My Independence Day - 1993: The Flag Seller

On Independence Day eve 1993, Haaretz photographer Alex Levac, then working for the now-defunct Hadashot newspaper, was passing through the Alonim junction in the North. He immediately noticed the flag seller wandering there, lay in wait to capture him in the ideal composition, and raced home to develop and print the photos. A day or two later, one of those photographs landed on my desk.

I was editor of Hadashot at the time, and from the first glance, I knew that photo was it. I'm not talking about the brightness that spreads over the face of an editor imagining the double-page spread of his dreams. Here, with timing that could not be more perfect, "Ayin Letzion" ("Eye toward Zion"), Levac's weekly section, had composed a refined, ironic statement about Israeliness on the country's 45th Independence Day. But I had another reason to love the picture. It somehow expressed a central motif in the spirit of Hadashot, at least as I saw it at the time: amusing defiance toward the establishment and its symbols.

In contrast to the traditional Independence Day photographs that characterized the popular press at the time, which worked to memorialize defining or symbolic moments in the life of the state, this photograph reduced the "big" Israeli experience to a small, seemingly marginal detail that represented the Israeli experience with a wink. Reality (and not the photographer) staged it wonderfully: The flag seller is a kind of jester; the flag, the symbol of the state, comes down from its mythological greatness and becomes an improvised marketing gimmick; the flagpoles affixed to the glasses of the vendor-jester prevent him from understanding what is happening in front of him. The flag no longer leads the way; it only hides it. What is that, if not an allegory about the condition of the Zionist ethos? It is being sold by a jester who can't see his own path. It's doubtful whether he has any buyers.

A year later, the photograph was selected - and not by chance - to decorate the cover of Levac's book "Ayin Letzion" ("An Eye on Zion," Am Oved, 1994). By the time the book was published, Hadashot was already defunct, having lowered its flag in December 1993. Independence Day 5753 was, therefore, the newspaper's last.

The next time I thought of the photograph was on May 29, 2001. The Education Ministry distributed a notice to school principals directing them to fly the Israeli flag in front of schools, in accordance with a law initiated by then-education minister Limor Livnat. The educational institutions, including the Arab and ultra-Orthodox ones, were required to appoint someone to be responsible for the flag. Those who violated the law were to be subject to a year in prison. It was a painful issue for Livnat: Her original bill had required the flag to be flown in every classroom.

By then, I was the editor of Haaretz Magazine, and for a moment I was tempted to reprint the 1993 photo in Levac's "Ayin Letzion" section, which had migrated to Haaretz. I considered the picture a fitting response to the anti-educational move, the attempt to use police officers to enforce patriotism (as did indeed happen at a high school in Daburiya, according to its principal, Dr. Mahmoud Masalha). It wasn't difficult to put Livnat in the position of the clownish flag seller who insists on affixing the Israeli flag to her glasses and doesn't see anything else. In the end, I made do with fantasy and gave up on the idea.

Four years later, I found myself watching television, this time as the Haaretz TV critic. Talk-show host Yair Lapid asked me from the screen: "When you see the Israeli flag, what do you think about?" The spontaneous answer that came to my head was "the flag seller from the Alonim junction," but Lapid was talking about something else altogether. "An Israeli flag will be awaiting you in the weekend papers," the TV announced. "We at Bank Hapoalim invite you to decorate your home with flags on Independence Day." The chairman of the bank at the time, Shlomo Nehama, explained, "We must unite the nation under its central symbol, the state flag, and emphasize that despite all the dissension, we are one nation." Bank CEO Zvi Ziv added: "The Israeli flag will fly from every home and balcony and remind us again to honor our flag."