Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Nationalism Is Dead. Long Live Nationalism.

In his new book, Yoram Hazony sees the world through a Zionist lens, offering an intriguing way forward

David P. Goldman
August 15, 2018
Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images
Israeli workers put the finishing touches on an American flag at the Marom flag factory in the central Israeli town of Rosh Ha'Ayin, Sept. 17, 2001.Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images
Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images
Israeli workers put the finishing touches on an American flag at the Marom flag factory in the central Israeli town of Rosh Ha'Ayin, Sept. 17, 2001.Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images

Nationalism got a bad name after the First World War, and a worse one after the Second. Yoram Hazony now offers a defense of the concept consistent with the nationalist revival that began with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and the time is ripe for his book, The Virtue of Nationalism. After the fall of Communism, the conventional wisdom held that the liberal model would triumph around the world. The War on Terror presumed that nation-building through representative democracy would transform the unruly tribal states of the Muslim world into modern nations. The catastrophic failure of the liberal program opens the way for a new kind of political thinking, and Hazony offers a timely contribution to the debate.

Liberal political theory begins and ends with the enlightened self-interest of individuals, but that has poor explanatory power, as Hazony observes:

Many political theories assume that political events are motivated by the individual’s concern for his own life and property. … But human individuals are also capable of regarding the aims and interest of a collective or institution of which they are members as their own, and of acting upon these aims and interests even where such action will be detrimental to their lives and property.

Under extreme conditions, nations may destroy themselves, or fight until their manpower is close to exhaustion. That explains why so many wars end after a 30-percent attrition of the military-age population. Conversely, nations that feel themselves defeated or bereft of prospects simply die out through infertility. The historical norm is not liberal democracy; the norm, rather, is extinction, as I argued in my 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.

Hazony is an Israeli nationalist, and he defends nationalism in general the better to defend Israeli nationalism in particular. By this I do not mean that he views non-Jewish nationalism with anything but the sincerest sympathy, but rather that his nationalism has a Zionist filter. That is the book’s greatest strength. The book’s principal weakness is that Hazony does not embrace Jewish particularism explicitly enough. Hazony wants to say that there is a species of nationalism inspired by the ancient Jewish kingdom and by the Hebrew Bible, and that this form of nationalism is salutary and beneficial, while other forms of nationalism may be toxic. That is a thoroughly defensible stand, richly supported by the success of the most Hebraic of the Gentile nations, namely the United States of America, the “almost-chosen people” founded as a new Mission in the Wilderness.

By defending nationalism in general, rather than the Jewish concept of statehood in particular, Hazony sometimes backs himself into a logical fallacy known as the True Scotsman fallacy. In effect, he must argue that nationalism that is racist, xenophobic, and aggressive isn’t true nationalism. It is hard to read the following passage, for example, in any other way:

A national state is an institution on a limited scale. This means that the rulers of the national state inherit a political tradition that recognizes the boundaries of the nation and its defense needs as placing natural limits upon its extension, and so tend to disdain the idea of conquering foreign nations.

A Procrustean approach to history adds to the confusion. I have the impression that the audience that Hazony has in mind consists mainly of Americans brought up in the various schools of political theory. For this audience, he sometimes does too much and sometimes too little.

As an alternative to the liberal notion of a state designed by the political equivalent of engineers, Hazony offers what in earlier generations would have been called a Gemeinschaft model, one based on close personal ties:

Small institutions [he writes] like the family or the squad, consisting of individuals bound together by mutual loyalties developed over long years of shared hardship and triumph, are the bedrock of all political order. It is out of such small units that larger-scale political institutions of every kind are built. It is possible, for example, to bring together heads of families in an association of mutual loyalty to one another … a clan. And indeed, all over the world, and in all ages, clans have been established to provide for collective defense.

