Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the importance of symbols. Both sides have many symbols that represent their narrative, but the flag is arguably the most powerful. When Israelis see the blue and white flag with the Star of David in the middle, some of their deepest sensibilities and emotions are evoked. The return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland after the long and painful 2,000- year exile and the building of a prosperous state against all odds is probably the simplest formulation of the Israeli narrative. When Israelis see the Palestinian flag, the first and foremost association is terrorist attacks. Almost all Israelis can name an individual, either a friend, acquaintance or relative, who was killed in a terrorist attack by someone fighting for Palestinian nationalism.
Since I am an Israeli Zionist and not a Palestinian, I can only speculate on what the Palestinian thinks upon seeing the Israeli flag. On the concrete level, I’m sure that every Palestinian knows someone, a friend or a neighbor, who was arrested in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers. Perhaps the road on which they were traveling got closed and was categorized as a closed military zone. This caused them to miss a wedding, funeral, or work. It probably happened more than once. On the abstract level, the Israeli flag from the Palestinian perspective is associated with 700,000 refugees who fled their homes in “Al-Nakba”. Jewish colonialists who had never lived in this land arrived by boat and took over the abandoned Palestinian homes. 72 years later, they are still denied the right to return to their homes by the State that flies the blue and white flag with the Star of David.
On both sides of the conflict, the associations of the flag of the other side are entirely negative. Given the deeply held narratives of both sides, it’s entirely understandable why the flags of the other should be burned, crossed out with a big “X” or made invisible. But in the meantime, both peoples are living in the same land that they call home. Although flying the Israeli and Palestinian flags together is completely counter-intuitive, it sends the following powerful message: This special land must accommodate those who identify with either of these two conflicting narratives.
Since the two conflicting narratives are probably not reconcilable, what’s desperately needed is the development of a third narrative that focuses on what both peoples have in common. To represent this third narrative which is only now being developed, a symbol, namely a flag, needs to be developed. But at the same time, the flag of the third shared narrative will probably never, at least at this point, replace the deeply held narratives of both sides as expressed by the Israeli and Palestinian flags. There is no better symbol for the respect of a narrative than flying the flag. As applied to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, despite all of the painful emotions on both sides, the two flags need to be flown together, along with the third flag that unites us and offers hope for a brighter shared future.
Flying this third flag will require both sides of the conflict to open their umbrellas a lot wider to make room for the other. Although everyone considers rain a blessing in this land, there’s likely to be strong opposition on both sides to expanding the umbrella and developing a common third narrative. No one should be forced to fly two or three flags together, and there are certainly places throughout the land where it makes sense to fly only one flag. Outside of my children’s school where they live and breathe the Israeli narrative and on “Yad l’banim” buildings where fallen Israeli soldiers are commemorated, the blue and white Israeli flags will continue to fly alone. There are other places in this land where Palestinians feel strongly about flying only the Palestinian flags as an expression of their identity.
This past May, Israeli president Reuben Rivlin made a moving statement while hosting a Ramadan “Iftar” (break the fast) as an expression of Jewish – Arab coexistence: “Your home is my home!” Most of Israel’s 20% Arab minority self-identify as Palestinians, and the Palestinian flag is a natural expression of their identity. However, even Israeli Jews on the left side of the political spectrum who strongly support peaceful coexistence feel uncomfortable when Palestinian flags are brought to joint political rallies.
Eliyahu Mclean, director of “Jerusalem Peace Makers” and founder of the Hebron Dual Narrative and Gaza Border Reality tours coined the phrase, “It takes two wings to fly”. On the cover of this week’s religious Zionist “Shvii” weekly, the front page shows Prime Minister Netenyahu and Bennett on the right side with an Israeli flag in the background and the wordplay “Yemina” (meaning ‘right’, the name of a political party), and on the left, Benny Ganz and Ahmad Tibi with a Palestinian flag and the word “left”. I would suggest leaving wings on the birds and airplanes and focusing on strategies to build a better future for all of the inhabitants of this land. This vision should be non-political and has the potential to attract Israelis and Palestinians from across the spectrum. A flag symbolizes a narrative, identity, hopes and aspirations, so much more than the technical definition of a “state” or “country”. While politicians often use slogans related to the old-time “two-state” or “one-state” debate, these references feel stuck in the geopolitical reality of the 1990s. Future debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will likely focus more on proposals such as Confederation with movements like “Two States, One Homeland” versus the Federation Movement. Although these proposals have important differences, they are both built on the assumption that the two peoples who call this land home need to have equal access to the entire land, taking into account the complicated reality on the ground. Either one of these proposals, or a hybrid of both, will also require a new symbol that expresses the least common denominator. of both people.
What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Will the third combined narrative eventually develop and then a symbol to express it will follow, or perhaps the creation of a symbol of the third narrative will encourage its development? The Abrahamic Movement founded by Yoel Oz is currently working on the development of this third flag, but at the same time, through grassroots peace initiatives, profound connections are being formed on both sides of the conflict. This process will foster deeper mutual understanding and a brighter future for all of the inhabitants of this incredible land that we both call our home!