I attended the big demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday the 11th. At first I was not enthused about it: it didn’t have the spirit of the demonstrations I have known. I missed the drums, the singing. The crowd gathering in Rabin Square seemed too small. I saw a Palestinian flag here and there, but also quite a few Israeli flags. Then we got to the corner of Ibn Gabirol and King Saul Boulevard; suddenly, it was standing room only. The buses from the north and from the south came directly to the museum square. There were a whole lot more people than I expected. And everywhere the rhymed chants were called: “Yehidm ve-Aravim, messarvim lih’yot oyvim” – Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. Of course, that evening the main focus of the Jewish media and the Jewish politicians was the Palestinian flags and a few chants of “with blood and spirit we will redeem you, Palestine”, that were heard there.
My hot take was that the Jewish public needs more exposure to Arabic and to the flag of Palestine.
The flags don’t scare me, and that’s not just because I’ve seen them carried in West Bank demonstrations. They don’t scare me because they will have to be part of the reform the state will have to go through. Israel is the last colonial state. It is made up of a majority of people who expelled the natives, and of a large native minority. Even if for a moment we set aside the question of the occupied Palestinian territories, where the colonialists lord it over a very large number of natives, which is very close to the number of the Jews, if not already outnumbering them; even if we consider only the sovereign boundaries of Israel – a concept which loses meaning by the day, as the Jewish state stops even the pretense of being a supra-ethnic framework with equality of all citizens – even then the occupied natives are about 22% of the population.
At the moment we are ruled by people who see a Jewish state as a state where the Jew is the master, above non-Jews. In many ways this has always been the case, and the Jewish state has always exerted violence against the people who reminded it that there used to be some 400 towns and some cities which are no longer here. The violence was sometimes murderous: Kafr Qasim, Land Day, the October 2000 riots; it was usually administrative: the great land grab of the early days of the state, the martial law until 1966, the continuous refusal to establish new Palestinian towns and zoning plans for existing ones, which effectively made all construction illegal. But for a while there was hope, which flourished mainly in the 80’s and 90’s, that this situation was a passing, painful, and greatly shameful process, and that one days Israeli Jews and Palestinians would again be able to meet each other’s gaze and understand that they are the citizens of a shared stretch of land; that their fates are interlinked; that if one side is hurting, the other side would hurt, as well.
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn:
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return [Auden wrote]
And that it is for this reason that we must find the path to a bridge over our cruel, blood-soaked history – for if we do not, we are doomed to relive it again and again, forever.
We do have such a path: the Israeli Declaration of Independence includes an impressive freedom paragraph. The founders did not mean it at all, of course. It was just a way to cast sand into the eyes of the international community.
Even so, once the text is written, it is independent of the writer. The Israeli Declaration of Independence stands not only as a document of the moment when it was written, but also as a founding document. It was something we could have used as a foundation. And the Israeli Declaration of Independence is not the only document that could have been used, with some effort, to build something together. There was also the strong Hebrew movement of the 40’s and 50s, which admittedly had its own problems, but aspired to depart from Judaism and strove to fall in love with the local landscape and culture. There was Hillel Kook who resigned in protest from the Knesset when it enacted Ben Gurion’s putsch and transformed itself from the Constitutional Assembly, whose job it was write a constitution, into the first Knesset, which postponed the constitution-writing for generations. Kook was a Revisionist: like Jabotinsky, he believed that when the prime minister was Jewish, his deputy should be Palestinian – and vice versa.
And there was Shaul Tchernichovsky, the great path abandoned by Zionism. The man of insatiable curiosity, simultaneously pagan and Jewish (born in Ukraine, 1875, died in Jerusalem, 1943) who could write about kneeling before the statue of Apollo:
I am the first of those to return to you,
A moment when I loathed the dying, age by age,
The time when I bust the spirit’s handcuffs […]
I kneel before life, heroism, and beauty,
I kneel before every treasure robbed
By carrion-men, rotted seed of man,
Rebels who wrest life from the Fortress of the Almighty,
Who cast down the Lord God of Deserts,
The Lord God of Canaan’s occupied by storm –
And shackled Him with the straps of the phylacteries.
Tchernichovsky could also return, in some of his poems, to the cult of the Ba’al. He was swept out of our lives because he wasn’t a tamed national poet, as Bialik was, and because he was a human, first and foremost, and married the woman he loved, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, and refused all demands to force her to convert to Judaism. It is for this that he was condemned to oblivion, and it is only lately, when he was no longer deemed to be dangerous, that he was honored with a banknote bearing his face.
