Politics & Society

The best books on Nationalism

recommended by Yael Tamir

Why Nationalism  by Yael Tamir

Why Nationalism 
by Yael Tamir


When we think of nationalism, we tend to think of its extreme varieties. In fact, it's so ubiquitous in our daily lives that we rarely even notice it, says political theorist and former Israeli politician Yael Tamir. Here, she recommends books to help us better understand nationalism in all its forms and why one ignores its power at one's peril.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Why Nationalism  by Yael Tamir

Why Nationalism 
by Yael Tamir

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Before we get to the books, I wanted to say that I’ve always been wary of nationalism, particularly for the role it played in causing World War I and II. So, I was really fascinated by your perspective—and the one reflected in these books you’ve chosen—that modern society, or a functioning democracy, needs nationalism. I just wondered how you came to that view, and why you find it persuasive?

The most important thing for me to convey in Why Nationalism and also in my previous book, Liberal Nationalism, is that it’s too easy to undermine nationalism by associating it with its most extreme phenomenon. Every ideology could be taken to an extreme, including some very good ones. Extreme egalitarianism can lead to disaster, extremely libertarianism could lead to disaster and so on. It’s important for us to balance our view about nationalism, understanding its virtues and vices. Like every theory, it has both: it could be dangerous, and it could be liberating and promising. It’s not so much today, but I come from a country that was founded on a liberal conception of national self-determination. I think many countries like Israel, that were liberated in the postcolonial era, saw nationalism as a liberating force.

It’s also the power that keeps the society together and allows us to have a functional social contract. One of the things that we should remember about social contracts is that they are about a specific group of people working together to achieve a goal. There is no contract unless there is a group. No contract is an open contract. The national contract is what created the welfare state, the modern state, the democratic state. Unlike periods of tyranny, or monarchy, when the king could say, ‘you are my people, and I define who you are. If I want to sell you or give you as a present, that’s my right because you are mine.’ Now, it seems incredible, but kings did things like that in the past. The moment people started to say, ‘We own our future, we are the ones to determine who we are and how we function together’ they needed a self-determination and nationalism provided that. This is why nationalism is such an important and powerful force that is still with us today.

I’ve noticed that some people—and it comes up in a few of the books as well—make the distinction between nationalism and patriotism: one is the good form, and one is the bad form. Does that just make things murkier, is it better to use just one word?

I want to use one word because I want to highlight the good side of nationalism. It’s very easy to create different conceptional terms for the good and the bad, but there’s no good justice and bad justice, or good liberty and bad liberty, though both liberty and justice can harm. Things can be harmful and beneficial at the same time. If we sort out this complexity by giving them different terms, it maybe makes life more well-defined, but it doesn’t really capture the complexity of political systems and the complexity of political concepts. For me, what is interesting about nationalism is this complexity. If I give it away…

“It’s…the power that keeps the society together and allows us to have a functional social contract”

This is also why a lot of people don’t understand why nationalism is powerful. The reason is that they take everything that is good and put it out of the national sphere. Then they say, ‘I don’t know why people are attached to this terrible, terrible theory.’ But, actually, they’re not necessarily attached to the terrible part, they are attached to the whole conceptual framework and when we break it apart, we misunderstand history, and nationalism’s power in history.

What about newer critiques of nationalism, that we can’t deal with things like climate change, which are global in scope, on a national basis?

It’s true the nation-state isn’t sufficient, just as we, as individuals, aren’t sufficient. We don’t want to lose our autonomy, we want to work with other people autonomously. It’s the same for states, we don’t want someone to take over the world. Nobody has tried and probably no one would succeed. The whole idea of the United Nations—which I think was a very important idea in the history of the world—is of bringing nations to work together. But, first, they have to be entities that have the power to make a difference. Only then can they work with other entities that are similar to them.

OK let’s explore these themes more as we go through the books. First on the list is a book by the American historian Jill Lepore, who also writes for the New Yorker. It’s called This America: The Case for the Nation. It’s quite a short book, an essay.

I like short books, I really do.

She makes the case that if liberals don’t claim nationalism, others will. If American historians don’t focus on the national narrative, it leaves a vacuum that people like Trump will fill. Why do you like this book and think it’s important to read?

I like this book because it’s an easy read, but it’s a significant read. That’s a great combination. She’s exactly right and it’s what I’m trying to claim myself: Don’t surrender the power of nationalism only to the extremes. Take over the positive, creative, enabling power of nationalism to do something with.

