Patriotism Comes Easy for the Israeli Right. On the Left, It's a Test of True Love

Leftist loyalty is challenged by assaults from the nationalistic right and temptations from the anti-Israel left

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Left-wing activist Uri Avnery takes part in a protest at the Jaffa Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City against the building of settlements in East Jerusalem, September 10, 2009.
Left-wing activist Uri Avnery takes part in a protest at the Jaffa Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City against the building of settlements in East Jerusalem, September 10, 2009.Credit: \ Baz Ratner/ REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

It’s easy to be a right-wing patriot, especially when the right is in power, and particularly in a country like Israel, which suffers from what psychologists call “collective narcissism.” Right wingers tend to idealize their country, or their nation, or their religion, or, as in the Israeli case, all of them together. Their conscience is clear.

Right-wing patriots are convinced that Israel is a paragon of morality and virtue and therefore, almost by definition, criticism against it is baseless and unfounded. If the censure comes from the outside, it is malicious and hostile, and if it comes from within, it is aiding and abetting the enemy. The right-wing patriot’s world is neatly divided into black and white, with us or against us.

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In many parts of the Israeli right, there is no room for doubt. Instructions come from high above. The settlers and their supporters sanctify the fight for the Greater Land of Israel and swear battle on its opponents. The ultra-Orthodox are supposedly interested in the demands and requirements of their faith alone, but their hearts belong to the nationalist right anyway. The legions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s adoring fans are naturally content, but even those less impressed with the prime minister’s personality tend to defend his every move. Hatred of the left – diligently fostered and nurtured by Netanyahu and his cohorts – covers it all.

It’s much harder to be a left-wing patriot, especially when the right is in power and particularly in a country like Israel, in which ethnocentrism is on the march. People with liberal outlooks tend to criticize their country, their nation or their religion or all three together – and to demand changes. The leftist conscience weighs heavy.

Israeli leftists know that their country is far from perfect, which is why they tend to identify often with outside criticism. Most of them love Israel, just not in its present form. Their world is full of contradictions. It is enveloped in grey.

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Leftist patriots must live with the fact that their country has maintained an occupation over another people for over fifty years and is now in the process of entrenching it permanently. They must come to terms with an obtuse government and a chest-thumping Knesset, institutions that routinely deride human rights, disdain minorities, sabotage the rule of law, undermine democracy and generally trample on their most cherished values.

Leftist patriots are required to identify with a nation that, like others suffering from the same syndrome, repeatedly elects a leader in its own narcissistic image, who then feeds on its weaknesses. And they have to persuade themselves, despite indications to the contrary, that all is not lost. Like the late Uri Avnery, who passed away on Monday, they need to be eternal optimists for their patriotism to survive.

Leftist patriots, moreover – along with other Israelis who have yet to be engulfed by the rising tide of nationalism – are subjected to incessant assaults on their loyalty. Their antipathy to the occupation, opposition to the nation-state law, dedication to equality, identification with minorities, support for freedom of expression and occasional agreement with foreign critics are branded by the right, with the active encouragement of its leader, as symptoms of betrayal. The incitement gets results: Many Israelis have been persuaded over the years to defect to the easy life of the doubt-free nationalist right. Leftist patriots find themselves increasingly alone.

Leftist patriotism doesn’t come easy. It is acquired and retained by suffering. It is tested anew each and every day, challenged by an aggressive right and tempted by an anti-Israel left. It does not go with the flow, but obstinately swims against it. Leftist patriots cannot take the easy route of blind loyalty. Unlike right-wingers, they are incapable of saluting supremacism, discrimination or pure malice. Their love for their homeland isn’t contingent on ignoring its faults but on full recognition of their existence and constant battle against them.

The patriotism of the left is difficult, taxing and full of obstacles – which is why it is purer and worthier. Unlike the mindless patriotism of the right, it is, in many ways, the textbook definition of true love.