Refusing to Stand: On Nationalism and Identity

Ever since I became politically conscious (as a kid during the Iraq War) I refused to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. It began as a simple way to protest the behavior of my government – a gesture that forced everyone around me to at least consider my point of view. Going to middle school in a fairly conservative, mostly white suburb, I got a lot of grief for being against the war. I was told that I was unpatriotic and un-American, and that if I didn’t like it here I should just leave. And quickly, after first trying to articulate my opposition to the war through the old slogan “peace is patriotic,” I realized I just didn’t identify with American nationalism or patriotism. I always felt estranged from American culture and from the tone of American political discourse. The ideological – generally conservative – and theological – generally Christian – lay of the land seemed to me irrelevant. I was a left-leaning ex-Jewish day school kid.

As I got older and entered high school my antipathy for nationalism turned into fully-fledged internationalism. During school ceremonies and sports games, I refused to acknowledge the national anthem. I never saluted the flag. I came to view the stars and stripes as symbols of imperialism and oppression. The symbols of the state represented all of its despicable policies. Saying the “Pledge” or standing during the “Star Spangled Banner” was tantamount to an endorsement of America’s violent foreign policy and rapacious capitalism.

I saw no contradiction my open rejection of the state that provided me with basic social services and welfare; I didn’t have to support the government or the country I was living in. And after all, I often justified to myself, I’m not really American anyway. “My country ’tis of thee”? It most certainly was not. “Sweet land of liberty”? It sounded like a bad joke. “Land where my fathers died”? More like the godforsaken villages of Eastern Europe. And “land of the pilgrim’s pride”? Well for me, that was Jerusalem.

I consistently prioritized my Jewish identity over my American one. My Jewish identity was supranational. It didn’t change, no matter where I went. I swore no allegiance to any country. I waved no flag but the flag of international solidarity.

Though I pledged allegiance to no nation, there was a nation that pledged allegiance to me. My Jewish-inspired anti-nationalism collided frustratingly with Zionism which, during the years of the Iraq War took a definitively rightward turn. Whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, Israel claimed to represent me. It called itself my national home. It used my prayers in its government’s ceremonies. It offered me citizenship even though I had never been there.

I came to Israel partly to see if I could reconcile my deep internal conflicts – to resolve the tension between being an internationalist and a Jew. But after living here for eight months, I feel no more allegiance to Israel than I do to any other country.

Before I got here, I thought of Israel as a unique place where new, important innovations were being made in the field of Jewish identity. Now, I experience it like any other country. Like all other countries in the world, it contains both good traits and bad traits. At the moment, it happens to be drowning in the bad. I was reminded over and over again last week, during Israeli Independence Day of how unrelated I feel to the state itself. The national culture, with its emphasis on militarism and celebration of boorishness, is foreign to me. The language, while familiar to me from an early age, is not my first language. The politics are depressingly vile. I don’t want to stand and sing the national anthem either: Hatikva isn’t my hope.

This post isn’t the place to delve into Israel’s myriad human rights violations and appalling policies. And I’ve certainly done that more than enough on this blog. Instead, I want to ask: If I don’t want to be part of any nationality, or a culture I don’t relate to, or a politics I don’t agree with, how, practically, can I be an internationalist?

Or to phrase the question with shameful naivete: I need to live in some country, some place, somewhere in the world. And all countries, or at least almost all countries, are parts of many terrible mechanisms of oppression. How do I justify being anywhere?

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7 Responses to Refusing to Stand: On Nationalism and Identity

  1. will madden says:

    Josh, I would venture to say that the situation you find yourself in may be relieved if more people gave even a fraction of the consideration you do to the issue. You know that I have a different perspective than you on the issue, but you raise an interesting issue regarding being an internationalist…and I think the place you seek might not necessarily be a physical location. This idea may limit options, but sets you free as long as you keep looking for the answer.

  2. Michael says:

    you are a fool that does not understand politics. DONE

  3. As an alleged “internationalist,” have you also severed your allegiance to your family also? If you want to moralize, rationalize, and altruistically crystallize your “internationalist ideology, such would be requisite also.

    However, I suspect that your ties to your beloved parents and siblings is as close as ever. Which in turn corrupts your beliefs thoroughly from the foundation. By way of illustration, a boat has anchors, typically. The intention of the anchor for a boat, is to keep it from drifting to where it does not belong.

    Do you show allegiance to your professors at Princeton, deify them, and declare them “lord” of your mind? Your verbiage would strongly suggest that. As my mother instilled in me the skills of analytical and critical thinking, she used this hypothetical scenario to illustrate her point: “David, if someone told you to stick your head into a pail of cow dung, would you do it, simply because they asked or demanded that of you?”

    Obviously, my recital of her challenge to me has not been lost upon my discourses of life over the decades. Tell me Josh, what is sloshing around in that pail that has Princeton’s emblem on it? how do you reconcile the ivory tower professors of your ivy-league college against the greater collective will and insight of the community at large? OOPS, your professors won’t teach you that part…

    It’s called elitist grooming, by the way. You are better than the greater community, and so you pontificate and disseminate what has been instilled in your mind by your professors, and now you go forth to proselytize your community, the Israeli Government, etc. Sad to say, it amounts to one simple word to describe your effect of all this: Annoying!

    I have a suggestion for you: Go rent or purchase “Fiddler on the Roof,” and watch it with great scrutiny, taking notes as you do. Discover what you learn, and journal it. Then watch it again, and see if you glean even more with each successive viewing. It worked for me! You might even see shadows of yourself in the movie…

    ~ Selah ~

    David Castelli

    • Josh Leifer says:


      If you had read this blog carefully you would know that I haven’t yet arrived at Princeton, since I’ve been studying and teaching here in Israel before enrolling. And it’s interesting that you bring up Fiddler on the Roof, since that happens to mirror the history of my grandmother’s family quite closely. In fact, it was that same grandmother who introduced me the long tradition of Jewish, socialist activism.

  4. Ilan Strauss says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the above. Honest and clear. I am from South Africa and was on Shnat in 2003.

    You may find the following extracts to be of some interest to the discussion on nationalism/internationalism:

    Internationalism for tax dodging companies, but political nationalism for all governance and regulatory issues? This makes little sense to me.

  5. Pingback: On Patriotism as a Choice | fojap

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