Why have grown-ups in Israel become so fixated on flags? On Sunday, we have the Flag March to (not) look forward to, religious Zionism’s celebration of its racism. The parade passes through Jerusalem’s Old City and, in years past, has included banging on shuttered Arab storefronts accompanied by shouts and whistles.
This week, Palestinian-Israeli students at Ben-Gurion University held a demonstration to commemorate Nakba Day, and Israelis were appalled at the sight of Palestinian flags defiantly waved by the participants. This followed other demonstrations and flag waving on college campuses on Land Day.
The flag madness is taking hold in the government, the Knesset and civil society. Anyone who arrogantly declared the end of the age of nationalism and its endless number of victims in the not-so-distant past is invited to visit the present – and receive a stinging slap in the face.
I have no problem in principle with a collective occasionally adorning itself with signs and symbols. I unabashedly admit that I love “Hatikva” – I enjoy singing the national anthem when I happen to be at events where it's played. There's something healthy, right and touching in the desire to be, even briefly, part of something larger than ourselves.
Moreover, during the years when incitement against the left was soaring, I felt that maybe the time had come to renew the visibility contract with the blue Star of David, and to simply accept the flags handed out by sweaty folks at intersections. I figured it was part of the battle over the state's character and against thuggish nationalist rule.
But the sick obsession with flags that has been growing lately is a symptom of a serious childhood illness – and the bloodshed here won't stop until it's cured. When a flag doesn't symbolize partnership and kinship but rather defiance and antagonism, it's a toxic sign of a bloody war lurking around the corner.
I remember when I was in elementary school, during rehearsals for the year-end ceremony, a boy named Guy was chosen as flag bearer. While he was awaiting the big moment, Guy roughhoused a bit with his friends standing next to him on stage and accidentally stepped on the flag and shook it from side to side. The teacher, whom I only remember from this incident, grabbed his arm and yelled that he was desecrating the Israeli flag.
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Guy innocently replied: “It’s just a piece of cloth with something printed on it.” I still remember the teacher’s shocked and furious expression, her eyes bulging: “People died for this thing,” she shouted, “and you're killing them again!”
A hush fell over the children, and Guy did his best to hold the flag straight, barely breathing amid the insult and the fear. And I switched off my initial instinct, admiration for Guy’s brave answer, because the forcefulness of the teacher – the responsible adult – left no choice.
Today I know that my first instinct, like Guy’s response, actually attests to a desperate desire for health, to a childlike attempt to reject the pathology that's passed down from one generation to the next. It's a desire to carve out, with whatever meager resources are available, a window for sane existence in a place that simply doesn’t allow for it.
People who load an object with so much meaning and emotion apparently lack confidence in themselves and their way of life – so they're very dangerous people.
The Jews who make their love conditional on their flag, as well as the people who are so enchanted by the Palestinian flag and encourage the Palestinians to wave it, are trapped in a realm that verges on fascism. Wherever they see flags, they can't see human beings.