Such a model is all well and good, but states do not emerge from an organic agglomeration of clans. The formation of clans has occurred for tens of thousands of years, and the outcome until very recently was not the formation of nations but rather perpetual warfare among clans and tribes. We observe the same phenomenon today: Perhaps 1,000 languages are spoken today in the New Guinea Highlands with an average of a few thousands speakers each.

The nations of Europe, on the other hand, were created from the top down. The Church converted the chief of a horde of barbarian invaders and anointed him a monarch in the mold of the biblical kings of Israel. The fathers of the European nations were St. Isidore of Seville, St. Gregory of Tours, St. Stephen of Hungary, and Alcuin of York. Hazony doesn’t like empires, and views the historical Holy Roman Empire as the enemy of the nation-state, but that is not how the Church understood the matter: It required nations to populate the empire it proposed to erect in place of the fallen Rome, and thus stood godfather to the nascent nations. These later rebelled against the authority of the empire, which was nullified by the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War. But the victor in that war was Richelieu’s France, which harbored its own imperial designs to rival those of the Austrian-Spanish empire.

Large parts of the conservative movement adulate John Locke as the philosophical inspiration to the founding of the United States. Hazony thinks his influence entirely baleful, and his chapter on the British philosopher is the liveliest and most enjoyable in the book. “In reducing political life to the individual’s pursuit of life and property,” Hazony writes, Locke did not merely offer an impoverished and unsuccessful account of human motivation and action, but summoned into being a dreamworld, a utopian vision, in which the political institutions of the Jewish and Christian world—the national state, community, family and religious tradition—appear to have no reason to exist. He cites Edmund Burke’s declaration before the Commons that Locke’s Second Treatise was one of the worst books ever written. What bothers Hazony most is Locke’s statement that “mankind are one community.” Much of what Hazony brings to bear against Locke was already said by Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Walzer, but he says it well.

Given the importance of Locke in the founding, though, Hazony owed his readers more of an explanation of why such a terrible fellow had a central role in such a great event. The subject has occupied political theorists for decades. Leo Strauss argued that Locke, following Hobbes, evinced an amoral modern view of society that made the American founding “low but solid.” Differing with his teacher, Harry Jaffa in his later work claimed Locke’s “exoteric” support for Christianity stamped the founding with the religious character that Abraham Lincoln would later revive. Locke is one of the least consistent of philosophers; he contradicts himself frequently and breezily. Just for that reason he was a convenient prop for the founders, who included New Englanders who required an emphasis on biblical principles as well as Southerners who wanted a social compact formulated in such a way as to admit slavery. The inconsistency of Locke’s thought and the poor quality of his reasoning made him a useful vehicle for obfuscation. In that respect, Locke is less a national monument than a public convenience whose usefulness is long since expired.

Sadly, Hazony’s critique of Locke, like MacIntyre’s before him, will be ignored by the conservative readership. We conservatives judge past thinkers according to the positions they took (or could be construed to have taken) on issues that concern us today. The left views the Constitution as an arbitrary concoction subject to reinterpretation at the whim of lower-court judges, and the right defends the founding on the strength of eternal principles. Whatever the merits of its intellectual foundation, conservatives will rally around Locke’s notion of natural rights, and will keep Locke on a pedestal next to the founders.

Hazony is quite right to say that “there never has been a ‘state of nature’ of the kind imagined by Hobbes or Locke, in which individuals were loyal only to themselves.” Where, then, does the state come from? “The state is born out of the relative weakness of the old order of tribes and clans. It is a permanent revision of the political order, which introduces a standing central government over the tribes and clans. This includes the establishment of a professional armed force that is not disbanded in peacetime, a bureaucracy capable of raising taxes sufficient to maintain such a force; and a ruler or government with the authority to issue decrees that are then imposed, where necessary, by means of armed force.” Instead of a state of nature composed of individuals concerned about their own lives and property, as in Hobbes and Locke, Hazony gives us a state of nature composed of clans who are concerned about their own self-defense, and whose motive for creating a state is self-defense. He hasn’t yet banished Locke and Hobbes from his system.

