Three summers ago, when I was first preparing to move to Israel, I frequently wore a pair of flip-flops with American flag designs; stars and stripes, red white and blue, non-running colors, and so on. They were my dad's sandals, though, so I had to buy a new pair and give those back to him. When I did, he made a joke about how Israel, "won't be so crazy to have flip-flops like that."
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Israel is a pretty patriotic place, I'm saying. In a time where some Americans are reconnecting with their patriotic feelings, while other Americans are repelled by the jingoistic overtones that accompany those patriotic feelings, I find myself in one of the few places in the world more patriotic than America. That's not a scientific finding. Nor do I have a lot of hard evidence about how patriotic countries besides the U.S.A. and Israel are; I know Russians are rather proud of their country, and May 8th, V-E day, is a day I'm to remember every year to congratulate my WWII Red Army veteran grandfather for; I didn't notice any overwhelming pride during my two months in Spain, but then not again, I wasn't there during the summer of 2008 or 2010 when the football team, La Furia Roja, took the world and country by storm. I will grant that most countries are patriotic to some degree or another, and maybe it's not fair to rank them on their respective levels of flag-waving and chest-beating. That said, I am sticking to my premise of the U.S.A. and Israel being very patriotic, and focus on those two countries, especially Israel.
(Note: I don't think Luxembourg, my next home, will score very high on the patriotic scale.)
Today is Independence Day. Yesterday was Memorial Day. The juxtaposition is intended to remind observers of the bittersweet struggle for independence and security that has been waged through several wars, ongoing fears, and 63 years, while also attesting to the country's desire for peace and acceptance. (I am not discussing the contemporary political issues of 2011 here, so feel free to read that last clause at face value or as skeptically as you deem necessary.) The holidays, as with all Jewish and Israeli holidays, go from sunset to sunset. Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) starts with a siren at 8pm, where the whole nation is to stand still in silence. There are services that night; the next day at 11am, another siren and set of services. And then that night, on to partying.
This year, there was a unique twist to the combination: Euroleague basketball. Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the strongest European basketball clubs, something of a Yankees of the Israeli leagues, with all the good and bad that comes with such a connotation, was competing in the Champions League finals against a Greek squad, Panathinaikos. The twist was that once Maccabi made the final, they were slated to play at 5:30, an earlier time than originally planned: the final four organizers in Barcelona agreed to bump up the game to accommodate MTA's wishes to not play during Memorial Day, when all the TV stations go black for the siren and then broadcast services or memorial themed documentaries and programs. The nation hung on both the success or failure of Maccabi's game and the time it took to play, wondering if they could go about their rituals and still see if Maccabi would pull it out.
Though Israelis either love or hate Maccabi in the domestic context, once they play abroad, the team has a full country behind them. The Ha'aretz, the center-left newspaper I read, had an article boasting of Maccabi's fervent fans, outnumbering and outbellowing the other Final Four teams' fanbases while adorned in a sea of yellow, Maccabi's color. Living on a main street in Herzliya, I could hear air horns and cheers from my window leading up to game time, then the hushed attention of people watching the game, and then the dying wheeze of a fanbase that realized it would only be next year - Panathinaikos was too strong.
The positive feelings for the country did not dissipate along with the dreams of Euroleague glory. The next day at school, after a nice, politically correct service about remembrance and world peace put on by high school students, I had a long talk with a new immigrant to Israel, a mother in her late 40s from an NYC suburb who professed Bronx-accented appreciation for her oldest son deciding to move here first and join the army, who wondered how to persuade her younger son to serve the country, and who talked about how her son's commanding officer gave parents his phone number in case of emergency, filling surrogate teacher and parent roles at once. I don't say that I shared oolll of the same views as this mother from oolllmost the Bronx, but it was thought-provoking in the very least.
Last night was the night of the big celebration, from which all these photos (except the shoe) come. I had no plans to go anywhere unless invited to something, but the constant din of horns, both the ones blown by mouth ala last summer's vuvuelzas and the ones kids could just push a button to sound, the little bastards (both kids and horns), and the proximity of Herzliya's festivities spurred me to get out of the apartment. I grabbed my camera and went for a stroll on Ben Gurion street, the main drag in Herzliya, hosting the Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day) activities and named after the first prime minister and major founding father of the country, David Ben Gurion (the George Washington of Israel, as it were).