It’s interesting to see that in the post-coronavirus era, it is happening more and more. More people speak about bringing jobs back home, buying our products, protecting our people, giving them support, providing health services. The crisis brought back a lot of the welfare language that was common after the war. You need a big crisis and lots of people dying, unfortunately, to make people think about how important it is that they have a state that provides them with protection and services.

You argue in your book that when the global elite see politicians talking about putting America—or whatever country it is—first, it makes them uncomfortable: they think it’s a step towards ‘Deutschland über alles’ and, in any case, protectionism doesn’t work. But in your view, if you’re not part of the cosmopolitan elite, those nativist attitudes make a lot of sense.

A lot of people forget that the global market and the flat world and all these wonderful things have been beneficial only to a very small group of people. It is surprising, but even today, the percentage of people living outside the country they were born in is about 3% globally. Most of us live and die in the same state where we were born. Our chances are molded by that state and not by the global situation. To be a globetrotter is fine. I’ve been one for a while, and I’ve enjoyed it, but I know that I’m privileged and it’s not something anyone can do. I’m realizing how irritating it is for people who can’t enjoy these benefits to be left behind. The people who can play the global game enjoy the best of it. They’re doing better, but too much has been given to them. All the rest are really left behind. If you look at income increases in places like the United States, it’s shocking. Since the 1980s, nothing has happened. We’re now at the third generation of people who have seen no rise in income. They are frustrated, and it’s understandable. They are angry because they think somebody has gamed the system against them—and that’s probably true.

Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard, and in the book she’s particularly critical about her profession, saying that from the 1970s onwards, scholars stopped studying American history as this kind of cosmopolitan worldview took over. You’ve also spent a lot of time in academia, as a political theorist, do you agree with her?

I’m sure she’s right about American history. I think the common turning point is Francis Fukuyama’s article about the end of history. That’s where it all culminated and we came together saying, ‘We won it, we are here, it’s a global world, it’s going to be more and more liberal and democratic.’ That was the misguided assumption.

It certainly had roots earlier, whether it was the 70s, or the 80s, I can’t pinpoint the exact date. In political theory it came much later, people were dealing with minority rights until the 90s. When rewriting nationalism started my first book, Liberal Nationalism, was one of the first to be published, in 1993. I got rejections from very significant publication houses. They said, ‘it’s a great book, but nationalism is of no importance anymore. You Middle Easterners are still stuck in the past.’ That was before 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then there was the process of liberation of the republics of the former Soviet Union and suddenly there was a wave of national movements. Nationalism came back. One of the claims I make in the book is that it never disappears. Sometimes it takes a front seat and sometimes it takes a back seat, but it’s there all the time. It’s a mistake not to see it when it’s in the backseat because then you miss the warning signs when it comes back.

Okay, next on your list is a book called After Europe by Ivan Krastev, who is a Bulgarian thinker. He’s not exactly predicting the end of the European Union, but he seems to think it’s quite likely to happen. How does this fit into your views on nationalism?

I’ve never met the author of this book because I’m stuck here in Tel Aviv, at the far end of the world. I love this book because Krastev explains to us the way Eastern Europeans think and this is something we don’t naturally see. A lot of the resentment in Eastern Europe to liberalism has to do with resentment to the previous process of Russification of these countries and their desire to come back and gain their autonomy, to re-identify themselves as nations. He rightly says that the celebratory mood in the 90s that ‘We’re all liberals seeking national self-determination’ was a misguided view. Eastern Europeans said, ‘We’re going back to our roots and those roots were never liberal. They were more Romantic roots and very different from the West’. The West just imposed an interpretation on the East and I think this is very important to understand why Europe is never—or not likely, or at least not at the moment, who knows, no one dares to predict anything now—going to create unity. There’s more populism in the East. He doesn’t write about it but, for me, the German case is always fascinating. East and West Germany were separated only for 45 years in history, it’s a very short period of time, but still the differences are there. You go to East Germany and, immediately, you know you’re in the East. It’s not something that has evaporated. Reading Krastev opened my mind to a new and very interesting way of thinking.

He also says that in Western Europe because things turned out well, we tend to be more optimistic. After World War Two things didn’t go so well in Eastern Europe, so they tend to be more pessimistic about what the future holds.

I think it’s true.

Let’s move on to Banal Nationalism by Michael Billig who is a British academic, a social psychologist. By ‘banal’ he means that it’s so ubiquitous in the world around you that you don’t even notice it. You agree with him, I guess?

Yes, because as I said, when nationalism is sitting in the backseat, we don’t really notice it. Sometimes we don’t pay attention to it, but it’s there. I’m always a foreigner, wherever I study or work, so I always feel it because I see how people treat their nation, their flags.

