Independence and Identity: What Israel Knows, Europe Has Forgotten, and America May Yet Remember
The Fourth of July is beautiful. Independence Day marks arguably the most consequential positive political event in history and deserves every bit of the enthusiastic celebration with which it is observed. Yet the day goes by insufficiently appreciated by so many – a symptom of the erosion of our American identity.
For some perspective, let's start by looking at Memorial Day. In Israel.
Israel. Yom Hazikaron (Israel's Day of Remembrance) is ushered in by a wailing siren. Everyone – even drivers on the freeways – stops in his tracks for a minute of mournful silence. The somber mood of the day is everywhere: no hot dogs or barbecues; no sales at the malls. No rock music on the radio; no Friends reruns or light entertainment on TV – just reflective songs, unvarnished war documentaries, heart-piercing interviews with families of fallen soldiers, and coverage of countless memorial ceremonies at the nation's cemeteries. It is a poignant day, dripping with tragedy, loss, sacrifice, and suffering – but also with heroism, pride, honor, and gratitude.
Does that sound like your Memorial Day?
Israel may be unique in the intensity with which it observes Yom Hazikaron. But other nations, including America, would be wise to learn from Israel about how and why it honors its fallen as it does.
Yom Hazikaron honors the 23,000 Israeli lives lost – mostly young citizen-soldiers, as well as some 2,500 terror attack victims – in modern Israel's never-ending struggle to exist. It is a heavy day, and everyone feels its weight: as a small nation resurrected in the wake of the Holocaust, with a culture that places a premium on each individual life, Israel knows too well not only that its freedom isn't free, but that it comes at a steep, painful price.
As night falls on Yom Hazikaron, there is a jarring transition to raucous celebration: Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, begins. There are fireworks, official ceremonies and celebrations, street partying, and happy prayers of thanksgiving. There are military flyovers, ubiquitous barbecues, and the International Bible Contest finals. And there is an outpouring of national pride and a sense of accomplishment over how the country has survived and thrived for yet another year, feelings intensified by an appreciation for the fragility of its very existence.
Though quite the 48-hour emotional rollercoaster, the two days add depth and meaning to one another. As painful as that price has been for Israel to gain and maintain independence, it is dwarfed by the price the Jewish people paid for their prior statelessness.
These two days are a distillation of Israelis' remarkably strong sense of national identity, healthy cultural confidence, and appreciation for the state they have – imperfect as it may be. These are sentiments widely shared, even – perhaps especially – by Israel's sizeable population of immigrants from around the globe.
That is all well and good for Israel. What is worrisome is that such a strong national identity, though once the norm, has become aberrational in the Western world. The failure to nurture national identities among new generations and new immigrants threatens the survival of the culture and values Western nations once strongly stood for.
Europe. The competing cultures of European nations once proudly rivaled each other, spawning revolutions in philosophy, law, science, art, exploration, industry, religion, and academia while raising the prosperity, education, and human rights levels of millions in the process.
But nationalism run amok was also a factor in Europe's bloody wars. Since the end of World War II, nationalism-phobia has driven Western European governments. Though nationalism has only once mutated into Nazism, European elites threw out the baby with the bathwater: to ensure that expansionist racial fascism would not rise again, European leaders strove to minimize individual nationalisms and shrink the autonomy of individual states, cobbling together instead a new, transnational, pan-European identity.
They succeeded, perhaps too well, at diminishing the particular nationalisms of individual states. Their artificial new Europeanist substitute, however, is a watery, post-Christian, least-common-denominator amalgam which fails any identity's most basic test: hardly anyone is inspired to identify with it. As Europeans lament the failure of waves of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants to assimilate, perhaps one question that should be asked is, assimilate into what, precisely?
European nations used to make history happen; "Europe" now passively endures history happening to it. The U.K. Brexit vote notwithstanding, the exploding rates of violent crime (particularly rape), the metastasizing of terror cells, and the proliferation of no-go zones of debatable sovereignty seem not to rouse paralyzed mainstream political leaders to act in defense of any cultural value other than so-called multiculturalism.
