Opinion |

Israel as a Slave State: What Do You Feel When You See That Flag?

This week, a new flag of Israel is going up, a hint of what a truly free nation might have been, and may yet be: The rainbow of the Pride flag, a Magen David in its center

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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The first-ever Gay Pride Parade in Kfar Sava, central Israel, June 1, 2018.
The first-ever Gay Pride Parade in Kfar Sava, central Israel, June 1, 2018. Credit: Haaretz
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Of all of humankind's most overwhelmingly transformative inventions, there has never been anything quite like a flag.

It is an enormously powerful, potentially dangerous machine. It can spearhead the rise of entire empires, or their annihilation. Yet it has no moving parts, no electronics or hydraulics, no fuel source but the human hand and the human mind.

Folded up, you can fit it in your pocket. And, for many of us, no matter how hard you try, you can't get it out of your heart.

Quick, have a look at the flag of Israel. What do you feel?

Generations ago, in its reference to the stripes of the Jewish prayer shawl and the six-pointed shield of David, the flag was material proof that an entire people, thousands of years old and recently hunted down and slaughtered by the millions, had emerged from genocide and had somehow found its way back to its ancient ancestral home.

But that's not what that flag means anymore.

For a while, there was a sense, a hope, that the flag stood for an actual commitment to Jewish values as explicitly expressed in Israel's Declaration of Independence, a commitment to a search for reconciliation after devastating war, a "country for the benefit of all of its inhabitants," a nation "based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." An Israel which promised to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," guaranteeing freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."

What's left of all that? A blue and white piece of cloth.

And now that's been stolen as well, from what we once knew as the Jewish heart.

I feel for the young people who now look at that flag and feel their chests knot up in anguish and fury, for all that this flag has come to mean.

The flag of Israel has been co-opted as the banner of the slave states we call Judea and Samaria, our very own Confederacy, our very own means of keeping millions of people disenfranchised, treated as property, to be shunted off at will, confined at will, chained at will, exploited as laborers, abused without redress.

And as the masters of the slave states now have become the masters of Israel as a whole – pushing us to reject democracy, dismiss peacemaking, embrace theocracy, take pride in brutality - the flag of Israel itself has come to stand for a slave state.

And yet.

This week in this city, in and around Tel Aviv and Jaffa, in homes, businesses, and even municipal buildings and schools, a different flag is going up. A flag which, I have come to feel in my chest, is vastly more representative of what Israel might have been, should have been, and perhaps, one day in the future, will become: The rainbow stripes of the Pride flag, with the Magen David in its center.

This new flag of Israel stands for inclusion rather than incitement. It stands for respect and reconciliation rather than racism. It stands for welcoming differences of opinion, culture, belief, skin – rather than deporting them.

It seems to me that the message of the Pride flag goes far beyond LGBTQ rights. This flag stands for the freedom of all of us here, all of us shackled by the slave state we serve, the people we oppress, the leaders whose wrong-headed "security considerations" crush us all.

This is the new flag of a more human state of Israel. It stands for people created in the image of a God who is neither male nor female, Jew nor non-Jew, a God who is no designated color – a Creator who is all of them, more than them, all of us.

I haven't given up on this place, and what it could be. I'm not ready to cede the flag of Israel. There is still much here to be admired, much that is worth saving, many who manage in a thousand focused ways to work for a semblance of sanity here, a way to a decent future here.

And yet.

There was a time when the flag of the state of Israel was a direct source of inspiration, of welcome, of hope. A power source for a deep stirring in the chest. No more.

Imagine my wonder, then, that this is exactly what I've been feeling this week, in this city, when everywhere you look, the flags stand for pride.

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