“Something very interesting is happening right now,” says Professor Yuli Tamir in a conversation with Davar, referring to the political situation in Israel. “There is a disruption of the traditional structure of left and right, wherein the old divisions have broken down somewhat. A new mixture is beginning to form, and it’s not yet clear what it’s going to be composed of. The so-called ‘change bloc’ [left- and right-wing parties who oppose current Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] has many nationalist forces, which are neither authoritarian nor extremist, but are also not entirely coherent and do not necessarily represent a holistic worldview. This is a very undefined condition that we still need to make sense of.”
Tamir is far from the right-wing nationalist-conservative stereotype and is actually much closer to the past archetype of the Israeli left-wing activist. In the late 1970s, she was among the founders of Peace Now and she later headed the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Tamir was the Minister of Absorption in Ehud Barak’s Labor-led government in 1999, served in the Knesset under the Labor Party for seven years, and was appointed Minister of Education in Ehud Olmert’s center-left Kadima government from 2006-9. Only six months ago, after a decade as president of the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, she began her tenure as president of Beit Berl College, a multidisciplinary college focused on training educators.
“It is happening in other places as well. For instance, in Europe you see the Green [Parties] aligning [more] with fascist, far-right elements. Almost everywhere in the world, unusual alliances have been formed, and this is happening in Israel as well. Suddenly there is some thinking about political identity and it is not exactly in the accepted, old parameters. But will this lead to a new formation of political identities? That I do not know.
“If, at the end of the day, a government exists containing both [the right-wing Religious Zionism party leader] Bezalel Smotrich and [the Islamist Ra’am party leader] Mansour Abbas, we will have to admit that we did not understand something – that something else was happening. That apparently the self-definition of of Israel is more religious than national. It is ostensibly easier for [the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party leader] Moshe Gafni to sit [in a government] with Abbas than with me, even though I personally think he holds me in regard. All these factors postpone the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the question of the occupied territories, to be solved when the Messiah will get here. He can fix it then.”
Many think liberalism is a sham
To many Israelis, national holidays express the best of Israeli patriotism and nationalism. These holidays inspire notions of solidarity – a collective sharing of pain and being a part of something bigger. For others, watching the official Israeli Independence Day ceremony brings about feelings of cynicism and alienation. The toxic public discourse – paired with a polarized political reality of endless rounds of elections – essentially forces every Israeli citizen to choose a side: national pride in the name of Zionist identity, or criticism in the name of liberal-universal values?
Tamir has been researching nationalism since completing her doctoral dissertation in political philosophy at Oxford University in 1989. Her latest book, Why Nationalism (published in English in 2019), elevates nationalism, or cultural/ethnic solidarity, as a necessary condition for democracy. She argues that liberal policies on issues such as immigration and minority rights – policies that have become popular in recent decades in the West – may have negative consequences for a significant portion of the public. Ignoring these consequences, she says, is what has made liberalism a “synonym for hypocrisy” in the eyes of many.
Anyone who listens to her without knowing her work and ideology as they have developed may well assume that she has already chosen a side.
“The growth of nationalism, in Israel and around the world, is the force that built democracies,” she says. “The liberal left is losing because it does not know how to balance its own values with values that are important to other people.”
According to her, liberal elites in Israel and throughout the Western world have “lost interest” in their own national identity, and when lower classes raise just claims in the name of national values and cross-class solidarity, they dismiss those claims with a degree of contempt.
Unlike other intellectuals, Tamir refuses to participate in the “either-or” game of public discourse. She insists that “identity is important, and nationality is important, but freedom is also important. Feminism is also important.” Her worldview is uncompromising, even as she demands compromises from others. Precisely in these days of political uncertainty, it offers other criteria for examining reality in Israel and throughout the world.
According to Tamir, the democratic state could not have developed without nationalism. “Contrary to the way it is often presented, nationalism has developed as a liberating force, not as an oppressive force. That it had repressive incarnations is undoubtedly true, as is the case for many movements in the 20th century. But in the end, nationalism developed as a liberating way to bring national groups and political frameworks to self-government.
“This is the critical thing to pay attention to. Because if the national framework disintegrates, a political framework remains whose rationale is completely bureaucratic. Historically, bureaucratic frameworks alone do not tend to survive over time. People do not have much long-term commitment to bureaucratic frameworks. When you live in a framework whose power of survival is small, then the chances of you working for that framework, even sacrificing your life for it if necessary, are low. But as Israel’s Memorial Day reminded us, the existence of a national framework sometimes requires sacrifice.”
The need for national frameworks
“People need frameworks that have comprehensive emotional and human content. This need is a very human need and has been at the background of all democratic thinking for the last few centuries. Nationalism meets this need and it therefore appeals to people. It deeply fulfills this role and has done so over many, many years.
“People enter into various social commitments in order to answer all kinds of emotional needs. These are not just rational decisions, but this emotional response is part of our rational needs. We crave that feeling of belonging. It meets a basic human interest. People are unable and unwilling to live in isolation from such systems [of social commitments]. They seek identification and seek to define for themselves a national group [or] gender identity, [for example]. In this sense, nationalism has done the preparatory work for the establishment of the modern state and it has played a positive role in this.
“I argue in my latest book that the disintegration of nationalism is the beginning of the disintegration of social solidarity, [or in other words], the disintegration of the right to work together over the years and create a whole set of support.”
