New Book Defends Resurgent Nationalism by Quoting Ben Gurion
Many of the latest headlines boil down to a conflict about nationalism.
Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, Donald Trump’s attempt to erect a border wall and renegotiate the terms of international trade agreements, Russian meddling in American politics, and public marches by avowed racists wind up being described in the press as actions by “white nationalists.”
Into this fray comes Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, with a new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, just published by Basic Books.
Hazony argues that nationalism — “when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference” — is preferable to the alternative of imperialism, “uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.”
He argues that the two options are mutually exclusive. He finds the roots of nationalism in the Hebrew Bible, contrasting it with the Roman Catholic Church’s more universal vision.
It’s a provocative case. Hazony takes aim at a series of intellectual giants much beloved by classical liberals and libertarians. John Locke was an English philosopher who was read and appreciated by America’s founding fathers. Hazony faults him for emphasizing the individual at the expense of loyalty to families, tribes, and nations. Ludwig von Mises was an Austrian economist who found refuge in New York in 1940. Hazony accuses von Mises of having “openly advocated dispensing with national states in favor of a ‘world super-state.’” Friedrich Hayek was a Nobel laureate economist who taught at the University of Chicago. Hazony faults Hayek for having endorsed, in a 1939 article on “The Economic Conditions Of Interstate Federalism,” in Hayek’s words, “the abrogation of national sovereignties and the creation of an effective international order of law.”
Hazony notes that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his book Perpetual Peace, also backed an “international state, which would necessarily continue to grow until it embraced all the people of the earth.”
Hazony marshals a series of arguments about why these worldwide visions are worse than nationalism. He says they are unworkable, coercive, and inconsistent with human nature.
His most vivid argument, though, may be his least abstract one.
“I have been a Jewish nationalist, a Zionist, all my life,” Hazony writes.
Hazony quotes David Ben-Gurion, a founder of the State of Israel, speaking in November 1942, bemoaning that Jewish children and elders were being “buried alive in graves dug by them … because the Jews have no political standing, no Jewish army, no Jewish independence, and no homeland.”
Though Zionism long predated the Holocaust, the Holocaust became important to Jewish nationalism. For most Jews, in other words, the absence of a Jewish state — not enough nationalism — led to the Holocaust. Yet as Hazony notes, there’s a competing, “almost perfectly irreconcilable” view in which German nationalism led to the Holocaust. “According to this view, it is not Israel that is the answer to the Holocaust, but the European Union,” Hazony writes.
It’s that juxtaposition that is Hazony’s strongest case. To most Jews the answer to this one is self-evident. It doesn’t require reading a lot of abstract philosophical tracts. It’s a simple choice. Safety and survival and freedom are far more likely to come from having a land with borders and a military under the control of one’s own people — a nation — than by relying on a distant bureaucracy in Brussels or at the United Nations that emits lofty language about universal ideals and liberal internationalism.
Voters in Britain, America, and elsewhere are increasingly reaching similar conclusions. Those seeking to understand these developments can look to Hazony’s book for a concise, thoughtful, strongly put case that resurgent nationalism is reason not for concern but for relief.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.