Patriotism and the National Anthem
There has been a huge amount of debate in the US about the refusal of a Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, to stand during the national anthem. His supporters argue that the Constitution gives him freedom of expression to do this (and to protest the injustices faced, mainly, by the poor black minority in the US). The also claim that this right outweighs any offense he might have caused.
Kaepernick is not the first person to do this. Megan Rapinoe, of soccer fame, also refused to sing it — but no one seems to have noticed. I also recall the famous 1968 protest at the Olympic Games, where two black American athletes — John Carlos and Tommie Smith — stood on the podium during the anthem and raised glove-clenched fists, also in protest of discrimination against blacks. In that case, if I recall correctly, hardly anyone came to their defense, and they were vilified. The difference over the years in public attitude alone might challenge the assumption that nothing has changed.
What is a flag but a piece of cloth? What is an anthem but a trite, banal song? Does it really matter? The answer is yes, it does.
I was brought up in the UK. I have witnessed the dramatic decline in nationalism of any sort. In my youth, every performance at the movie theaters ended with the national anthem. No more. We never, ever took oaths of loyalty. Nationalism was regarded by the educated classes as, to quote Samuel Johnson, “The last refuge of a scoundrel.”
In 1933, the Oxford Union, the university’s undergraduate debating society, passed a famous motion that “this House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country.” It made headline news at the time; Churchill called the vote “abject, squalid, shameless” and “nauseating.” The vote is even said to have misled Hitler into thinking that the British had lost the will to fight. Yet that same class, minus a few who became spies for the Soviet Union, did indeed go to war to defend liberty. And Brits in general do take pride in the Queen, even if they laugh at her handbag and don’t think much of her husband and family.
Nationalism mattered terribly in the 19th and 20th centuries. But in Europe and Britain it is now almost the exclusive preserve of right-wing, racist, neo-Nazi neo-fascists. In Europe today the dominant political and administrative classes no longer see themselves as wanting or having to preserve any specific cultural, religious heritage, ideology or loyalty. They are part of a wider, common, universalist and tolerant mindset (except when it comes to Israel).
What of Israel? In 1948, Israel had to reestablish a nation out of disparate mixture of cultural and racial immigrants. The country was divided by a common religion, rather than united by it. So Israel needed to develop a civil religion based on nationalist symbols — the flag, Masada, the Holocaust and the army — to reinforce a sense of identity, mission and culture. It succeeded admirably for its Jewish population. Less so for the others. Israel is indeed different from Europe and the US, in that it exists specifically to reinforce and protect a specific culture and religion. Loyalty is a big thing.
Even so, Israel’s Declaration of Independence accords rights and equality to other religions, too. Whatever the Jewish state’s limitations, most countries of the Middle East do not afford the same rights to other religions that it does.
Yet many Jews disapprove of and disagree with the politics of the state, on the left and the right. The Left has produced a fine array of antisemitic Israelis. On the right, xenophobia thrives. Neturei Karta will happily burn the Israeli flag. Hundreds of thousands of haredi Jews refuse to serve in the armed forces, and some physically assault those who do. They will refuse to stand in silence during memorial days. Refuse to sing the national anthem.
I and most Jews I know strongly disagree and disapprove. We don’t look down on their ideological position. They are entitled to that. But we oppose their public disparagements of a state that protects and supports them financially and otherwise.
Every religion, every nation, every person functions on two levels: that of ideas and values and that of ritual and behavior. Many Jews love the ideas of Judaism but do not like adhering to rituals. Others live by the rituals but have great difficulty with some of the theological ideas. Regardless, we are all committed to being Jewish and are grateful for a place of refuge and somewhere to call our own, even if we live elsewhere. In the end, the rituals, be they religious or civil religious, are what reinforce that strange and wonderful thing called identity. I think certain things need modification and should be argued for. But in principle I stand for the rituals of the state.
The US has its constitution, its laws and its rituals of behavior. Anyone living there must adhere to its civil constitution. Freedom of expression allows for disagreement and challenge. We can be religious or not. Patriotic or not. In the case of Kaepernick, he can and should protest against anything that offends him. But there are certain relatively unimportant rituals that exist in American life designed to reinforce identity and pride in the nation, and I think he is wrong to offend those. Coming from Europe, one of the thing that strikes us is American pride — the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, singing God Bless America — even if we know full well the sordid side of its history. Silly as they are, we’re impressed by them. Most Americans are proud and happy to live there, and much of the rest of the world desperately wants to join them.
Whatever is wrong in American life, its laws are egalitarian and they recognize the rights of minorities — racial or sexual. These rights are upheld by the Supreme Court. That does not mean that hatreds, prejudices, and biases do not exist. Human beings are messy things.
American society has protected Kaepernick (as Israel has Neturei Karta), afforded him a safe, caring home, and a wealth-producing career. He should rail against racism. But not against a state that condemns it. Refusing to stand, as I see it, undermines the simple rituals that help bring so many disparate peoples together. It is this sense of American exceptionalism that is both offensive to some and affirmative to others. But any outsider coming from Europe recognizes a spirit of American pride that does not exist there. But it exists in Israel, too.
Keeping rituals in America and mitzvot in Judaism are so important. Regardless of whether we think they are Divine or not, they help reinforce identity. Vague ideas such as human rights and Tikkun Olam — lovely and important as they are for humanity in general — are not enough to reinforce a specific identity. Conventions matter.
Unless America wants to go the way of Europe, it ought to expect (although I don’t believe it should compel) its citizens to respect its rituals, and to stand during its national anthem — even as one protests at its injustices and limitations. And that goes for Israel and being Jewish, too.