As cultural identities erode, so erode the senses of purpose, belonging, meaning, inspiration, and cultural confidence of citizens. Identity-stripped societies are marked by risk aversion, listlessness, passivity, economic stagnation, lack of innovation, and – perhaps most ominous – sub-replacement-level birth rates. (Israel, notably, has by far the highest fertility rate of any OECD country.) The European nations, by and large, no longer seem to understand who they used to be or what they are becoming. They have lost their way. They are cultures in retreat.
America. The Unites States has not yet traveled as far down the post-nationalist cul-de-sac as has Europe, but it is heading in the same direction.
We may feel Americanism in our bones, but that does not make it part of our DNA; it is not inherited automatically. An understanding and appreciation of what America means requires transmission to each new generation. Yet that transmission is getting ever weaker: it is no longer fashionable within the education establishment to teach students about American exceptionalism or why tens of millions fled their own countries, immigrated to America's shores, and proudly adopted American identities and values or the degree to which America has been an unparalleled force for liberty and decency in the world. (It doesn't help matters that our post-nationalist president, not shy with opinions about everything else, rarely speaks of American greatness, past or present.)
Universities long ago abandoned any thought of instilling in all students some understanding and appreciation for Western and American civilization. Instead, students are taught the arts of grievance-manufacturing and victimhood, of countering privilege and power structure, of squelching free speech and seeing a complex world exclusively through the race/class/gender prism, and of becoming expertly hypersensitive to nano-aggressions and cultural appropriations. A wrecking ball of intellectually lazy cultural and moral relativism has displaced the Western/American canon.
Students come out of college arguably are even more ignorant of their Americanism than when they entered. By signing the Declaration of Independence, men of wealth and stature effectively signed their own death warrants, all in the name of political principle. Yet if university students are taught anything about those who committed their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to secure the liberty these students take for granted, it is that the founders were privileged white male slaveholders, thus more deserving of contempt than deep study.
There is far more sense of entitlement and cynicism about America inculcated on campus than sense of appreciation and gratitude for what it means to be American, or for the ultimate sacrifice of 1.35 million American war dead. And every year, America's colleges churn out another 3 million graduates thus indoctrinated.
There are only a few remaining cultural institutions where Americanism is honored: the military, talk radio, and country music come to mind. The prevailing mass cultural influences at best reflect mild embarrassment over American pride and patriotism.
Reclaiming Identity. National identity does not mean lockstep unity or uniformity, cheerleading, or papering over a nation's faults. Israel, for example, soberly faces monumental challenges both internal and external, and Israeli society is fundamentally fragmented – too often along demographic lines – in how to approach them. While American politicians sometimes call for "national conversations," Israeli citizens live in one. Yet Israel's rollicking, caustic debates, frequently over core questions of just what Israeli identity means, are themselves part of that identity.
Every nation needs to find its own path to instill identity in its people and an understanding of why it is worth preserving. In Israel's case, as fractious as society may be, it has utilized several tools to forge its strong sense of common identity. Through maintaining a strong Jewish historical memory and reconnecting to an ancient homeland; through breathing new life into its historic, though largely dormant, Hebrew language; through ingathering of exiles and rescue of persecuted Jews around the world; and through surviving crises together against often daunting odds, the Jewish people have re-created the nation of Israel. Infighting aside, there is a widespread sense of shared fate and a still potent recollection of pre-state Jewish powerlessness. Reinforced through common tradition, education, and ceremony – including Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut – that powerful identity has kept Israelis together through some dangerous, trying times.
Tragically, reclamation of national identity may well be a lost cause in several European states. But it is not yet lost in America. The feelings of gratitude and appreciation for being American, and of understanding what America has meant to ourselves and to the wider world, still run deep in much of the population, in spite of prevailing cultural antipathies toward such attitudes. But those sensibilities are endangered by insufficient transmission of American identity from one generation to the next and are in dire need of reinforcement.
America has always been a model to Israel of so much worth emulating. Perhaps in the realm of strengthening of national identity, Israel can return the favor.
There are no simple solutions. But we might start with something simple: perhaps it's time to establish an Independence Day custom of sounding sirens for a national minute of silence. Everyone can share a collective moment to honor the price paid for our liberty. Linking the sacrifice of others with our own Independence Day celebration of freedom is a good way to enhance the respect and appreciation for both. It is a small step, but it is at least a step forward, toward strengthening our American identity.
Abraham Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Israel. He serves as counsel to Republicans Overseas Israel.