Israel doesn’t need ‘sunshine patriotism’

Noam Schalit has turned the John F. Kennedy dictum on its head, asking what his country can do for him.

Noam Schalit at Knesset Forum_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Noam Schalit at Knesset Forum_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Gilad Schalit is home and, we all hope, recovering.
Apparently his father, Noam Schalit, has also not fully recovered from the experience. It seems he so liked the status of what we should now call “celebritus erroneous” – celebrity by tragic mistake – that he has decided to exploit it and plunge into politics.
So many Israelis were justifiably torn by the one-for-1,027 Schalit prisoner exchange deal. On the one hand, Schalit’s homecoming was an extraordinary moment, a symbol of Israel at its best.
The nation acted as one small family in welcoming Gilad home, delighting in his freedom, respecting – as best we could – his privacy. In most countries, a single hostage would have been ignored or not redeemed. In a Jewish state, where the Talmudic dictum still holds – that if you save one life you save the world – that position was just not tenable. Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s intimacy, Israel’s Jewishness, Israel’s idealism, Israel’s solidarity – and Israel’s vulnerability.
And that, of course, was the flip side. Schalit’s homecoming was fraught with potential danger, the fears that these 1,027 terrorists, feeling vindicated, would return to their criminal ways, the concern that Hamas was once again getting a gift from the Israeli government it did not deserve, the fear that in saving one life, so many others would actually be lost. In a Jewish state, where the Talmudic dictum still holds – that we should not pay exorbitant ransoms so we don’t encourage the practice of kidnapping – the lopsided swap was just not tenable. Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s frustration, Israel’s fear, Israel’s anger, Israel’s dividedness – and Israel’s vulnerability.
Moreover, the families of those killed, maimed or traumatized by some of the 1,027 terrorists were asked to forgo their own desires to see justice served and accept a deal to save Gilad Schalit’s life – and help the nation move on.
This calculus of terror is difficult to fathom. These choices Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others had to make are truly excruciating.
We should direct our anger where it belongs: at the terrorists, the Palestinian culture of terror, and the world culture of appeasement that foments these crimes and places Israel in such terrible binds.
BUT ON the eve of that extraordinary, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime, all blueand- white-all-the-time day, Noam Schalit lost me. Days before his son came home, but once it was, as they say, a done deal, Schalit was photographed restoring the Israeli flag on the roof of his family home. Apparently, he had taken it down two years earlier in frustration with the government’s inaction regarding his son’s case. It was the wrong gesture by the wrong man at the wrong time.
With that one photo, Noam Schalit lost me – and many others. Just when he was appealing to all Israelis to be patriotic, and accept the barely acceptable, when he needed the grieving families of terror victims to accept their country’s action, right or wrong, Schalit risked appearing to be what Thomas Paine called “a sunshine patriot,” essentially not asking what he could do for his country but judging his country only by what it did for him and his family.
Had he taken Netanyahu’s picture down two years ago and restored it that day, I would have said “fine.” We judge politicians by what they have done for us lately. But in lowering, then raising the flag, Schalit suggested his patriotism was contingent, his love of Israel depended, on whether the government served his needs. That made him appear ungracious when he was pulling the patriotic card on others – and makes him unsuitable to enter politics.
Rather than symbolizing “Eretz Yisrael hayafa,” the beautiful Israel of rolling Galilee hills, casual, shoulder-shrugging, “we’ll do what it takes” patriotism and warm, values-rich homes, the gesture suggested the ugly “magiya li” post-Zionist culture, the “I deserve it” guy – or gal – who grabs aggressively, voraciously, with a sense of entitlement rather than humility. I am sorry to say that (if he makes it that far) Noam Schalit will encounter many greedy politicians in the Knesset who epitomize the “magiya li” approach.
Until that moment on the roof, Noam Schalit and his family, to me, had always embodied the lovelier ideal – and his statement in explaining his motivation in entering politics, hoping to tap the idealism he encountered during his family’s quest, reflects his desire to be seen that way.
I know it is very difficult to judge a family that has endured the trauma the Schalits endured – and still suffer from. And I held my fire when I first saw the photograph, during Gilad Schalit’s euphoric homecoming. But in leveraging his celebrity status from his son’s kidnapping into a political career, Noam Schalit has made his actions, statements and gestures during the Gilad Come Home campaign fair game – and this gesture deserves condemnation.
It is also unfortunate that Noam Schalit is willing to sacrifice his iconic apolitical status in a country that desperately needs national heroes untainted by the particularly ugly way Israelis play politics.
“In some ways it seems he fell in love with the camera. It changes the whole context of the story, the way you perceive all the characters,” says G., 28.
He is an American immigrant who served in the armored tank corps from March 2006 to August 2007, “a couple of drafts after Gilad” and shared officers in common, but had “deeply mixed feelings” about the exchange itself.
Israel, of course, is a free country, and the Schalit exchange came with no strings attached for the family, no demands that they behave any better or worse than anyone else. And there is a deep democratic yearning for redemption from citizen politicians, leaders who were thrust into the spotlight and rose to the occasion. But the Schalit episode is still so fresh, emotions remain so raw, worries persist that Noam Schalit’s timing, as well as the decision itself, deserve scrutiny. This frank welcome, of course, will provide the initiation he needs into his new career.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and The Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.
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