Professor Bernard Avishai talks patriotism in the U.S. and Israel

by Evan Morgan | 7/14/17 2:35am


Government professor Bernard Avishai studies the Middle East and is author of three books on Israel. A former Guggenheim fellow, he writes on political economy and Israeli affairs for the New Yorker and also teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At the College, he teaches classes titled “Politics of Israel and Palestine” and “Political Economy in the Age of Google.”

You’ve lived in Canada, the United States and Israel. Does each place have a different idea of patriotism?

I think American versions of patriotism have always been a little anomalous, because for America — at least since the Civil War — patriotism has meant loyalty to the Constitution and to a certain style of constitutional democracy. Patriotism meant loyalty to the republic and didn’t necessarily advert to any feelings of affiliation towards a nation of a particular kind. That’s also true in Canada, although in Canada it’s also layered with the extra need to fully articulate federal principles, because the federation in Canada is meant to allow two different languages and cultures to coexist, so to be a patriotic Canadian means not just loyalty towards liberal freedoms, but loyalty to a federal principle that accommodates national distinction and asserts that two nations can live together nonviolently if certain federal principles are presupposed. So for those of us here at Dartmouth, living in America and close to Canada, patriotism doesn’t really mean what it has meant in western Europe and what it now means in Israel. It doesn’t mean affiliation to a nation, to a national identity, to the home of a nation. To be a patriotic Pole, for example, has much more nationalistic associations. You were part of an extended language tribe with a grievance, and the grievance had to do with being conquered by other extended language tribes.

And what about Israel?

Israelis are more patriotic along these lines. There really isn’t a word in Hebrew for patriotism. There is a word for loyalty to the nation which now has become Zionism. That’s not what Zionism was to begin with, but that’s what it’s become, a word empty of historical meaning which is just used to say you’re patriotic. If people say they’re Zionist, they mean that they love what they imagine to be this construct, this Jewish nation which is itself vague enough to incorporate not just Israelis but also world Jews who may have a sense of identity with the Israeli project. Zionism used to be a revolutionary movement to create a modern Hebrew-speaking nation which would transcend the world of rabbinic Judaism. It wasn’t meant to be just another word for national defense. It was a revolutionary idea. Jews didn’t speak Hebrew 150 years ago. They knew it the way Italians knew Latin. The first great challenge of Zionism was to create a modern Hebrew-speaking society, and to that extent, it was very successful and completed its work by the 1940s. Once the Holocaust happened, Zionism took on an entirely different meaning. It suddenly became the world fight against assimilation, the world fight against anti-Semitism, the Jewish stand against Jew-hatred. That’s not what Zionism was originally. If all you cared about was persecution, most such Jews came from Europe to America. The ones who went to Palestine and tried to build a Hebrew-speaking nation were part of a culture of invention. At this point, there isn’t a lot of historical memory. There are a lot of Israelis who use the term ‘Zionism’ and haven’t the first clue what the Zionist movement really stood for originally. It’s just become comfortable for them to use the term ‘Zionism’ to mean loyalty to the country and advancing its interests. Certainly there are some Israelis for whom that has become a grotesque claim because they consider themselves so attached to the land and the mythology of Jewish prehistory, Biblical history. They become so committed to that idea that they’re willing to overlook the fact that other people actually live on the land, so attached to the land that they think their connection to the land has to do with their sense of connection to the texts. They can become completely oblivious to who else is living on the land for the last 1500 years.

Is that connection to the land a sort of nationalism?

Ultimately, what produces patriotic feeling is this sense that there may come a time when you have to defend it physically. This generally positive sense we have of patriotism concedes that there have been times when people have been asked to fight and kill and die for the defense of the homeland. You can’t ask people to do that unless you’re somehow justifying it with some sort of transcendental claim. It’s not a small thing to ask somebody to fight at the risk of dying for something. Even the most liberal, republican, pacific person will acknowledge that there have been times where that right was required — think of the Civil War in this country, or World War II and the fight against the Nazis. The same is true in Israel. In 1948 and then again in 1967, Israel faced a genuine and justifiable fear of invasion and even extinction. People were asked to fight to the death. In 1948, more than 6,000 Israelis were killed in a population of around 800,000. That’s a lot to ask of a population. People have to feel like they’re standing for something so important that they can’t imagine living without it. Patriotism is that kind of request. It’s asking you to dig down and say, “what is it that’s so important that you can’t live without it,” such that your life is something you’d be prepared to risk because to live without this thing would be unimaginable. In the first instance, that’s the love of your family, the love of your immediate community, your sense of brotherhood and sisterhood in your community. You couldn’t stand to see those things threatened.

So patriotism has a kind of utility to nations or societies?

Not just a utility, it’s a claim that is, in the best sense, necessary. But patriotism, in the best sense, doesn’t remain for very long. It is so powerful that it is irresistible to demagogues, and getting people whipped up and getting them to feel that their national life is being threatened is the cheapest trick in the book.

Would you say that’s something Donald Trump did on his way to the presidency?

Absolutely, and so does Netanyahu all the time. Samuel Johnson said “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Once you’ve lost this or that ideological battle, you always fall back on patriotic claims. Fearing and hating is the most natural impulse human beings have. Hobbes taught us this: we always feel insecure, we always feel most comfortable in the most familiar, and feel increasingly frightened — and therefore increasingly subject to hatefulness — as soon as things become unfamiliar. You don’t have to teach this to anybody. People who are willing to exploit that very positive and natural and necessary view of patriotism are inevitable. They’re scurrilous, but we in a democracy have to recognize that those people are everywhere, and that even though we have a positive need for patriotism — it’s a natural and necessary instinct — it can also be very easily and grotesquely corrupted.

How can we combat that kind of corruption of patriotism?

One thing that exists in Israel that I’m sorry no longer exists here is universal conscription. I think a democratic country should have a democratic army. When I grew up in America and Canada in the 1960s, it was understood that if this country was going to go to war, it would affect everybody. Certainly the idea of a universal draft is, to me, the best inoculation against the corruption of patriotism. Then, we might not be so quick to dispatch military forces to parts of the world where American interests aren’t clearly at stake. Nixon basically destroyed the draft army because he couldn’t defend the Vietnam War. It was a terrible mistake. One of the things I’ve found in Israel is that the people who are most invested in the peace process are those from the military and intelligence community. We have too many stereotypes of George Pattons, people who love war and can’t wait for the next battle. Most people I know who have real responsibilities in the armed forces hate war and understand how important it is for people to be deeply thoughtful before they commit to anything like armed conflict.

Polls show young Americans becoming less patriotic over time. Do you have any conjectures about that?

I think it’s a very positive thing — the globalist consciousness of a new generation. It’s the generation of my kids and grandkids. It is simply a fact of our daily commercial life — we have a much more cosmopolitan sense of the world. That’s why, with Brexit, for example, the people who voted against Brexit tended to be disproportionately young and urbane. I don’t think this conflicts with the impulse to patriotism, because it just in some ways elevates patriotic impulses to a more global canvas, and therefore people like Merkel represent not just Germany but a European Union. You visit Berlin and you feel like you’re at the heart of something much bigger than just Germany. Patriotism is not mitigated by cosmopolitan experiences. The impulse to participate in the defense of your commonwealth is a positive one, whether it’s done in the context of a national boundary or done in the context of a federal boundary. Maybe this is another answer to the question you asked earlier. Young people today have so much experience with cosmopolitan, commercial opportunity — you look at the supply chains of any large American corporation, and it entails travel to all parts of the world and seeing a cooperative relationship with the rest of the world — that’s an important inoculation against the corruptions of the patriotic impulse.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.