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Beyond the flag

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A flag?

What good have flags ever done?

Have they ever protected a city from the shrapnel of a bomb?”

asked Palestine’s most famous revolutionary poet, the late Mahmoud Darwish.

Often described as “the national poet of a nationless people,” Darwish was a humanist above all, and consistently warned against the trappings of nationalism, even as he bemoaned the absence of “normalcy,” of the feeling of belonging, of having a recognized homeland, for Palestinians.   The Palestinians should not need to say “our country is loftier and more beautiful than yours,” he wrote, and will hopefully one day only need to fly the flag “on the football pitch,” and “on Nakba day.”   

The tension Darwish elaborated on is one many activists for justice in Palestine navigate daily, as we engage in the struggle to secure the human rights of a dispossessed people denied dignity, sovereignty, and freedom, by a settler-colonial state.  And while of course many would love to see a Palestinian nation-state, a country with its own full-fledged seat at the UN, its own currency, borders, and laws, and a flag proudly and freely flying over a sovereign parliament, a smaller group of us are most interested in the transnational concepts of anti-imperialism and global decolonization.

For those of us who strive to rise above nationalism, our activism for justice in Palestine is rooted in a belief in justice and equal rights for everyone, everywhere. And despite the routine accusation of “singling out Israel” for criticism, few if any of us are “single-issue” people.  We organize against structural systems of oppression everywhere we see them, and we strive to keep learning about all the ways they manifest that are not yet obvious to many.  If you ask us what issues we care about, most of us would list multiple causes.   The alliances being forged or reinforced today, between African-Americans, Native Americans, and Arab Americans, between Israelis and Palestinians, are proof that we come together despite a long history of forced colonial borders and national divisions between us, to work towards a more seamless world, one that cannot be represented by the flags of the countries whose citizenship we carry.  

And yet we celebrated with millions around the world when Celtic FC fans flew the Palestinian flag at a game in Glasgow against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva, and when St Etienne fans followed suit one week later, also flying the flag at a game against an Israeli team, the notoriously racist Beitar Jerusalem, which has a “no Arab players” policy.  

Those events were not about nationalism.  The Palestinian flag has come to symbolize defiance to censorship, a rejection of the Zionist narrative that would have people believe Israel is “defending itself” rather than brutally maintaining its occupation and apartheid policies, and grassroots opposition to state violence, to colonialism, to brutal military oppression. This was eloquently stated by the organizers of the Celtic FC “Fly the Flag for Palestine, for Celtic, for Justice” event, as they explained that their action was intended to display their “opposition to Israeli Apartheid, settler-colonialism and countless massacres of the Palestinian people.”  “We stand for justice, for freedom and end to all forms of racism and oppression,” the organizers wrote.

Flying the Palestinian flag, then, is somewhat different from merely wearing a kuffiyeh, which can be culturally appropriated without sufficient political analysis, and even, at times, with no political analysis at all.  A traditional piece of clothing that is regional, rather than national, the kuffiyeh acquired its political significance in the 1930s under the British mandate, when Palestinian peasants and Bedouins who had moved into the cities, as well as long-time city dwellers, started wearing it to express their resistance to the British and Zionist plans for Palestine.  However, the kuffiyeh is now such a popular item amongst hipsters of all stripes that its meaning has become overly diluted.  And as we saw multiple times, the kuffiyeh can readily be made into a fashion accessory, and even Israeli designers have appropriated it for their on “Israeli wear,” just as Euro-Americans have appropriated Native American designs for their “American wear.”  More egregiously, there is even a wannabe “Israeli kuffiyeh” with the Star of David woven design, a pitiful and counterproductive imitation that perfectly illustrates Zionist cultural theft, the desperate attempt to claim such traditionally Palestinian items as falafel, hummus, and the kuffiyeh, as Israeli.  But it is inconceivable that any Zionist, even one with a Star of David kuffiyeh, will ever wrap themselves in the Palestinian flag.    

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my kuffiyeh, and will continue to wear it, even after Palestine is free.  My kuffiyeh is an aspect of my culture I do not seek to dissociate from.  But the flag is different.  With its overt reference to nationalism, it is a symbol whose multifaceted political significance I can occasionally, and still very reluctantly, get behind, for the duration of this struggle, but which I intend to continue to question long after Palestine is rid of Zionism.  Because, as Darwish put it,

How grand the idea,

How small the state!

As we realistically look at the future of Palestine, with the global diaspora of half its people, and the multi-generational presence, on our land, of Zionist settlers and anti-Zionist Israelis who know no other country, we must understand that justice for the Palestinian people is not about the “state,” it is about the “idea,” of liberation, an end to exile, to disenfranchisement, to racism, and state-sanctioned violence and discrimination.  The idea of a free Palestine transcends the flag.

Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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7 Responses

  1. yourstruly on August 31, 2016, 1:56 am

    and what good have national anthems done?
    have they protected anyone from drone strikes?
    have they helped bring about a just and peaceful world?
    Oh, but they lift one’s spirit
    make us proud to be an American
    unleash tears
    make life worthwhile
    but at the same time
    render us oblivious to
    the body counts from these perpetual wars
    the never ending racism at home
    since once a chorus of “the land of the free and the home of the brave”
    casts its magic spell
    we’re lost in blissful reverie
    a momentary high
    so utterly inappropriate
    ghastly, actually
    what is being inflicted upon us
    upon the world
    in our names
    by our government
    meanwhile, we’re in this trance
    which is why quarterback Colin Kaepernick wouldn’t stand up for our national anthem
    it’s like at the line of scrimmage
    to wake us up
    to break the trance
    he’s audibilizing a new play
    telling us that when America becomes the land that it claims to be
    with liberty, equality and justice for all
    then he’ll stand up
    but until then he’ll remain seated
    and so should we

  2. JLewisDickerson on August 31, 2016, 6:38 am

    RE: “St Etienne fans followed suit one week later, also flying the flag at a game against an Israeli team, the notoriously racist Beitar Jerusalem, which has a ‘no Arab players’ policy.” ~ Nada Elia

    MY COMMENT: Actually, Beitar Jerusalem’s policy might best be described as “Jews only”, although an Israeli Druze might be tolerated.

    SEE – “Suspicion and Hate: Racist Attacks On Arabs Increase in Israel”, By Julia Amalia Heyer, Spiegel Online, 6/05/13

    [EXCERPT] . . . Football fan Asi, 23, says that he isn’t a racist, just a nationalist. “I have no problem with Arabs, as long as they raise the Israeli flag and sing along when our national anthem is played.” Lieberman used the same logic to justify a bill he introduced calling for new citizens to deliver an oath of allegiance.

    Asi, who lives in a small village near Caesarea [a town in Israel located mid-way between Tel Aviv and Haifa], supports the Beitar Jerusalem football club. On a Thursday evening, he and other Beitar fans are standing at an intersection in Herzliya. Asi has a friendly face and a neatly trimmed beard. Like his fellow fans, he is here to demonstrate against the club’s owner.

    When it was revealed in January that the Club planned to sign two Muslim Chechen players, the stands in the stadium became filled with hateful signs, with words like “Beitar — Pure Forever.” The fans chanted: “We are chosen, we are holy, but the Arabs are not.”

    Beitar Jerusalem, says Asi, that’s the holy menorah on a yellow background. The team, he says, can only win as a Jewish team, which is why Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to play in the club.

    Beitar’s management has since cancelled the contracts with the Chechens and sent the two men back home. There were simply too many problems [most especially, Israeli racism – J.L.D.], the club wrote in a statement.


    • JLewisDickerson on August 31, 2016, 1:39 pm

      P.S. ALSO SEE: “Beitar Jerusalem owner to sell club after fan violence in Belgium” | by Ori Lewis | | July 17, 2015

      [EXCERPT] The owner of Beitar Jerusalem said on Friday he was putting the Israeli Premier League club up for sale because he felt ashamed of supporters who threw smoke bombs, flares and firecrackers at a Europa League qualifying round match in Belgium.

      Thursday’s violence also drew condemnation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the national image was at stake and ordered legal action against the Beitar fans who had rioted at the Charleroi game.

      Nine-man Beitar were thrashed 5-1 in the first leg tie – a match that was held up at the start when fans threw dozens of incendiary devices onto the pitch, enveloping it in smoke.

      Towards the end of the match, Charleroi goalkeeper Nicolas Penneteau was hit by a hard object thrown from the crowd, which forced another delay. Beitar can expect severe punishment from European soccer’s governing body, UEFA.

      “I am ashamed … I have decided to end my involvement with Israeli soccer and am returning to the United States … I will appoint a trustee to run the club until somebody is willing to buy it,” Beitar owner Eli Tabib said in a statement.

      Beitar are a bastion of Israel’s political right-wing and a group of supporters known as “La Familia” has been openly abusive toward Israel’s Arab minority.

      Israeli media said some Charleroi fans had made Hitler salutes during the fracas. Beitar coach Slobodan Drapic said Beitar’s fans had been provoked, although he did not explain why some had come to the match with the flares and smoke bombs. It was unclear how so many devices were smuggled into the stadium.

      The club is the only major Israeli outfit that has never employed an Arab player and this was one of the grievances that the Palestinian FA cited in its call for Israel to be suspended from FIFA this year.

      Beitar have by far the worst disciplinary record in Israel’s Premier League and over the past decade has faced about two dozen hearings and received various punishments, including points deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors. . .

      SOURCE –

      • echinococcus on August 31, 2016, 1:57 pm

        Netanyahu, who said the national image was at stake

        In a sense, he’s absolutely right to only care about the image. That’s what we should be driving a stake through.

        and ordered legal action against the Beitar fans who had rioted at the Charleroi game.

        And he went and did it again. After France he now took over the Belgian government. Or annexed Charleroi.

  3. ritzl on August 31, 2016, 9:51 am

    Nicely done Ms. Elia.

    Once again you beautifully translate a wispy poetic thought into prose with real world application.

    I really enjoy your writing.

  4. mick23 on August 31, 2016, 3:14 pm

    The green of the Palestinian flag is at one with our Irish flag,we have always had empathy and sympathy with the brave Palestinian people,and like the Irish they suffered and still suffer under the jackboot of racist colonists.Tiocfaidh ar la (our day will come).

    • Kay24 on August 31, 2016, 6:54 pm

      Welcome Mick23. I am impressed with your nation and people, because they have shown to be very sympathetic to the Palestinians and have stood up for them when others did not care.

      The Palestinians do not have the support their occupier has, and unfortunately until the rest of the world realizes what Ireland does already, it may never change in our lifetime.

      I would also like to say that I have visited your beautiful country, and found it to be so green, just like your flag. Amazing.

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