The first nation-state of whose origin we have a complete record, of course, is Israel, and it was created by divine revelation and signs and wonders, as an instrument of God’s will. One does not have to accept the biblical account to recognize that Israel set a precedent for all the states that followed. It united a group of tribes around a common religion and priesthood with a universal God, eschewing the worship of family or clan gods that otherwise was universal in the ancient world. Tribes, clans, and even city-states may unite for self-defense, as did the Greek city-states, but no other nation like the biblical Israel arose in the ancient world with a unified monarchy, a unified legal system and unified religion. Hazony says in passing that “the Athenian state … was in fact created through the unification of a number of clans in just this way. … Both the Israelite and the Athenian states were thus able to function on the whole as free states, their existence made possible due to the loyalty of their people to nation and tribe.”

The comparison is misleading. No Greek of prominence ever argued that all Greek speakers belonged in the same state, and that the laws of one state should apply to every state. Every figure of Hebrew history from Moses to Malachi assumed that the Jewish polity was the state of all Hebrew speakers, and that all were subject to the same law. That remained the Hebrew political principle even after the end of the united monarchy. To be a Hebrew had an entirely different political meaning than to be a Greek, and Hazony’s passing conflation of the two would be a good candidate for excision from a future new edition of the book.

I have the impression that Hazony underplays the uniqueness of Israel in the hope of persuading a broader, secular audience. But European nationalism is inextricably bound up with the image of Israel. Nations define themselves by their response to the example of Israel. Every one of the European nations sought in some way to emulate the election of Israel. European nationalism tragically misappropriated the concept of election: Every one of the European nations at some moment in its history sought to be Chosen People, elected in the flesh as the unique manifestation of God’s will on earth.

To understand why Israel is the sine qua non of nationalism, then, we need to step away from political philosophy as the study of rational association, and consider the existential question to which Hazony refers: People will sacrifice life and property on a frightful scale for a national purpose. That has been true throughout modern history. Not a single instance of large-scale popular resistance to war and its associated conscription and taxation comes to mind in the history of modern states, not, at least, during the initial stages of war. On the contrary, the people of modern states almost always greeted the onset of war with enthusiasm, or at least resignation. Never once did large numbers of citizens inform their government that they would refuse to fight once war had been declared. The peoples of the West placed as a sacrifice upon the altar of the state the life and property that the political theorists claim that the state was formed to protect.

To understand why people form states, we must first ask what is so much more important than life and property, such that the citizens of state hold them in such contempt in wartime. What are people willing to die for? That has nothing to do with checks and balances, or constitutional law, or so-called natural rights, or any of the other usual distractions of political philosophy. Rather, it is an existential question that bears on how human beings confront mortality. As individuals, we know we will cease to exist; we may continue to live through family and tribe, but family and tribe are fragile. The state stands surety for the continuity of our culture broadly understood. The state gives us reason to believe that something of our person will continue after the worms have had their way with us. The nature of national identity in this framework is not a trivial problem. I have made a preliminary attempt at a solution in a January 2018 essay for Standpoint earlier this year, and in the 2016 Russell Kirk Lecture for the Heritage Foundation, subsequently published in Tablet Magazine.

The chart below compares the total fertility for the European countries and Jewish Israelis to the percentage of respondents in a recent Gallup poll who stated that they are willing to fight for their countries. Israel, as represented by its Jews, as usual, is an outlier.

If there’s nothing you’re willing to die for, there’s probably nothing you’re willing to live for

The New Nationalism proposes instead to return to the well of our national culture. But what is this? To rediscover the sacred, we must reach back a full thousand years, to the foundations of modern Europe. Europe was born of a sense of the sacred. By sacred, I mean the eternal: that which transcends our present conditions of life and gives us reason to believe that some part of our being will not perish. The pagan cults of the ancient world offered no such hope: The gods of Greece and Germany were immortal but not eternal. Zeus knew that a rival would destroy him as he had destroyed Chronos, and the Norse gods anticipated their doom at the Ragnarök. Families and tribes ultimately are fragile. The nation is the bearer of our immortality. That is why young men leave their families and sacrifice themselves on the battlefield to preserve their nation. In human history the human hope for eternity has a specific embodiment, namely Israel, the eternal nation. It was the genius of Christianity to offer adoption into Israel to the tribes cut loose from their origins during the decline of Rome, under national monarchies, modeled on the Davidic monarchy.

