The following was delivered as a sermon on Friday, June 18. In this sermon I reflect on the World Cup, nationalism and patriotism and, sharing the theories of Eric Hobsbawm on 'the Invention of Tradition', offer some thoughts on the positive and negative sides of nationalism both in the American context and when applied to our engagement with Israel.
Indeed, it is the case that, on Saturday evening, upon hearing the news of the draw while my parents and I were taking a short break in Baltimore, we were quite disgusted to hear of England’s performance, while the Americans around us, upon hearing the news, were all smiles. Of course, England was down a key player – their captain, Rio Ferdinand had to withdraw from the competition due to injury and, as my father pointed out, ‘a Ferdinand is worth two in the bush’… but I digress.
Around World Cup time (and while I’m highlighting some UK/USA differences, let me just point out that the football World Cup is a competition that, when it uses the word ‘World’ in the title, refers to lots of different countries playing each other. Those who enthusiastically watch something called ‘The World Series’ take note! (and, yes, I do intend to refer to the game in question as ‘football’ throughout this sermon; the game is so called because it is played with feet and not with hands and helmets and lots of padding!).
Now, around World Cup time in England, you will see a very large number of cars on the streets with England flags attached to windows on little poles. This phenomena only started a few years ago – I don’t think more than 10 years back, and it is one touchstone indicating how the country rallies together with nationalistic pride during these competitions. In the USA, such behavior is quite unremarkable – many homes fly American flags on an ongoing basis, and there is much flag waving at lots of national holidays – Memorial Day and July 4th in particular. I’ll admit, when I first arrived in the USA, I was quite put off by these overtly patriotic behaviors. I would roll my eyes when I heard pundits discussing whether a potential Presidential candidate was wearing his American flag pin in a prominent enough position. It all made me feel very uncomfortable.
The reason for this is that, until the new wave of flag waving that has become such a prominent indication of national pride and patriotism in England, the English flag had been somewhat co-opted by the British National Party – the right-wing, white supremacist, anti-semitic and fascist political party that, thankfully, has very limited support in England. Only the BNP used to, on a regular basis, display such overt nationalist symbols.
I am delighted that the people of England have reclaimed the flag. But I want to take a few minutes to consider why these symbols, and games like football, have such power to inflame our nationalistic and patriotic tendencies. For this, I’ll turn back to my previous, short career as a cultural geographer and want to refer you to a fascinating book by Eric Hobsbawm called ‘the Invention of Tradition.’ He describes traditions which appear to be or claim to be ancient that can be quite recent in origin and were sometimes literally invented in a single event or over a short time period. Hobsbawm distinguishes between three types of invented traditions which each have a distinctive function: a) those establishing or symbolizing social cohesion and collective identities, b) those establishing or legitimatizing institutions and social hierarchies, and c) those socializing people into particular social contexts.
What’s this got to do with football? Hobsbawm writes about the creation of the Football Association in England as functioning as a powerful, national invented tradition in 1871. This led to rules, and rituals of what it meant to be a fan – watching your team every Saturday, supporters clubs and gear, and the annual trip to London to watch the FA Cup Final. Hobsbawm explains that sport has a particular power to ‘fill up the vessel of national identity’ because of the ‘ease with which even the least political or public individuals can identify with the nation as symbolized by young persons excelling at what practically every man wants, or at one time in life has wanted, to be good at. The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people. The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of his nation himself (Hobsbawm, 1992: 143).
Applying the lens of Hobsbawm’s theories of invented traditions to examine what stirs our patriotic passions, and how these are manipulated by politicians, advertising, institutions, and even our education system, can be very helpful, not least in avoiding some of the worst excesses of nationalism taken to extremes. That is true in the United Kingdom, it is true in the USA and, for us as Jews, it is also helpful as we engage with Israel and expressions of Zionism.
Do not misunderstand me – invented traditions are not inherently wrong – everything that exists was ‘invented’ at some point; Hobsbawm highlights those things which people take as ‘its always been that way’ and unpacks them to demonstrate the power of some things which, far from ‘always being’ a certain way, have actually been that way for a rather short time. And he demonstrates their power to bring people together to form society and community – things which are very important for the ability of a people to develop and function as a nation.
The modern nation state of Israel is a very young country. Much of what we consider to be the essence of Israeli culture and national identity are relatively recent ‘invented traditions’ – take the modern Hebrew language, Israeli folk music and dance, and much, much more besides. The excitement that we feel upon uncovering some of the amazing archeological finds in Israel is inherently linked to a sense of heritage and culture that has been fostered through Jewish education and Zionist youth groups.
Supporting your nation’s soccer team feels wonderful – for those of you who attend live sports games, supporting your team, the experience can be a religious one – just like a worship service, there are rituals, and an order of service, times when you stand up and sit down and times when you chant familiar tunes together. When soccer turns ugly is when football hooligans, after a match, attack property and people who were supporters of the opposite team. Likewise, when we look at the behavior of nation states or nationalist entities. I think that everyone in this room wants to see two States, living side by side in peace in the Middle East. Hamas, one of the voices of Palestinian nationalism, wants to see the destruction of the State of Israel – that is the equivalent of football hooliganism and, however strong the nationalist claim, we cannot tolerate that behavior.
On the other hand, we must also be wary of the ugly face of Zionist nationalism in Israel – those who believe that they have a God-given right to a greater Israel, and a claim to Judea and Samaria, irrespective of a greater goal of negotiating a peace settlement that will require sharing of land and resources. Our rabbinic intern, Ilene Haigh, was sharing the words of Anat Hoffman just the other week, calling upon American Jews not to emotionally and spiritually divest from Israel.
I think, for some Jews in this country, there has been a growing discomfort with Zionism because, like the BNP who co-opted the British flag for their own fascist and white supremacist agenda, so some Religious Zionists have been allowed to co-opt Zionism, and we are uncomfortable with being associated with that. These are the people who want to segregate seating on buses by gender, who have turned the Kotel into an ultra-orthodox synagogue, and who sometimes become aggressive toward peaceful Palestinian farmers in the West Bank in asserting their demand to develop further Jewish settlement there.
That’s why we need a diversity of voices in this country that speaks from a place of love for Israel. Whether you find yourself more comfortable with AIPAC or J-Street, the New Israel Fund or the Jewish National Fund, it is important that we tie our flag to one of the many voices that demonstrate that there are a plurality of ways to be a Zionist. But to disengage, to walk away, is to let the extremists on all sides win. And that is one score that none of us can afford to see on the front page of our newspapers.