Monday, May 9, 2011

Flying the Flag (or not as the case may be)

One of the things that one gets used to after living in Israel for a while is how the appearance of certain pieces of merchandise herald in the next significant date on the Jewish calendar. For instance, as soon as Succot is over sometime in October, doughnuts begin appearing in shops in anticipation of Hannukah which is a mere two months away. And when that festival is over, stacks of dried fruits emerge in supermarkets informing us that the Festival of Trees, Tu B’Shvat (and incidentally my Hebrew birthday) will be soon upon us.
And just as we put away our final piece of Pesach crockery for another year, spotty-faced adolescents suddenly materialise at every other traffic light in town brandishing Israeli flags at any unsuspecting motorist who happens to have come to a halt in the hope that he/she will part with a few shekels in exchange for said flag. Yes, very soon it will be Independence Day.
Time was when I flew the flag from my car with pride, but in recent years, I can’t say that I have been too bothered with this. The kids always ask why we drive around flagless. I think they might be a bit ashamed that I am not showing enough nationalist fervour, but I have explained to them that we always lose the damn things. These flags will remain attached to the car window as long as the window is shut. Inadvertently open it whilst driving and the flag will take off into orbit. As we approach Independence Day, the roads become strewn with blue and white pieces of cloth with tyre marks on them. 
Yet sometimes I do wonder if my lack of willingness to fly the flag is a sign that my own Zionist zeal is on the wane. Am I fed up of Israel after more than three decades of living here?
I was born in England, a country without an independence day. As far as anyone is concerned it has always been independent. Despite all the Pomp and Circumstance attributed to Britain, there is no official day on the calendar on which citizens of the UK celebrate their Britishness. If anything, the British national identity, if there is such a thing, was formed not as a result of the country’s gaining freedom from foreign rule, but from the frequent invasions of the Sceptered Isle; first the Angles and Saxons, then the Vikings and finally the Normans who all donated their bit to the formation of the English language and character. (Okay, this is probably a very trite summation of British history, but it will do for now.)
The British flag itself (erroneously called the Union Jack) is an amalgam of the different flags of the countries that make up Britain. And whilst I was too young to remember the “Swinging Sixties” when the red, white and blue flag came to represent everything hip and fab, my teenage years were spent in the shadow of the Union Flag (to give it its proper name) which had been usurped by the fascist National Front party which would parade it up and down the streets of Britain spewing out its racist and anti-Semitic platform. For years, I was unable to look at a British flag without recalling these thugs who, during the late 70’s, seem to be gaining enough support to get into Parliament. Its rehabilitation for me at least came during the 90’s “Cool Britannia” of Tony Blair when the Union Flag was sported by the Spice Girls who came to represent the post-Thatcher period of hope (and crap music.)
Whilst the Blue and White Star of David always meant more to me than the Red, White and Blue Union Flag, I suppose that I began to be wary of flags during my tours of military reserve duty at the time of the First Intifada (1987-1992). Each year, my unit would be sent out for over a month to some place in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank to keep the peace. Prior to 1987, tours of duty in the Territories could be fairly uneventful, but with the outbreak of the Intifada, nothing would ever be quiet again.
The beginning of the Intifada was characterised by overt expressions of Palestinian nationalism, which had not been visible up till then, and it was our duty to quell them. One of these expressions came in the form of the black, red, white and green flag which at the time was banned by the Israeli authorities. Palestinians, especially younger ones, would take great pleasure in  hanging flags from trees, pole and telephone wires in order to anger the Israeli military patrols. Our instructions were to take these flags down or rather to get some locals to take them down for fear that the flags might be booby-trapped (the practice of the “human shield” has been around for some time.) We would grab some unsuspecting local and tell him (we never approached women) that we would be back in half an hour and expected to see the offending piece of material taken down. So that he would perform the designated task, we would take away his I.D card without which he would almost cease to exist and return it on its completion.
However, once the flag was removed then another ten would pop up in its stead. It became a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse. None of us could understand why the army was insisting that we carry on with this senseless duty. Surely if we ignored the flags then fewer of them would appear. And indeed this is what happened. On our next tour of duty, we were ordered to leave the flags alone and, lo and behold, they all but disappeared.
That is not to say that the Palestinians don’t make a big deal out of flags. We’ve all seen the news reports on TV featuring crowds of incensed Palestinians (or Iranians or anyone else in the neighbourhood who doesn’t particularly like us) getting almost orgasmic pleasure burning Israeli flags – or rather white sheets on which someone has hastily painted two blue lines and a six-pointed star (I blame ourselves actually—we should have chosen a far more intricate design that would have been a bugger for anyone to copy.)
Do they really think it bothers us? I haven’t seen hordes of Israelis taking to the streets protesting this desecration of our most sacred emblem and personally it gives me a giggle to see these rather juvenile antics.  But it is obvious that their flag-burning is an act symbolising the wiping of Israel off the map, so I really shouldn’t be so flippant about it, I suppose.
Personally though, I don’t think that the fact that we don’t take our flag as seriously as our enemies do theirs is a problem. We might be still in need of a day to wave flags around, but as time goes on and Israel gets more stable and institutionalized, there will become less of an urgency to show our colours. Of course, this will very much depend on our security situation, but in the end, isn’t that the aim of Zionism; to provide some normality for the Jewish People. Is it so wrong to yearn for a time when we will be able to take these things in our stride, when we won’t need a flag to remind ourselves that we have a country and an Independence Day to remind us that we are independent? Until then, I suppose, bring on the barbeque.
Happy 63rd Independence Day to one and all.