My first Yom Haatzmaut in Israel was 19 years ago when I was an exchange student at Hebrew University. Celebrating into the early morning, I was filled with euphoria as I danced with the Israeli flag with pride on the streets of Jerusalem. Two years later, I made Aliyah and moved to Beer Sheva.
Soon after, I stopped dancing with the Israeli flag and instead of pride, the symbols of Israel filled me with shame: Every year there was a new low point- imprisoning asylum seekers, deporting asylum seekers to countries at war, operations in Gaza with no clear war aims, the Nation State Law, and the constant scapegoating by our government officials- everyone was to blame except the government: Arabs, asylum seekers, or the “left”. Disgraceful laws stripping the weakest populations of freedom were generally passed close to Pesach- our nation’s holiday of freedom, quickly followed by Yom Haatzmaut, our nation’s Independence Day. And the juxtaposition between our freedom and our inability as a nation to feel empathy for others who don’t have those same freedoms caused me to feel anything but pride. And so, I stopped waving the Israeli flag. And I didn’t put flags on the windows of our car. And I grimaced through each Independence Day trying to relinquish the joy that I had once felt.
And then I had kids who got a bit older and asked to buy flags from the boy selling them on the street corner. And I managed only to mutter something about not having money. They wanted to also run around waving their flag. And I didn’t know what to do with that. The flag that had once symbolized the Jewish people’s right to independence, love of the land of Israel, and a desire for freedom now in my mind had been “stolen” by the far right and represented not just patriotism but radical nationalism and bigotry and I didn’t want any part of it. I was ashamed to be Israeli. I was ashamed of my country.
And this led to an argument with my husband over the flag. And he insisted that the flag did not belong to Smotrich, or the Religious Zionist party. The Israeli flag is not Bibi’s flag or the Likud’s flag. It is our flag too. Thousands of Israelis died for our country so that we could live freely. He too served in the army and did reserve duty for that same freedom. And the flag is no less ours than theirs.
Rationally, I agreed. But I still couldn’t put the flags on the car willingly.
And then this happened: For 16 weeks, every Saturday night, I have been protesting against the government. And I have been surrounded by Israeli flags. Hundreds of thousands of national flags take to the streets every Saturday night, and also many days in between. Left wing and right wing protestors, people from the North, Centre, and South took back the flag. Although the radical nationalists continue to claim ownership over Zionism, patriotism and the Israeli symbols, they are losing the battle. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis holding the flag of their country and yelling “democracy, freedom, and equality” are not anarchists or traitors but true Zionists.
And so, this year, before my kids even asked, I gave ten shekels to the boy on the street corner and felt, for the first Yom Haatzmaut in years, a sense of calm.