Shmuly Yanklowitz

How the American Left and Right Almost Distanced Me from the Israeli Flag 

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

Having been a Religious Zionist for so long, having lived in Israel for several years and visiting family and friends every year, how could I possibly come to forget what the Israeli flag means to me? 

The far-left in America was perhaps slowly, and unconsciously, slightly pulling me towards some kind of political assimilation. I was starting, more and more, to think that all expressions of patriotism and national solidarity were signs of ultra-nationalism which were inevitably stained with the sins of Christian supremacy and white supremacy. Anyone waving a flag must be filled with hate, I continued to hear, just as one is to celebrate the one who takes a knee at a national anthem rather than one who sings patriotically. The far-right in America was also influencing my relationship to flags in ways that I wasn’t processing. Anytime in my town I saw an American flag on a car, it was on a huge pick-up truck which was always going over the speed limit and also had extremist slogans on the bumpers. Further, the progressive media was implicitly telling me that Israeli flag wavers are ultra-nationalists with the hateful intent of dehumanization and land expansion. Nationalism, I was experiencing and feeling, is a great sin of the past, and any flag waver is complicit in perpetuating everything evil about it. 

What I was forgetting was that the Zionist project and its flag was of a totally separate enterprise than the American ethos and its flag. America was nobly founded to be a pluralistic melting pot for many cultures. The modern state of Israel, on the other hand, was founded, at least partially, to be a refuge for the Jews in a post-Holocaust world. Those living in the former can easily critique the latter for being ethno-centric without understanding the context and separate vision. Without context, I can see why one would fail to distinguish between the two, as I was beginning to do so myself.

What I was also forgetting was the Torah’s approach to Religious Zionism, that the commitment to Israel is not an assimilation into the zeitgeist of secular nationalism. Rather, it is an ancient covenantal commitment between God and the first Jew (Abraham): “And I will give to you and your offspring after you the land of your sojourns – the whole of the land of Canaan – as an everlasting possession; and I shall be a God to them,” (Genesis 17:8). 

To be sure, the Israeli flag is, of course, not a religious symbol imbued with holiness. If I drop a prayer book, I kiss it, since it has the Name of God in it. If an Israeli flag falls, I do not kiss it; I merely pick it up with respect. That said, the flag was created with blue stripes to symbolize the tallit (prayer shawl), and the Star of David represents none other than King David himself (the “Seal of Solomon” was a pentagram, but the chosen hexagram design of the star was and is known as a “magen David,” shield of David). Additionally, blue and white, the rabbis teach, represent both the strength and the kindness of character that the state should exist with—(blue represents gevurah, strength, and white represents chesed, kindness). Further, building again on the tallit, the white of the flag represents the shawl, and the blue represents the techeilet, the blue thread.

But, I wondered, isn’t celebrating flags a modern assimilation? Perhaps one similar to the prophet Samuel’s critique of the Israelites who desired a king like all other nations? “It was wrong in Samuel’s eyes that they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us,’ and Samuel prayed to God,” (I Samuel 8:6). 

Additionally, God tells Moses: “The Children of Israel shall camp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under their flag” (Numbers 1:52). A midrash even teaches that the angels metaphorically descended at Sinai with flags and the Jews responded with flags of their own (Bamidbar Rabbah 2). Further, in the 10th bracha of the Amidah (the standing prayer), we pray “raise the flag to gather our exiles” as we imagine waving a religious Zionist flag of ingathering of the Jews from around the world back to the homeland. 

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s perspective on the Israeli flag truly moved me: 

If you ask me how I, as a Talmudic Jew, look at the flag of the State of Israel, and whether it has any halakhic value, I will give you a simple answer. I am not impressed at all by the allure of a flag or similar ceremonial symbols. Judaism negates the worship of material objects. However, we must not ignore the law in the Shulkhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 364:4) which says that a Jew who is killed by non-Jews is buried in his clothing, so that his blood will be seen and he will be avenged. This is in accordance with the verse, “I will forgive, but I will not forgive their blood” (Joel 4:21). In other words, Jewish clothing acquires a certain sanctity when it is stained with holy blood. How much more profoundly does the blue and white flag, which is soaked with the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell defending the land and the Jewish settlement. . .  It has a spark of holiness which flows from their devotion and self-sacrifice. We are all obligated to honor the flag and to relate to it respectfully (The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses).

For the Rav, is the Israeli flag holy? No, God forbid! But the flag has sparks of holiness! 

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, related the following anecdote: The famed rosh yeshiva and Torah scholar Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was famously once asked by a student if he may take time off from Torah study to travel to Northern Israel to visit the graves of tzaddikim (righteous individuals). Rabbi Auerbach responded that whenever he wishes to visit the graves of tzaddikim, he goes to Har Herzl, the national cemetery in Jerusalem for the burial of fallen Israeli soldiers, for they are the true tzaddikim. What makes this moving dialogue even more poignant is that Rabbi Auerbach headed Kol Torah, a non-Zionist yeshiva. He nevertheless realized the gratitude we must have for those who gave their lives al kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name, all so that we could live in our own homeland.

The flag is not the endpoint of Jewish identification and solidarity, God forbid. The Talmud (Sotah 17a) says that even the blue and white of the tzitzit with techeilet is supposed to move beyond itself into something deeper and beyond (the sea and sky and ultimately toward God). All the more so, the Israeli flag is not an end to worship in some new religion called Israelism but is rather a deeply meaningful symbol to move us beyond to our highest values. So too, in war, the rabbis teach (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8) that when Moshe raised his hands and the Jews would then be defeating Amalek in battle it was not Moshe’s hands doing a miracle but rather his hands were encouraging us to see the God above supporting us. The Israeli flag is not our ultimate source of strength in battle but pointing us beyond. Nationalism is not our religion; Judaism is. There is a difference between worship of a flag and respect. We don’t wrap ourselves in the flag in base nationalism but rather raise the flag and allow it to inspire us within and to see beyond. We must resist any symbols or images that can become idolatrous. We must also resist ultra-nationalism and all the extremism that comes with it. But we must also embrace the symbolism that can inspire us toward moral resilience in difficult times. 

Around the world, where Israel is often demonized, let us wave our Israeli flags with pride. “Let us wave our flags for God” (Psalms 20:6). Indeed, let us see and feel the miracles of the birth, survival, and thriving of our modern-day Israel. And let us remember that waving our flag is not left-wing or right-wing or nationalist, but rather a sign of solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters, and a symbol of commitment to our Jewish values to do all we can do provide refuge for all Jews and to bring repair to this all too broken world. 

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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