The capitalist market against the nation-state
Tamir argues that the disintegration of social solidarity and the weakening of the state's support systems do not affect everyone in the same way. Thus naturally, according to her, the weaker classes need the welfare mechanisms of the state more than those whose economic status is better established. Accordingly, low-income communities are more likely to hold a cohesive affinity toward a national identity, which is necessary in Tamir’s eyes for the long-term preservation of a solidarity policy. Elites, on the other hand, find it easier to adopt a liberal set of values, at the expense of the centrality of national identity, since open borders and tolerant treatment of foreigners allow them to take advantage of new economic opportunities.
“The global capitalist market is one of the powerful tools that took the wind out of the nationalist solidarity economy,” Tamir explains. The “divorce between markets and political systems," as she puts it, hurts the weak in society, leaving them more vulnerable to risks and with fewer economic opportunities.
Although Tamir admits that the global free market isn’t going anywhere, she thinks national solidarity is still relevant today. “Take a look what is currently going on in America. It’s the Democratic President, Joe Biden, not [former Republican President Donald] Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ modus operandi, who is talking about buying in America, about producing in America. This is a classic discourse of national liberalism: ‘we are here to take care of American workers.’ This is the contract between the state and its citizens. Biden is doing this without relinquishing the desire to also be a global player, and he will do both.
“In this sense the coronavirus pandemic and the crisis it created brought the elites home to some extent. They realized that they were vulnerable, that we were all very vulnerable. Mobility has stopped, and people are suddenly living in their own country and understand much better its plight. Everyone has found out where they belong, and in that sense the plague has done and is doing us a favor.”
"Humanity does not offer us a single solution"
Tamir has claimed that the response to the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the vitality of national sovereignty. Even as some world leaders have used the pandemic for political purposes and to infringe on individual freedoms, Tamir still believes that this period provides evidence in support of the nation-state.
“It is true that these things also happened. An epidemic is an extreme situation. No one in the world has optimally solved the dilemmas of individual freedom during the pandemic. There is no model for freedom during an epidemic. I think most countries, probably most European countries, started treatment from a very nationalistic place, and they are now softening to a more European place.
“Germany, too, with all its ethos of the European Union, initially refused to send ventilators to Greece. This is not the first time this tension has risen. This time it manifested as Germany, which was indifferent to Greek suffering, also arriving in the end to save Greece. Germany built a very strong constitutional democracy and adopted liberal values as a kind of atonement for the crimes of Nazism. This is evidence that this is a democracy on a very strong nationalist basis, the reasoning is nationalist, they see themselves as connected and committed to the national past, but the content is of a liberal democracy.
“In all these situations that have been a result of the pandemic, we find ourselves in great turmoil, which is understandable, since it is human. It is human to want your family and friends vaccinated first. And it is also human to understand that there are places in the world in greater distress and that you have a responsibility towards them as well. Humanity does not offer us one solution, that once we have done it we can rest on our laurels.”
"A matter of balancing values"
As a left-wing woman, Tamir shows sympathy for nationalist arguments voiced from the right side of the political spectrum. However, she observes with concern the rise of the right, which “is enjoying its gained power and is trying to go all the way with its ideas,” both in Israel and around the world. According to her analysis, to an extreme conservative nationalist form of xenophobia, misogyny, racism, and antisemitism.
Tamir points to the interdependence between liberal democracy and nationalism, one that neither side is comfortable acknowledging. “Some people think it can only be one thing. Nationalist or democratic-liberal,” she says. “It’s a stupid thought. But that stupidity unfortunately is rising.”
Yet Tamir also acknowledges that creating a balance between nationalism and liberal democracy is no simple task. “Theoretically it’s simple, but it's clear that in practice it's much more complex. On the other hand, I would say the same thing about almost anything human. Any opinion, when taken to the extreme, can do damage. Almost anything good can be destroyed by deleting everything else and sticking to one value.
“In this regard, nationalism is part of a set of values that have advantages and disadvantages. If you do not balance them, you will not be able to take from [nationalism] the good that exists. How do you create a reality of liberal nationalism? It is a matter of balancing different values. Yes, [national] identity is important. In addition, there are important liberal values. Liberal nationalism balances things that are important to us. It puts these things in the arena, validates them, and balances them.
“If we do not want to be one-dimensional people for whom only one thing matters, then our whole lives are a work of balance – an attempt to find that balance. But it is not that when you reach balance you say dayenu [enough] and stay there. In reality, we are talking about the pendulum moving around a balance point – we keep shifting and moving back and forth. This occurrence can be seen in many countries.”
Tamir’s analysis combines deep academic studies with rich experience, both as a social activist and at the highest levels of the political field. This analysis reveals that the conventional moral compass – where one pole lies on the conservative right and the other the liberal left – no longer helps with navigating the political reality.
The most powerful insight that emerges from Tamir’s conclusions is that the fundamental problems of political existence in our time are not problems that can be solved simply.
“There is no way to build communities that are both meaningful to their members and open to everyone: the more significant a community is to those who are in it, the more it excludes everyone else.”
Because only a meaningful community can sustain a vital democracy, and only democracy can sustain a modern nation-state, the conclusion arises that certain compromises are required between liberal ideals and national identity. But Tamir refuses to give a recipe for this compromise.
“What should be done?” She answers the question with another question: “One must take the political situation everywhere and at any time, and begin to think of compromises that can preserve a state of liberal nationalism.”