Nadav Eyal: An Israeli liberal response to a global ideological debate

When it comes to the political populism that has spread around the world in recent years, which Eyal says should really be called nationalism, Israel is in a different situation.

Nadav Eyal (photo credit: DANI BAR-ADONI)
Nadav Eyal
(photo credit: DANI BAR-ADONI)
In 2018, two Israelis released major books touching on the issues of globalization and nationalism
Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (reviewed in these pages in the October 11, 2018, issue) not only defended nationalism but presented it as the best form of government, and a bulwark against a rising “globalist” tyranny.
Hazony’s book, published in English, became a hit among the pro-Trump Right, providing an intellectual backing for some of its views.
That same year, Channel 13 international news analyst Nadav Eyal released The Revolt Against Globalization in Hebrew, and it shot up to the top of Israel’s best-seller lists. The rights to translate and publish the book in 14 different languages, across four continents, were snapped up, and the English version came out this week.
Anyone who, based on the title and the fact that the author is Israeli, expects another Hazony will get a rude awakening. People across the political spectrum will likely be able to identify with the phenomena he describes in the book, but Eyal comes from the Israeli Left, and the lessons he draws from them reflect that and can serve as a rebuke to Hazony’s vision.
While presenting the positives of globalization, such as over a billion people out of extreme poverty in the past 30 years, Eyal illustrates its negative side effects – environmental, social, military and more – and how the structures of power have been unable to respond to the needs these rapid changes have created.
Eyal gathers threads from Beijing to Athens to Pennsylvania, weaving a thesis that the political upheaval around the world in recent years is a counterrevolution against globalization by those who feel maligned by it, and comes out against those who would take their revolt too far and destroy the good instead of trying to repair the bad.
Though the books are drastically different, it’s interesting that Israeli thinkers felt the need to address the ideas of globalization and nationalism in recent years, putting together theories that encompass the entire world that have piqued curiosity just as widely.
Eyal also holds the distinction of being one of the first journalists to warn about the need for Israel to take action against COVID-19, so when he spoke to The Jerusalem Post recently, it was over video call, as one does during a coronavirus lockdown.
When it comes to the political populism that has spread around the world in recent years, which Eyal says should really be called nationalism, Israel is in a different situation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, is “much more sophisticated and successful” than former US president Donald Trump, Eyal said, comparing Netanyahu to Sen. Ted Cruz or Sen. Mitch McConnell.
“People might want to think of Netanyahu as Trump, but the problem is much broader for liberals and the left-wing in Israel,” Eyal said.
Unlike Trump, Netanyahu acted much earlier on the COVID-19 crisis and took action to try to stabilize the situation. Though Eyal had many criticisms of how Netanyahu has handled the pandemic, he said that Netanyahu at least had a strategy of repeated lockdowns and kept to it.
A POSTER showcasing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US president Donald Trump trumpets ‘Netanyahu – another league,’ in Tel Aviv on January 9. (Miriam Alster/Flash90) A POSTER showcasing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US president Donald Trump trumpets ‘Netanyahu – another league,’ in Tel Aviv on January 9. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
At the same time, in Israel, nationalist voices can be found on the Right, which has an “impressive majority” in Israel, while populism can be found in the Center and Center-Left, as well, and their “ability to retrieve an ideologically coherent, serious stance to Israel’s challenges is rather limited.
“We saw the Israeli Center and Center-Left was toying with denialism of the pandemic. When you look at their political approaches in economics, it’s very populist,” Eyal said.
Eyal’s examination of Israel’s position in the globalization revolution could be an explanation of why Israeli writers have been able to spin the topic into hit books.
“Israel is a globalized nation,” Eyal explained, “not only because we are a nation of immigrants, but also, if you look at us economically, at our GDP, we enjoyed globalization like almost no other nation in the past 30 years.”
In fact, Israel’s GDP almost quadrupled in that time.
“On the other hand, we see forces in Israeli society fighting the cornerstone of liberal values that gave birth to that globalization,” he said. “They simply don’t understand that they are cutting off the branches of the tree they’re sitting on by attacking these values.”
Israel “can’t be part of the liberal order of globalization while being what Turkey calls a ‘traditionalist democracy,’ which is not a democracy at all. It simply doesn’t work,” Eyal said.
At the same time, he clarified that there is a place for religion and patriotism – values that are important to many Israelis – in a liberal democracy. The problem is with attacking the institutions that keep democracy secure, thus destabilizing democracy, which will, in turn, destabilize the economy.
