The Mortality and Morality of Nations

Cambridge University Press, 2015

The Mortality and Morality of Nations, Cambridge University Press, 2015


We search for immortality, and the kind of immortality we seek determines the kind of life we lead.
– Hans J. Morgenthau, Death in the Nuclear Age

Small nations. The concept is not quantitative; it points to a condition; a fate; small nations lack that felicitous sense of an eternal past and future; at a given moment in their history, they all passed through the antechambers of death; in constant confrontation with the arrogant ignorance of the mighty, they see their existence as perpetually threatened or with a question mark hovering over it; for their very existence is the question.
– Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed

Standing at the edge of life’s gaping abyss, we seek everlasting meaning, a sense of purpose and propriety, transcending the transient individual. We often find this solace in the morality of seemingly immortal collectives. Religions, civilizations, states, and nations are such “timeless beacons,” shedding their eternal light on the right path. What happens, however, when the nation itself appears mortal, when its members live with a constant sense of uncertainty about their collective’s existence?

The Mortality and Morality of Nations presents this puzzle and pieces it together. It submits that mortality makes morality, and right makes might: the nation’s sense of a looming abyss informs its deliberate and deliberative quest for a high moral ground, which, if reached, can bolster its vitality. The book investigates nationalism’s promise of moral immortality, and its limitations, via the narratives of three “small nations”: French Canadians, Israeli Jews, and Afrikaners. All three have been insecure about the validity of their identity or the viability of their polity, or both. They have sought partial redress in existential self-legitimation: by the nation, of the nation, and for the nation’s very existence. If this endeavor fails, however, the nation may pursue different existential paths. For the most part, Israeli Jews still subscribe to Zionism’s ethnonationalism, but French Canadians—now Québécois—have largely shed ethnicity, and Afrikaners have surrendered national sovereignty. The rise and fall of nations transpires not only in blood and iron, but also in pride and shame, in justice and in guilt.


“What is the Moral Sense, sir?” He looked down, surprised, over his great spectacles, and said, “Why, it is the faculty which enables us to distinguish good from evil.” …“Is it valuable?” “Valuable? Heavens! lad, it is the one thing that lifts man above the beasts that perish and makes him heir to immortality!”
– Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger

We are not alone. In the evolutionary tree of life, the human race is a twig. We share Earth with close relatives that exhibit humanoid traits, such as a large brain, bipedalism, opposable thumbs, tool making, imitation, emulation, causal understanding, communication skills, sociability, and sentience. It is tempting to dismiss “human exceptionalism”—the idea that humans are inherently unique—as vainglory informed by the fiction of our creation in “God’s image.” Some scientists reduce human exceptionalism to the bare facts that “we’re the only animals who cook food, and no other species is as destructive of its own and other species.” Others go further, concluding, “There is nothing special about being human, any more than there is anything special about being a guinea pig or a geranium.” Still, our interest in human exceptionalism is itself quite exceptional. Pigs and geraniums, as far as we know, do not contemplate their uniqueness.

The social sciences can employ their distinctive insights, tools and vocabulary to chart the blurred boundaries between humans and other animals (or machines for that matter), to show what we share with other species and where we stand apart. Shouldering this task is onerous. The very idea of “human nature” conjures up the perils of destructive reductionism and biological determinism, which many deem empirically frail and morally flawed. Still, both evidence and common sense suggest that certain traits humans share distinguish us from other animals. Indeed, social scientists have implicitly embraced this view in heuristic models, such as homo sociologicus, homo psychologicus, or homo economicus. However, it is far from clear how distinctively homo sapiens these models are. After all, chimpanzees too are highly social and have a rich emotional life. They may even surpass humans in their “rational behavior” towards material maximization, and, like us, are prone to psychological fallacies such as “loss aversion.” Wherein, then, lies the difference? [...]

Part I. Preface; Part II. Introduction: 1. Theory; 2. Case studies; Part III. Theory: 3. Meaning; 4. Mortality; 5. Morality; 6. Liberty; 7. Language; Part IV. The French Canadians: 8. The Canadiens: the emergence of an endangered ethnie; 9. The French Canadians: the rise and demise of ethno-religionism; 10. The Québécois: the rise and demise of ethnonationalism; Part V. Jews and Zionists: 11. Ontological insecurity: Jewish identity in modernity; 12. Epistemic insecurity: Jewish and Zionist survival in question; 13. Existential threats: Zionism's 'holes in the net'; 14. Existential threads: the lifelines of Zionism; Part VI. The Afrikaners: 15. Ontological insecurity: the birth of the Afrikaner ethnie; 16. Epistemic insecurity: Afrikaner survival in question; 17. Existential threats: Afrikanerdom's 'holes in the net'; 18. Existential threads: the lifelines of Afrikanerdom; 19. The twilight of apartheid and its aftermath.

