Flag of Israel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ever since I made aliya, I enjoy the display of Israeli flags that, year by year, in the period leading up to Independence Day shape the scenery in Israel’s streets. I do so because I know that these flags – or at least many of them – demonstrate that the people who fly them genuinely share my identification with this country.
This is one of the reasons I don’t see much of a point in imposing any kind of obligation to fly flags, as Israel’s culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, wants to do for all institutions that receive government funds, including Arab establishments or sites in Arab municipalities.
An flag that has been hoisted only because someone has been forced to do so is an empty symbol that doesn’t mean anything... except maybe as an ostentatious demonstration of government power. In addition, an obligation to display the Israeli flag in the football stadium of an Arab town such as Sakhnin constitutes a completely unnecessary risk of social tension, without gaining anything in return. Regev’s proposal therefore demonstrates a lack of responsibility on her part, as she seeks to willingly produce a potential trigger for social unrest merely to engage in some kind of empty populist symbolism and demonstration of power. At the same time, and that brings us to the actual heart of the problem, it shows that the country’s minister of culture lacks a proper understanding of the Israeli flag and of Israel’s socio-political constitution.
Regev proposes that institutions supported by the state need to show their commitment to the state in return, and shall therefore be obligated to display the Israeli flag on Independence Day. It is certainly true that some kind of allegiance to the State of Israel may be expected, not only of institutions who receive state funds but from every citizen who is represented and protected by the state. Those who have a right to vote, who are protected by police, who have a right to file a complaint in court and who are entitled to child allowances must accept the basic principles of the socio-political and legal framework they are part of, and which supports them, regardless of whether the rights and benefits they enjoy are supplemented by state donations to cultural institutions or sport arenas.
And if the Israeli flag represented nothing besides the basic principles of a civil political framework which all its citizens, regardless of whether they Jews, Arabs or anything else are part of, then, maybe, it could legitimately be expected that everybody who is part of this civil political framework show his allegiance to this flag. The problem is that the Israeli flag symbolizes much more than just a civil political framework which Jews and Arabs are equal members of. Politicians and public representatives reiterate over and over again that Israel is both a civil democracy and a Jewish nation state, a hybrid of a civil society that grants equal rights to all and, at the same time, the nation state of the Jewish people, a social entity that is not congruent with the community of Israeli citizens.
Proposals to deprive the Israeli state of its commitment to the Jewish nation, be they voiced out of radical left-wing liberalism, historical ignorance or anti-Semitism, are usually rebuffed by a majority – and rightly so. Israel needs to remain a Jewish state. The Israeli flag needs to remain the flag of the Jewish nation. But that also means that we need to tolerate it when non-Jewish Israeli citizens remain ambivalent toward the Israeli flag. Sport arenas, football stadiums, theaters, museums and other institutions deserve government support because they serve the citizens of Israel, regardless of whether these citizens are Jewish or Arab and regardless of whether they represent Jewish ideas or not. In return, these institutions, like all other citizens, have an obligation toward Israel’s civil political and legal framework. The Israeli flag, however, represents more than the Israeli civil political framework, for it is also the symbol of Jewish national sovereignty.
And non-Jewish citizens cannot be expected to be faithful to the symbol of the Jewish people, which they are not part of.
That certainly doesn’t mean that people should be allowed to call for Israel’s destruction as a Jewish state or commit or encourage terrorism against Jews. It only means the very banal and obvious fact that no one can blame a non-Jew for being ambivalent toward a flag that represents, among other things, a community he is not part of. It would certainly make a lot of sense if an Israeli-Arab institution, of its own free will, decided to fly the Israeli flag as a symbol of the civil liberties and democratic principles that it would not enjoy in many Arab countries, while overlooking the flag’s Jewish meaning. But that needs to be left to the personal decision and discretion of citizens and institutions.
I wish that Israel may prevail as both a civil democracy and a Jewish nation state. I wish that the Israeli flag may continue to express both these ideas.
Tolerance for the ambivalent relationship of non-Jewish Israeli citizens toward Israel’s national symbol is the necessary consequence of this wish.