Israel's Dangerous and Kafkaesque Infatuation With a Stained Flag

Rather than cultivating an expansive national identity that fosters a connection with the Israeli flag, the government is persecuting an anarchist artist for defecating on it.

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Natali Cohen Vaxberg in 2014.
Natali Cohen Vaxberg in 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Haaretz Editorial

The Israel Police will soon be filing an indictment against artist Natali Cohen Vaxberg, who filmed herself defecating on a number of national flags, including the Israeli flag. Assembling the file against her involved the investment of considerable effort: Three citizens had filed complaints alleging that she had violated the country’s flag law, which bars dishonoring the flag; the cybercrime unit of the Ayalon sub-district of the police tracked Cohen Vaxberg’s Internet activity; the artist was taken in for questioning by the police on five occasions over the past year; and the State Prosecutor’s Office oversaw the work of the investigators and police prosecutors in the case.

The story sounds like a literary plot in the style of Franz Kafka or George Orwell, or from some gloomy film about an oppressive and heartless regime. But it’s not fictional; rather it’s the reality in the State of Israel in the era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: The police are encouraging citizens to report “disrespect of government symbols” and are investing intelligence and investigative resources – designed to apprehend genuine criminals – in pursuit of an anarchist artist.

The police cybercrime unit, which was established to prevent credit card fraud and the like, is essentially acting like thought police, enforcing love of country on those who stray from the norm. The problem with the Israeli flag is not its “dishonor” on Vaxberg Cohen’s part or on the part of thousands of citizens who throw the Independence Day flags they receive free from Bank Hapoalim into the garbage along with their household trash.

The honor accorded the blue and white flag has been eroding due to the increased strength of the groups that are alienated from it: the considerable majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews and of Arabs who are not Zionist and will never fly the flag, as well as citizens disappointed with the state due to its violation of values that are important to them, whether it is human rights or the settling of the Land of Israel. Only a small minority among them would burn or physically deface the flag, but their ignoring it endangers its status more than an artist’s “poop on the flag.”

Rather than cultivating an expansive national identity that would encourage more Israeli citizens to identify with the state and connect with the flag, the government is relating to state symbols as if they were holy religious implements, using all of its bureaucratic power to fight an “infidel” who has purportedly desecrated it. An indictment against Cohen Vaxberg would serve the political masters of the police and the prosecutor’s office, so that they can demonstrate “equality”: See, we’ve also caught an anarchist left-winger after the arrests of right-wing suspects in the firebombing of the Palestinian family’s home in Duma, and the torture of the right-wing detainees.

The solution to Cohen Vaxberg’s soiled flag is a washing machine, not a criminal trial. Outgoing Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein needs to close the file against her before he leaves office. That would be a small but important going-away gift on behalf of freedom of expression in Israel.

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