“You need to keep those frameworks of the liberal order inhabited within your political culture, and if you don’t keep those inhabited, in the end you might be thrown out of the club or feel that the club is not for you at all,” Eyal said.
AMONG THE reasons Israel cannot benefit from globalization if it scales back its commitment to liberal values of equality and free markets is that it would lose the trust of global markets and could spark a brain drain.
Israel, Eyal said, needs to decide what it wants to be: “You can’t be a populist, nationalist and traditionalist democracy and also a liberal democracy. In the end, something has got to give. We have to choose a way.... The liberal institutions, the Supreme Court, the Knesset, democracy, protecting minorities have to be enshrined in a way that will secure our future here.”
Eyal also rebuked some on the political Left for “abandoning ship,” by giving up on having political influence, because of election losses and living in a bubble, separate from the realities of most of Israel.
“Tel Aviv completely disconnected from what is really happening. That’s bailing out. We can’t have that, either,” he added. 
Israelis should remember that “most people still want to be in the club” of liberal democracies, as opposed to “the club of Iran or China.”
“We also need that to exist as a nation and have those intrinsic values secured for our children, to sustain human flourishing and the good life, in the Aristotelian sense,” Eyal said.
Eyal’s book is not actually focused on Israel. Revolt is impressively global in its reporting, weaving together the impacts of actions of developed countries on developing countries and vice versa.
Revolt was somewhat inspired by Trump’s election as president in 2016, but Eyal thought that Trump was “just a fraction of what I experienced in the previous years.... There is a wider context here.”
That context, he explained, “is a wide-ranging revolt against power structures, against what you might label globalization, but in a very broad definition that is not necessarily economics... it is the idea of interdependence and interrelations between cultures and peoples, and the liberal order.”
Though Trump lost the US election, Eyal says “something is still raging,” pointing to the Capitol riot and large numbers of Trump voters who still believe that the election was “stolen.”
INSTALLING RAZOR wire atop the ‘unscalable’ fence surrounding the US Capitol in Washington, January 14. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) INSTALLING RAZOR wire atop the ‘unscalable’ fence surrounding the US Capitol in Washington, January 14. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The ideology behind the Trump phenomenon is nationalism, “the only -ism Trump identified with... he uses that word, although he wasn’t well rehearsed or a nationalist who did his homework.”
Nationalism is also surging in places like India and China now, Eyal explained.
“We should be concerned by nationalism becoming legitimate again and rising as an organizing idea to the world, not only in the East but other places,” he warned.
Nationalism could lead to fundamentalism, Eyal said, which “is not a relic of the Old World” as it claims to be, but a new phenomenon in response to the liberal order and globalization.
The other side resisting globalization, Eyal pointed out, is the radical Left, which focuses on exploitation of workers and other weak populations.
“These ideas that were to a large extent the very poles of our political discourse, beyond our political discourse, became more and more mainstream,” he said. “We need to look at extremists to know where the Center is, and where the Center might drift to.”
AS FOR solutions, Eyal says it is essential to speak the truth and recognize how many populations have been adversely impacted by globalization.
“Trump did some important things by tackling the demons nobody wanted to talk about... taking immigration seriously in America, talking about the ways trade has ruined American communities and not just in the way Washington types talk to the Rust Belt and say ‘We’ll take care of you.’ When there is an information revolution, an artificial intelligence revolution – these people cannot be taken care of if they’re fired at 52. Will the government pay their wages? No. They will have less prosperous lives.... Trump came and he marketed desperation, all of those feelings that had been shut down by the establishment.... Trump came and said the American dream is dead,” Eyal said.
Paradoxically, Eyal posited that Trump could mark the beginning of a healing process, by which liberals recognize they need to “fix the deep cracks in their credibility,” which lead the public to “re-appreciate progress.”
But if the past four years “will just be summed up by tearing down the idols of the Trump era and saying it never happened, it was just a fluke, then it was all for nothing.”
A narrative that can restore the liberal order and attract those who are revolting to return to the fold is actually a traditional or conservative one, Eyal argued, which is a “discourse of decency within globalization” that both Left and Right can be united around.
“Common decency is something that people feel, and it’s not only a legal construct,” he said. “In order to do that we need to acknowledge our current global order is not sustainable, first of all environmentally but also for other reasons, and we need to correct it in many ways.”
To help the people in revolt against globalization to understand its positives, the message “cannot be panicked and it cannot be too idealistic and rosy.”
Instead, it should be rooted in 20th-century liberal values of responsibility.
“Stable, responsible leadership is what we need.”