Where Are the Flags?

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Israel Flag
22 May 2007

For a few days, I thought that perhaps I was misremembering. But as the days after Pesach continued to flow by, it was clear. Something was different. In years past, almost as soon as Pesach was over, the country would be festooned in blue and white. Flags fluttered from the windows of cars everywhere, and hung from the porches of buildings throughout the city. It seemed you couldn’t stop at a single red light without someone trying to sell you a flag to put on your car. And almost everyone bought them.

Not this year, though. Sure, there was still the occasional car with flags attached to the rear window, and in our neighborhood, a few porches sported blue and white. Right before Yom Ha’Atzmaut there were a few more. But there’s no denying. Relative to what there was a few years ago, and even last year, there’s almost nothing. That flags are gone.

I mentioned it to Elisheva a few days after Pesach, but she said I was imagining it. “They never come so quick after Pesach. People will put them up, you’ll see.” But they didn’t. And then, on Wednesday evening, she, Avi and I were in the car, when from the back seat, Avi piped up, “Have you noticed that there are no flags this year?” he asked.

“Funny,” I said, looking into the rear-view mirror, watching for the inevitable adolescent smirk, assuming he’d overheard our conversation, and in his imitable fashion, was poking fun at his aging father.

“It’s not funny,” he said, “I’m serious. Look out the window. Any previous year, all these cars would have had flags on them.” And even in the evening rush hour, with Emek Refaim jammed with cars, with less than a week to go until Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, there was hardly a flag to be seen.

“When did you start to notice it?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But my friend and I were talking about it today on the way home from school.”

“How do you explain it?” I asked him, wondering what these twelfth graders, many of whom will be headed to the army in just months, were saying to themselves about what’s going on around here.

“It’s simple,” Avi said. “We lost the war. We’re not doing anything to get Gilad Shalit back. No one ever even mentions the other two. There are charges against too many government officials. There are no flags because nobody thinks there’s anything to be proud of.”

It was quiet in the car. I didn’t want to ask him if he also thought there was nothing to be proud of. Part of me didn’t want to know. Another part of me knew that he wouldn’t want a lecture, so there was no point eliciting an answer that would leave me unhappy, anxious to respond. Around here, these days, a lot of questions are much better left unasked.

And while I don’t think that that’s what he felt, I think he summed it up exactly right. That week, just days away from the first celebration of Independence Day since the war, people apparently decided not to put up flags. The city put up a few, office buildings had some (but not nearly as many as before). But private citizens? An unspoken boycott of flags, it almost seems.

On some levels, of course, it’s not hard to understand. The war, to put matters mildly, did not go well, and left in its wake a good deal of unfinished business that some people say we’ll have to attend to this coming summer. The Gilad Shalit situation is horrific. There’s no way Israel can trade the number of prisoners that they’re demanding, and release the sorts of people they’re asking for. And there’s no way we can leave Shalit in captivity.

And it’s true … you almost never hear the names of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Ask anyone on the street the name of the soldier kidnapped from Gaza, and they’ll tell you – “Gilad Shalit.” But ask them the name of the two soldiers kidnapped from the northern border right before the war, and they’ll look at you. And then they’ll look down at the ground, as if it’s embarrassing, shameful that they don’t know.

Actually, it is kind of shameful. But they don’t know.

Add to all that a President accused of rape, not likely to survive much longer, but who actually pondered publicly not extending his self-initiated suspension, so that he might be able to preside at the Memorial Day and Independence Day events. (A public outcry put an end to that.) And there’s the Winograd report on the war, still looming, which may or may not bring down the government. And there’s a Saudi peace proposal, which may or may not be a good thing. And confusing signs from Syria, and disagreement within Israel as to whether they’re bluffing, getting ready to attack this summer, or whether, perhaps, Assad may just be serious about embarking on a genuine negotiation.

No one knows. And no one trusts anyone who says that they do know.

Like birthdays and anniversaries, Independence Days are opportunities for introspection, for assessing whether we’re the people – or the country – we want to be. This year, that’s a painful process for Israelis. Had Avi asked me why I thought there are so few flags out there, I would have told him that in the last couple of years, what’s happened is that the appearance of a shared worldview at the core of Israeli life has given way to an acknowledgement that there’s not much we agree about anymore. Whether it’s the past or the future, I’d have told him, no one’s very sure that they know what to believe.

And, quite rightly, he’d have said, “How do you know that?” An answer to that question could take a long time (like a college semester), but if forced to boil it down, I’d have taken out a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and showed him how so much of what was written to such acclaim only six decades ago now rings so hollow. Not that it was wrong then, or that it’s wrong now. It’s just that few people would say many of those things, anymore.

