(dis)loyalty

by tobybee

in an article addressing the ‘Ben Zygier affair’ (for want of a better label) entitled “Loyalty of Australian-Israelis shouldn’t be doubted” on the drum the other day, philip chester (the president of the zionist federation of australia) wrote, in part, that

Being loyal to Australia and to Israel is an easy fit. Australians and Israelis share common values.

Both nations pride themselves on their robust democracies, free speech and media, and independent legislature and judiciary. Both peoples share common interests – education and culture, sport and a love of each country’s natural geographic beauty.

[…]

Australia and Israel are strong allies, and relationships built on the battlegrounds of the two World Wars underscore the enduring nature of the friendship and shared values. In a geopolitical sense, despite the vast distances, Israel and Australia are close. Our abhorrence of terror and commitment to Western democracy make the alliance firm and natural.

Bilateral trade, partnerships in medical, scientific and environmental research among other examples underscore this historically strong relationship between the two nations.

[…]

We do not know the facts or details around Ben Zygier’s death or the circumstances leading to it. To suggest that this tragedy was brought on by inherent conflicts of loyalty and identity casts dangerous and unwarranted aspersions on the entire Jewish community.

There should be absolutely no doubt that the fundamental loyalties of Australian Jews and dual nationality Australian-Israelis to both homeland and birthplace remain solid, balanced and totally compatible.

there are many threads that one could pick up here, and by not discussing some, i don’t mean to suggest that they’re not important (for instance, i think a serious and informed conversation about the histories attached to the notion that jews are a people apart, or not loyal citizens, could be useful), but rather i want to pick up on one particular thread.

chester presents in his piece an interesting, and important, conception of what loyalty entails, and what a discourse of loyalty can do. what particularly grabbed my eye was this idea that one can be loyal to both australia and israel because they are, essentially, of the same quality: both are western democracies and abhor terror; they trade together, and believe in progress brought about through scientific venture.

the discourse of loyalty here functions as a tool of nation-building. remember people – australia and israel are the good countries! they are western! they are democratic! they treat people well! they are great places to live! if it’s said often enough, does that make it true? this is, after all, how it becomes possible to imagine nation-states as something that exists which one could be loyal to (as benedict anderson has shown us).

but of course merely saying it does not make it materially true. of course we know that the ways in which both of these countries are functional democracies is partial (in some similar ways, and some different ways to each other), etc etc. but chester makes these claims as a way of assisting both australian and israeli nation-building, but also, it would seem, as a way of demonstrating his personal loyalty to both nation-states. he belongs to both (or has the potential capacity to belong to both) because he knows these good things to be true about them.

in writing this piece chester furthers an argument that i’ve discussed and critiqued in conversations with a couple of friends over the last couple of weeks. chester assumes, and thereby helps to determine, that it is optimal that one be loyal to (at least one) nation-state. he assumes – like most others who have written on this topic since the news broke about Ben Zygier – that we all want to feel love for, or a connection with, or loyalty towards, a nation-state.

but this i reject. i want to make an argument here, then, that instead of embracing loyalty in its various possible permutations and affiliations, we should look to disloyalty.

instead of trying to evade the restrictions of nationalism by arguing for dual, or multiple, loyalties, we should open up the possibilities offered by declaring our disloyalty (to nations, to states, to communities). in this way we can potentially denaturalise the connection between nation and state, or the assumption that because one is born into a particular political community there is an automatic affiliation.

of course, this is something that the right does: hence we have terms such as ‘unaustralian’, or ‘jewish by birth’, or we can be called kapos for offering a divergence of opinion. but i’m not suggesting that there is anything politically useful in this formulation, which involves the denial of affiliation. instead, i am wondering about the possibility of a rejection of affiliation. the potential of making a demand that the state, the nation, or the community, be more precise with its language around what constitutes a member of a bounded community. in this way it would potentially become more difficult for people to say that there is an attachment between all jews and israel. we could choose – in a politicised, historically-informed, emotional decision – who we become attached to.

this is, i think, an idea that diasporism (jewish or otherwise) can offer to the discussion. a way of moving beyond the question of singular or dual loyalties. a way to cut through the idea that loyalty is inherently what is desired and good. it can remind us that one may never feel a loyalty to a state, but instead that a passport can be carried as merely a means of moving around the world (one which is, of course, a privilege to have).

one can feel connections though, i think, without feeling loyalty as such. and it’s in this gap between connection and loyalty that, maybe, the productive potential exists.

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