Patriots for Us

Patriotism: Ohavim otach moledet (Patriotism: Homeland love) Edited by Avner Ben-Amos and Daniel Bar-Tal. Published by The Red Line Series, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 490 pages, NIS 88.

The Al-Aqsa Intifada, which broke out in Israel in 2000 and the following year's September 11 attacks on the United States generated a surge of patriotism in both countries. Israel saw the birth of the new national consensus so aptly expressed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In the U.S., the wave of new patriotism gave the president a reason to head a global crusade; it also led to legislation revoking some of America's most sacred freedoms. Since 9/11, for example - and this is by no means the gravest article in the new patriotic statutes - the authorities can ask any library for information about the kinds of literature consumed by its readers. All in the name of the holy war on world terrorism.

And so Palestinian violence here and Islamist violence in the world at large became reminders of the fact that patriotism - a term derived from patria, homeland, and denoting love of one's country, people and state - is not necessarily an exalted virtue, but can also be what Samuel Johnson called "the last refuge of a scoundrel" and Erich Fromm described as the worst kind of insane nationalism.

It was not that many years ago that we Israelis, as teenagers, followed our geography teacher on a class field trip, lustily singing popular Hebrew songs such as, "We will build our country, a homeland / Because this land is ours / We will build our country, a homeland / That is the call of our blood, the call of the generations. / We will build our country despite all of our destroyers / We will build our country with the power of our will. / An end to malignant slavery, / The fire of freedom blazing, / Will make our blood rage. / Hungry for freedom and revival / We shall march boldly towards the liberation of the people."

During those same years, at youth movement camps and hiking trips, we also screamed the words to Nathan Alterman's "Shir Boker Lamoledet" (Morning Song for the Homeland): "In the mountains the sun is already burning, / In the valley the dew still glistens / We love you, homeland / With joy, song and labor / ... Though the road may be hard and treacherous / Though more than one of us may fall / We will love you, homeland, forever / We are yours, in battle and in toil." Why is it, then, that the mere mention of patriotism today, by a member of Knesset or a Jewish settler, is immediately suspect, reeking of deceit, if not messianic fanaticism?

"Patriotism: Homeland Love" is an excellent book presenting the problems inherent in the concept of patriotism, both generally and in the case of present-day Israel. Its 15 theoretical and empirical essays were written by scholars from different disciplines - sociology, geography, literature, anthropology, political science and history. All seek to grapple with the construction, dissemination and practice of Israeli patriotism in its different aspects, within the Israeli reality and in historical perspective.

Strikingly negative force

The very concept of patriotism as a value raises many problems, such as the tension between loving one's homeland and loving one's nation, or between love of the state and love of society. For example, how should we define the group of German officers who tried to kill Adolf Hitler during World War II? Were they patriots or traitors? Gad Barzilai, in his excellent essay on patriotism and the law, answers that although the assassination plot did not express loyalty towards the regime, it was nevertheless an act of German patriotism. "Patriotism," he writes, "can be associated with noble displays of heroism and volunteerism, of sacrifice and courage, but in the political world its foremost meaning has been to justify the state's monopoly over the power to punish."

Like Barzilai, Avner Ben-Amos and Daniel Bar-Tal make clear that while patriotism may create national unity, increase political participation - a vital condition for democracy - and have enormous powers of mobilization, it also functions as a strikingly negative force. Basically, patriotism allows those who control the state's mechanisms to distinguish between "good citizens" and "bad citizens," to monopolize patriotism itself and to exclude the groups they do not wish to promote.

The fact that Israel's Arab citizens do not serve in the military has been one of the tools for constructing the political claim that Arab Israelis are less patriotic than Jews. This claim, of course, failed to consider that it was the Israeli state that excluded the Arabs from collective military service in the first place; yet this did not prevent it from buttressing the supposedly "justified" discrimination of Arab citizens. Patriotism laid the ground not only for the discrimination, but for the delegitimization and ostracism of certain groups, and from there it does not take much for non-patriots to become scapegoats, blamed for troubles that they did not cause.

Many of the scholars claim that Israel nurtures patriotism far more than other democracies. Micha Popper, for example, writes that the very fact that the Israel Defense Forces has a "chief education officer," a position not found in other Western armies, attests to the importance that the IDF attaches to inculcating patriotism. Rina Shapira, Sary Fayer and Chaim Adler also reveal that contrary to popular belief, youth movements still have an educational impact in Israel (even at the end of the 20th century, half of Israel's teens reported having some kind of "youth movement experience"), and these movements seek to teach patriotism.

Religious Zionist dilemma

Another dilemma, the tension between nationalism and religion, is the focus of a fascinating essay by Asher Cohen. From its inception, he claims, religious Zionism has been torn between two basic commitments - to Zionism and the State of Israel, on the one hand, and to religious tradition and Orthodox religious law, on the other. If in the past this political stream was characterized by an unconditional patriotism, the vision of Greater Israel led to a dramatic development. The historical balance between the two commitments was disrupted, a fundamentalist patriotism came into being, and patriotism itself became conditional. There is no acceptance of diverse forms of patriotism, but only the single interpretation dictated by the movement. Cohen calls this the "monopolization of patriotism." Although he cautions that the Zionist-religious Jews should not be viewed as a homogenous mass, his article suggests that future developments within this group are cause for some concern, in light of the messianic patriotism favored by many of its members.

