There's No Reason to Be Proud - or Ashamed - of Being an Israeli

I am a product of this place. Of the amazing grace and of the dreadful crime. And if there is no admission of guilt, there’s no reason to puff out our chests in pride.

Children celebrate Independence Day in Modi'in.
Gil Cohen Magen

I arrived at nursery school to pick up my son. The wall was draped with a huge Israeli flag. Blue-and-white confetti was scattered on the floor. The teacher greeted me by waving a smaller flag, made of paper and painted in gouache.

“I taught the children what Independence Day is,” she said.

“It’s too soon,” I replied, “they’re not even 2 years old. First let them stop pooping in their pants, and then they can learn about what a state is.”

“Now is the time,” she insisted.

I didn’t have the strength to argue with her. That’s it, we’ve started with the indoctrination. I thought I’d be able to evade it. That I still had time. No, no way. There’s no way to evade it.

“Take a flag – your son made it himself,” the teacher persisted.

“I don’t want a flag.”

“Take it.”

“Leave me alone. I don’t want a flag.”

“But your son made it. Take it, keep it as a souvenir.”

“I don’t want a flag and I don’t want a souvenir.”

“Take it anyway,” she said, stuffing the flag into my hand and leaving me no choice.

I took the flag. The paint was still damp and my fingers got smudged with blue-and-white gouache. I cleaned them with a wet wipe and threw the flag into the garbage.

My son ran to me with arms wide open. On his head he wore a cardboard hat with the slogan “I am an Israeli.”

“Hold on, hold on,” I said to him. “Before you hug me, take off that hat.” He’s 18 months old, doesn’t understand a thing. I took his hat off myself. And hugged him. I gave the teacher the hat.

“Keep it for yourself,” I told her.

“Take the hat. It’s a present from the nursery school.”

“I don’t want a present from the nursery school,” I declared.

“Take the hat. Don’t you identify with what it says? Do you mean to tell me that your son is not an Israeli? That you’re not an Israeli?”

“My son is an Israeli and I am an Israeli. What of it?”

“Then take the hat, what’s it to you?”

I took the hat.

Illustration.
Sharon Fadida

I put my son in the stroller and we left. I left the hat on a bench on the sidewalk. The wind whipped it onto the road. A black Land Rover ran it over and tore it into cardboard shreds. My son started to cry. Kids are very possessive at that age. I patted him on the head. Tried to calm him down.

I explained to him that before he’s an Israeli, he’s first of all a human being. A human creature whose ancestors emerged from the prehistoric ooze and became a two-legged mammal. After that, he’s a citizen of the world, born on Earth, which has existed for billions of years, before there were borders or nations.

Besides that, he’s a male. A man. With two balls and a sausage that underwent circumcision. And he is also my son. He is obliged to love me and I am obliged to love him, because we’re stuck with each other.

And only after all that, at the very end, is he an Israeli. Maybe also a Jew. But that’s the least important of all. It makes no difference. He can be an Israeli today and an American tomorrow. Or a European. Or an Australian, a Canadian or a Yemeni. Whatever he chooses.

Israeliness is not a congenital trait. It’s not an internal organ or a fatal growth that cannot be removed. It’s no more than a fluid definition. In the same way that my parents were Russians and immigrated to Israel and became Israelis, my son will walk in their shoes. All the options are available to him. I’ll buy his plane ticket for him.

I am not a proud Israeli, and I will not raise my son to be a proud Israeli. There’s nothing to be proud of – and nothing to be overly ashamed of. It’s a given. Israel is a magnificent country. Really. A hell of a thing was built here. It’s a tremendous human achievement, which is grounded, partly, in war crimes and crimes against humanity. More or less like every other country, you know. It’s nothing special.

But Israel is a country that doesn’t learn lessons, doesn’t express contrition and doesn’t look toward the future. Israel thinks that what has been is what will be. That’s its tragic mistake.

Zionism is a revolutionary movement that has been left without a revolution. So what remains? Hollow pride. Nostalgia that glorifies technology and progress and urbanization, and yearns for a false idea of a primitive wilderness devoid of natives and devoid of victims. As though we established a high-tech industry here that arose from the dunes, without anyone dying and without rotting bodies of Arabs.

I am a product of this place. Of the amazing grace and of the dreadful crime. And if there is no admission of guilt, there’s no reason to puff out our chests in pride.

When we’re abroad, my partner usually introduces herself as coming from Tel Aviv. “I’m from Tel Aviv.” It’s not pleasant for her to say she’s from Israel. I reply directly: “I’m from Israel.” I don’t apologize for being an Israeli. It’s not dependent on me, I was born that way. I don’t have the strength to hide who I am.

Once, in a cab in London, I said I was from Israel. The cabbie shouted at me, “The bloody occupation, the poor Palestinians.” I said nothing, pretended I was checking emails. What could I say to him? That he’s right? Okay, I too have complaints about the cab-driving population.

I’m not about to start inventing excuses in the name of the place I came from. I am not an official representative of any country. That constitutes the true declaration of independence: understanding that it’s no longer in your hands. Israel will be Israel even without me.

I know a lot of Israelis, Jews, good people, who are hoping a horrific catastrophe will befall Israel. An apocalypse that will liberate Israelis from the perpetual malaise. That’s their secret longing, and their overt one, too. For something to happen. It’s not clear what. For things to change, because stagnation is the worst thing of all. Iranian missiles will strike Tel Aviv and reduce the price of real estate, Hezbollah will attack and grant autonomy to the Palestinians, ISIS will enslave us and free us from the yoke of Likud.

There’s something stupid and childish about that, but also something logical. It’s not a yearning for true destruction. Not really. It’s a desire to go back to the zero point. To redistribute the capital and the land. To reboot the stuck system. But as long as we have national pride, we won’t be able to aspire to true change.

Arrogant people cling to the existing situation. Because they are the winners and they enjoy all the privileges, starting with preschool. They have too much to gain.

Israel needs chronic losers who are ready to forgo their honor. That’s the only way it will be able to rise again.

An erection doesn’t last forever.

Maybe one day my son will come home with a cardboard hat with the inscription, “I am an Israeli,” and I will tell him: Leave it on your head.