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For example, no one in Israel would ever dare raise the demand for a pledge of allegiance in schools, as they do in the United States. When I came as a child to the United States, I was astonished. I had my nine year old dilemma, should I do it? Should I put my hand on my heart? Should I say Israel or America? Who am I? What am I doing here? It was like, ‘Wow, this is really a very strong commitment of national allegiance.’ Americans don’t always see it; they say it’s a pledge for liberty or a pledge for democracy—but it’s a very American thing. Americans just don’t see the national background of their everyday lives. And it happens in other countries too. This is why I love this book. It opened my eyes to see a lot things—from poetry, to hymns, to even, like you said, the way people treat their future. Are you optimistic or pessimistic? It seems a very personal question. But then you look at nations, and there are more or less pessimistic or optimistic nations, partly due to their historical background.

Yes, and as you say in your book, there are lots of everyday things shaped by our national identity, like our culinary preferences, or even our gardens. When you see a picture of an English garden, you know immediately that it’s English.

Yes. I would go to the Proms as a student at Oxford. The audience joins in to sing a very national song on the last night, Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory. It’s not neutral.

This raises an important point: that your sense of national identity is something that you become more strongly aware of when you’re outside of your country, doesn’t it?

Yes. Liah Greenfeld shows in her first book, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity that, historically, the conception of identity started only when people started moving around. If you live in a village and never go out of that village and never meet anyone, you think everybody is like you. The question of identity is insignificant. The moment people start moving, and they see there are other peoples with other traditions and other languages, this becomes an issue.

You’d think, then, that the global elite should be more aware of their national identity than people who don’t travel as much.

No, the people in the global elite gave up their national identity to enjoy the benefits of globalism. They cherish, say, English more than the national language, they send their children to study in global schools, they ski and party together, then they spread the coronavirus to the rest of the world. What I’m trying to show in my book is that if you are a globetrotter, it is more rational for you to be more global in your self-identification, and if you’re stuck in your country it’s more rational to be more nationalistic. It’s no surprise that globalists are mostly well-educated globetrotters who benefit a lot from this lifestyle, and the more nationalist people are those stuck behind and who are not likely to ever enjoy it.

“Many countries like Israel, that were liberated in the postcolonial era, saw nationalism as a liberating force”

I’m sure there are places in the United States where people will never meet anybody. I remember once I gave a talk in Colorado, and before I started talking, somebody said to me, ‘Beware when you say pluralism, they think you mean Catholics. This is not New York, there is more uniformity.’ But the two world wars made very clear distinctions of nations and made nations aware of themselves. Then there’s the media, immigrants, minorities. You can’t miss it now.

Let’s talk about Liberal Nationalism and its Critics, which is a collection of essays looking to see if there can be a liberal version of nationalism. Tell me about this book.

I think it’s interesting because we always have one perspective, from one country with one agenda. This book is a wonderful collection of people coming from different perspectives, many of them from the Nordic countries. We often underestimate the significance of nationalism in the Nordic world, we always think, ‘Oh, those guys, they have everything, they have a welfare state, it’s cold and dark and they don’t mind’. Actually, they have a very strong nationalism, with very interesting questions. It’s the diversity of the book itself that made it interesting for me to read and see the perspectives, coming from those who are more European, those who are less European, and the way they put forward their arguments.

There is also a lot of reference to surveys and public opinion and what people actually say and how that contrasts with what you expect them to say on issues relating to national identity. Some of the essays are really trying to measure some of these questions around the world rather than just writing about them.

The book also supports an argument I make in my book that where you are, your place, very much determines who you are in terms of identity. There is a chart in my book that shows who is the most global-minded country and Nigeria comes top. I always thought Germany would be first, but it’s not. And the reason is that most people in Nigeria don’t think they can live in Nigeria, so they’re looking at how to move from there and they look at the world as an option. If you come to Europe, then people say, ‘Okay, well, better, where I am’. They are more nationalistic than people in countries that are doing very badly, and people need a way out.

We’re now at the final book you’re recommending on nationalism, which comes it at from a legal perspective. This is Liav Orgad’s The Cultural Defense of Nations: A Liberal Theory of Majority Rights.

This book is interesting because of its groundbreaking concept of majority rights. After so many years of talking about minority rights, Liav jumps over to majority rights and asks, ‘Why is it now emerging and is it justified?’ This is, I think, a big conflict for nationalists. On the one hand, we are trained to say you have to mellow down your nationalism in order to allow minorities to become freer and more engaged in the social arena. Here’s a book that asks, ‘What if this becomes a threat? What if it’s not only the minority who are under threat, but the majority feels threatened? And what is a majority?’ This is something we ask a lot in Israel—Liav is Israeli. Are we a majority in Israel? If we annex the territories, we would not be, it would be 50/50. We’re certainly a minority in the region. So who are we? A minority or a majority or in between? These are very, very interesting and important questions.

