It’s Our Flag, Get Used to It!

Times have changed, we have changed and we don’t want to go backwards: The flag represents our identity and we will not hide it, not even if all the Jews who are our partners in the struggle insist on it

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Israeli Arabs protest in Tel Aviv against the nation-state law on August 11, 2018.
Israeli Arabs protest in Tel Aviv against the nation-state law on August 11, 2018.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP
asad ghanem
As'ad Ghanem

In his latest column, Abed L. Azab (“The Palestinian flag is not mine,” Haaretz, August 15, 2018) displays exaggerated flattery that shows a distorted Arab Israeli identity, with a goal of seeking to placate the Israeli street, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Zionist left.

To achieve this, Azab presents a distorted historical picture of the story of the Palestinian flag, as if Yasser Arafat invented it. This is completely baseless. The Palestinian flag had its beginnings back in 1917, long before Arafat was born.

When we were about to leave home and drive to Tel Aviv for the mass demonstration organized by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, I noticed that one of our daughters took a Palestinian flag with her, which stood on our bookshelves.

I explained to her that this was not allowed according to the decision made by the organizers of the event. She insisted for a moment, because I, too, objected to the decision, and spoke out against it in media interviews and meetings before the demonstration.

Nonetheless, I told my daughter that this was the decision and we should follow the organizers’ collective voice. She gave in and swapped the flag for a scarf bearing the colors of the national flag, and my other daughter wore a kaffiyeh around her neck as an expression of her identity.

I have never thought that symbols were the most important thing, and as opposed to many people I have known, I am not willing to conduct a full-scale war or be punished with imprisonment because of a flag or any other symbol. I am willing to fight and pay any price for freedom and equality, to prevent the demolition of a home and certainly to prevent the revocation of citizenship, or an expulsion – God forbid.

I ask people at every opportunity to be willing to make a sacrifice for human dignity, and not on behalf of nationalist symbols that have led to disaster. If Netanyahu and his gang continue on their path, they will lead only to violent struggles and bloodshed between the two peoples.

At the same time, I of course believe in the symbolism of the flag. It is the national symbol of the Palestinians, including the citizens of Israel, and not the flag of the flag of the Palestinian Authority or the PLO, and certainly not of Hamas. It is the best representation of our right to organize in communal activity, inside Israel and abroad, in the occupied territories and in the Palestinian diaspora.

The historical compromise that we want would be based on a compromise between what this flag and many other symbols represent, and the symbols that the Jews insist upon. Two peoples live in this land, Arab-Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli, and whoever does not see this are either fascist and racist nationalists, or blind and lacking in any understanding at all of modern history.

The demand for a historic compromise between the two identities, between the two collectives, is also not a goal in its own right. Self determination for peoples is a tool for citizens to use in order to achieve freedom and equality in their own land.

Of course, the liberal option of both peoples mutually giving up their collective identities does exist, and the adoption of a shared civil identity as an organizing principle through which they can achieve their goals.

But regrettably, this option is not acceptable in the modern era, and it is certainly impossible to implement it in the Palestinian-Israeli case, whose nature is that of a national struggle between two collectives – and which, it seems, will be with us for a long time to come.

There is no choice but to legitimize the right of both sides to show their national symbols, to conduct self-management in the realms of religion and culture, to control their own educational programs, to each hold a recognized national leadership with assured and confident self-determination, mild in its displays of nationalism and flexible toward the other, in such a way as to allow the two collectives to live in a shared land.

Whoever wants to cooperate with the Palestinians in Israel, whoever wants to join in toppling Netanyahu’s nationalist government, whoever wants to see civil peace and the flourishing of democracy here – whether via two states or a single shared country – must insist on the right of both sides to display their symbols and demands at every activity and everywhere they choose, including demonstrations, rallies, in concluding vote sharing agreements for the elections and parliamentary agreements against the out-of-control right.

Of course I was shocked by nature of the reaction of some of the Arab leadership, include some Knesset members of the Joint List, who suffered anxiety attacks from the incitement of the Israeli media and a large number of Jewish politicians against them, lead by Netanyahu, against the waving of the flags at the demonstration.

Some surrendered to the dictates of the Jewish interviewers and Netanyahu’s incitement, and explained that only a small group of nationalists had raised the flags – or “pennants.” This was a serious mistake, and a deception that was completely unnecessary.

The vast majority of Palestinians who participated in the rally were proud of the flag, even if they thought, as I did, that we must follow the instructions of the organizers. We don’t want the Joint List, or parts of it, to become an improved version of the Arab parties once established by the Labor party.

Times have changed, we have changed and we don’t want to go backwards: The flag represents our identity and we will not hide it, not even if all the Jews who are our partners in the struggle insist on it. Whoever wants to succeed in changing Israel, and not just in winning another Knesset seat or two in the elections for the “peace camp,” must insist upon the presence of our flag at every event, and not hide the meaning of its presence.

The Communist party and Hadash, which spearheads Palestinian politics in Israel, at least on the ideological level, have come a very long and praiseworthy way in this area. From the insistence on flying the Israeli flag at their conferences and the fight against those who waved the Palestinian flag at demonstrations in Arab communities, they have become the Palestinian flag bearers and those who now insist on its presence at public events.

There is no logic in requiring the flag to fly in Sakhnin and Nazareth, while not allowing it to be flown in Tel Aviv and Hadera. Greater Nazareth and the entire Galilee are a Jewish-Arab land, Palestinian-Israeli, and so are Tel Aviv and Hadera.

We want to change the reality everywhere so that the entire land will be a place for shared life, for the two collectives, and only the legitimacy of both – with all their symbols – will enable us to develop an equal and democratic society, for us and those who come after us.

Prof. Asad Ghanem teaches in the School of Political Sciences at the University of Haifa.

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