The flag serves different causes for different groups - opinion

While the procession usually goes by relatively peacefully, it takes thousands of policemen to keep peace and order.

 PROTESTERS AGAINST funding for ultra-Orthodox political parties argue with haredi counter-demonstrators in Bnei Brak, last Wednesday. (photo credit: FLASH90)
PROTESTERS AGAINST funding for ultra-Orthodox political parties argue with haredi counter-demonstrators in Bnei Brak, last Wednesday.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Last week, many Israeli flags were borne in various locations in the country. But unlike the flags on Independence Day, just over three weeks ago, which despite the tensions that accompanied the celebrations still symbolize some sort of patriotic unity, those borne last week reflected the fact that for different sections of the Israeli population, the flag symbolizes very different values and aspirations.

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On Wednesday, the flags were borne by participants of the demonstrations against the government, that at least temporarily transformed from demonstrations against the legal reform/revolution into a demonstration against other objectionable aspects of the government’s policies and took place in the haredi city of Bnei Brak.

The demonstrations had to do with the government’s new biennial budget, and the accompanying Economic Arrangement Bill and distribution of coalition funds. The two latter appendages are infamous phenomena of which all governments in recent decades are guilty.

The importance of a single protest

Why did this particular demonstration take place in Bnei Brak? Because the main complaints of the demonstrators have to do with funds designated for the ultra-Orthodox public.

We are talking of billions of shekels for the various ultra-Orthodox educational systems, even though most of them refuse to introduce non-religious studies (referred to in Hebrew as core studies) into their institutions, in addition to refusing to enable the Education Ministry to maintain any sort of real supervision over what goes on in these institutions, scholastically or financially.

The demonstrators were especially enraged by the fact that Housing Minister, and Agudat Yisrael chairman, Yitzhak Goldknopf has demanded that United Torah Judaism receive an additional 600 million shekels promised to it in its coalition agreement with the Likud as coalition funds for its yeshivas and other religious places of learning, over and above what is included in the budget proper. One can imagine that the demonstrators are less perturbed by Goldknopf’s threats that Agudat Yisrael will vote against the budget if his demands are not met.

Last week, it was reported that this year’s Arrangements Bill will include a chapter called “Municipal Tax Fund” (Keren Arnona), designed to get wealthier municipalities and local councils to transfer part of their income from municipal taxes to poorer municipalities and local councils.

Since most of the demonstrators come from the wealthier cities and towns and most of the haredim come from poorer cities and towns, the demonstrators view this proposal as yet another means of getting liberal seculars to finance the haredim. The latter do not run their cities and towns efficiently, and as a general rule refuse to introduce core studies into their institutions of education, refuse to mobilize for military service or alternative national service, and as far as men are concerned, generally prefer religious studies to joining the workforce.

The difference between what occurred in the past and the situation today is that now the national flag has been mobilized by the Center/Left camp as part of its campaign – a reflection of the current social crisis.

The following day, on Thursday, the flags were brought out on the occasion of the dance of the flags to celebrate Jerusalem Day. This time, the public bearing the flags were all members of what in the past was known as the national religious public, and which today includes, in addition to run-of-the-mill religious Zionists, Messianic Jews, Kahanists and various religious racist groups.

Originally, the celebrations of Jerusalem Day emphasized the liberation and physical reunification of Jerusalem in June 1967 and were attended by all parts of the Jewish society, both secular and religious. In recent decades, the event has turned into a predominantly religious event from which the secular population chooses to stay away. The procession of the flags itself has turned into a defiant, anti-Arab event, which is designed to demonstrate Jewish presence and predominance irrespective of any other considerations.

In the first years after the Six Day War, I invested time and energy into trying to promote effective unity and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. I sought and joined eastern Jerusalemites with whom one could try to promote a future reality of real unification, equality and growth. I carried out part of this activity from within the Labor Party, even though Labor as such never had a clear and unequivocal policy on the issue.

My dream was that the celebration of the unification of Jerusalem would be an event that both Jews and Arabs could support, under the assumption that unification would benefit both sides. But alas, this was not to be and both sides share the responsibility for this.

ISRAEL NEVER considered the option of foregoing the unification of Jerusalem, but at the same time, did not work out a plan for bringing about true unification under its rule. The Arab inhabitants, on their side, ignored the possibility of playing a major role in the running of the city, when most of them decided to refuse to realize the right offered them to participate in the municipal elections.

The celebration of the reunification of Jerusalem, as a religious event, including a procession to the Western Wall, accompanied by music and dancing, began in a small way already in 1968, led by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and the students of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva. I am not sure when the flags entered the picture.

At that time, there were as yet no Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, Rabbi Meir Kahane lived in the US, and even he was not yet a Kahanist. Messianic Judaism and openly racist religious organizations were as yet non-existent.

Today, the procession has assumed much larger dimensions. The thousands of national flags borne are joined by occasional flags of radical racist organizations, such as Lehava, and the course of the procession within the walls of the Old City has been deliberately and provocatively diverted to pass through the Muslim Quarter (there is a separate course for women that avoids this provocative element).

Most of the participants in the procession behave normatively, but a visible minority shout obscenities and curses toward the Arab population such as “Your village shall burn” or “A Jew is a soul – an Arab is the son of a whore,” and seek violent clashes with Arabs.

While most of the Arab inhabitants of the Old City try to keep out of the away and shut their stores and businesses, there are Palestinian hotheads who throw stones and other objects at Jewish participants. In short, while the procession usually goes by relatively peacefully, it takes thousands of policemen to keep peace and order.

No matter how one looks at this annual event, and undoubtedly it is an enjoyable and happy event for most of its participants, there is no chance that I shall ever be tempted to attend it, just as I do not expect the participants of this event to join the current anti-government demonstrations.

The difference between the two events is that the flag procession is an annual occurrence designed to celebrate a joyous historical event, while the current anti-government demonstrations are a protest against the policies of the current government, which will hopefully sooner or later become little more than a bad memory.

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge, in July.