The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people, the document begins. Great mythology, perhaps, but reality was infinitely more complex. Even the Bible’s own account suggests that we were but seventy people upon leaving Canaan, more a clan than a nation. It was in Egypt that we became a People, not here. And more recent archaeological evidence, as even sophisticated high school students here know, complicates the story even more. Back then, when Ben-Gurion read the Declaration aloud to an anxiously awaiting nation, people wanted to believe, more than anything, that the past was simple, and that the future flowed naturally from it. But few realities match the neatness of mythology. We’re “post” one mythology, and “pre” something to substitute for it. Which doesn’t leave you much, at least not right now.

Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed, continues the Declaration. But again, with apologies to Gershwin, “it ain’t necessarily so.” The document that ultimately shaped Jewish spiritual and religious identity was not the Bible, but the Babylonian Talmud. And that very name, Babylonian Talmud, makes the obvious point that it was not here that the magnum opus of rabbinic Judaism was created. In fact, one of the great characteristics of Judaism throughout the millennia has been the portability of its ability to thrive – here, or elsewhere. But the notion that Jews had thrived in Babylon, or in Europe (until the world conspired to put an end to that), or that they might come to thrive in America, didn’t exactly cohere with the worldview of Ben-Gurion and his colleagues. So the Declaration (over)simplifies matters. But educated Jewish kids can’t both study Talmud and read the Declaration and think that they both reflect the same reality. Life’s complicated.

Ben-Gurion also intimated, and maybe even believed, that despite all the divisions in Israeli society, at the end of the day, people here could come together to fashion a shared vision for the future of the State. Therefore, the Declaration refers to a Constitution to be drawn up by a Constituent Assembly not later than the first day of October 1948. Fifty-nine years later, that confidence that an Israeli Constitution could be written seems ludicrous.

Israeli society is not characterized by a sense of “We the People” the way that American society claimed to be in 1787. The divisions between secular and religious, hawks and doves, rich and poor, socialists and capitalists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Jews and Arabs are all wider and deeper than any might have expected they would become. If Israel ever does adopt a Constitution (which it may or may not), it is very unlikely – for a host of reasons, language not the only one – to begin with the words “We the People.”

So, the past isn’t as simple as we would have liked to think. Neither is the society of which we’re a part. And with that naiveté eroded, we’ve also (perhaps fortunately) come to realize that these divisions can’t simply be papered over. The authors of the Declaration finessed the disagreement as to whether to include God in their text by using the phrase With trust in the rock of Israel – a phrase that the religious could interpret as God, and which others could take to mean the military might of the emerging State. But it’s not insignificant that the founders of the State couldn’t even agree on whether to include God in the Declaration of Independence of the Jewish State – either as a theological claim, or merely as a rhetorical flourish. It should have told us something about what was yet to come.

Today, we know that no clever turn of a phrase will bind us together. In the Disengagement of 2005, we destroyed each other’s homes. And a year after that, in the War of 2006, we saw that many eighteen-year-olds are increasingly refusing to serve in the same army with each other.

Is it any wonder that the flags did not appear?

But that, it might be said, is all about the past. Perhaps the past, by definition, had to be over-simplified in a document like this. Surely, though, people can bond together behind some shared vision of the future, no?

Increasingly, though, people don’t even know what future to hope for. We offer peace and unity to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation, says the Declaration. What my kids’ generation would say about that cannot be reprinted in a forum such as this. So I’ll transpose into more acceptable language. “We leave Lebanon, and five months later, get the Intifada. We leave Gaza, and get Hamas and the war. Assad says he wants to negotiate, but then has a minister make clear earlier this week – either the Golan goes back by negotiation, or Syria will take it back by force. The guy tells you if you don’t make peace he’ll attack you to achieve peace?”

Talk about peace in front of my kids’ friends, and they look at you as if you were dropped on your head.

And inside these borders? While the Declaration calls upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to return to the way of peace … and equal citizenship, reality has been anything but that. The enormous social and economic disparity between Jew and Arab that the State has both fostered and permitted is a blemish on the democratic character of this country. But if ten years ago there was a broad consensus among Israeli Jews that the socio-economic discrimination needed to be addressed, today other sensibilities have triumphed. Many Israelis still bristle at the images of Israeli Arabs – citizens of this country – demonstrating in favor of Nasrallah even as his missiles were hailing down on the north during last summer’s war. More recently, the Israeli Arab document entitled “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” described Israel as a colonialist venture spawned by European Zionist elites. As a means of creating social equality, it urges an end to the Jewish character of the State. Not exactly the sort of utterance that encourages social rapprochement.

So, some people are now asking, is it really a good idea to end the social and economic disparity? Is it really in Israel’s interest to enable them to stay? Not a pretty question, but there’s no denying that you hear it being asked – and by people who would have bristled at the mere suggestion not very long ago.

