Dying for the Motherland

Excerpts from Professor Feldman’s essay appear below.

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“Ultimately,” says Benedict Anderson, national ‘fraternity’ made it possible, for so many millions of people, “not so much to kill, as willingly to die” (Imagined Communities, 7). Over half a century earlier, a fictional Palestinian Jew similarly declared on the eve of his volunteering to the British Army in WWI: “You don’t understand me: I am going to die…not to kill”.

Sentiments of this sort abound in my study, Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative (2010), which traces the fluctuating attitudes to the desire/duty/requirement and obligation to die for the motherland in Hebrew discourses of the 20th century. However, the language and imagery in which these sentiments are often couched reveal that they were not fuelled solely by the national comradeship or ‘fraternity’ of the “imagined communities” argued for by Anderson.

Rather, the willingness to die for one’s country, be it a fatherland or motherland, seems to derive from a much older human ‘habit’ or ‘reflex’— the universal need to secure one’s well-being by appeasing the gods, or their human representatives (Nietzsche, Genealogy, 61). This appeasement began as a gift giving, or—at times of special duress (Robertson Smith, Lectures, 361)—by giving up life itself, whether of oneself or of one’s loved ones (Hubert & Mauss, Sacrifice, 100; Strenski, Contesting, 166).

Like other national movements and the secular at large (Naveh, Crown of Thorns; Marvin and Ingle, Blood Sacrifice; Strenski, Contesting; Asad, Formations; Rushdie, Shalimar), Jewish nationalism seems to have been unable to invent a new, un-sacred, language, a “language of irreligion,” in Rushdie’s words. Nor has it managed to separate itself from the arch vehicle of the sacred—the trope of ‘blood sacrifice,’ of dying on the nation’s altar, namely, one’s motherland.

The young pioneers in early-20th-century Jewish Palestine, for example, were quite unambiguous in their desire to lay down their lives for the moledet [‘matria,’ motherland]. “Oh my country, my dear motherland! To you I sacrifice, giving you my meagre powers as a gift,” writes Y. Schneerson, a member of the Jewish Palestinian NILI Gang, in 1917, as he actively assists the British in liberating the land from the yoke of the oppressive Ottoman regime.

A year later, as a Jewish Legion was being organized within His Majesty’s Army for the same purpose, the organizers encouraged the volunteers by linking the ubiquitous old-new figure of the modern military hero as a blood sacrifice with the ancient story of the first biblical murder: “We must be ready to shed our blood on the altar of our hope [so that] our blood will cry out of the earth to all the nations.”

Three decades later, however, a momentous shift in paradigm took place. A new image entered the national conversation. The generalized talk about blood sacrifice, symbolized early on by the blood of Abel, the first innocent victim of murder (Genesis 4), was replaced, rather ironically—by the archetypal story of an aborted human sacrifice, the so-called Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Thus in the 1949 Passover Haggada of Kibbutz Na’an, put together as the 1948 Israeli War of Liberation was drawing to a close, we find not only “heroism and blood” but also “the bliss/glory of the Binding of Isaac [ha-akedah, in Hebrew; lit., The Binding] and the agony of sacrifice.” Clearly, the harrowing cost in human life paid for the war intensified the realization that in national sacrifice, elation and grief, glory and agony, are forever bound together.

Nevertheless, from this moment on Israeli fallen soldiers have more often than not been symbolized by the biblical Isaac—paradoxically the survivor of that paradigmatic divinely decreed yet last-minute aborted human sacrifice. This paradoxical re-writing raises a curious question: How and why did a story interpreted for millennia as advancing a divine prohibition of human sacrifice, appropriately named in Hebrew a ‘binding’ rather than a ‘sacrifice,’ become a trope not only for a fully enacted sacrifice but for military death in battle? And why was Isaac, a rather ‘pale’ biblical persona and certainly the least heroic among the patriarchs, selected to stand for the modern national fallen warrior?

To phrase the question differently: When, in fact, did the so-called secularization of Isaac’s story begin, and what was the psycho-ethical implication of this choice?

2 thoughts on “Dying for the Motherland

  1. Charles Macdonald

    Professor Feldman’ ideas are interesting and to the point. The question raised by the author about the secularization of Isaac’s story and the difference he sees between a “secular” ideology of nationalism/patriotism and a “religious” ideology of (self-)sacrifice are just surface reflections and superficial aspects of one and the same “deep” mental/cognitive mechanism: transcendence. It is through this process of mental/psychological identification with a higher power that people are submitted and submit themselves willingly to self-sacrifice. Transcendence or rather “transcendentism” consists in 1. believing in the existence of a superior, abstract power that is “beyond” the limits of normal empirical existence–beyond the self in a way–, 2. believing that one’s essence, or inner being, is commanded “from inside” by this outside source of power which is then also inside the self (i.e. positing an ontology of the transcendent self). Whether you call this outside source of power that irradiates the subject God or the Mother/Fatherland,does not matter. The point is that transcendentism means absolute and ontological obedience.It is really Abraham, not Isaac who is the main figure in the archetypal sacrifice. The community that is “imagined” in Anderson’s sense is nothing else than an abstract ontological power and is as religious a phenomenon as the idea of Abraham murdering his son a political phenomenon.

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