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Ethnic nationalism is a form of nationalism wherein the "nation" is defined in terms of ethnicity. Whatever specific ethnicity is involved, ethnic nationalism always includes some element of descent from previous generations. Furthermore, the central theme of ethnic nationalists is that "...nations are defined by a shared heritage, which usually includes a common language, a common faith, and a common ethnic ancestry." It also includes ideas of a culture shared between members of the group, and with their ancestors, and usually a shared language; however it is different from purely cultural definitions of "the nation" (which allow people to become members of a nation by cultural assimilation) and a purely linguistic definitions (which see "the nation" as all speakers of a specific language).

The central political tenet of ethnic nationalism is that each ethnic group on earth is entitled to self-determination. The outcome of this right to self-determination may vary, from calls for self-regulated administrative bodies within an already-established society, to an autonomous entity separate from that society, to a sovereign state removed from that society. In international relations, it also leads to policies and movements for irredentism — to claim a common nation based upon ethnicity.

In scholarly literature, ethnic nationalism is usually contrasted with civic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism bases membership of the nation on descent or heredity—often articulated in terms of common blood or kinship—rather than on political membership. Hence, nation-states with strong traditions of ethnic nationalism tend to define nationality or citizenship by jus sanguinis (the law of blood, descent from a person of that nationality) while countries with strong traditions of civic nationalism tend to define nationality or citizenship by jus soli (the law of soil, birth within the nation-state). Ethnic nationalism is therefore seen as exclusive, while civic nationalism tends to be inclusive. Rather than allegiance to common civic ideals, then, ethnic nationalism tends to emphasise shared narratives and common culture. For example, Germanymarker is often cited as an example of ethnic nationalism; German citizenship is open to "ethnic Germans" (e.g. descendents of Germans living in the former Soviet Union).

The theorist Anthony D. Smith uses the term 'ethnic nationalism' for non-Western concepts of nationalism as opposed to Western views of a nation defined by its geographical territory. Diaspora studies scholars extend this non-geographically bound concept of "nation" among diasporic communities, at times using the term ethnonation or ethnonationalism to describe a conceptual collective of dispersed ethnics.

There are also subtle forms of ethnic nationalism present in immigration policies. States such as Armeniamarker, Bulgariamarker, Croatiamarker, Finlandmarker, Germanymarker, Hungarymarker, Irelandmarker, Israelmarker, Romaniamarker, Serbiamarker, and Turkeymarker provide automatic or rapid citizenship to members of diasporas of their own dominant ethnic group, if desired. For example, Israel's Law of Return, grants every Jew the right tosettle in Israel and automatically acquire citizenship.

A nation-state for the ethnic group derives political legitimacy from its status as homeland of that ethnic group, from its protective function against colonization, persecution or racism, and from its claim to facilitate the shared cultural and social life, which may not have been possible under the ethnic group's previous status as an ethnic minority.

Ethnic nationalism has sustained criticism because of its use by extremists to advocate racist agendas and genocide, such as the case of Nazi Germany and its extermination of millions of Jews and other ethnic and cultural groups during the Holocaust. More recent acts of violence that used ethnic nationalism as a justification include ethnic cleansing such as the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, and the Genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovinamarker in 1995. A long-standing and on-going example of this phenomenon is found in the ethnonationalist project to create a Jewish state in Palestine.

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