by Joseph E. Capizzi
Through the early twentieth century, nationalist sentiment was esteemed because it expressed desires for self-governance and freedom from oppression, and the sentiment squared with the growing awareness of rights, political freedom, and dignity held by people and peoples. “But Hitler changed all that,” argues Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony, president of the Hertzl Institute, in The Virtue of Nationalism. The century which began as a contest between opposing universalist claims (liberal and socialist theories) and nationalism, saw the latter collapse because of its association with Nazi atrocities.
Nationalism is back, however. In the United States, Eastern and Central Europe, and elsewhere, appeals to the nation are on the rise, and Hazony provides its thoughtful defense in his The Virtue of Nationalism. Hazony, to his credit, does not defend nationalism as some mere modus vivendi, but instead claims that the “national state” is the best expression of political order and an international system of national states is preferable to anarchic and imperial alternatives. The national state is the political form best suited to preserve domestic peace, the conservative goods of family and local culture, freedom, and creativity.
Empire, Hazony argues, is the national state’s biggest threat, conceptually and empirically: empires are universalist and seek to impose their impersonal, abstract values on nations; they stultify in the name of “humanity” and shame national pride by trumpeting universal ideals, as for instance the UN routinely shames Israel. The Virtue of Nationalism is also a strikingly personal book, with vignettes of his childhood and his love of Israel imbuing the book with both intimacy and urgency; Hazony’s case for the nation is a case for his home, Israel. And as he makes plain in an earlier, excellent, and likewise provocative book, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, his defense is of an Israel of “the Jewish people, the land of Israel, [and] Jewish national values.” The Virtue of Nationalism is remarkably clear and direct, and in more than a few places, beautifully written.
Originally published on 5 April 2019 at Providence.