Sunday, March 7, 2010

What's in a Flag?

As we approached the demonstration, a Palestinian kid about ten years old stopped us, asking for IDs. He was playing the Israeli soldier to Israelis. I showed him my passport with a smile, not realizing what a complicated game of national identities was yet awaiting me.

We came to East Jerusalem to protest with the Palestinians. In the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrakh, several families were kicked out of their homes to make room for extremist right-wing Israeli settlers. This is only a part in a scheme to "Jewify" East Jerusalem and enhance Israeli control of it. I'll leave the history of this scandal and its legal aspect to greater experts. My story today is one of symbols.

As we joined the great crowd that gathered in the neighborhoods soccer field, several flags were already flying, most were Palestinian, a few were red. The political left takes the cause of human rights here and elsewhere and I respect it for that. However, when more communist-inclined groups arrived, all of them sporting crimson flags, I started expecting Tovarich Lenin to come onstage and greet the proletariat masses.

In one corner, a woman was giving out blue and white flags with the word "shalom" (peace) replacing the hexagram of the Israeli flag. I decided to pick up one of these.

The first person to approach me over the flag was a Palestinian kid, about the same age as the joker who inspected me earlier. He was dying to hold it. I let him wave it a bit and show it off to his friends, then took it back. There were only four or five such flag in a crowd of 3500 people. I didn't want the kid to vanish with it. The demonstration was a cooperation and it was important to show that. If the TV cameras only caprute red, black, white and green, the Israeli public would feel estranged from the cause and the struggle would achieve little.

Next I was approached by a group of Palestinians in their 20s. "Get rid of this flag" a woman said to me, "get rid of your fucking shitty zionist occupation flag right now I tell you."

"Let's talk about this" I suggested.

"No, this is not open to dialogue. You are going to get rid of this flag right now. We are from the neighborhood and you are in our neighborhood now."

I lowered the flag out of respect for the locals, but on second thought and with some encouragment from friends, raised it again. Another Palestinian came over with similar tones, accompanied by an Israeli activist carrying a red flag.

"Put the flag away", the Palestinian demanded.

"Ok," I said. "But I don't have another flag. My country may have become ugly, but it's my only country and this flag is my only way of stating that I am here too and that Israelis support the struggle. Waving it here is my only way of trying to infuse it with new meaning. not an occupation flag, but one that can also represent opposition to the occupation."

They found the idea of infusing blue and white with new meaning laughable. After 40 years of occupation, the Israeli flag seems to be beyond hope.

"It's all I have," I repeated, "You don't like it, give me another flag." I was secretly hoping the Palestinian would remove the kaffiya he wore as a scarf and hand it to me, symbolically inviting me to join him shoulder to shoulder in the struggle. Instead, it was the Israeli who handed me the red flag.

"Stalin!" I retorted.

"What!?" he acted offended, "I am a communist, Stalin is my biggest enemy, he hijacked the values of communism to benefit his murderous totalitarian regime."

"This is the same thing Netanyahu and Lieberman are doing to Israel," I suggested. "If the red flag can be waved despite Stalin, the Israeli flag can be waved despite them, and don't tell me that Stalin is dead and that the occupation is still going on. People are still opressed under this flag all over China, North Korea, Transnistria, Cuba..."

"Listen," he said, "In Israel I would wave this flag proudly, but not here, east of the green line."

"I'm the opposite. I would never wave it in Israel. There I'll be taken as just another supporter of our augmenting fascism, but here, where everybody knows what I stand for, I would."

"Have it your way," said the Israeli, ready to seal the argument. Some other Israeli activist, a girl, hastened to add: "I just want to see you wave this flag after getting beaten up by soldiers and tortured by the Shin Bet. Why don't you try that and see if afterwards you still want to wave this flag".

"I understand what you're saying" I told her, "and that the flag scares and offends some people here, but you're not pragmatic. For things to change we need to be here together and try and influence public opinion. You don't want things to change! all you want is to be radical and beautiful in your own eyes!" It finally happened, I lost my temper. The Palestinian already vanished into the crowd, looking for someone less hopeless.

