As a young camper, I loved it when my bunk was entrusted with flag-raising honors. It reminded me of all the solemnity and particulars we Jews associate with the honoring of our Torah. It was something I understood, this standing in a chain and folding that precious piece of cloth into a triangle with the help of many hands.In Israel, however, the flag is just a piece of cloth. There’s no special ceremony. If the flag were to accidentally dip and touch the ground during raising and lowering, no one would gasp.
Because in Israel, it’s not about symbols, but about the existential struggle to simply be here one more day.
There’s an unquestioning love of country among Americans, a kind of blind adoration and trust. In Israel, it’s different. The love is there, and it’s fierce. But not blind.
Kids in Israeli schools don’t pledge their allegiance to the flag each morning. They don’t need to because all too soon they’ll be putting their lives on the line just to hold on to a tiny sliver of land surrounded by enemy nations. They pledge their love of country by their everyday existence. And if they fail to exist someday, due to the whim of a suicide bomber or the vagaries of war, so be it. In losing their lives, some other Jew will get to live another day, maybe another year, in the land.
Israeli patriotism is like a grim gritting of the teeth: a tug-of-war that dare not be lost. The prize is holding on for one more day. The Israeli form of patriotism, termed “khosen leumi” or “national strength” is not in its assumption a pleasurable duty, but a necessary one.
“Patriotism and Israel’s National Security,” a 2009 survey sponsored by the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at IDC Herzliya attempts to define patriotism and outline the differences in patriotic expression between Israelis and Americans. Study authors Uzi Arad and Gal Alon found that, “The citizens of Israel possess a large degree of Israeli patriotism according to two intrinsic criteria--willingness to fight for it (85%) and the desire to remain planted on its soil (87%). In comparison to other developed countries in the West, there is none that surpasses Israel in this declared readiness to fight for one''s country.”
Israelis are ready to fight for their country, but it appears they aren’t keen on adopting patriotism as a blind theology. According to Arad and Alon, blind love of country is associated by the general Israeli population with fanaticism and the far right nationalist settler sector of the country. No explanation for this association is offered. The authors merely note that it exists.
I think it may boil down to ownership.
As I child, I knew all the words to the Woody Guthrie song. “This land is your land.” I knew that the land of America belonged to all Americans. America belonged to me.
Israelis don’t get to feel that feeling. They never get to feel that sense of ownership and exclusivity because of the world’s delegitimization of Israel. There’s this air of criminality hanging over Israel affecting attitudes and causing insecurity. Only the settlers believe unswervingly in their absolute land ownership.
American children grow up secure in the knowledge that America belongs to Americans. This is the wellspring of their patriotic fervor, something Israelis lack. Patriotism cannot take root in the Israeli climate.
Growing up in America, I knew that America belonged to me—or did if I wanted it. But as a Jew, I felt like a visitor just passing through. My true home, I felt, was Israel.
I’m not sure why this idea took hold within me. But it was there from a very early age.
I don’t know that this sense of home is something that can be instilled or whether what happened to me happened on its own independent of outside influences.
All I know is that it would be much harder for a child to “own” his love of country as an Israeli growing up in Israel, than for an American child growing up in America. That makes me sad. Children should have that blind love of country. They need that, I think.
Field trips and folksong fests might help. These are proactive steps we might take to help Israeli children develop patriotism. But I think there is something else we can do—something that would trump all other efforts in generating a hot and fervent adoration of the land.
It’s this: we need to show Israeli children our eyes shining with love of country. In showing our feelings plainly on our faces, we, parents and teachers, can provide our children with the emotional nourishment they need. More than shelter or a warm meal, this gift of patriotism is the commodity that will sustain our children for the long run.