Robbie Gringras
British-born Israeli writer, performer, and educator
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The Ukraine argument and the four Hatikvah questions

Ukrainians are dying to defend the classic Zionist idea: 'To be a people, free in our land.' But is that no more than foolish 'liberal nationalism'?
Composite from original image by under Creative Commons

The argument grows. Why are we not doing more? Planeloads of thoughts and prayers and blankets are not enough to prevent the annihilation of Ukraine. Why aren’t we taking up arms to stop the dictator? After all, as the late Amos Oz once said: “There is only one thing worse than the use of force, and that is giving in to the use of force.”

I think an answer might rest with those who have been arguing quite the opposite. A few weeks ago I came upon a short twitter exchange. One person opened by asking why the Ukrainians do not simply run away? (The tweeter has since deleted her message, so I’ll not name her.)

“Okay, so besides it being economically painful, why can’t the rest of the world get together and airlift everyone in Ukraine out to wherever they want to go with full citizenship, give Russia the land, and then stop doing business with them?”

An incredulous reply was swift in coming: “Uh, because they are Ukrainian and want to be in Ukraine?”

Yet the tweeter was not fazed. Her brief reply summed up an entire world-view: “So, nationalism?”

For her, the argument was not that we should also fight alongside Ukraine, but that Ukraine should not fight at all. I think her insinuation was that nationalism – a creed tinged if not stained with racism – is a poor reason to risk war. This primitive form of tribalism that calls itself nationalism is, if not the cause of the Russian attack, most certainly the cause of the death and suffering of its millions of victims.

A voice from the American right, equally condemnatory of Ukraine’s resistance, helped clarify the issue. A former military adviser to President Trump, Ret. Gen. Douglas MacGregor, appeared on Fox News with an uncompromising judgment. Death and destruction is being rained down upon Ukrainians because their misguided President will not accept reality. President Zelensky is “putting huge numbers of his own population at unnecessary risk” because he will not accept the demands of Putin.

Both the tweeter and MacGregor seemed to meet on similar sides of the same argument. For their different reasons they are both saying: “They should just surrender.”

So I know that not everything is about Israel, but funnily enough I’m finding that my work teaching about Israel is helping me understand this argument about Ukraine’s actions, and also the overwhelming rejection of the idea that they should give in.

For several years now I have trained many educators and leaders in The Four Hatikvah Questions, developed while working at Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency. The Four Hatikvah Questions (4HQ) suggest that Zionism is an ongoing argument about satisfactorily answering four key questions summed up in the penultimate line of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah: To Be a People, Free, In Our Land.

The four questions are found in the four Hebrew words of the line:

  1. To be – Lihiyot – speaks to the life and death struggles for security. How can we be safe and secure?
  2. People – Am – speaks to our collective identity, to what extent we look after each other, and what values and traditions we share. Who are “we” and how should “we” behave to each other and to others?
  3. Free – Chofshi – speaks to our search for a liberal order of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. How do we maintain our freedoms?
  4. And In Our Land – B’Artzenu – speaks to our connection to place, indigeneity, and borders. How should we relate to our territory – its land and its borders?

We are constantly arguing about the best way to embody answers to these sometimes conflicting drives. Some call this struggle “patriotism”, while others might call it “liberal nationalism”. To be a People (or a nation) in our own land.

Ukraine is fighting to continue to be the Ukrainian People, Free, in the land of Ukraine. Zelensky rejects Putin’s assertion that Ukrainians are simply forgetful Russians. He rejects the insistence that Ukraine give up its free choice about who its allies might be. He rejects Putin’s violent seizing of Ukrainian land.

Zelensky rejects Putin’s assertion that Ukrainians are simply forgetful Russians.

Yet Ret. Col. MacGregor is effectively telling us that Zelensky should choose only one of these challenges – Safety/Lihiyot/To be. He and the Ukrainians can remain safe and secure, so long as they give up on their sense of collective identity (and effectively identify as Russian), give up their freedom (since Putin will now make decisions for them), and give up their land (occupied and de facto annexed by Russia).

The tweeter for her part was suggesting that the only reason Ukrainians are choosing to risk their lives is for the sake of nationalism. She is exactly right. This is precisely what Zelensky is fighting for: To be (the Ukrainian) People, Free In Our Land (of Ukraine).

The tweeter was suggesting that the only reason Ukrainians are choosing to risk their lives is for the sake of nationalism. She is exactly right.

This is the liberal nationalism, or patriotism, that has been inspiring so many of us around the world. The abuses of exclusivist, illiberal nationalism have led us to forget how to describe the heroism of Volodymyr Zelensky. There is a heroic form of liberal nationalism, which is the willingness to risk one’s life (to be or not to be) so as to preserve national identity, freedom, and land.

In our guts most of us have found it natural to admire and root for Zelensky. As a result our argument with those who argue for surrender is from our guts, and we might even find ourselves disgusted by those who might disagree. Yet using 4HQ to break down which assumptions our support emerges from, may lead us to the deeper, more crucial disagreement that tragically reveals our similarities. It is in specifying why we admire Zelensky and his struggle so much, that we might move beyond our argument with nationalism, and also discover where our admiration falls short.

We in the West greatly value our ability to freely define our collective identity and actions, safe in the borders of the territory we have grown up in. And now we are witnessing a man and a nation willing to take up arms to protect such values. Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians are doing what we like to believe we would do given the same threat to our national independence.

And yet. And yet. For all our admiration and moral support, the solidarity that the West is offering is not exactly the kind of solidarity President Zelensky insists he requires. As Che Guevara is said to have proclaimed: “Solidarity is being willing to take the same risks.” Ukraine needs a no-fly zone enforced by NATO. Put another way, Ukraine needs the West to risk joining Ukraine in Putin’s crosshairs. And this would seem to be a request too far. The West is not willing to take the same risks as the Ukrainians.

As Che Guevara is said to have proclaimed: “Solidarity is being willing to take the same risks.”

Perhaps this is because President Zelensky’s stand speaks to the liberal nationalist (patriot) within us all, for good and also for bad. He leads us to appreciate the deep value of having our own collective identity and will, freely expressed in our own lands. Ukrainians are willing to sacrifice life and security instead of giving up the freedom of their nation and their land. Might it be that nations in the West are willing to do only exactly the same: to take risks for their own nation in their own land, but not take existential risks for other nations in their lands?

About the Author
Robbie Gringras is a British-born Israeli writer, performer, and educator. He lives on the top of a hill in the Galilee. He has recently co-authored "Stories for the Sake of Argument" with Abi Dauber Sterne.
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