Onstage, Palestinian playwright and theatre director Samih Jabarin was attacking those waving blue and white flags. Afterwards Israeli activist Elisheva Milikovski came on and apologized to the public, saying the demonstration was inclusive of everyone who wanted to support the cause.

I remained there confused, with my flag at half mast, until the same little Palestinian kid appeared again, his eyes asking for it. I handed it to him and he ran gladly directly to the heart of the flag jungle. His flag was not captured by the media cameras. The demonstration, which was attended mostly by Israelis and was the largest mixed demonstration in a decade, was taken for another Palestinian gathering and didn't even make the front page of Haaretz.

Later that night I did get to hold a kaffiyah, a Palestinian friend handed it to me in a Shiekh Jarrakh restaurant, but my spirit was low. It was hard to see the Judean People's front and the People's Front of Judea fueding like this. We're doomed to our flags just as we're doomed to this situation. I hope to God we can somehow fold all of our differences away and make progress.


מאשה said...

פוסט מעולה

Amitai S said...

Would you welcome a Nazi flag to your demo if they told you they want to infuse new values into it?

The Israeli flag represents the state - the one that threw these people out of their homes. Waving it in front of their faces is adding insult to injury. It's sad you have trouble to understand that.

Anonymous said...

You said Nazi, you lose the argument.

Amitai S said...

That argument is too old.

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

I'd be the last to ban comparison between the current situation in Palestine/Israel and that of Germany in the 30s, but I don't think this case is comparable.

While it does anger and intimidate the Palestinians and is currently representing a government that's lost all moral backbone, The Israeli flag is not the Nazi flag. The Nazi flag replaced that of Germany. It openly represented violence from its very beginning (that of the superior Reich of 1000 years). If the Israeli flag were replaced with one bearing two blue stripes and the clenched fist of the "Kach" movement, you'd have a case here.

I refuse to believe that this flag is beyond the point of redemption. This flag that was dear to my truly socialist, humanist grandfather who opposed the occupation so strongly he couldn't bring himself to read Alterman, is still that same flag. If I don't wave it today, I hand it over to the Fascists and tomorrow you'll be right.

Another thought: I've lost friends in terrorist attacks performed in the name of the Palestinian flag, yet I wouldn't dream of asking people to remove these flags in respect of my loss and that of others. We come to a joint demonstration, lets tolerate each other and cope with the pain.

I know our situations are not comparable in any way. I know it's horrible pain on the Palestinian side, one that I can't even imagine, and yet many Palestinians took the blue and white flags well and I thank them for that. One of them came to me with curiousity rather than wrath. I did what I could in my broken Arabic to explain the point: "Nahna ma3akum." He got it, and shook my hand warmly. This wouldn't have been possible in the swastika scenario you propose.

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

Two more quick things came to my mind:

1. These people are from East Jerusalem, Their experience of the occupation is milder than that of their brethren in the West Bank (who can't reach Sheikh Jarrach), not to mention that of Jews in Birkenau.

2. The flag wasn't even the Israeli flag, it had the word "peace" on it rather than the exclusive Jewish symbol. The concept of a Nazi flag with the word "Peace" replacing the swastika is kind of confusing, but it would certainly no longer be Nazi.

In short, I wouldn't dream of waving a real Israeli flag over Nablus. However, this case involves neither that city nor that flag.

מר ינשוף said...

If this is the kind of conclusions you reach when losing your temper, I should piss you off more often, you asshole

Anonymous said...

I am so glad your are "blogging" again!

Åland from Åland

Anonymous said...

////The concept of a Nazi flag with the word "Peace" replacing the swastika is kind of confusing, but it would certainly no longer be Nazi.////
Just in the name of history - generally Nazi's symbol has a very peaceful meaning when it comes to a point that they took it from Hinduism, a sign of sun/

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

Granted, Mr. Yanshuf. But if you'll keep pissing me off I'll just have to come to the conclusion that being a moderate doesn't pay :)

Nzur - that's a really good point. An Israeli public would probably find the swastika difficult to bear even if it's yellow on white and carried by a group of Hindus.

However, the thing to do in such an event is to explain to the crowd that these people mean well and that they are not to be mistaken for Nazis. This is the opposite of what Samih Jabarin did. He incited the public.