The Catholic imperial project collapsed during the Thirty Years’ War, which began as a Catholic-Protestant conflict but ended as war between French and Spanish dynasties each dominated by the desire to be a new, exclusive Chosen People. As Aldous Huxley wrote, the patriotism of Cardinal Richelieu “had been rationalized into a religious principle by means of the old crusading faith in the divine mission of France and the divine right of kings.” His opponents believed that “the Spanish were elected to realize the New Testament just as Israel had been elected to realize the Old Testament,” as the political theorist Juan Salazar advised Philip IV. The national megalomania of France and Spain was mirrored in all the European powers, in Dostoevsky’s claim that Russia was “the unique God-bearing nation,” and ultimately in the Nazis’ claim that the Germans were a master race. An honest reckoning with the tragic flaws of the Old Nationalism is a precondition for the success of a New Nationalism.

The Old Nationalism terminated with the two World Wars of the past century. As an antidote the Europeans proposed to dissolve themselves into a transnational union that would stamp out national particularity. The cure is deadlier, if slower acting, than the disease. The Europeans aspired to be Nietzsche’s Superman, and instead became the last man. If you destroy a nation’s sense of the sacred, you also destroy its motivation to bring a new generation into the world.

There is no going back to the Old Nationalism. Can a New Nationalism flourish in its place? This in my view requires a return to Europe’s biblical foundations with a renewed sense of the sacred. Israel, as I said before, has for 2,000 years embodied man’s hope for eternity. The spiritual Israel of European Christianity misappropriated the biblical idea of election; each of the European powers wanted to be elected, so to speak, in its own skin, and the Europeans (to quote Franz Rosenzweig) failed to tell Jesus from Siegfried. That is the most pernicious source of historic Jew-hatred in Europe. Their obsession with national election in the flesh led the Europeans to despise, expel, and ultimately destroy the remnant of the people whom, according to the Bible, God first chose for Himself.

Through Christianity, Israel came to embody the desire of the nations. It should be a beacon for nations that are struggling to maintain their identity and cohesion against a demographic ebb tide and against the pressures of globalization. Is there hope for the nations of Europe? The odds look bad, but they also looked bad when the Ottomans occupied Hungary in the 17th century, and again when the Germans and then the Soviets occupied Hungary in the middle of the 20th. Never in history did the extinction of a people appear as probable as in the case of the Jews in 1944. Yet only four years later the Jewish state arose from the ashes. Israel is demographic miracle, the only industrial nation with a fertility rate well above replacement, the exception that proves the rule: Humankind cannot bear mortality without the hope of immortality. The hope of immortality is founded on a sense of the sacred. The history of the world is the history of mankind’s search for immortality. When the nations of the world see their demise not as a distant prospect over the horizon, but as a foreseeable outcome, they perish of despair.

The restoration of the actual, physical Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people, should be a sign of hope for all the nations. Israel’s mission is to be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6), an “ exemplar and paragon” (Rosenzweig) that incorporates the sacred—the eternal—into the quotidian life of a people. The nations of Europe will rise up from the valley of dry bones when they are able to grasp what is sacred in their own character, and encourage the efforts of their neighbors to do the same.

There never has been nationalism that was not in some way an emulation of Israel, even as a satanic parody. And the New Nationalism looks explicitly to Israel as a portent of revival. I have an intimation that Yoram Hazony would like to say this—to shout it from the rooftops—but feels constrained to use the prevailing academic mode of discourse.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.