There's a letter in today's Guardian from Blake Alcott that praises Eric Hobsbawm for 'his anti-nationalism, whatever the country in question'. Alcott writes:
He [Hobsbawm] was a lifelong anti-Zionist and underlined his cosmopolitanism by describing himself as a "non-Jewish Jew". Perhaps with hindsight we'll see that his wisdom included trying to advance human beings away from their ethnic and national identities into true universalism and humanism.
I shall leave to one side Eric Hobsbawm's views about Zionism, in order to consider the more general issue raised by the letter - that is, universalism. I would argue that a universalism that tries 'to advance human beings away from their ethnic and national identities' is a spurious one. This wouldn't represent an advance. There are at least two reasons for thinking so.
First, if human beings have rights, as any genuine humanist universalism needs to allow, then they ought to have a right to associate together in groups - including ethnicities and nations - just as they see fit, provided that they do so in ways non-harmful to others. The supposition that universality in this regard must mean that we all see ourselves as belonging to the human race as a whole, but to no smaller entities, is an arbitrary one. From where could such one-sided 'totalism' morally derive? From the fact that ethnicities and nationalisms can be supremacist and aggressive? They can but they don't have to be, and one isn't bound to renounce something just because it has bad manifestations or uses. One doesn't have to be against knives because knives can be used to stab people; one doesn't have to oppose the existence of states because some states are tyrannical. The idea that 'true' universalism would require general sameness is a dangerous fantasy.
Second, my example of states in the above paragraph was chosen deliberately. Two of the reasons people group together are (a) for common protection and (b) to pursue other common purposes. This doesn't have to be through the agency of a state, but historically it often has been. Again, states don't have to be based on national or ethnic groupings, but they commonly are - not always on a single one, sometimes on a few, but in any case on those in whatever number. As of this date, 'true universalism' hasn't come up with a better alternative to the state form as a mode of protecting people. International law still has some way to go.
For these reasons, among others, the right to national self-determination remains important, and knocking national identity, national identity just as such, is a folly.