An article entitled “Tidings from Argentina” appeared in these columns not long ago. I refer to Khony Kavallo’s impressions of the national left in Argentina (Hagada Hasmalit,18 September 2009 [Hebrew]). In the article he skilfully and enthusiastically tells us how nearly all the parties in Argentina have rallied under one flag and one anthem.
Kavallo believes that the Israeli left could increase its influence if it were to emulate the Argentineans by embracing the idea of love of homeland and its concomitant patriotic symbols, the flag and the national anthem. Then we could all sing together: “Every day I love you more/ I am an Argentinean/ it is a feeling I cannot control …” All we have to do is substitute “Israeli” for “Argentinean” and lo and behold, Zion will be redeemed.
Admittedly I do not know much about the political reality in Argentina, but I would assume that the Argentine people have a somewhat more critical approach to displays of simplistic patriotism than Kavallo would have us believe. Similarly, I would be astonished if that nation (left and right together, united under the national flag),“fighting against capital,” really exists. I have yet to hear that the rule of capital has ended there. But I will discuss Kavallo’s recommendation of vocal flag-waving patriotism for all. We are to relinquish our position that – as he sees it — we consider national pride and patriotism as “unclean” and the flag as an “abomination,” an approach that “makes him shudder.”
According to Kavallo, displaying the flag of Israel is proof of love of Israel. According to that logic, displaying two Israeli flags is proof of twice as much love. On Independence Day we see many cars covered with flags on the streets of our cities. According to Kavallo they are evidently the greatest patriots of all. Similarly, those American youths who opposed the Vietnam War and burned American flags hated their country.
But what can you do: life is a little more complicated. In a country like Israel, which is oppressing another people, it is hard to carry the national flag with pride. Moreover, we do not only occupy lands belonging to another people, but we totally ignore the fact that 20 percent of the population of Israel itself are Palestinians. Does Kavallo believe that Israel’s Arab citizens see themselves represented by the Star of David on the flag or the “the land of Zion and Jerusalem” as their anthem? Indeed, proposals for changing this absurdity – the anthem and the flag – have been raised in the past by many Israelis. I recall in particular a former High Court judge who subsequently served as the State Comptroller, Miriam Ben-Porat, who understood that the Arab citizens of Israel were not represented by the symbols of the State. They could not sing Hatikva, which represents their dispossession and loss of independence. She proposed that changes to the flag and the anthem be considered.
On the other hand, it is easy to hold the national flag high when it represents a people fighting for its independence. This is true for Palestinians fighting for independence It was true of the countries of Europe during the war against Hitler. Nationalism is multi-faceted: sometimes it is progressive and sometimes it is reactionary. True, it is hard to explain that to the general public, especially during a war or a war-like situation such as the one Israel is in. But that is precisely the role of the left.
To tell the truth, it is not so easy to “love” Israel today. The overwhelming majority of the Jewish population enthusiastically supported the last two wars which wreaked havoc, first on Lebanon and then on Gaza. It elected a Knesset with a solid right-wing nationalist majority. The so-called man-in-the-street is completely indifferent to the fate of other peoples, above all the Palestinian people, not to mention the wretched of his own..
But supposing we set aside these reservations and wave the flag and lustily sing the national anthem, will “the people” flock to the left in their masses as they have apparently done in Argentina? That seems highly unlikely. The moment it is revealed that you were against “Operation Cast Lead” and in favour of taking the Goldstone Report seriously, no one will see you as a patriot. You will be seen as striking a patriotic pose. And that would be true to a certain extent. After all, Kavallo’s argument in favour of waving the flag is, at least in part, a utilitarian one, a means of strengthening the left. Who would we be fooling? We can hardly claim, as the general public does, that everyone is against Israel because they are all anti-Semites. At the end of the day, we would not come across as real patriots and certainly not as authentic socialists.
There is no need to worry about our “love of Israel.” If Israel would just return its conquered lands to their legitimate owners, I, for one, would walk around for one whole day wrapped in the Israeli flag like a car on Independence Day. The outside world would applaud our actions. It would be a lot easier to respect the flag when Israel starts to behave like a worthy member of the family of nations.
But, maybe, in order not to be perceived as anti-patriotic or, at least, as trustworthy on national matters, we should move a little closer to the national consensus? We might, for example, tone down our opposition to Operation Cast Lead; we could show greater understanding for the resistance to the Goldstone Report; we could agree that Hamas bears a large share of the responsibility for Operation Cast Lead, and Hizbullah for the second Lebanon War.
