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In Defense of Nationalism

Like any political ideology, nationalism has many faces, some uglier than others – US President Donald Trump’s isolationist anti-globalism is a prime example. But other forms of nationalism are beneficial and worthy of affirmation.

TEL AVIV – The “threat” of nationalism seems ubiquitous. Described mostly in pejorative terms, the ideology is now synonymous with xenophobia, populism, authoritarianism, and illiberalism. Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron blamed excessive nationalism for stoking the fires of World War I, and warned that “old demons” threatened a return to “chaos and death.”

Given such rhetoric, it is easy to assume that nationalism, in all its forms, should be relegated to the dustbin of history. Even intellectuals have lost the ability to hold a nuanced debate about nationalism’s virtues as well as its vices. But a recent book by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari offers an opportunity to correct this imbalance.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari poses an important question: Can nationalism address the problems of a globalized world, “or is it an escapist indulgence that may doom humankind and the entire biosphere to disaster?” Harari’s answer is not surprising; by framing his discussion with a litany of ecological, nuclear, and technological challenges, he concludes that nationalism will only lead to conflict and disaster.