Review: The Virtue of Nationalism (by Yoram Hazony)

by Stephen Waldron

The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony (Basic Books, 2018)

What is the virtue of nationalism? After all, isn’t it the thing that stokes hatreds and closes minds, causing wars and genocides? As Yoram Hazony describes it, nationalism is virtuous because it is something like what David McPherson has more recently called “the limiting virtues.” By setting a boundary, nationalism says that one will love and be loyal to this people and this land. That, for Hazony, is the only realistic shape that love and loyalty can take. This is set against the idea of simply loving humanity in general, which Hazony views as an unrealistic abstraction.

This theory of political order is rooted in a broader context in Hazony’s work. For one thing, it is based on his reading of the Hebrew Bible as a text in political philosophy. In his 2012 book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Hazony argues that modern interpretations of the Hebrew Bible as (alleged) divine revelation are misguided. While Christians have interpreted it that way, that model fits the New Testament better than the Hebrew Bible. Instead, Hazony reads the Hebrew Bible as an instructional book that makes rational claims about how the world works. At the level of politics, it teaches that the nation arises from the unity first of the family (which is presumed to be a heterosexual family). The kind of loyalty developed in that context leads to alliances between families, which form clans, and between clans, which form tribes. When a group of tribes unites, a nation is born. For Hazony, the nation is the least bad form of political order, a midpoint between the anarchy described in the Book of Judges and the instability of multinational empires like Assyria and Babylon.

What does that have to do with modern political order? Hazony contends that modern political thinkers have often gotten things wrong because their approach has been “rational” in an abstract way. For Immanuel Kant, a human being is a certain kind of being, and political order must be shaped around claims to human dignity and human rationality. But Hazony says that reverses the steps that should be taken. For him, political philosophy should first be empirical. The political philosopher should evaluate how the world works in practice, then make claims about political order in light of historical evidence. As noted above, the Hebrew Bible is a key source of this evidence for Hazony. According to Hazony, the post-1945 Western consensus about the need for multinational and even international order was hubristic. He contends that the only realistic way to pursue a peaceful world is for each nation to arm and defend itself.

This theorizing cannot be separated from his 2001 argument that Israel ought to recognize itself as “the Jewish state.” This argument was enshrined in Israeli Basic Law (essentially as a constitutional text) by the Knesset in July 2018. Hazony’s argument was against Israeli intellectuals who he claimed were influenced by German Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt. These intellectuals, he claimed, had taken on a rationalist approach to political order that respects universal human rights. That position of the intellectual elites, according to Hazony, betrayed the vision of the first generation of Labor Zionists, who believed that Jewish values needed to be complemented by Jewish state power. And when such values and power conflict with universalistic visions (for instance, when restrictions on the proselytization of Jews by non-Jewish religions conflict with freedom of religion), the Jewish character of the nation should be affirmed.

This raises a question: who, for Hazony, are the political enemies of the nationalism that he promotes? Along with intellectuals, he indicates that the European Union (EU) is a particularly egregious foe of national sovereignty. Hazony celebrates Brexit and advocates for the rights of nations like Hungary and Poland to set their own family policies and immigration restrictions.

At this point, we might ask whether Hazony’s principled arguments about political order are a bit self-serving. After all, the EU promotes the rights of LGBT people, while governments in Hungary and Poland have moved to violate such rights. Is it a bit convenient that Hazony cloaks his support for such violations in the notion that the EU is “imperialistic” like ancient Babylon?

And his support for national sovereignty for groups such as Kurds, along with a “right of return” for the associated ethnic group once it has a nation, raises another haunting question. A large section of The Virtue of Nationalism is about international criticism of Israel. But Hazony never clearly mentions the topic of that criticism. His theory of the nation holds that a people needs to develop itself to the point of self-sufficiency and self-defense to rightly claim nationhood. This conspicuously jeopardizes national claims of groups who might be crushed by more powerful nations: Ukrainians, indigenous peoples in the Americas, and, of course, Palestinians.

Hazony’s reading of the Hebrew Bible as a tractate on political order leaves little room for the anti-national critiques of the prophets. But a contemporary translation of their viewpoint would trouble the dominance of many of the institutions he lauds: the heterosexual family, the ethnically defined nation, and the very idea that there is a natural order of human politics that cannot be altered. The fact that large populations have enthusiastically endorsed cosmopolitan and liberal ideals indicates that Hazony may be underestimating our species using a soft bigotry of low expectations, one that happens to undergird a defense of far more virulent bigotries.

Stephen Waldron
Stephen Waldron

Managing editor Stephen Waldron is a Ph.D. student at Boston University School of Theology.