In other words, we would have to be particularly careful when raising “sensitive” issues that might anger the public. We would have to conceal our being non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist. We would have to be less preoccupied with the conflict with the Palestinians, and certainly tone down our recognition of the right of every people to resist occupation. There are so many other matters we can concern ourselves with besides the conflict with the Palestinians.. The only problem is – goodness gracious – that it is precisely these sensitive issues that are the most important to our lives here in Israel. They are the ones that are most closely linked to our socialist values. To set them aside would be, when all is said and done, to turn our backs on the entire agenda of left-wing politics.
There are, no doubt, those who will complain that I am exaggerating. But the truth of the matter, to my mind, is that I have only pointed out in dry language what those who have accepted Kavallo’s doctrine have done over the years. Because, in fact, the doctrine is not new: there are historical examples that can be examined.
In 1965 there was a major split in the Communist Party of Israel between the Arab members and the majority of the Jewish members. At that time there was a strong desire within the Jewish part of the party to return to the bosom of the Israeli “patriotic” consensus. I remember how one of the leading members of the Jewish faction rose at a large gathering and declared: “Homeland or death!” Needless to say, the Arab members could hardly identify with such a slogan. The Jewish faction desired a more sympathetic attitude towards the Jewish public and a clear dissociation on the part of the Arab members from the positions of Arab leaders like Ben-Bella, the president of Algeria in those days. But behind the political disagreements, the Jewish members were responding to the political and even social isolation from which they were suffering in Jewish society. They wanted to believe that if they could only “liberate themselves” from their close association with the Arabs they would be able to “take off” and win broad support among the Jewish public.
In hindsight, it is easy to recognize the political nature of the split. In Wikipedia, for example, that Jewish faction is described as “Jewish nationalist.” At the time, members of that faction tended to deny the fact that they were being swept up by the prevailing nationalist or Zionist winds. And they sincerely believed it. But after the split, “Maki”[The Israeli Communist Party] – the original name was awarded to the Jewish faction – underwent, again according to Wikipedia, a process of “Zionization.” This was expressed politically by the fact that Maki fully supported the Six Day War, which broke out at that time.. The leader of the new “patriots,” Moshe Sneh, described the war as “a just war of national defence.” At the end of the war he declared that Israel had never had agreed-upon borders and that the time had now come to determine them permanently. He consequently opposed, along with all the other members of the Knesset, the motion by Meir Vilner, the leader of the other faction of the party (Rakah), to withdraw immediately from all the occupied territories.
What did the new patriotic party gain from the split? Nothing but disappointment and disintegration. The hope that its new image would appeal to the public quickly evaporated. In the elections after the split Maki won one only one Knesset seat as compared to three for Rakah. And after a short time and a number of short-lived alliances, the party was dissolved. It had become clear that you cannot struggle against nationalism and Zionism by embracing them. Left-wing Zionism was the province of others in Israeli politics and the Zionist Maki had nothing to “sell.”
Unfortunately, the effect of the split to the radical left was more profound. Before the split half of the party was Jewish and its electoral strength was between two and three Knesset members. That part, as we have seen, was lost to the radical left. To this very day the present Israeli Communist Party, Maki (formerly Rakah, which adopted its old name) has not managed to recover a strong following among the Jewish public. One should learn from historical experience. To return today, under one slogan or another, to the bosom of the national consensus would bring about similar results.
The affinity of people on the left to their homeland is their concern for the people who live in it. It is a natural affinity for their surroundings, for their family, for their neighbours, for those who work with them, and of course for their cultural heritage. But that affinity is distinct from nationalism and not achieved at the expense of other peoples. They see the welfare of their people in the framework of the welfare of other peoples and not in opposition to them. They understand that the oppression of another people can not benefit their own people. Karl Marx, in his time, noted in regard to the oppression of Ireland by England that an oppressing people cannot itself be free. Left-wing patriots understand that well, and their love for their people is also expressed in the desire to save them from war and killing. (If the United States government had listened to those “unpatriotic” young Americans who burned the U.S. flag, the lives of millions of people – Americans and Vietnamese – would have been spared.) The patriotism of the left is also expressed in solidarity with the weak peoples oppressed by the strong nations, that is,, it is against imperialism. In our case it supports the Palestinian people who are fighting for their independence and does not see that as inconsistent with love for Israel. On the contrary: freedom and peace are good for both peoples.
It follows that the patriotism of the left is much more profound than the “love of Israel” that begins with flag-waving and ends up trampling the flags of others.
*Translated from Hebrew by George Malent