Several of the essays present surprising arguments. Historian Yigal Elam, for example, claims that Zionism is actually antithetical to patriotism. For the Zionists, he writes, Eretz Israel was only a means of accomplishing their main goal - solving the Jewish problem. Their attitude towards the land was therefore instrumental and marginalizing. There is a conceptual similarity between Elam's essay and that of political geographer Oren Yiftachel. Patriotism, the latter argues, does not and cannot exist in Israel, since patriotism is the feeling that unites all citizens through love for the homeland and identification with the state, its spaces and its landscapes. In Israel this notion clashes with an ethnic national ethos that excludes the non-Jewish population and regards the Palestinian minority as alien.

Another thread running through quite a few of the articles is the transformation, and especially the decline, of Israeli patriotism. This is especially evident in popular culture. The boundless love of the homeland that typified "revolutionary patriotism" and "native patriotism" has made way for a more critical approach (see Dan Oryan's essay). There have also been changes in Israel's schools: geography and local history are now being taught in ways that are less Zionist and pioneer-oriented, more scientific and academic (Yuval Dror).

Even the conception of career service in the military has changed: whereas being an IDF officer was once viewed as a mission, it is now regarded in professional terms. As a result, the officers have lost some of their ability to serve as socializing agents of patriotic values. This change finds singular expression in the attitude towards patriotic sacrifice. Once this sacrifice was conceived as a secular version of Jewish martyrdom. Since the Lebanon War, however, the ethos of sacrifice and the broader ethos of the Israeli warrior, which once unified the patterns of Israel's patriotic culture, are no longer perceived as self-evident (Yael Zerubavel).

Pursuit of happiness

Especially fine is Dafna Lemish's account of changes in Israeli advertising. Until 1973, which most of the scholars consider a watershed moment in the development of Israeli culture, advertising expressed the values of loyalty, commitment to the collective and the desire to contribute to society. Advertisements overflowed with patriotic symbols, foremost among them the figure of the IDF soldier. An interpretive reading of ads over the years shows a transition from symbols of construction, security and revitalization in a local-Israeli context to symbols of individualism and globalization. Commitment, loyalty and the wish to contribute have been replaced by a pretext of identity meant to serve the individual in his or her constant pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment. Individual self-sacrifice for the collective has been replaced by the aggrandizement of the individual within a framework that allows for personal growth.

The most interesting question raised by the book involves the decreased use of traditional patriotic emblems by Israel's political left and their over-embracing by the Israeli right. How is this change to be understood? On its face, it seems to support certain familiar right-wing accusations - namely, that the left has alienated itself from its history, replacing love of the homeland and people with self-love and emulation of the gentiles, and that instead of willingness to serve the collective it now follows an agenda of selfishness (reflected by popular singer Aviv Geffen's words "It is good to die for ourselves," a paraphrase on the legendary Yosef Trumpeldor's dying claim that "It is good to die for our country"), hedonism, consumerism and a focus on the here and now. A vivid demonstration of the different attitudes towards patriotic symbols (up until Yitzhak Rabin's murder in 1995) could be found in the numerous Israel flags regularly displayed at right-wing demonstrations in contrast to the few flags, if any, seen at leftist protests.

But a more sophisticated analysis calls for a different explanation. One of the most fascinating dialectics within the current debate over the future of the territories is that the most vocal proponents of patriotism - Jewish settlers, especially those with religious-nationalist views - are willing, in the name of a zealous love for Eretz Israel, to accept a rupture in Israeli society, to hurt the State of Israel and even to shake off its authority altogether.

The question is whether abandoning the old patriotic values and embracing a new, post-materialist, individualist and cosmopolitan set of values means that the Israeli left is less patriotic. Or could it be that while the right has fervently clung to the old patriotism, the left has moved beyond it and adopted a more advanced and enlightened idea of patriotism? Could this be a patriotism in which zealous nationalism, based on blood kinship and xenophobia, has been replaced by a humanist, secular and rational nationalism, based on a social contract between the citizens and the state; a nationalism that treats all inhabitants of the political territory equally, encourages active citizenship in an open and peace-seeking democracy, and takes a moral approach to the other in general? In short, is it possible to argue that the left has embraced a patriotism that is not a refuge for scoundrels?

It is interesting that none of the contributors to the book rejects patriotism itself. In present-day Israel - a mere half-century old and still embroiled in a long and violent struggle with its neighbors - even progressive academics are unable to espouse a paradigm shift and consider patriotism a negative value. What remains, then, for our enlightened camp to do is to announce to the right that the time has come to embrace a new patriotism. Instead of archaic ideas like blood and land, we need to adopt a republican conception and to foster solidarity with the community and society. As long as the Israeli-Arab dispute remains unresolved, I must admit, I find it hard to believe that such a view will be adopted by broad parts of society; it will, I fear, remain the exclusive province of the contributors and their friends.

Many essay collections have been published recently, and there is often something artificial about them, as though the essays lacked an integral common base. That is not the case here. The articles may explore diverse fields, but the book itself is a single integral unit. And so, although the book's focus is on Israeli Jews, it easily accommodates Amal Jamal's article on the patriotism of Israel's Palestinian citizens. Jamal shows that the State of Israel was actually responsible for preventing the emergence of civic patriotism among the Arab citizenry.

The editors have here brought together the work of Israel's finest scholars in the social sciences. Although some of the essays repeat familiar motifs, their compilation into a single volume is interesting and welcome. This is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called the "deep structure" of Israeli society.

Dr. Peri's book "Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel" was published this year by Stanford University Press.