Dilemmas of a left-wing patriot

// January 27th, 2013 // Reviews


14 November 2012


A group of four of us on a visit to the Lower Galilee visit an outlook at the Golan Heights and look over the Syrian town of Kuneitra. The land is fertile, the outlook peaceful. Thirty miles away Damascus is on fire. Tomorrow we will find out that around the time we were there some Syrian tanks crossed into no-man’s land: we did not see them. Our erudite and serious left-wing friend, guide and tutor tells us how the Syrian army poured across in October 1973 and would have reached the major urban centre of Tiberias – but inexplicably, they stopped, as if startled by their own success – or maybe to await further orders. That gave the ill-prepared Israeli army just enough time to bring up the reserves and drive them back.


Nimrod is his name: he is an explosive character, but lovable and unbelievably generous: generous with his time, with his car and with his home. He pours invective on the state, on its racism, on the refusal of its leaders to solve the P-problem, on its purposeful neglect of its Arab citizens. When he describes his country’s military history he is as patriotic as any might be: he has unlimited admiration for the courage of the soldiers who held out at massive risk and with great sacrifice on the Golan in that war, but despises the leaders who, overconfident, had left them unprepared and exposed.

Since as I write yet another pre-electoral war has started, it is worth dwelling on this matter.

I think it may be hard for non-Israelis to believe that an Israeli can be a ‘leftist’ (which here has nothing to do with social issues and everything to do with the P-word), and also a patriot and, if called upon, a loyal member of his country’s Defense Force. Remember the soldier at the checkpoint who happily told the women from Machsom Watch that he was a leftist? More dramatically, remember Alfred Dreyfus: however badly his country treated him he never renounced his love for and faith in the Republic, as the sociologist Eva Illouz recently reminded us in a somewhat provocative piece in Haaretz. However much the Dreyfusards hated the politicians and military who persecuted and perjured their man, not for a minute would they think of turning against their country.  It is a luxury of European and American societies that the majority of citizens can pronounce on the advisability and justice of a war without being forced to face the decision of whether to fight, because we have professional armies to do it for us. So we sit back and pontificate while the soldiers, so many of them from low-income families, go off to fight and sometimes to suffer lifelong injury or to die. In the US one ‘shortcut’ to citizenship for immigrants is to join the military. The first casualty of the Iraq War was Guatemalan.

In Israel such detachment, a refuge in the dispassionate autonomy of the abstract citizen, is not an option. Yet the case for unquestioning patriotism here is also not an easy one. One standard argument, that in Israel the army creates social solidarity, is not convincing: the more educated, who unfortunately are still drawn disproportionately from Ashkenazi backgrounds, tend, on average, to get the more intellectually and socially rewarding roles. I have never met anyone who made close friends in their units.

The animosity against haredim among secular Israelis may be partly based on their exemption from military service but it is also based on aversion to their way of life. The exemption, by the way, has recently ceased to be an exemption and is now straightforward evasion, because the ‘Tal Law’ on which it was based has expired and the ruling coalition has neither renewed those provisions nor admitted the implication – namely that haredim who ignore their call-up papers are liable for prison.  Yet curiously, the national religious, who borrow more and more from haredi customs, habits and instincts, would never pick that fight. And they are very enthusiastic about military service and the military profession, in which the national religious are becoming ever more prominent.

So you see: it is not in the common experience of military service that patriotism is forged. Citizenship is a bundle of rights and duties, but that is not enough for many, maybe most, people: that is why you don’t have to be an unreconstructed imperialist or little Englander to appreciate the strange rituals of Coronations and Royal Weddings and the BBC playing the National Anthem on Prince Charles’ birthday (yesterday as it happens) and the Cenotaph and poppies and the Last Night of the Proms and now… the Olympics! In Israel, as all the readers of this blog know, they have innumerable rituals of civil religion, mostly unfortunately related to death and war. Maybe they should improve their sports performance…


(In any case, the bravery of going to war often lies not only in facing the enemy but in suffering the stupidity of one’s own commanders – whichever side you are on!)

Patriotism must not be allowed to become a monopoly for the right wing, the irredentists or the chauvinists. And so it follows that it is unfair to expect Israelis to take an anti-patriotic stance, for example by evading their military service, in order to prove their love of peace or their sympathy or solidarity for the suffering of Palestinians. I don’t think many Palestinians would be impressed anyhow.














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