So, let’s just say that we’d been on a longer drive, and Avi had decided to ask me, “Given all that, why are there flags fluttering from both sides of our car? In fact, since I can see that you and Ema still have last year’s flags lying in the very back, why’d you buy two new ones this year that you didn’t even need?”

What I’d have told him is that I, too, have no idea what the future here will look like. I have some idea of what I would love to see, but what will actually be, who knows? And my read of the Jewish past is hardly dependent on the Declaration of Independence. But there’s one thing about the Declaration that still rings true, and which matters more than either of those. And that “one thing” is what’s happening to the Jewish people, here and now, in a way that it simply can’t happen anywhere else.

Not by accident, I imagine, did Ben-Gurion structure the Declaration so that situated between its historical mythology and utopian vision lies reference to the Jews’ having returned in masses … revived their language, built cities, and [are] ever prepared to defend themselves. I could imagine Avi asking: couldn’t Ben-Gurion and his co-authors have come up with something a bit less quotidian? “Liberty, equality and fraternity,” after all, sound infinitely more elegant.

But elegance is not our aim, I’d have said. Survival is. Revival is. Between history and utopia, the Declaration suggests, lies messy state-making. It’s what Fackenheim called the “Jewish return to history.” It’s about a people healing, recreating itself. It’s about the revival of a language that not long ago, almost no one spoke. It’s about a country filled with museums, and not of an extinct culture. It’s about a country teeming with bookstores overflowing with thousands of volumes produced by a population smaller than that of Los Angeles. It’s about a people having power, and using that power to make agonizing decisions about impossible situations. It’s about the dignity – and admittedly, the pain – that comes with the knowledge that we have to make the choice about whether and how much to trade for Shalit. It’s about the real life that tragically means knowing that we have to be able to look Shalit’s parents in the eye, but that we also have to make sure that the prisoners we’ve incarcerated don’t kill again. And that we don’t encourage the kidnapping of another soldier for the next trade. It’s about the knowledge that if the world can’t stop Ahmadenijad, we’ll have to. Because this place is that Jewish people’s last chance.

That, I would tell him, is why we bought new flags. The old ones were a bit tattered. This year, I wanted something new. Brighter. Sturdier.

We can live with the myths breaking, and the utopian visions fading. (Would it have sounded less “fatherly,” I’d have suggested that he read Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, and a different look at what “myth” means. But he’s seventeen, and just loves when I give him reading assignments.) But what Jews will not survive without – here, or anywhere else – is an end to the building, to the revival of culture, to the defending of the perimeter. Because the State is not about history or utopia, but about the possibility a future in any form. Does anyone really imagine that without this State, there could be any Jewish future over which to argue?

It’s been a terrible year, no question. But what matters, Ben-Gurion would have said to us, is not where we’ve been, but where we’re headed, and whether, in the face of myths we’ve lost and visions in which we no longer believe, we still care enough to do what it will take to give this people the last chance at a future it’s likely ever to have again. It would be ironic, I think he would have said, for us to fail this test after we’ve muddled through all the others.

The King David Hotel is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. And in the lobby, way in the back on the left hand side as you enter, is an enormous aerial photograph of the King David, and of the YMCA across the street, taken shortly after the hotel was built. I’m mesmerized by the photograph every time I see it. Because what was here? The hotel, and the YMCA. And virtually nothing else. Nothing. The city as we know it simply didn’t exist.

It’s a legitimate metaphor, I think, for life here at least. Seventy-five years ago, what was here? Not most of the universities. Or the schools. Or the cutting edge medical system. Or the industry. Or the flourishing art scene. Or the sort of religious creativity you know find all over Jerusalem. Or a population of millions of Jews. None of it.

And people would dare think that there’s nothing to be proud of?

Of course it’s been a bad year. What country doesn’t have bad years? But now’s not the time to drive flagless. If we’re “post” one myth and “pre” the next, it’s time to start getting a generation of kids (and people who’re older, too) to do exactly what Avi’s decided to spend next year doing – to re-confront Jewish texts, western texts, Zionist texts and history, and to re-imagine what this place could become if we cared enough. An emaciated form of generic liberalism will not fuel this project it will kill it. It’s time to start figuring out what uniquely Jewish values should permeate this place, what we could build that would justify the price that life here is likely to exact for a very long time.

The flags don’t matter of course, but what they represent, and what they evoke, do. Shouldn’t that have been reason enough to hang a flag? Isn’t that reason enough to buy two new flags?

Even this year? Especially this year?

© Daniel Gordis, reprinted with permission of the author. Daniel Gordis is Vice President of the Mandel Foundation – Israel, and the author, most recently, of Coming Together, Coming Apart: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel (John Wiley & Sons, 2006). Visit his website at www.danielgordis.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.