My first-ever college class was a seminar on Nationalism. On the first day, the professor asked us to go around the table: “Nationalism: thumbs up, or thumbs down?” Back in 1994, I had read every word Jane Austen wrote but wasn’t sure what ‘nationalism’ meant. But several of my brilliant classmates looked at each other as if to say, “for this our parents are paying $35,000 a year?”
These friends have since gone on to become a professor of political theory and a lawyer working on international human rights. I’m living in Israel, still wondering what nationalism means.
Last week was Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Independence Day, the biggest barbeque day of the Israeli year (and that’s saying a lot). The day-before hoards of meat-and-pita shoppers at Rami Levy forced even an intrepid shopper like me to abandon mission. Fumes from the next door park filled our house all day. The place was packed and had an easy-going and festive air. Apparently in the biggest park downtown, people started pitching tents and staking claims the night before, but in San Simon the tone was very casually communal. I liked it so much better than the stereotypical American private backyard cookout. People seemed so happy. I was happy for them. Happy for the groups of friends casually parenting each other’s kids. For the rambunctious boys bonking people over the head with blow-up hammers. (Why?!) For the Russians, the French, the Americans and the Brits — now all also Israelis. For the folks from the home for the disabled, next door to us. For the old people who have probably seen some things they’d rather forget.
I came home and spent some time happily toodling around non-political coverage of Independence Day, like this list of “64 Things I Love About Israel.” (Though I also acknowledged that some of these things felt inaccessible to me. Those pesky language, national and religious barriers again!). To channel my professor, I felt like giving Israeli nationalism a big “thumbs up.”
And then, since this is Israel and I am I, I immediately started second guessing myself: what did it mean that I felt happy for this country, whose current politics have so troubled me? How frustrating that in this part of the world, everything seems zero sum. A day of celebration for the West side of town is a day of mourning for the East. I felt like I should walk to East Jerusalem just in the name of balance. Actually, Ilan Pappe was reading at the American Colony Hotel. No one better to provide balance for my Yom Ha’Atzmaut! Unfortunately, the schedule didn’t work.
The day before Independence Day is Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) and there’s a two-minute siren similar to the one on Yom HaShoah. I was in the loud, crazy Machane Yehuda market and suddenly everything fell still and silent as people remembered the dead. At least two people in my eyeshot openly sobbed. The sense of collective memory was powerful. Terence was on an Egged bus surrounded by many Israelis and one observant Muslim woman. Unfortunately he got to his stop before the siren sounded, but he wondered what she would have done when the bus stopped and her fellow passengers stood to attention. Conversely, I met a liberal Jewish woman who told me about being near Damascus Gate when the siren sounded: “of course I stopped and stood. All around me, life went on. I tried to communicate ‘I understand why you’re not stopping, but I need to.'”
Nationalism and identity could not possibly be more complicated here. It makes me miss freshmen seminars.