In the States, if you see a car with an American flag decal, or a house with a flag flying out front, and it's not a holiday, regardless of the owner's actual intent, you will frequently infer that the owner is either a late-to-the-game sentimentalist or a semi-crazed racist xenophobe. Or a politician running for office. It's not really fair. But patriotism in a post-9/11 United States has gotten a pretty dirty rep. Perhaps it's because the crazies are the most vocal, the most strident, and the most wanting-to-show-you-how-much-more-they-love-their-country-than-you-do. Or perhaps to imply that if you don't have a flag, you are probably a terrorist or at any rate a conspirator and should be deported. Or something equally nuts. And because it's ostentatious, because you doubt their honesty, (because you secretly hope they're not quite as insane as they appear), everything rings false, and even the flag starts to look like a lie in and of itself.
And the ones who actually do love their country - or at least the potential their country has - are unfortunately grouped with the nutbars. I have a lot of issues with America, or at least with American government, but I love the idea of America. I love what it was founded on - freedom, enterprise, achievement, progress, the ability to remake yourself in a new world into the person you want to be - America is, or should be, about everyone realizing his full potential. It often isn't - often it's about holding back everyone so we're all "equal" - down to the lowest common denominator (but that's another debate about the problems with the school system). We still have that potential. And I would like to think that at least some percentage of the flag wavers are of a like mind (I know some of them are). But the totem of the flag has been tarnished by people who would use it as a tool, a weapon even, for political maneuvering, rather than a symbol of freedom and honor.
And you know what? I don't think that's how it is in Israel. For the past two days cousinTerra and I have walked and ridden around the country and there are Israeli flags everywhere - up flagpoles, hanging off balconies of apartments, displayed proudly in front of stores and houses. And it doesn't feel weird or like we're surrounded by scary nationalists. It feels nice, it feels welcome.
Because that's a big difference - people are pretty damn proud to be Israelis.
Most of the "older generation" of my family in Israel was not born here; they emigrated from America and other places to live in this country they were so proud existed - so proud to finally go home. Israel is a dangerous country to live in, there's no doubt of that, but they chose, and people continue to choose, to move here because they are proud to be Jewish, and to call themselves Israelis. The younger generation, those who were born here, are brought up with the same pride. There is mandatory conscription in this country at the age of eighteen (except for the Orthodox young women, who are given a different option of national service, sheruit leumi), and the young citizens of Israel are proud and happy to serve. And perhaps because they can then call themselves protectors of their homeland, they are that much prouder to be here.
Over the past few days we've been driven or led around various areas by my cousin Assaf, who is my age, my uncle Jonny and aunt Wendy, and Terra's aunt Bella. Each person, as they led us, would tell us stories, both of ancient times and recent times - from the City of David (the very beginnings of Jerusalem) or the port of Ceasarea to the description of Israel's genetically engineered seedless watermelon - because Israel's history stretches back both thousands of years and also only sixty-three years. And both are narratives to be proud of. After centuries of persecution, we are here in our homeland. After decades of being surrounded by countries that hate Israel for its existence, that have repeatedly tried to destroy Israel, we are here in our homeland. And we are prospering.
Israel is a tiny country - about the size of New Jersey. And it's damn proud to be here.