Book review: The Virtue of Nationalism

3 May 2019

The Virtue of Nationalism, by Israeli academic Yoram Hazony, defends the notion of national freedom, as opposed to imperialism, showing how the Bible sets the vision for a world of independent nations. Tim Dieppe reviews this new book.

Yoram Hazony is an Israeli political philosopher whose previous books include one on The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. He is a Modern Orthodox Jew and says that he has been “a committed nationalist, a Zionist” all his life (p2).

Hazony recognises that contemporary public discourse pours scorn on nationalism as if it is entirely discredited. He has responded with a robust defence of nationalism in this book which deserves careful attention.

What is nationalism?

Hazony defines nationalism as “a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.” (p3). Hazony explains that “this is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible under a single political regime.”

You are either a nationalist or an imperialist

The big idea of this book is that you cannot avoid choosing between nationalism and imperialism. You are either a nationalist or an imperialist. Either you support international government imposing its will on nations, or you support the idea that nations should be free to govern themselves without interference from an international regime. There is no middle ground.

Hazony describes the “two great imperialist projects” of the European Union and American ‘world order’. Both seek to remove decision-making from the hands of independent national governments and place it in the hands of international governments or bodies. ‘Globalism’ too is a version of the old imperialism. Nationalism, by contrast, is anti-imperialist, seeking to establish a world of free and independent nations (p6).

A biblical idea

Hazony explains how the Bible articulates a vision of independent nations. Israel’s calling was to be an independent nation – not seeking territorial expansion. The Israelites are explicitly told not to expand their territory into that of the neighbouring nations (Deuteronomy 2:4-19). Israel’s prophets were frequently concerned with the activities of imperialistic empires – Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. As Hazony puts it: “The Bible puts a new political conception on the table: a state of a single nation that is unified, self-governing, and uninterested in bringing its neighbours under its rule.” (p19).

At the same time: “It is important to note that the Israelites’ conception of the nation has nothing to do with biology, or what we call race. For biblical nations, everything depends on a shared understanding of history, language and religion that is passed from parents to children, but which outsiders can join as well.” (p20).

Nazism was imperialistic and defeated with nationalism

Hazony makes clear that “Nazi Germany was, in fact, an imperial state in every sense, seeking to put an end to the principle of the national independence and the self-determination of peoples once and for all.” (p39). Furthermore, “Western European nations had not feared the Germans because of their nationalism, but because of their universalism and imperialism – their aim of bringing peace to Europe by unifying it under a German emperor.” (p41). In setting out to defeat Nazi imperialism, radio broadcasts from the United States and Britain emphasised that “their aim was to restore the independence and self-determination of national states throughout Europe. And in the end, it was American, British, and Russian nationalism … that defeated Germany’s bid for universal empire.” (p40).

The new liberal imperialism

Hazony is clear that the new liberalism which seeks to impose laws and morality on other nations is no less imperialistic. He highlights attempts in Europe to ban circumcision and kosher slaughter, as well as forcing liberal teachings on sexuality and the family on Christians and Jews in the workplace and in schools. “It requires no special insight to see that this is only the beginning, and that the teaching and practice of traditional forms of Judaism and Christianity will become ever more untenable as the liberal construction advances.” (p49).

This imperialism is starting to restrict basic freedoms. “There is a sense today throughout the Western world that one’s beliefs on controversial matters should no longer be discussed openly. We are now aware that we must think a second and third time before acting or speaking as though the Protestant political order were still in place. Genuine diversity in the constitutional or religious character of Western nations persists only at mounting cost to those who insist on their freedom” (p50).

National freedom

Ancient Israel celebrated escaping from the oppressive rule of imperialistic Egypt, obtaining national freedom and independence. Still today, several nations celebrate their freedom from imperialistic rule every year, with independence days in Czechia, Greece, India, Ireland, Israel, Poland, Serbia, South Korea, Switzerland, the United States, and many other countries (p103). Current emphasis in political thought is on individual freedom. Nevertheless, Hazony argues that collective freedom is real and valuable and justly to be celebrated.

Theories of nations

Hazony discusses various benefits of a world of free and independent nations. He looks at how nations are formed and at various philosophical and political conceptions of the nation state, interacting with the theories of John Locke and Immanuel Kant amongst others. He also goes on to examine criticism of Israel as a nation state and how its formation was, to a large extent, a response to the Nazi holocaust. He criticises the double-standards, whereby Israel is held to a higher standard by international politicians than the standards of the surrounding nations. Much of this he blames on the anti-nationalism of Kant, and Kant’s stages of human progress.

An important book

Hazony concludes by reference to Abraham. God called Abraham and promised that he would “make of you a great nation … and in you will all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3) Yet, as Hazony points out, “nowhere are the patriarchs offered an empire over the earth, only a kingdom over Israel.” (p233). National freedom is a precious gift and something to be treasured. It is something we should aim to pass on to our children. Hazony has written an important book in defence of the biblical idea of national freedom. It deserves a wide readership.

  • Share

Related articles

All content has been loaded.

Take action

Join our email list to receive the latest updates for prayer and action.

Find out more about the legal support we're giving Christians.

Help us put the hope of Jesus at the heart of society.