Something strange happened at a 2005 demonstration that took place in the South Korean capital, Seoul. One of the local demonstrators – a member of a group that gathered regularly outside the Japanese Embassy demanding compensation for the wrongs done in World War II – bit off part of a Japanese flag.
Biting or chewing a flag is a creative way to cope with the broad legislation that protects national symbols in South Korea. Demonstrators who set flags afire are liable to get into trouble with the police. Eating them, however, expresses extreme rage that is at the same time within the boundaries of the law.
In many countries, debasing flags and national symbols is not prohibited by law but is greeted with public recoil. Chewing a flag might be accepted as a humorous act, but burning it is definitely taboo. Why does a protest that strikes at a national symbol cross the bounds of the legitimate? And why is anyone who does that depicted as an enemy, not only of the flag but also of the nation and the state?
To understand the volatility of the subject, suffice it to consider the furious reactions to the breast-bearing protest at a menorah sculpture outside the Knesset in Jerusalem this month. That act was a form of homage to an event that took place in Portland, Oregon, a few days earlier. As part of the Black Lives Matter protest, a naked woman sat down in the street opposite armed security forces.
The use of nudity in demonstrations might be considered a provocation against the police, but politicians are quick to exploit it for their purposes. Transportation Minister Miri Regev, for example, immediately asserted that the Jerusalem event was “a base act and another crossing of the line by agents of anarchy.” A Ramat Gan resident, who a few days later sprayed pepper spray at demonstrators from the Black Flags movement, said he did it because they were “degrading the state’s symbols.”
Israel is by nature a particularly sensitive place for national symbols. Ariel Bronz and Natalie Cohen Vaxberg, Israeli artists each of whom has separately made controversial use of the national flag in their works, were taken into custody and interrogated at length on suspicion of debasing state symbols. (The case against Bronz was closed recently after four years of investigation.)
Elsewhere, too, debasers of symbols are deplored by the authorities. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump called for the prolonged demonstrations in that country to be exploited for the purpose of enacting legislation stipulating a prison term for torching the national flag. (It’s currently protected within the framework of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution.) In a rally held in Tulsa last month, Trump said, “We ought to come up with legislation that if you burn the American flag, you go to jail for one year.”
Those who hold such symbols sacrosanct see them as transcending all political controversy, as being immune to interaction with other considerations. For that reason, the contract of Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback in the National Football League who in 2016 kneeled during the playing of the national anthem to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, was not renewed by his team. Although Kaepernick’s detractors claimed it was his performance on the playing field that led to his being cut, it was hard to ignore the fierce criticism his protest generated.
The establishment has never liked those who refuse to show deference to its symbols. In the 200-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals, respectively. During the playing of the American national anthem in the awards ceremony, the two Black athletes each held a fist clad in a black glove in the air, their eyes lowered toward the ground, to show their identification with the civil rights movement.
In response, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, threatened to suspend the entire American team from the games if the two runners were not sent home. The seething public abuse Smith and Carlos suffered probably contributed to the decline of their careers. Outstanding athletes who excelled in the Olympics were suddenly perceived as traitors.
American liberals often have a hard time accepting the Black protest against national symbols. They understand Black people's demand for equality, but not their insistence on altering and appropriating symbols, be they statues, flags or the names of streets and institutions. In this, they are adopting the most conservative narrative. They fail to understand that protests do not seek only to ensure material interests but to reshape the narrative itself.
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Respect for national symbols is an acquired viewpoint. Those who live with simmering resentment against the society they live in, are sometimes required to translate it into alienation toward its symbols. In the end, protests against national symbols are an admirable way to avoid using physical violence. Nonetheless, they are liable to become dangerous if the protesters are condemned as enemies of the public. The way to address the problem is not by punishment or condemnation. On the contrary: we need to be attentive to the outcry of protest.
In fact, every act of supposed contempt might be considered an act of heroism in retrospect. Today, Smith and Carlos’ fists of protest are recalled as an inspirational historical moment. Colin Kaepernick was pushed out of the league but became a presenter for Nike. His act of kneeling became a popular symbol in itself, and a gesture that enables many citizens today – who felt themselves excluded until now – to identify with “The Star-Spangled Banner” in their own way.
It’s too soon to know which symbols from the current protest in Israel will become engraved in the national memory. Contrary to the way some are attempting to depict them, the demonstrators in Jerusalem are patriots in every sense: The many Israeli flags they hoist in the demonstrators testify to that. Precisely the attempt of some of the demonstrators to use national symbols shows that they are not outside the political space but an integral part of it.
A segment from the Israeli TV sitcom “Arab Labor” (which was written by Sayed Kashua) demonstrates how complex such issues can be. Maya, the daughter of the series’ protagonist Amjad, represents Israel in a judo competition and wins the European championship. The playing of the anthem, “Hatikvah,” in the awards ceremony flummoxes the young Arab-Israeli woman; as homage to the Olympic fist she raises a fist in the air.
The episode ends as the television commentator focuses on the bracelet on her wrist, on which the Palestinian flag appears, and condemns the gesture. Perhaps instead of vigorous condemnations, it’s worth giving a little more place to considering the symbols themselves and to those who seek to change the way in which they are understood.
Rabbi David Goodman is a research student in the department of philosophy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a member of the fellows program of KAICIID for interfaith dialogue.