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“Uriel Abulof offers a fascinating exploration of the existential challenges faced by what Milan Kundera has dubbed ‘small nations’ – ethnonational communities that experience a profound sense of collective fragility. Theoretically ambitious and empirically rich, The Mortality and Morality of Nations, delves into the self-understandings of the French Canadians of Québec, the Afrikaners of South Africa, and Israeli Jews to explain how common fears of national demise compel them to seek diverse means to bolster the moral foundations of their nationhood. This lucidly written study makes a unique contribution to our knowledge of politics, morality, and security.”
– Matthew Evangelista, Professor of International and Comparative Politics, Cornell University; author of Gender, Nationalism, and War: Conflict on the Movie Screen (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

“What Uriel Abulof has succeeded in doing is to take issues of political morality out of the ethereal philosophical plane and demonstrate how deeply embedded they are in the day-to-day rhetoric and practice of nationalism. While the primary focus here is on small, existentially vulnerable nations, the implications are sweepingly global, for in an age of nuclear deterrence, global terrorism, and environmental threats, the sense of existential dread extends to all peoples, large and small. This book is an intellectually ambitious undertaking of deep originality. It holds profound significance for our understanding of the interplay between ethics and identity in the politics of self-determination.”
– Aviel Roshwald, Department of History, Georgetown University; author of The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

“In this highly original and fascinating book, Uriel Abulof draws attention to the role of ethnic groups and nations as subjects of the human quest for enduring meaning, sense of identity, and moral purpose that transcend transient individual existence. His subtle and elegant discussion of three cases – the French Canadians, Israeli Jews, and Afrikaners – reveals the distinct and changing identity-defining frames and ethical discourses that each of these communities has evolved in its struggle to legitimize and self-justify its place in the world.”
– Azar Gat, Professor of Political Science, Tel-Aviv University, author of Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

“An unusual and impressive mix of theory and empirical research that helps us make sense of the ways in which nations deal with threats to their existence as distinct communities.”
– Bernard Yack, Lerman-Neubauer Professor of Democracy, Brandeis University; author of Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community (The University of Chicago Press, 2012)

“Rich in empirical detail and thoroughly grounded in political theory and philosophy, Uriel Abulof has written a deeply fascinating study of how small nations cope with challenges and threats to their survival and offers an inspired and telling comparison of French Canadians, Jews and Zionists, and Afrikaners that offers compelling insights into how small nations’ collective identities and polities evolve and survive, over time.”
– Stefan Wolff, Professor of International Security, Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, University of Birmingham; author of Ethnic Conflict: A Global Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2006)

“Uriel Abulof has written an original and deeply insightful comparison of three ‘small peoples’ – Israeli Jews, Afrikaners, and Québecois – whose ethnic boundary-construction has been informed by a state of existential insecurity. As well written as it is timely, Abulof’s book is essential reading for students of comparative politics, nationalism, and conflict resolution.”
– Derek Penslar, University of Oxford and University of Toronto; author of Jews and the Military: A History (Princeton University Press, 2014)

“This innovative study of ‘small nation nationalism’ focuses on a subjective sense of vulnerability rather than size. Uriel Abulof analyzes and compares three cases, using methods which make accessible mass data on popular and elite discourse. This enables him to offer persuasive arguments about such key questions as: Who are we? Why are we? Will we continue to be? How will we continue to be? This illuminating publication should encourage similar investigations into other relevant cases.”
– John Breuilly, Professor of Nationalism and Ethnicity, London School of Economics; editor of The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2013)

The Mortality and Morality of Nations is a sophisticated and imaginative analysis of the debate over national survival, which is one that dominates the politics of deeply divided societies. On the one hand, there is the demand that national survival be safeguarded by any means and regardless of moral qualms. On the other hand there is the insistence that a system based on injustice will, over the longer run, destroy a nation’s soul. Uriel Abulof illuminates the severe tensions between imperatives of morality and mortality.”
– Hermann Giliomee, Professor Emeritus of Political Studies, University of Cape Town; author of The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (University of Virginia Press, 2003)


International Symposium on “Small Nations: Culture, Politics and Universality” (Lac Brome, 24-27 September 2015)

Small Nations roundtable (Montreal, 28 September 2015)

Cover Image

A bit about John Martin's The Repentance of Nineveh... [and Wikipedia on The biblical Book of Jonah]

John Martin's The Repentance of Nineveh
“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death