It would also make sense to ask them to remove the symbol, which was done here: the Star of David was removed on the onset. I understand that the colors retain a message, but we don't have another way of expressing our presence there.

Again, if an alternative flag is designed, one of the joint struggle or one of a new national concept for this country, I'll be glad to consider it.

Ami Kaufman said...

Excellent, excellent post.
Thank you for this.

natalia said...

great idea of a demonstration with swastika yellow on white//besides the opposite happened to a cross of crusaders (in particular in the rest of the world), while it evolved from a sign of terror to anonym inventory on children play-heroes)))

Anonymous said...

The waving of flags quite often makes me nauseous and always makes me nervous. The same flag while a symbol of liberation for some people can be the symbol of oppression to others. I don’t like the Union Jack of my own country as it always evokes in some, mainly the right wing a feverish jingoism, to me the awful legacy of colonialism and slavery; of the conflicts still raging and I’m not proud of this. The national flag the embodiment of a collective identity is something one should be shy of.

Roi Ben-Yehuda said...

Very interesting. Thank you. I look forward to read more of your work.

It reminds me of piece about flags - and the Israeli flag in particular - I once wrote

Keep fighting the good fight.


ketchup said...

Oh no, the demonstration didn't make the front page of Ha'aretz... That could have changed EVERYTHING...

I think you are forgetting for a moment that we were in a Palestinian neighborhood, supporting the struggle of the Palestinian struggle. Of course it is our struggle too, but it is first and foremost THEIR struggle. And if they were offended by the flag (which is totally understandable), that is more important than whether the Israeli press will or will not report about the demonstration (the same press which, as is implicit in your argument, chooses to ignore a demonstration if there are no Israeli flags present).

I think some Israeli demonstrators are too worried about how they appear to Israeli public opinion (as if that public opinion ever changed anything), instead of how they appear in the eyes of Palestinian public opinion.

מר ינשוף said...

Dear Ketchup

Until such time when you you accept that the overwhelming majority of humanity, including - at the last count - Israelis, Palestinians, cab drivers, left handed people, country music fans, Hmong storytellers, brunettes, people named Svyatoslav and everybody else - don't give a flying fuck about other people's fights, and will only become engaged in their OWN fights, you are doomed to annoying, fruitless, noisy self righteousness.

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

Of course I see your point, Ketchup, but we have a unique case here.

The strength of this struggle is in cooperation, which, as Mr. Yanshuf is kind enough to point out, albeit somewhat abruptly, is truly rare. I've been living in this country for 33 years and I'm sick and tired of solutions that don't work, I believe in cooperation.

Now we have a choice, we can be proud and ignore the press because it's so "full of it" and just go on doing things as they were done before, or we can actually change something via the power of cooperation.

If we are to move forward, everyone must do a little bit of coping. It's not beyond achieving. Many of the Palestinians at the demonstration tolerated the flags and appreciated the support. Let's try and make that the norm rather than fold away.

Ariana Kramer said...

Thank you for this article. I am reading it from New Mexico in the southwestern U.S. And for me it is hopeful that you believe that the Israeli flag can stand for, does stand for, more than suffering and abuse. A suggestion for next protest -- tie a prayer shawl (tallit) onto a pole and wave the tzitzit into the air. This is what the Israeli flag was meant to be - a prayer flag, a prayer for peace, for justice, for loving the "other." Here, in northern New Mexico, the Taos Pueblo stands as the oldest continuously occupied human dwelling in what is now the United States. Every fall, there is a harvest festival called San Geronimo feast day. On that day the Pueblo people have a pole climbing. I wrote this poem after I heard my mom describe what happened at their pole climb in September 2001, after the 9-11 attacks. I was living in the Pacific Northwest at the time. Here it is. May we always believe more in the wind, than the flag.

Ariana Kramer said...

Pledge of Allegiance, Pueblo Style: San Geronimo Feast Day

It is the end of September 2001.
My mom is on the telephone
telling me she went out to the pueblo
to watch the pole climbing.
She tells me about the tourists
always talking like they have to narrate
the whole thing or it wouldn’t happen.
One of them, next to her says:
“I just think that’ why is he doing that?”
“How can he raise that flag after what this country
has done to him, to his people? Why is he doing that?”
Maybe you should think about why he is doing that,
my mother thinks, but not out loud.
Maybe you should think about why you are asking.

