I was never particularly bothered about the Fourth of July (Independence Day) in the United States when I was growing up. Oh, I liked the fireworks, the barbecues, and later, the beer. But two of those three things I could have any time. (Actually, given the friends I had, I could have all three… but that’s another story.)
I felt profoundly uncomfortable with the patriotism, the national songs, all the talk about the US being the greatest country ever, the way history was rewritten and whitewashed on radio and tv. I looked at the flag and knew that while for some it stood for freedom and justice, for many in the world — indeed for many within its borders — it was a sign of bullying, oppression, violence, discrimination. It was and is a country which is far from perfect.
I moved to Scotland not long after 9/11, right about the time Bush decided it was a good idea to go to war in Iraq.
I was working at a bookshop on Princes Street, one of the main shopping streets in Edinburgh. And as soon as I opened my mouth and customers could hear my American accent, darkness descended. I felt like I was being held personally responsible for the election of Bush. For the war. For all the past, present and future sins of the United States. I was spat at on more than one occasion. I was verbally abused often.
I remember well how it felt. How, on the one hand, I was young and desperately homesick and missed the mountains, and bluegrass, and grits and biscuits and gravy, and balmy evenings spent drinking beer on front porches with friends, and all the things that life in the Southern US had taught me. And on the other hand, how I no longer recognised the country I grew up in and could sympathise more with the views of those outside the US than I could ‘my own people’. I felt confused, disloyal, like I had betrayed my country somehow by openly criticising the decisions of its government. It was as though I had two choices: to be American and accept silently its actions, or to question and protest and therefore be labeled anti-American.
Then in 2008 Obama was elected, and all was forgiven. Overnight, it became acceptable to be American. But by then, I was older, didn’t care what people thought, and Scotland was where I had made my home.
But then in 2014 came the Scottish Independence Referendum. And with it, more questions of identity, nationalism, patriotism, loyalty. Was I Scottish? British? American -Scottish/British? (I am a dual citizen by birth…) An American living in Scotland/Britain? What, who am I? But the questions the referendum were asking weren’t just about my identity. I found that they became for me more about who I cared about. I disagreed with just about every decision coming out of Westminster, and saw the poorest, most marginalised, most vulnerable paying the price. Could we as an independent Scotland do better? But if we were independent, what about the people south of the border who would continue to bear the burden of their government’s selfishness and short-sightedness? Should we stay together for their sake? It became much more complicated when I started to think in terms of who I was willing to sacrifice when I cast my vote.
I always wanted the Fourth of July to pass quickly when I was younger. The pretence of perfection always made me feel a bit ill. The missed opportunity for self-awareness and reflection always made me a bit sad.
The debates around Scottish independence were more hopeful. Somewhat idealistic and overly optimistic perhaps. But reflective. Considered. Intentional. It was moving to hear e.v.e.r.y.o.n.e — in supermarket queues, in cafes, at bus stops — talking about the kind of country they wanted to live in. It’s hard to maintain that level of intensity, though, and eventually talk must turn to action, not return to apathy.
Last night I fell asleep to the sound of fireworks and music and shouts of celebration. This morning I woke to lamentations on social media. There are more than a few triumphalist articles in the papers. While elsewhere, there are calls for reflection and hope that the state is capable of acting more justly.
It’s Independence Day here in Israel.
And I feel conflicted. Because it’s not my holiday. Because I’m an outsider. Because I have chosen to live here and love living here and have every intention of building a life here, be that for five years or for longer. Because I know that Israel is capable of being so much more than what it currently is. Because I know how it feels to have outsiders criticise one’s homeland. Because independence comes with sacrifice, sometimes of self, sometimes of another, often of both. Because people I love are celebrating. And because people I love are mourning. And I want to do both. But feel I can do neither.