A PIECE of popular history which throws light on today’s confusing world is the release 50 years ago in 1967 in England of The Beatles’ album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – soon to be re-released. It was followed in 1971 by John Lennon’s iconic song ‘Imagine’ with its key line “Imagine there’s no countries…”, positing a globalised world based on individualism, self-expression, feminism, gay liberation and similar values. Countries’ borders were less important.
Things have changed. Last year’s statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Conservative party conference epitomised the resurgence of identities defined by nationhood and rejection of ‘the other’: “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
Other countries such as France are following. Its national election next Sunday will determine if ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen will become president. Her National Front party is accused of Holocaust denial; last month she caused outrage by suggesting France was not responsible for the round-up of Jews – perceived as ‘the other’, despite being citizens – who were sent to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Will France embrace hard right populism with its anti-immigrant, super-nationalism?
Human identities are a balancing act between competing sentiments. For South African Jews, Israel is a key part of their identity, epitomised by moving ceremonies this week for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzamut. The former mourns 23,544 men and women who died defending Israel and its pre-State Jewish population, and 3,117 terror victims. The latter celebrates Israel’s independence. This year also marks 50 years since the Six Day War in which Arab countries tried to obliterate the nation of Israel.
But there are other forces vying for SA Jewry’s attention in rivalry with Israel, such as dramatic local events crucial to South Africa’s future. These include what happened on Monday in Workers Day ceremonies around the country. Some descended into chaos. In Bloemfontein, President Jacob Zuma was booed out of a Cosatu trade union federation rally and departed in his twelve-car motorcade surrounded by bodyguards without delivering his keynote speech. People ask how long the ANC will survive before it implodes, and what happens afterwards? Will African nationalism and anti-colonialist rage dominate, and what will be the place of whites and Jews?
Zuma never cherished South Africa’s democracy and nationhood, and the country should celebrate the shaming of a man who has robbed it for personal enrichment. Hopefully, its citizens will regain their optimism individually and collectively.
Israel’s nationhood, in contrast, seems solid, despite vulgar arguments in its body-politic. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University shows both its Arab and Jewish populations are optimistic and have a sense of national identity. It found 71 per cent of Israelis (73 per cent of Jewish respondents and 61 per cent of Arabs) were either “very” or “quite” optimistic about the country’s future, and over 80 per cent said they were “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israelis. Not surprisingly, Jewish respondents took greater pride in Israeli identity (86 per cent), but even 51 per cent of Arab respondents described themselves as “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israeli.
The clash between aggressive nationalism and those individuals attempting to cross boundaries is ugly, however. Ultra-right protesters heckled a 4000-strong alternative Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony in Tel Aviv on Sunday – held for the 12th consecutive year – featuring bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. They called Israeli participants “traitors.”
Wherever it is in the world, the cosmopolitan counterculture of The Beatles and the ultra-nationalism epitomised by Theresa May and Marine Le Pen cannot ever happily exist together. South Africa’s and Israel’s place in this universal tussle will never be simple, but the ride is certainly interesting.