to the point of civil rights and democracy, while others ought to be left to kill girls who want an education or continue enslaving people. It’s true that he dedicates a few sentences to praising civil rights, but he doesn’t compellingly fit that argument in with the rest of his ideas.
Hazony’s argument that nationalism and imperialism are diametrically opposed is an easier pill to swallow. As anyone familiar with Jewish history can attest, empires over millennia expelled nations from their land and spread them around in order to weaken their national identities, seen as a challenge to the imperial, central ideas.
But when Hazony starts giving examples of present-day empires, he stretches his definition of imperialism too far, laying bare the weaknesses of his argument. For Hazony, the EU is an empire, though its member states voluntarily joined it, and any new ones have to jump through rigorous hoops in order to do so. The US is a military empire, in his view, because it has taken over the job of defense for many other nations via NATO, despite the fact that those nations pay into NATO, contribute soldiers, and, once again, join it voluntarily, while others hope to do so as well.
Hazony also falls victim to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy when confronted with the excesses of nationalism. In his discussion of Nazism, he comes off a bit like socialists who say that the Soviet Union or Venezuela and Cuba today are not the real thing. Hazony argues that Nazis are not truly nationalists, they are imperialists. But Nazism is an example in which both coexist. Nazis didn’t seek to spread their ideology and way of living to all the peoples of the world like the textbook description of imperialism Hazony gives. In Hitler’s view, there was an Aryan nation that consisted mostly of Germans, but also Austrians, some of France, some of the now-Czech Republic and a bit of Poland. His nationalism drove him to imperialism of the genocidal kind. Hitler sought to rid the world of Jews, not to convert them to his ideology, like Antiochus or Muhammad or the Spanish Inquisition.
In the final section of his book, Hazony admits that “there are nationalists who hate their opponents and rivals... [that] fuel ongoing resentment, prejudice and violence.” And he reasonably asks: “Does this hatred on the part of certain nationalists amount to an argument against nationalism – that is, against a political order of based on independent national states?” The problem is that he quickly moves on from that point to say that liberals and imperialists hate nationalists and particularists more.
Because Hazony points to Nazism as the turning point at which Western elites began to move away from overt nationalism, he does not allow himself to admit that nationalism was part of Nazism. Not only is that an ahistorical depiction, it is also a failing in providing those who support nationalism without extremism with usable support for their position.
When extremist groups in the West increasingly use the term “nationalist” to describe themselves, and those on the opposite extreme condemn all levels of nationalism as inherently fascist, people who identify with the Merriam-Webster definition of nationalism, a natural patriotism and kindred with their fellow citizens, but are not extremists, could use a book that defends that position in terms that make sense in their political world. Unfortunately, The Virtue of Nationalism, with its false dichotomies and avoidance of real-world problems and challenges to its central thesis, is not it.
THE VIRTUE OF NATIONALISM
By Yoram Hazony
304 pages; $30
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