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.
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.
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.