Center Field: How to love your country when you hate its leader(s)

Deepening our own identities and loyalties while cooperating with others will reaffirm my new Jordanian friend’s lesson.

May 24, 2016 21:35
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Many Israelis and Israel-supporters are doubly disappointed. Not only did we lose a shot at a renewed but realistic peace initiative under a Benjamin Netanyahu-Isaac Herzog alliance, but the principled former chief of staff and defense minister Moshe Ya’alon is apparently being replaced by a former corporal Avigdor Liberman, who once contemplated bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam. As millions in America dread either a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency, two of the world’s greatest democracies may pose the true patriot’s challenge: how do you love your country when you hate its leader(s)? Last Thursday, while managing my emotional hangover from the news that Netanyahu had betrayed Herzog and Ya’alon, I nevertheless knew I wouldn’t be a fair-weather friend to the Jewish state. Democracy involves losing elections, then loyally accepting leaders you just opposed. Patriotism isn’t probationary, contingent on always getting your way. Instead, patriots seek those ordinary and extraordinary moments reaffirming what our country stands for, independent of its leaders. Fortunately for me, Thursday night I experienced one of those inspiring, made-in-Israel moments that made me fall in love with Israel yet again, despite its politics.

I drove deep into the desert, to Abu Kweder.

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Just as the desert looks like a pile of sand yet is filled with wonders, this unrecognized, ramshackle Beduin village near Dimona looks like an eyesore yet is filled with wonderful inhabitants – who warmly welcomed amazing guests from all over Israel, as well as from Jordan, Senegal, Japan, Australia and the United States.

My good friend Danny Hakim’s extraordinary organization, Budo for Peace, organized an international martial arts friendship seminar that began on the Herzliya beach and culminated in this happening, an overnight training session in the desert.

Budo for Peace is an Israeli organization with 20 martial arts clubs, using traditional martial arts (budo) values and discipline to unify Jews, Christians and Muslims. Hakim, a seventh-degree black belt and two-time world karate silver medalist, welcomed the diverse participants “gathering as one family under Abraham’s tent.” As Hakim spoke in English, Budo’s chief education officer, Sensei Robeen Arkia, added – while translating smoothly into Hebrew and his native Arabic – “here, despite the shadow of the ‘matzav’ [the ongoing terrorism], we will show the world that we can work together, live together, play together.”

Hazem Abu Kweder then spoke. A local social activist and black belt who teaches karate in 16 different schools throughout the Negev, he inspires young Beduin with a message of personal power and optimism.

“It is a big honor to host Jews and Arabs, Israelis and others from all over the world, here in our village,” he said. “I wish you all a meaningful workout.”

Indeed, for the next two hours, a hundred Budoists, from six to 60, enjoyed a remarkable experience. They squatted, jumped, kicked, shouted, laughed and sweated in unison, generating this amazing peace vibe.

They bridged the Arab-Jewish, Muslim-Christian, Beduin-Israeli divides by responding to commands senseis, instructors, from Israel, Australia and Japan shouted – in Japanese, of course.

As they straight-punched and high-kicked, I chatted on the side. I met Rasha Abu Kweder, a 19-year-old villager who started studying karate when she was eight – encouraged by her family and friends. This newly-awarded black belt has competed under the Budo for Peace banner in Greece and Australia.

“Budo is half of me,” she said, appreciating how it built her “self-confidence” and identity.

Anat Peled, Budo for Peace’s project manager, who speaks the fluent Arabic every Israeli high school graduate should have, observed that these Beduin karate kids usually reject the radicalism that seduces some other villagers, truly making learning Budo a move toward peace.

That spirit infused the fourth Israeli visit of Mohammed Shahwan, the Jordanian general secretary of the Martial Arts Federation for World Peace. We asked if his friends in Amman knew where he was.

“I have no shame,” he said. “Everyone here is white-hearted” – meaning pure in intention.

“It’s a beautiful atmosphere.”

He taught me an Arabic proverb: “Every hand has five fingers,” meaning that Jordanians – or anyone else – while united can also differ.

I am not naïve. I battle Israel’s delegitimization, Palestinian terrorism and the world’s double standard against Israel. I know that the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be solved by a hundred people in the desert shouting “osu” (pronounced “oss”). Still, in a week of Israeli political insanity that ended with a prominent Channel 2 journalist saying he was “no longer sure” he wanted his children to live here, and with Donald Trump gaining legitimacy in America, this friendship seminar reminded me of Israel’s everyday miracles – and our personal responsibility to build bridges with others. Once we get personal, we may condemn “those” Palestinians or Beduin or Muslims or Jews who bother or threaten us, but we won’t use the globalizing, stereotyping definite article “the” rejecting all – “the Palestinians,” “the Arabs.”

Adlai Stevenson taught that “patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” Leftists must remember to demonstrate patriotism consistently, flamboyantly, even if the government lurches Right. Rightists must remember that patriotism entails coexisting with all your fellow citizens, even while combating your enemies.

Deepening our own identities and loyalties while cooperating with others will reaffirm my new Jordanian friend’s lesson: strengthening the hands we need to defend ourselves while appreciating the different fingers coexisting in our own communities and beyond.

The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. He is professor of history at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.

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