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American Jews Shouldn't Fear the Palestinian Flag

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A girl holds a Palestinian flag on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Jerusalem. July 27, 2017
A girl holds a Palestinian flag on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Jerusalem. July 27, 2017 Credit: \ MUAMMAR JAMEL AWAD/REUTERS

Every day at Solomon Schechter Day School, just after shacharit and before we dug into our workloads, we looked to American flag, and we recited the Pledge of Allegiance with our right hands over our hearts. Then, we turned our heads slightly, looked at our Israeli flag, and sang Hatikvah with our hands bolted to our sides.

Our little bodies wavered, we mumbled our words, and we fidgeted, but the meaning was clear. We recognized two homes: we housed our bodies in America, and directed our souls to Israel.

In the early 2000s on Long Island, 9/11 was never far from our lessons or my thoughts. Mid-September seaside homes went from flying windsocks in every color to draping American flags from every flagpole. It seemed we couldn’t move far from the terror we had lived through in our own homes, and we leaned into the comforts of nationalism, the reflexive feeling of safety that came with laying claim to our land.

As we grappled with our fear at home, we leaned heavily on Israel as a balm for our anxieties. In Israel and Palestine, violence claimed lives every single day. But we increasingly learned that not only was Israel our spiritual home, it was our duty to defend Israel against harm. "It could get worse here," was a commonly-expressed sentiment: If we lost Israel as an escape hatch, what would we do?

We never learned about the place called Palestine or Palestinian people. We learned only about Palestinian terrorists who had encroached upon our land and murdered our kin. Our conversations almost completely omitted discussion of Palestinian lives and deaths.

When I see the outrage expressed by parents and other members of the American Jewish community over the Palestinian flag that hung above Camp Solomon Schechter for a few short hours, I remember the fear that raised me, that was inseparable from my upbringing. When I read the vitriol launched against the camp leadership and those who are supporting their decision, what I hear is, "How can you go against what we rely on for our safety?"

It is for a similar reason that many American Jews do not discuss the Occupation and Palestinian deaths under Israeli governmental rule: we fear for ourselves and for our children, and to criticize Israel is to weaken the bridge between Jews and safe haven.

When American Jews like me, and many other Jews of all ages, begin to ask about the true cost of unqualified support for Israel - the Occupation, the seizure of land, the displacement, erasure, and deaths of Palestinians, the countless Israelis whose lives are lost or scarred by violence - we are frequently shut down. The unwillingness to engage with these truths comes from deep-seated fear, and longing to stake a claim to a place where we would not be dogged by persecution, shame, and perceived mortal peril.

Israeli settlers' children in a Palestinian house recently occupied by a group of settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron. July 26, 2017Credit: HAZEM BADER/AFP

Allowing this fear to control us doesn’t fix any of these problems; it does, however, make them worse by encouraging us to pretend they aren’t there.

I propose an alternative: rather than giving into the fear that hangs along with our flags on flagpoles, perhaps we should consider another way of coping.

When we raise the Palestinian flag, we are inviting a conversation with nuance and engaging with the challenging but necessary work to legitimize the Palestinian narrative. What are we teaching our children when we apologize for providing them a complex understanding of Israel?

We must force ourselves to consider the ways in which Israel exists with neighboring territories. We must reckon with the Occupation and the destruction of the Palestinian way of life. When we take down Palestinian flags, we erase Palestine’s existence, further entrench our community’s support for the Occupation, and reinforce the belief that it is best to deal with trauma by brute force rather than open discussion.

Jews have much historical reason for fear. But, at this political moment, the safety of both Palestinian and Israeli life is put at stake when we fail to acknowledge the complexity of Israel, Palestine, and the Occupation. There is no narrower bridge than an entire country predicating its existence on the subjugation of its neighbors.

And, when that world is a narrow bridge, isn’t the most important thing not to fear?

Jennifer Wright lives in Philadelphia and works as a fundraiser for a health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. They are a member of IfNotNow, a movement of young Jews working to end American Jewish support for the occupation.

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