And does he reach any conclusions?

At the end of the day, he holds a view which is not very politically correct but is becoming more and more common. Kamala Harris went to Guatemala recently and said, ‘Don’t come because we’re not going to allow you in.’ That’s a majority saying, ‘We can’t open our borders altogether, because we want to remain who we are.’ In an age where lots of people are tempted to move, it becomes an interesting question. People seem to change their mind according to their perspective. For example, in Israel, the debate goes, ‘Everybody should be allowed to live wherever they want. There should be freedom to choose where you live’. Then you have five very orthodox families moving into a secular neighborhood, and everybody says, ‘This is a secular neighborhood, we don’t want it to change, we want to keep it secular.’ Then people start asking, ‘are they legally allowed to live here?’ Well, of course they are: they are Israeli citizens, they can buy apartments wherever they want. OK, then we won’t provide them with a school because we don’t want them to come in, because we want to retain the nature of our environment. Similarly, secular people will never move to an ultra-orthodox community because if they did move there en masse, there would be resentment. So, on the one hand, people feel freedom is important, on the other hand, they say their identity and their environment are important. It’s always a balancing act and it’s never perfectly right.

Orgad is, I think, looking at the US, the UK and Israel. The figure he gives is that by 2013, there were 232 million international immigrants, amounting to 10.8% of the population. If there are that many people in England (say) who don’t come from an ‘English’ background, whatever that may mean, it will start affecting a country’s cultural identity.

This is what happens in Europe. Now, many of them will be second- and third-generation immigrants, the figure includes migrants and further generations. But something happened because we used to assume that third-generation immigrants would integrate. Now it is quite clear, especially with Muslims in Europe, that the third generation isn’t integrated. That, I think, is part of the source of the debate. What is happening in the Nordic countries now is that people say, ‘Okay, it’s fine for them to come, we have to provide work, but they also have to integrate. And then Muslims say, ‘What do you mean, we have to integrate? Do you think we should convert?’ This is where the debate becomes really, really difficult.

Just in terms of your books on this topic, Why Nationalism came out in 2019 and it’s excellent, really, really interesting to read. Is it an update on your 1993 book, Liberal Nationalism, or how does it fit in?

Why Nationalism came out of a new perspective that I gained when taking more economic issues into account. My first book was very much ideological, it’s about the national/liberal tension and the way you can maybe settle that tension. It was mostly theoretical. With time, I’ve understood better the sociological-economical aspects of this process which, I think, have also became more prominent in recent years. In a way, this book complements the first book, with was really going more into human nature and human needs and psychology. The second one goes into sociology, economics, maybe international relations, and looks at the same issue from a different angle.

Is it possible to have liberal nationalism?

It’s like asking whether it’s possible to have a just state. It’s a worthy cause we should work to achieve, but I don’t think we’re going to get there. That’s why I always joke and say political theorists will never be out of a job. We’re just going to struggle. But struggling is important. It’s not like giving it up. The big mistake is to give up. The struggling has value and it’s what gives meaning to our freedom, to our decision-making, to our political action. It’s not that we reach a solution and say ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s do something else.’ There is a Jewish joke about a guy who lives in a very small town in Poland. He has no job, so he goes to the rabbi and says ‘Rabbi, I have no job. I have a family to support. Give me something to do.’ So the rabbi says, ‘You can go to the main road and sit there and wait for the Messiah, so if the Messiah comes he will know there are Jews in our little town, and he won’t skip us over’. And the guy says, ‘Okay, but how much will I earn?’ The rabbi replies, ‘the pay is very modest, but the job is permanent’. That’s what we do.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

November 2, 2021

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Yael Tamir

Yael Tamir

Yael (Yuli) Tamir is president of Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and adjunct professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, where she also did her PhD in political philosophy under the supervision of Sir Isaiah Berlin. A founder of the Israeli peace movement, she is a former Labor Party member of the Knesset and formerly served as Israel’s minister of education and minister of immigration absorption. She lives in Tel Aviv.

Yael Tamir

Yael Tamir

Yael (Yuli) Tamir is president of Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and adjunct professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, where she also did her PhD in political philosophy under the supervision of Sir Isaiah Berlin. A founder of the Israeli peace movement, she is a former Labor Party member of the Knesset and formerly served as Israel’s minister of education and minister of immigration absorption. She lives in Tel Aviv.