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More than once while doing my military reserve service in the West Bank during the pre-Oslo era, I was ordered to take down Palestinian flags hung on walls, telephone poles and power lines in defiance of IDF regulations.
It was one of the tasks I was most uncomfortable with. I knew how potent a rallying point a flag can be, the strong emotions of nationalistic pride it can evoke, and how it had become a symbol of the violent resistance directed against Israelis, myself included. But pulling down the flags seemed a self-defeating gesture - awarding a victory of sorts to the Palestinians by allowing them to define the symbolic terms of our conflict.
And whatever my feelings about the viability of a Palestinian state at that time, I felt the Palestinians themselves should not be denied the right to express their own national aspirations through an act as basic as being allowed to fly their national colors.
Didn't I feel that way myself about the Israeli flag, with its Star of David centerpiece boldly declaring the existence of a sovereign Jewish state to a world that had for so long denied the Jewish people even the most basic rights of civil liberty and self-determination?
Pride in one's flag - and respect for the pride others feel in their flag - was certainly something I had no trouble understanding.
WHAT I did not understand then - and still don't today - was how one could be so supportive of the right of the Palestinians to display their national colors, and so dismissive of the same privilege for Israelis; especially when one encounters that attitude among Israelis.
Take, for example, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who this week wrote about why he chooses not to display an Israeli flag outside his home, as so many others do, to commemorate both Remembrance and Independence days.
"I clearly remember when I stopped hanging the flag. It was after I saw the settlers dashing through Palestinian villages, fearsome flags waving from their cars to confront and provoke the residents of the land they had invaded. I said to myself that a flag intended for provocation and confrontation is not my flagâ€¦ Since it has become the flag of the occupation, I have remained without a flag."
I feel sorry that Levy, as strong an advocate for Palestinian national aspirations as one can find in the Hebrew press, has permitted others to define for him what the Israeli flag stands for. One has to wonder, though, what feelings, if any, he had for it in the first place, to allow that to happen.
THERE ARE those, certainly, who regard any symbols of national pride with indifference, cynicism or contempt. But if they feel that way about the flag under which they were raised (as long as that banner was not specifically created to service a hateful or twisted ideology), then how could they feel any different about some other national flag?
After all, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum today, the Israeli flag was created long before 1967, or even before the birth of the state in 1948. It was flown in this land prior to any of the current arguments over where the borders should be, and was not created with the intention of being linked with any specific ideology within the Zionist movement.
In recent years it has become fashionable among the post- or anti-Zionist Left to argue that the flag should be redesigned in such a way as to make it easier for Israel's non-Jewish minorities to identify with it. But the Star of David at its center is a cultural icon with origins in this land stretching back over 2,000 years, long before it acquired any contemporary political meaning.
Other liberal-democratic states incorporate a Christian cross in their flags, as do Muslim societies with the Islamic Crescent. The Israeli flag rightly expresses the cultural Jewish heritage that created modern Israel. There is no reason why Israel's non-Jewish citizens cannot honor that tradition any less than Swiss or Turkish Jews can their own national flags, despite the specifically religious symbols they incorporate.
SOME MAY find that one flag alone is not enough to express their multiple national identities. Some years I've flown both Israeli and American flags on my home and car, just like I've seen Jewish, Italian, Irish and African-Americans fly the Stars and Stripes together with national banners to express pride in their ethnic roots.
Many others may prefer to fly no flag at all, disdaining any overt expression of a nationalism they don't share. For me, though, the best indication of whether one lives in a society still worth taking pride in is if the right not to hang the national flag, or salute it, or even to be irreverent, disrespectful or contemptuous of it - as Gideon Levy is - remains a freedom enshrined by law.
I grew up in the US when attitudes toward the American flag had become an issue of national debate. There were protests against the Vietnam War at which some demonstrators took to burning the Stars and Stripes, while proudly waving the colors of North Vietnam. Even for many Americans who opposed the war this was too much, and it led to a backlash which almost saw the passing of an amendment to the Bill of Rights banning the burning of US flags.
That would have been wrong, because a flag by itself is merely a piece of cloth, paper or plastic hung out on a pole or string. Its value lies not in the thing itself, nor even in the collective significance placed upon it by the majority of the society it represents. In a democracy, the value of a flag is found in the meaning invested in it by the citizenry. And those who allow others to define for them what that meaning is are forsaking and betraying an essential right of democratic self-expression.
So this week again, I hung an Israeli flag off my balcony. Maybe I'll let it hang there even longer than usual after Independence Day because I'm more conscious than ever of the price the Jewish people have paid over the years to finally win the right to fly a national flag - and how great a price we may yet have to pay to keep that privilege.
The writer is director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project. www.theisraelproject.org
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