The First Word: Flagging spirits?

The flags don't matter of course - but what they represent, and what they evoke, do.

flags 88 (photo credit: )
flags 88
(photo credit: )
Perhaps memory deceives me, but I think there used to be more flags. As soon as Pessah was over, the country was festooned in blue and white. Flags fluttered from the windows of cars everywhere, and hung from the porches of buildings throughout the city. Not this year, though. Sure, there's still the occasional car with flags attached to the rear window, and in our neighborhood, a few porches are sporting blue and white. Right before Yom Ha'atzmaut, I imagine, there will be even more. But there's no denying. The flag phenomenon isn't what it used to be. What's happened? Where are the flags? Some of it undoubtedly has to do with all the shoes yet to drop. A president unlikely to survive much longer. The Winograd Report on the war. A Saudi peace proposal, and whether Israel will or will not respond. A "deal" for Gilad Schalit that Israel cannot accept and dare not ignore. In the midst of all these sagas, perhaps it's hard to muster the passion for flag flying. But more importantly, this is the first Yom Ha'atzmaut after the Second Lebanon War. We're still coming to terms with the sensibilities that were lost. The belief that the IDF could keep Israeli citizens safe. The notion that wars, when we had to fight them, would be taken to the enemy's territory. The abiding hope that the territorial compromise might resolve the conflict and that peace might still be at hand. All of that died in August 2006. In the face of those grave disappointments, is it really a surprise us that people are flying fewer flags? LIKE BIRTHDAYS and anniversaries, Independence Days are opportunities for introspection, for assessing whether we're the people - or the country - we want to be. This year, that's a painful process for Israelis. Much has changed in the almost 60 years since the founding of the state, and with it, much of the worldview which once made passion here possible has begun to erode. To see how much we've changed, we need only glance at the Declaration of Independence. David Ben-Gurion's reading of the Declaration in May 1948 is etched in the memories of even those of us who were not alive to witness it, but do we still recall what he actually said? The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people, the document begins. Great mythology, perhaps, but reality was infinitely more complex. Even the Bible's own account suggests that we were but 70 people upon leaving Canaan, more a clan than a nation. It was in Egypt that we became a People. And more recent archeological evidence complicates the story even more. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed, continues the Declaration. But again, "it ain't necessarily so." The document that ultimately shaped Jewish spiritual and religious identity was not the Bible, but the Babylonian Talmud. And that very name, Babylonian Talmud, makes the obvious point that it was not here that the magnum opus of rabbinic Judaism was created - another example of reality being more complex than the mythologies on which we once chose to stake the enterprise. Ben-Gurion's optimism regarding social cohesion has also eroded with the years. The Declaration refers to a Constitution to be drawn up by a Constituent Assembly not later than the first day of October 1948. Fifty-nine years later, that confidence that an Israeli Constitution could be written seems almost humorous. Israeli society is not characterized by a sense of "We the People" the way that American society claimed to be in 1787. The divisions between secular and religious, hawks and doves, rich and poor, socialists and capitalists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Jews and Arabs are all wider and deeper than any might have expected they would become. If Israel ever does adopt a Constitution, it is very unlikely - for a host of reasons - to begin with the words "We the People." ALSO ERODED is our belief in simple solutions to these chasms. The authors of the Declaration papered over the disagreement as to whether to include God in their text by using the phrase "With trust in the rock of Israel" - a phrase that the religious could interpret as God, and which others could take to mean the military might of the emerging state. But today, we know that no clever turn of phrase will bind us together. We have destroyed each other's homes, and are increasingly refusing to serve in the same army. Is it any wonder that the flags have yet to appear? And while the Declaration calls upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to return to the way of peace … and equal citizenship, reality has been anything but that. The enormous social and economic disparity between Jew and Arab that the state has both fostered and permitted is a blemish on the democratic character of this country. But if 10 years ago there was a broad consensus that socioeconomic discrimination needed to be addressed, today other sensibilities have triumphed. Many Israelis still bristle at the images of Israeli Arabs - citizens of this country - demonstrating in favor of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah even as his missiles were hailing down on the north. More recently, the Israeli Arab document entitled "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel" described Israel as a colonialist venture spawned by European Zionist elites. As a means of creating social equality, it urged an end to the Jewish character of the state. Not exactly the sort of utterance that encourages social rapprochement. These, and many more, are all elements of an older mythology that is cracking, leaving us with a sense of bewilderment, perhaps too confused to care much about flag hoisting. Where are we heading, Israelis wonder. And who do we want to be? It is telling, though, that situated between the Declaration's historical mythology and utopian vision lies reference to the Jews' having returned in masses … revived their language, built cities, and [being] ever prepared to defend themselves. One might wonder: couldn't Ben-Gurion and his co-authors have come up with something a bit less quotidian? "Liberty, equality and fraternity," after all, sound infinitely more elegant. But elegance is not our aim. Survival is. Between history and utopia, the Declaration suggests, lies messy state-making. It's what Jewish philosopher and rabbi Emil Fackenheim called the "Jewish return to history." It's about a people healing, recreating itself. It's about the Jewish people's last chance. We can live with the myths breaking, and the utopian visions fading. What Jews will not survive without - here, or anywhere else - is an end to the building, to the revival of culture, to the defending of the perimeter. Because the state is not about history or utopia, but about the possibility a future in any form. Does anyone really imagine that without this state there will be any Jewish future over which to argue? It's been a terrible year, no question. But what matters, Ben-Gurion would have said to us, is not where we've been, but where we're headed, and whether, in the face of myths we've lost and visions in which we no longer believe, we still care enough to do what it will take to give this people the last chance at a future it's likely ever to have again. It would be ironic, I think he would have said, for us to fail this test after we've muddled through all the others. The flags don't matter of course, but what they represent, and what they evoke, do. Shouldn't that have been reason enough to hang a flag? Even this year? Especially this year? The writer is vice president of the Mandel Foundation - Israel. His latest book is Coming Together, Coming Apart