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Saturday, April 18, 2015

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Azrieli helped us understand multiple loyalties

Tags: Columnists Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies Concordia University David Azrieli Zionism
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Norma Baumel Joseph

How does one maintain loyalty to two countries, two homelands?

The recent death of David Azrieli brought to my mind the reality of active nationalism. What can it mean to claim two patriotic affiliations? How can citizens claim dual loyalties? Or is it even appropriate to use that terminology?

I remember debates in high school about our devotion to Israel, but also our accepted commitment to America. As teenagers, we had a tendency to view things in absolute terms. Whom do you love more? What would you do if they were at war? We never settled the debate, just assured ourselves of our double loyalty. There was no way we weren’t in love with Israel, and no way we weren’t loyal American citizens. Both seemed possible, if somewhat contradictory.

Now that some of us have grown up, the question of divided loyalties is potentially again on our screen. We’re all constantly aware of Israel’s precarious position in the Middle East. Surrounded by many who wish to erase it, we see a constant barrage of attacks both in actual fights and in media representation.

 We worry, but most of us don’t move. We are settled here in a great democracy, proud of our position and strength in this diaspora. We are, of course, blessed that our Canadian government is staunchly supportive of Israel. But are we in any way less Canadian or patriotic because we also support Israel? 

I think not. Many communities support multiple attachments and commitments. We need not see everything in oppositional terms. Immigrants come here and maintain strong ties with their homelands. I see a difference in that our support for Israel isn’t based on living there, but on a Zionism that’s rooted both in history and heritage. We’ve learned over the years as a community to hold tightly to our loyalty while avoiding conflict of interest issues. We aren’t ashamed of our support and have no reason to be. In this sense, dual loyalties are fine, even healthy, in a multicultural world. They cement our position as active citizens, working for the fuller humanity of all without denying our unique heritage.

The question then remains: how do we exhibit our support? Again, these issues were brought to light for me at David Azrieli’s funeral, for I believe he showed us a path of commitment and involvement. David was a builder – as an architect he literally built buildings here and in Israel. As a philanthropist, he built communities and institutions. And he loved that which he built. (I experienced this personally as his foundation endowed Concordia’s Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies.)

David wasn’t one to sit back and let others do the actual work. His involvement was personal, constant and complete. David’s life is a map of Jewish history in the 20th century. Escaping Nazi evil, he moved through Poland and Russia, somehow landing in Baghdad, where he met Israeli representatives. He was a fighter both in a Polish army and then the Haganah. He went to school in Israel and in Canada. He was a Hebrew teacher. He moved in many circles. 

But his example comes not merely from a complex life lived in difficult times. Rather, David didn’t just mouth support for his beloved homelands. He used all his talents and resources to actively provide support and initiatives. This is the crucial lesson of our times. 

I don’t mean to claim unique status for David Azrieli. Many have lived lives of binding commitment to both Israel and Canada (or the United States). I’m citing his example for its educational and moral value. We can see in his active building process, in his support for educational institutions, a program of direct doing. Without any notion of divided loyalty or conflict, David developed both homelands. That should be our goal and our process, and for that I thank him.

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