On heroes and hero worship

January 14, 2011 by

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I’m going through a strangely pro-American week.

It began with the realization of how much Debbie Friedman had affected my identity and values, and has now been blown away by Barack Obama’s speech in Arizona

I know that Obama is now apparently a controversial figure, and there tends to be a form of ‘motivated skepticism’ applied to anything he says (as there was, from the other end of the spectrum, when George Bush would open his mouth) but I urge you to listen to a speech which, as far as I can tell, is entirely a-political.

Quite the opposite. Faced with the gift-plattered opportunity to stick it to Sarah Palin, he instead chose to rise above the politics and speak of shared humanity, of hope, and of heroes.

I have to admit, all this hero-talk has always challenged me. Giuliani and Bush rolled out the hero stuff after 9/11 as well, and it always struck me as a very American trait: To rush to crown heroes. But the more I think about it, the more I respect this desire to emphasise the positive, and to find human symbols of hope.

The Jewish traditions I’d always learned about heroes were more about their ability to rein in their evil impulses, in Britain heroes died out after the 2nd World War, and in Israel Zionist heroes were carefully forged and just as deliberately dismantled. But America strikes me as a nation that consciously creates heroes to believe in. As Obama’s speech makes very clear, it is a moral choice to dig out and flesh out the hero shining out of a moment of darkness. I find myself moved and inspired.

From now on I’m going to start looking out for heroes in Israel.

This time round, meet the 17 year olds demonstrating for the right to a year’s community service (Shnat Sherut). These are young people who are demonstrating, fighting, in order to voluntarily do social work for a year. Can you comprehend that? This is not instead of their army service – it’s prior to their army service. They want to serve Israel for four years, instead of three. They want to work with those with disabilities, and those in poverty – voluntarily. And they’ve been demonstrating for more opportunities to do so. That counts as heroism in my book.

One final thing about the Obama speech. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the ultimate argument for how humanism, compassion, and tolerance can walk hand in hand with nationalism. It’s not a rhetorical sleight of hand. Worth contemplating when looking at the idea of a Jewish Nation State.

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