For 21st-century Patriots, Tough Love Is the Only Love

In the wake of the Prisoner X affair, rethinking liberty, patriotism and solidarity is not an abstract game but a tangible priority.

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The dust has only partially settled on the harrowing affair of “Prisoner X,” but it is time now to offer a measured, mature and responsible Israeli voice to the Jewish Australian community. Indeed, to Jewish friends all over the world.

Is this a passing calamity or a game-changer? As Chemi Shalev wrote movingly in this newspaper, Jewish Australians do not normally face a clash between their Australian citizenship and their affection for Israel. They were, therefore, understandably traumatized by the sad case of Ben Zygier, himself possibly the victim of torn identity. But Shalev also assumes that this shadow will pass, because the "dual loyalties" of Israel's Australian well-wishers are very seldom "dueling loyalties." On this I beg to differ.

The rooted Australian patriotism I have encountered among my friends in that country is not on par with their feelings for Israel; these are two very different levels, hardly "dual loyalties." Even more poignantly, I do not think the shadow will pass unless we face it up front, honestly and with a clear head.

I spent five years commuting between the two countries while holding the Leon Liberman Chair of Modern Israel Studies, appropriately located in the Australian university named after General Sir John Monash, the great Jewish Australian soldier and statesman. During those years I conducted an ongoing, spirited, at times impassioned debate with Jewish Australians about the best way to love Israel. Some people insisted that the organized community must support Israel's government regardless of its policies, come what may. Many friends, including Holocaust survivors and their descendants, touchingly told me "We love Israel, right or wrong."
Respectfully, I disagreed. So did other Jewish Australians and many of our Israeli academic visitors. Numerous Israelis are habitually and openly critical of their government's statecraft and security policies. You can tell your leaders to go to hell, if the situation merits language that strong, and still be a very good citizen. Perhaps all the more so.

The Jewish Australians I spoke with share a beautiful and sophisticated Australian patriotism. Adamant about their democracy, they eagerly and effectively defend both civil and human rights. They are sensitive to minorities and passionate about justice. I have met people whose work for the rights of Aboriginal communities and other victims of misfortune has been exemplary. Consciously and creatively, they walk the human and civic road paved by General Monash and Sir Zelman Cowen. This is not a question of political right or left. Like many Jews elsewhere, especially in the U.S., these Australian activists combine human empathy with democratic muscle, perhaps spiced by an ancient Jewish yearning for a better world. The people I met made no bones about critiquing Canberra, harshly and squarely, when they deemed their government had earned their scorn.

Israel merits the same treatment exactly.

I do not know what happened to Ben Zygier. Many of us here intuit a human tragedy rather than premeditated malice. But I do know that his family, friends, classmates and community are good and decent human beings. This goes well beyond their friendship for Israel or, for that matter, their strong Australian identity. They belong to the growing circle of global denizens who care immensely about values common to us all. In this broadest of perspectives, this story is not only just about "loyalties" and "clashes," but about bad things that sometimes happen to good people, anywhere.

We also intuit that something went horribly wrong with the official Israeli treatment of Ben Zygier. Was justice truly served? Was the system honest and humane? How can we tell, in the darkness? And thus, excruciating as the disclosure of "Prisoner X"'s identity was for his loved ones, it must be seen as a vital step for Israel's democracy. None of the journalists, the handful of Knesset members, and the bloggers who forced our government to admit some facts of the case, ever intended to cause the family further pain. They meant to protect other nameless inmates - "Prisoner Y" and "Prisoner Z" - from disappearing into the dark. Most of all, they were hoping to save Israeli democracy from its own shadows.

No state can exist without state secrets. Israel’s enemies are real and menacing, and a measure of secrecy is a necessity of warfare. But minimizing this need, and bringing everything else to broad daylight, has become a civic responsibility. Today, perhaps for the first time in history, ordinary citizens are the gatekeepers and the watchdogs too.

The Internet annuls the distinction between domestic and global critique. It ridicules attempts to harness the conventional media. No dirty washing can remain hidden indoors. The patriots of the 21st century can only defend their country by monitoring its decision-makers. And they often need the help of other ordinary citizens, in a world that has become, thanks to the Web, more "people to people" than ever before.

Friends who live and thrive in strong Western democracies should offer Israel precisely this 21st-century kind of love. Gone is the age of innocence, including the naiveté of early Zionism. We have all grown older and wiser. Our leaders are far from infallible. In Israel and elsewhere, caring citizens are now the responsible adults.

My heart goes out to the Zygier family and to the wonderful Jewish communities of Melbourne and Sydney. We all have some reckoning to do. Rethinking liberty, patriotism and solidarity is not an abstract game but a tangible priority. Only then will this unforgettable tragedy help to shed new light on our shared values, democratic and Jewish, which deserve to shine afresh.


Fania Oz-Salzberger is a professor at the University of Haifa and co-author, with Amos Oz, of "Jews and Words" (Yale, 2012).

The mock-up of Ben Zygier's passport.Credit: Screenshot ABC

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