In spring 2009, I was on a small hilltop in the West Bank that overlooks the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba. I was part of a group of Israelis and Palestinians paying a visit to a few Jewish teenagers who had set up a squat — the de facto precursor to any new settlement. We started coming once a week at the request of the Palestinian family whose land they were on to send the message that this was not an empty hilltop up for grabs. Soldiers usually arrived within 20 minutes and kicked us out.
One day, as we were leaving the hilltop, I spotted a small Israeli flag perched in one of the trees and decided on impulse to pull it off and lay it on the ground a few feet down. The moment I did, two of the teenagers sprinted toward me and made as if they were about to lunge at me. Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist from Hebron who runs Youth Against Settlements, jumped between us and covered me so I wouldn’t get hurt. The teens backed off fairly quickly, and that was it. It was just a flag, a pole and a cloth, but in that moment, it embodied everything I oppose: Israeli supremacy, dispossession and violence.
Every year around this time, Israel fills up with flags ahead of the national holidays Holocaust Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day. Memorial Day was Monday; Independence Day is today. As always, the flags are everywhere. On street poles, cars, apartment buildings, store windows, on merchandise and hung extensively throughout the nation’s schools. It is impossible to escape the sight of them. And it goes on for weeks.
As Israel turns 69 this year, its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip turns 50 — a golden anniversary with the stateless Palestinian people whose lives it controls. While Israelis are barbecuing across the country this week, 1,000 Palestinians will complete their second week on hunger strike in Israeli jails. While Israelis party at the beach and watch the air force’s annual flyover show, the people living in Gaza sink deeper into an acute electricity crisis.
The disparities are so systematic and blatant that it is difficult to understand how waving a flag from your car or balcony can express anything except complicity in — if not overt promotion of — Israeli expropriation, inequality and discrimination. For me, an Israeli who has lived here my entire adult life and is invested in my nation’s future, the flag has become synonymous with a destructive, intolerant form of Jewish nationalism.
That is why I felt so uncomfortable when my son, who isn’t even 3 yet (he was born in the middle of the 2014 Gaza war), was given a flag to play with this week. At his preschool in Jaffa, they give the kids flags, tell them it’s our country’s birthday and ask that they come dressed in blue and white the day before. This isn’t unique to Israel; it happens in Jewish schools throughout the world and surely in other nations around the world. But why is this necessary at such a young age? What is the educational value? Is the idea that he should automatically be a proud, loyal citizen? I prefer he first learn what the flag means to different people before he starts to wave it around in ignorance.
In small leftist circles, some parents refuse to send their kids to school on these days, especially since religious, pro-settlement politician Naftali Bennett became education minister; some try to influence the programming, while others believe education from home will provide a sufficient contra. There are a few day-cares and preschools — among them Arab-Jewish bilingual schools in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem — that don’t mark these days at all at this young age, or that make sure to address both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. But this is very rare. For the most part, left-wing parents have to find or create alternatives themselves, while trying not to stigmatize their children.
When I asked some parents at our preschool how they felt about the week’s events, only one mother said she empathizes with me. The rest had no problem, and some seemed a little perplexed that I even raised it (“it’s just colors on clothes”). One even got defensive, insisting I show basic respect for this national tradition and not allow politics to get in the way (as if putting a flag in a child’s hand is somehow neutral).
For our part, we decided not to keep our son home, though we let him pick out his own clothes, which happen to have a lot of blues and whites in them anyway. That way we could refuse to subscribe to the ritual without it affecting him negatively.
There is a small Facebook group in Hebrew (just 459 members) called “Leftist Mothers,” where we share our experiences, frustrations and recommendations on raising our children in a climate where our politics makes us outsiders, even dissidents. The group is especially active this time of year. One mother recently shared a photo of a group of 1- to 3-year-olds being shown a map of Greater Israel with no pre-1967 Green Line, titled “The Land of Israel.” Another complained that she heard a teacher yelling at the kids to stand up straight as she played them a recording of David Ben-Gurion declaring Israeli independence, followed by Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva.” In some preschools, Israeli soldiers come and speak to 3-year-olds on Memorial Day, essentially inaugurating their militarization process with national role models. Indoctrinating Israeli schoolchildren with a narrative that ignores the occupation not only leaves no hope for a peaceful future; it also insults their intelligence. After five decades, any responsible educator who wants to wave the Israeli flag should at least note that there are 6.7 million Palestinians living between the river and the sea who that flag excludes.
I no longer can remember what it was like to experience Independence Day without heavy doses of disillusionment, anger and cynicism. I resent that, and I hold my fellow Israelis and our leaders directly responsible. My generation has witnessed the demise of Israeli efforts to negotiate with Palestinians, the extinction of the left as a political force and the deterioration of basic democratic norms, even within Jewish society. My son’s generation won’t even have a glimpse of what Israeli governments once looked like when they at least appeared interested in ending the occupation — which has become the country’s largest national endeavor. The normalization of occupation has become so well rooted in Israeli society that it is impossible to distinguish it from Israel’s national symbols. That is true every single day — and especially on Independence Day.