The main part of Herzliya, where I am this time 'round, is a nice-sized suburb of Tel Aviv, not far from the city, the beach, or the hi-tech sector buildings located in Herzliya Pittuach, the beach-side of town. Last night, it was mostly host to families; I saw a few older couples, a bunch of high schoolers, but few people around my age who weren't already pushing baby carriages or toting large bellies. The 20-somethings either don't live in Herzliya or make sure to get into Tel Aviv for the night. (Note: last year, when living in Tel Aviv, Amy and I went to a party hosted by one of my M.A. program buddies at which both of us felt awkward, old, and out of place (well, maybe I didn't quite feel old, but you get the point). Then she met up with other friends and went to a party, and I went to bed, this around 10:30pm.)
In that the patriotic holiday in a patriotic country is a family affair, then, it made me wonder about the nature of Israeli patriotism. Undoubtedly, a small nation affords less escape from patriotism and possibly by its size more of a need for unity. At the same time, the contentious nature of Israel's history makes it more essential to cling to the idea of a country. Not to say everyone agrees with "the situation", that all Israelis have conforming views regarding the nation's challenges. More to say that given the ever-present potential for eruption in a political and military sense, and the intense daily behavior everybody engages in, the citizens who stay here will by their nature be committed to the idea of the state; it's the bias of self-selection. I would think that this applies to Arab citizens of Israel and those living in the territories, though obviously through a much different set of circumstances and logic.
There is also the newness of the state and its ongoing sense of danger that propels citizens to celebrate so furiously each and every year (or at least the three I've been here). History has taught us time and again that democracy, while perhaps a noble and desired outcome for all modern nations, does not come about immediately or suddenly, but almost always in an organic process - see Russia after 1991, Germany after WWI, Yugoslavia after 1991, Africa or the Middle East after colonialism, or even the U.S.A. until at least the civil war. Israel is only 63 years old, younger then the U.S. was when it fought itself over slavery; expecting it to solve all its problems is mildly unfair and at the same time a testament to the fact that Israel has done a pretty good job establishing democracy from scratch. At the same time, Israel's situation is unique, and I am one of many who think the country could do much more in seeking a solution, so I'm not nullifying all criticism as unfair.
A local curmudgeon - a mostly left-wing contrarian journalist whom, I sense, most Israelis ignore at this point - argued on one of the previous two independence days that once Israelis get over the celebration of themselves and their great survival that is wrapped in the Yom Haatzmaut national narrative, they can actually take care of the injustice that is the failure to make peace with the Palestinians.
It's mostly a wet blanket argument, one designed to be ignored on the day itself. But removed from the immediate holiday context, it is another thought provoker - would Israelis care quite as much about independence and their patriotism once those things became granted and confirmed in peace treaties and an affirmed right to exist from their neighbors? Is Israeli pride/exceptionalism the result of the conflict, or part of the cause? With peace, would new problems and bugaboos emerge?
Part of that discussion with the Bronxish mother was about how little Memorial Day meant to us in the States as kids - a parade, the beginning of summer, a day off from school, and a barbecue, but not much more. After 9/11, patriotism and the significance of sacrifice and suffering returned to Americans in a way it may not have since World War II. That sacrifice wasn't terribly well shared, and that significance and patriotism became something of a political football, as during the Vietnam War, but in the very least, we became aware of the issues, we Americans who as a nation were and still are, as a Russian condescendingly termed it to me, "childish" in our view of the world, and who have much more to blush and get angry about in both relative and absolute terms than Israel. Is it a good thing that we now think this way, more patriotically and more attached to rituals? That we only got here through a sense of suffering? I don't know.
Just as I was about to go back up to my apartment for the night, where I would stay awake till after midnight, jamming toilet paper in my ears to blunt the incessant if fading blare of the horns, the first round of fireworks went off. Kids previously messing around with skateboards or spray cans shrieked and ran by me to the intersection from where they could see the fireworks. Adults walked over to similar vantage points. I turned around, pulled to the flash and squeal of the rockets.
Fireworks inevitably serve as exclamation points for outdoor celebrations, especially patriotic ones. They are either ineffable joys or simplistic ones, satisfying the inner child's desire to see sparkles and hear explosions. Whatever happens to Israeli patriotism, American patriotism, both countries' desire for peace, or both countries' propensity for war, the ties between fireworks and patriotic revelry are not going to diminish. Neither will the inner logic beneath those ties.