Category Archives: Protest

Flags, place, and people

Growing up in the UK in the 1970s, I had no love for the British flag which had been appropriated by the racist far right, especially the National Front. As I was a keen Zionist at the time, I’m pretty sure I felt a lot more affinity to the Israeli flag then. I’m visiting Israel again, but without the Zionist identity that brought me as an immigrant to this country in 1985. It’s not long after Independence Day, so there are perhaps more flags around than at other times of the year, but there seem to be a lot of them. Living in the US, I’ve grown used to seeing the red, white and blue on the houses of neighbours, on massive poles outside shopping malls and in the town square. Perhaps it’s unfair, but I can’t help feeling that when a nation feels the need to brand a place so insistently with its flag, there’s some insecurity there about the land belonging to the new nation rather than the people who lived there before.

It was hard to feel ambivalence at all about the Israeli flag on “Jerusalem Day,” a day that marks the Israeli conquest in June 1967 of the eastern part of Jerusalem, which had been under Jordanian rule since 1948. There might be something to celebrate about the reunification of a city torn apart by war, but the unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel makes it clear as can be that the city is not united but deeply divided along the lines of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The “celebration” of the day has been thoroughly appropriated by the religious nationalist settler movement which re-stages the conquest of East Jerusalem, especially the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, each year with the “dance of the flags.” The “dance” has been accompanied by physical and verbal violence on the part of the conquerors and the police who enforce their passage through the streets placed on lock down, but less so this year. The Israeli flag in the hands of the marchers has become a symbol of an exclusive Jewish claim to the place of Jerusalem, of racist superiority over the Palestinians who live in the place, and of possession of place by violent means.

Over the years, the British union flag has become cool again, reclaimed from the racists even if it’s been appropriated as a fashion item. There are Jewish Israelis opposed to the settler nationalists who also want to claim the flag for themselves. Peace Now has its own flag for Independence Day, which replaces the Star of David at the center with the word “shalom.”
Last night in Zion Square gay rights activists did their best to engage mostly religious protagonists while holding the rainbow flag embellished with the Star of David.

At the counter-demonstration to the flag march organised by Free Jerusalem someone held the blue and white flag among the red flags of Hadash and other socialists and the green banner of the liberal Meretz party.

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Free Jerusalem Facebook photo

Free Jerusalem Facebook photo

The flags confronted each other across barriers, with a small proportion of the thousands of marchers lingering to stand opposite the small number of counter-demonstrators corralled into a balcony overlooking the street corner, like a bunch of hobbits hoping to hold off the orcs. There were drum rhythms and slogans from the balcony: “End the occupation.” “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” The conquerors also chanted and sang songs which in another peaceful contexts of mutual recognized attachment to place would have been tuneful. It was hardly an opportunity for a frank and free exchange of views, as we regraded each other with mutual dislike and disdain. Indeed, the largest of the counter-demonstrator’s banners (which I didn’t see from where I stood within our corral until I saw this photo on Facebook) spoke over the heads of the conquerors to wish the Muslim residents of the Old City Ramadan Kareem.

People on flags. Design by Ariel Katz, produced with her by John and Hazel Varah from Same Sky.

People on flags. Design by Ariel Katz, produced with her by John and Hazel Varah from Same Sky.

I don’t feel like reclaiming the Israeli flag for peace and tolerance, not least because its symbolism excludes its non-Jewish citizens. People are more important than the flags with which they brand places with their identities. When that’s forgotten racism and chauvinism blot out the identities and belonging to place of those who don’t adhere to your banner. If there must be flags, these are the ones I can identify with. Women and men, Palestinians, stand together, refusing the monopoly of national identities and looking for ways to reach across to each other. Flags don’t dance, but people do, and there’s no place we can’t dance, not even divided Jerusalem.

 

Standing together, standing in one another’s shoes

IMG_20160605_234815For this first time (June 3, 2016) I’ve been able to participate in the monthly Palestinian-Israeli “Freedom March” held at “machsom haminharot,” an Israeli checkpoint on Route 60 to the south of Jerusalem, just by the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. The march is organized by a coalition, in which Combatants for Peace are a key partner, called “omdim beyachad” in Hebrew (standing together). The group has operated since an upsurge in violence in October 2015, offering a clear alternative to the usual pattern in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians each increase their antipathy to and fear of the other.

Being who I am, I had already seen video clips and photos of the event posted on social media, and was expecting the colourful cloud of balloons in the hands of the marchers when our bus from TDSC00067el Aviv arrived at the meeting point. The protest procession crossed the main road slowly, but did not block it, and amid the shouting of slogans and the displaying of placards, found shelter from the sun under the monumental concrete overhang of the separation barrier at this point.

DSC00079The protest ended with short speeches (translated into Hebrew and Arabic) by MK Aiman Oudeh, the charismatic leader of the Joint List, Leah Shakdiel, a long time feminist and social activist who represented the religious peace group Oz v’shalom, and representatives of Combatants for Peace. But I won’t talk today about the content of the speeches, the formulation of slogans (also translated and transliterated between Hebrew and Arabic), or even the ritual of releasing the balloons from under the concrete canopy into the freedom of the skies.

Instead, I want to focus on another part of the protest, the performance of a short scene in which Palestinians and Israelis role played soldiers and themselves in a typical encounter at a checkpoint, an encounter which involves verbal and physical violence, detention, constriction, humiliation, pushing people to the ground. The performance ends with a call for non-violence, to the applause of those who had gathered round the scene. An upper level of the walkway by the separation barrier served as a stage, and some but not all  of the demonstrators gathered together to watch – although it was difficult to hear. Yet, the point is not the production or acting quality of this performance.

DSC00094“Standing together” itself performs the vital political position of “refusing to be enemies” at a time of hightened tension, and in the context of a conflict to which no political resolution can be seen on the horizon. Combatants for Peace, along with other groups participating in the freedom march, such as the Bereaved Families Forum, and the Jewish-Arab parliamentary bloc Hadash, have performed this partnership, including acts of co-resistance, for years now. Combatants for Peace has also turned consistently to the “theatre of the oppressed” as a key element of its activities, often in more rehearsed ways and in settings in which the audience could participate more easily. They have documented some performances, and I have written about one I saw a few years ago.

In the setting of the demonstration the performance has particular significance. We can stand together, we can march together. But we can do so meaningfully better when we have learned to stand in the shoes of the other, whether through role play or dialogue or hearing each others’ stories. Combatants for Peace is a partnership if Israelis and Palestinians who have seen how their armed force and violence of the other feel from the point of the other. They stand together by seeing themselves from the other stands, When you have stood in the shoes of the other, and experienced with them what it’s like to commit or be subject to violence, then standing together just feels a whole better than standing against each other.