Book review: Why Nationalism

David Conway admires an audacious argument about how liberal we should be


Why Nationalism by Yael Tamir (Princeton University Press, £20)

‘This work is an attempt to demonstrate that the liberal tendency to overlook the value inherent in nationalism is mistaken, and to explore the ways in which nationalism might contribute to liberal thinking.” While taken from her 1993 book, Liberal Nationalism, this statement of Yael Tamir’s also accurately describes this sequel to it.

Her first book emerged from a PhD thesis she wrote at Oxford under the tutelage of Isaiah Berlin, to whose memory she dedicates its sequel. The abiding influence of her former tutor is conspicuous in Tamir’s continued predilection for what Berlin called “ethical pluralism”: the combining of values often at odds and seemingly irreconcilable. In this case, those seemingly conflicting values are those associated with liberalism on the one hand, such as equality and universal human rights, and, on the other, the exclusionary particularistic attachments of nationalism that invariably prioritise the claims and needs of nationals above those of others.

Between her first book and Why Nationalism? the Israeli-born former Peace Now activist entered the Knesset as a Labour member and was given the opportunity to put her pluralistic political views into practice. As minister of education in Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led coalition government in the 2000s, she tried (unsuccessfully) to incorporate reference to the “Nakba”, or “catastrophe”, as Arabs term Israel’s creation in 1948, into the elementary school textbooks of Israeli Arab schoolchildren. Since leaving politics, Tamir has presided over Shenkar College, a very successful Israeli institute of engineering and design, as well as joined the politics faculty of Oxford as an adjunct professor.

What might have seemed to Oxford dons, when she was a student there, a quaint, eccentric ambition of Tamir’s to reconcile liberalism with nationalism, has become, since the 2016 Brexit referendum and electoral victory of Donald Trump, a matter of acute concern to political and cultural elites throughout the western world. Faced with a growing, global populist revolt against what had seemed an unstoppable global trend towards ever-greater supra-national governance, many among those elites are now desperately trying to quell the rising tide of nationalism, or at least accommodate it with what remains of the liberal world order.

Some see in these trends harbingers of revived Fascism. Not so, Tamir. While alert to the dangers of chauvinistic and xenophobic forms of nationalism, she is no less aware of what she persuasively argues are the manifold social benefits that moderate forms of nationalism confer on present-day liberal democracies whose viability depends on their populaces possessing sufficient mutual concern to be willing to sustain their generous public welfare and educational systems needed to prevent their descent into anarchy. A sense of common nationality supplies the appropriate social glue.

For Tamir, however, the reason present-day states should foster nationalistic ardour in their citizens goes beyond economics and political expediency. In a world bereft of religion, she argues, only nationalism can provide people today with suitable meaning-conferring linkages to orders of being more permanent and larger than their transitory narrow selves, and without which they are liable to fall victim to enervating forms of anomie and alienation.

Free-market libertarians and social democrats both have lots to learn from this measured and thoughtful book.

So, too, do all who stand in between these two ends of the liberal political spectrum who are troubled by contemporary populist trends.

David Conway’s books include ‘In Defence of the Realm: The Place of Nations in Classical Liberalism’ 

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