They take a tall tree from the forest, every year.
I don’t know much about it, what they do.
But, every year, they take a tall tree from the forest
and strip it of its branches.
It is always taller than I remember. Every year
it is taller. They post it in the center of their village,
the space between their oldest houses, the place
they live. Who knows how long? They have always
been there. They post it in the center. And the hole
it makes in the ground, who knows what it is?
I don’t know, but it reminds me of holes
I have seen in the center of old pit houses and kivas
across the Southwest deserts. It reminds me
of the little hole in my belly, and the ladders
reaching up through layer after layer of world,
and the invisible umbilical cord
that still connects me to my mother.

Why? I don’t know. But they remind me
of it every year. Every year they take a tree
and place it in the center. We gather around and watch.
From close up we watch. From far away, we watch.
From wet Northwest forests we watch. From cities
we watch. Or we don’t watch. But they do it every year.

A group of men start out trying, but they give up
one by one. Some years you have to hold your breath so long
hoping one of them will stop sliding backwards and make it
to the top. But, one of them does, every year, goes all the way
to the top of the pole, to the crossbar, where he rests
and skillfully unties the sheep and squash
gathered from this fertile valley
and lets the harvest down
to the people below.

The climb, some people say
the climb is impossible.
Every year it is harder.
I think it is harder every year.
That’s what it looks like to me.

My mother says the old pole climber,
she’s been watching him for years.
He’s the one who went up that year,
followed by the young man in training.
The old climber unfurled it.
He held it up to the four directions.
Who knows why he did it?

The wind was so strong
it was shaking the top of the pole,
shaking it back and forth.
He stood up, that’s what my mom said.
He stood up on the top of that pole and unfurled the flag
- the red, white, blue American flag.
He held it out to the four directions.
Why did he do it?

It looked like he would fall.
The wind was pushing the flag out like a sail.
It looked like it would make him fall down.
Why would he do something like that?
Risking his life. Getting splinters in his leg.
Shimmying up the pole bare-legged
without any ropes to hold him.
Standing on the cut off end
of a tree six stories, seven stories high,
shaking in the wind. So high up, if he fell,
and he probably would the way the wind was blowing,
he would crack his head in front of all his friends and tourists.

I don’t know why he did it.
Some people do things like that,
for reasons you can’t explain.
You just have to feel, from wherever you are,
you just have to feel, even if you are states away,
even if you hear about it over the telephone,
what it means to open a flag before everyone,
before everything you know, risking your life to the wind.
You have to feel what it unfurls inside you, billowing out,
the strength of the wind, the trembling humility of gratitude.

-Ariana Kramer

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

Thank you so much, Ariana. Your Tallit idea is brilliant. I'm adopting it.

Ariana Kramer said...

: ) Shma y'sra El.... what is and what will be is the Creator of all of us, what is and will be is One.


Anonymous said...

The making of peace in the region appears like a slippery pole, insurmountable and yesterday’s news was one of those days at the bottom of that pole. However, one day the climb will be to the very top of that pole. Trying and hope is important and I have admiration for people just like Yuval how say, “they have to try”
One hero of mine is Mo Mowlam a British politician of extraordinary character and courage the likes of which has only ever been matched and that is by the extraordinary character and courage of the people of Northern Ireland. Here is the link to a television drama depicting Mo’s role in the Good Friday Agreement
Most people will concur there is still some distance to travel but the willingness to go the distance is there. This means so much, this means all our children will flourish.

Anonymous said...

The making of peace in the region appears like a slippery pole, insurmountable and yesterday’s news was one of those days at the bottom of that pole. However, one day the climb will be to the very top of that pole. Trying and hope is important and I have admiration for people just like Yuval how say, “they have to try”
One hero of mine is Mo Mowlam a British politician of extraordinary character and courage the likes of which has only ever been matched and that is by the extraordinary character and courage of the people of Northern Ireland. Here is the link to a television drama depicting Mo’s role in the Good Friday Agreement
Most people will concur there is still some distance to travel but the willingness to go the distance is there. This means so much, this means all our children will flourish.