By: Pete Zubof
Nothing encapsulates the splendor and history of the Olympic games like the opening ceremonies. Great hegemonic rivalries manifest themselves in epic competitive traditions, and small nations have their place in the pageantry alongside giants. The athletes marching into the stadium take with them the hopes and dreams of their countrymen and give rise to the greatest stories in sports. Who can forget the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 when an American hockey team, composed entirely of amateurs, defeated the feared Soviets? Who doesn’t enjoy seeing the beaming faces of the Jamaican bobsled team, perpetual underdogs, but no less proud of their country and achievements? Does this not epitomize the Olympic spirit? And, of course, how can there be a dry eye in the crowd when Gary di Silvestri of Staten Island comes proudly marching into the stadium under the flag of….Dominica? What’s going on here? Whatever happened to national loyalty…national unity? Whatever happened to patriotism?
In an increasingly globalized world, ideas like patriotism have begun to fade. The Cold War is over, the Iron Curtain is down, and one’s home nation is often defined based more on tax code than ideology. Is this a good thing? Does the breaking down of borders, both physical and philosophical, make our world a better, friendlier place? Without a doubt, patriotism can certainly be taken to a morally bad place and become a dangerous form of nationalism. Such nationalistic fervor was a driving force behind the rise of the Third Reich and continues to fuel tensions in regions like the North Caucasus. Yet patriotism, when harnessed in a positive manner, can be powerful and unifying. How else would we have ever put a man on the moon? Especially in a culturally diverse country like America, patriotism can be a uniting force that reminds citizens of their ties to one another regardless of their other differences.
As American Jews, we can often be perceived as having somewhat of an identity crisis when it comes to patriotism and national identity. A high percentage of American Jews can trace their roots back to the pre-World War II exodus from Europe, the turn-of-the-century mass emigration from Russia, or even further into American history. Very few of us are first-generation immigrants or even second; we are, in every sense of the term, red-blooded Americans. Yet unlike many other religious or ethnic groups, the American Jewish community openly exhibits a special affinity, some may even say preference, for a foreign country, in this case the state of Israel.
This observation is not entirely baseless. Growing up, I worked as a camp counselor for a Jewish community center day camp in Richmond, Virginia. My first summer, we followed the long-standing camp tradition of gathering around the flag pole each morning and raising both the Israeli and American flags. What was more striking, however, was the fact that while we sang the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, we failed to observe any similar honor for the United States. I quickly spoke with the camp director about this; he did agree to add the Pledge of Allegiance to our morning routine, but I nonetheless found the original exclusion troubling. Recently, in speaking with some of my fellow Jewish sailors, I found that my experience was not isolated. Many Jewish assemblies, be they synagogues, social groups, or camps like mine, seem to demonstrate an overwhelming preference for observing Israeli honors, often at the expense of our own nation. There are certainly reasons for the affinity for Israel. It is the Jewish “homeland,” considered by many to be our biblical birthright. Still, Israel is not our real home, and, as such, patriotism to the state (as opposed to the idea) can seem misguided and disingenuous. It can also lead to what, in my opinion, is a misrepresentation of the loyalties of American Jews.
During a multi-national exercise, I had the privilege, to fly simulated combat missions with members of the Israeli Air Force. Although I certainly had met many Israelis growing up in the Jewish community, this was the first time that I had ever interacted with serving members of their military. At the beginning of the exercise, I sought out their planning room so that I could introduce myself as a fellow Jew. I was interrupted in this endeavor by my Commanding Officer, who reminded me that I was not to divulge any classified information to the Israeli forces. I was thunderstruck! What gave my boss any idea that I would betray my own national interests for that of another country…any other country?
I am not the only service member to have had this experience. My friend, an Air National Guard chaplain and rabbi, told me that he had been queried several times about his allegiances, albeit usually from younger, more uninformed sources than my own. Since 9/11, dramatic events, including the Fort Hood shooting, have added fuel to the idea that religious interests, with their associated national identity, can trump those of American. Yet for my part, and for the vast majority of Jewish American service members, that idea is pure fallacy. We do, after all, swear an oath to the American Constitution, not the Israeli.
To be fair, American patriotism can be elusive outside of the military, certainly in the upper social classes of society. Patriotism, in this country, is certainly not trendy. Go to any sports bar during the World Cup and you will find the place crowded with Americans who have suddenly rediscovered their European roots. They reserve showing off the American flag for state fairs and NASCAR races. I can’t count the number of times I have observed well-to-do American Jews in Manhattan wearing Israeli Defense Force t-shirts (trendy) not U.S. Navy shirts (mundane).
I am certainly not anti-Israeli. Nor do I think that we, as Jews (or members of any other cultural group), should ignore our roots and their effects on our identity. I would ask, however, that as American Jews, we not forget what the United States, our own country, has given to the Jewish people. In colonial times, the United States was a place of refuge for Sephardic Jews fleeing the Iberian Peninsula. More recently, the United States was a source of liberation for our people after the Holocaust.
America has provided a home for my ancestors and for the Jewish people as a whole where we can flourish. Despite being a small minority, we have risen as a community to a position of great respect and influence among our countrymen. I love an underdog, but when the day arrives that Israel assembles its Olympic hockey team, I, for one, will still be waving the red, white and blue.