By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Does anyone recall today that it used to be illegal to fly the Palestinian flag in Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza? Just a thought experiment here: The people in charge of the West Bank and Gaza in the period after 1967 who banned the flag were men like Yitzhak Rabin and Shlomo Gazit; the latter has now re-defined himself as a “peace” supporter.
Let’s understand this: Those who preach peace today, were the architects of banning a flag. Not banning terrorism. No. Just a flag; that was what scared them most. And these are actually the voices that Israelis think of as “left” today. Is it “left” to ban flags? To ban symbols? To arrest people for speech? To detain people without lawyers? And let’s be honest; those today who staff the “human rights” industry; some of them played a key role in these detentions; mass arrests for such horrid violations as having an “illegal flag.”
Now let’s go back to 1964; Kai Bird relates in his latest book ‘The Good Spy’ a long forgotten incident at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City where an Israel-American pavilion complained that the Jordanians “dared” to show a mural of a Palestinian refugee. That was, in their worlds, “propaganda against Israel and its people.” They wanted it removed. Let’s recall that 1964 was the heyday of Labor Zionism…the “left” in Israel…and the thing that worried this “left” most was a mural? And art project? Ban it, they said. Ban the dangerous art. Was this “left”…or was it more like what we know from Eastern Europe, the false left of Soviet-style bureaucracy?
Flags, murals…that was what scared the policy-makers in the period 1960-1993 in Israel. The only time a Palestinian flag flew legally in that period was when a film crew came to Wadi Kelt to shoot a scene for ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ by John le Carre…and then it was a prop. One is surprised Gazit and his friends were not in there ferreting the flag out.
But unbeknownst to those enforcing this blind policy…the Palestinians that they evidently feared; or their narrative, grew in power. Banning the flag or murals or whatever…didn’t ban the people.
And in retrospect, isn’t it fair to ask, what was the point? This policy of banning symbols; this policy of going after one thing, while ignoring the much more important thing, was it successful?
And today Israel trusts as its “left”, the people who stood proudly behind this (and who knows, they might want to enact such a policy again inside Israel but directed at different “enemies”; because it is worthwhile asking whether the “left” has internalized the issue of civil liberties and human rights, or merely positioned themselves on that end of the spectrum. Can Shlomo Gazit articulate why it was wrong to detain people for flying flags; Gazit has even bragged about how in the 1970s he “I approved the detention of a Prisoner X in total isolation“…and this is the man who stands as a hero to “human rights” in Israel). And the “right” in Israel; does it understand that this policy of ignoring the elephant didn’t work? That is a worthwhile question.
None of the failures of the flag-obsessed policy of 1967-1993, have been internalized. After all, we see today that Israel’s police recommended investigating Hanin Zuabi for saying basically what others have said; by saying that terrorism isn’t terrorism; but “violent struggle” in the words of Haaretz Columnist Gideon Levy. But is what she said really the problem? Isn’t the issue more about the public that agrees? Is the issue Hanin Zuabi? Arrest Zuabi and what is accomplished? Really, think about it. It is like arresting someone for flying a flag. It doesn’t make the ideology behind it go away; and this is the problem. It isn’t only the problem with targeting symbols and expression (i.e civil liberties), it is the problem of thinking that just removing them, makes the issue go away. The Soviets got rid of the crosses on the churches, but they didn’t make the believers go away.
Those who thought banning the flag was “probably a good idea” and think that prosecuting Zuabi is part of “we should prosecute her and all the traitors”; seem to miss the forest for the trees.