For years his “I Believe” poem, better known as “Sachki, Sachki” (in a much beloved song that has been frequently covered by popular singers), has been bandied about as a possible alternative to the current national anthem, “Hatikva”, which excludes any non-Jewish citizen of Israel. In the 90’s, after serving as the first woman on Israel’s Supreme Court, State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat suggested that “Hatikva” be replaced with “Sachki, Sachki”. A brief glance at the poem– whose unofficial title translates as “Mock Me, Mock Me,” demonstrates that there is nothing Jewish in it. It speaks about nothing more than a national revival:
I believe, too, in a future,
Even in a distant day,
It will come, though, peace be greeted,
Nations sharing words to say.
Then my people, too, will be thriving,
A generation will arise,
They’ll remove their iron shackles,
And see daylight with their eyes.
The poem was written, I should point out, in Odessa, in 1892, under Czarist rule. The generation which is to do all that arising does not necessarily do it in Palestine-Israel. The iron shackles hobbled everyone living in Russia. Thus the poem is universal; and if there is anything Zionist about it, it envisions a state where people live in peace and equality.
Oddly enough, that is also the vision Theodore Herzl tried to formulate in his utopian novel, Altneuland. A notoriously fascist movement in Israel took its name, “Im Tirzu”, from the final lines of Altneuland: in Herzl’s original German this was “Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen”, or “if you will it, it shall not be merely a myth”. But the book itself is not on Im Tirzu’s Zionist reading list, because in it the villain is a racist rabbi who wants to deny the citizenship rights of non-Jewish residents. I imagine this makes them a wee bit uncomfortable.
But Zionism isn’t what it could have been; it is what it is; Zionists will Zionate. If our homeland is to survive, Zionism must perish, because its inevitable result is – as Orwell already noticed in the 40’s – Jewish ultra-nationalism. We must adopt patriotism, not Zionism. Zionism is a toxic parasite attached to Israeli patriotism.
Which brings us back to the flags of Palestine. Palestinian Israelis are Palestinians and Israelis. They possess two identities, sometimes more of one than of the other. We all do. The Jewish Israelis are Israelis and Jews. Sometimes, Palestinians as well as Jews, they are first and foremost soccer fans; sometimes, they are first and foremost fans of Umm Kulthum. Their leading identity is sometimes femininity, sometimes homosexuality, sometimes a love of cooking. There are many more than two nations, beating around in our belly, and there is not one that doesn’t have its time.
The Palestinian Israeli shall not be able to forget, not in the foreseeable generations, the Nakba, the destruction of the homeland, and the exile. Those events are an inseparable part of their identity, just as the experience of life as a persecuted minority had seared itself into the flesh of the people who founded this state. The whites and blacks of the American South have not yet settled their accounts with the times of slavery and lynching.
(The past is not dead, it is not even past. – William Faulkner)
And it does not look like those accounts are very likely to be settled soon. Likewise, what happened here in 1929-1949 will not be forgotten in the next few generations. We will all have to live with it.
And in order to live with it, not to die with it, not to kill with it, not to scar and be scarred with it, in order to release the oppressive weight of a blood-soaked history that is lodged in our collective throat, we will have to hold the Other’s tragedy. We will have to acknowledge our part in their tragedy. We will have to understand that the Palestinian flag – like the flag bearing the stripes and Star of David – is an ethnic flag, and Israel will have to be a more-than-ethnic state. It is a good thing to have the flag of Palestine flying in Tel Aviv: it demonstrates that Israeli society is sufficiently resilient to look at it.
There is hope in the fact that these flags are flown in Tel Aviv, in a joint march of Jews and Palestinians. It is the hope that Jews and Palestinians will be able to see each other’s flags and not see blood: past, present, and future. It holds the understanding that each group bears its tragedy, and that the land does not, when all is said and done, know the difference between the blood of a member of one group or another. If we wish to live here, there must be room for the flag of Palestine alongside the stripes and Star of David. Until some day, when the ancient bugles have rusted away, when we can talk about another flag, one that will allow us to march the two bloodied flags to an honored spot in a museum. But first we must acknowledge the other flag, recognize the pain it represents, acknowledge that by flying it alongside the blue and white it makes peace, not necessarily a fight.
From “Sachki, Sachki”:
Mock me, mock my dreams of glory
It is I who dream, still bowed,
Mock my faith in all things human
Because in you my faith stands, proud.
[This article was translated by Dena Shunra and Yossi Gurvitz]