Because two peoples live here, side by side, and the Israeli government is doing its best to erase the rights and history of only one of them.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis protested and marched against the Jewish Nation-State Law Saturday night, demanding full civil equality for all residents of this land. It was a spectacular and rare showing, yet most of Israel’s top politicians (including on the Left) and media outlets were concerned with one thing only: Palestinian flags flown in Rabin Square.
Let’s start with the facts: Saturday night’s protest was organized by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, and was joined by dozens of political parties, movements, and civil society organizations. At first the demonstration was to be held without flags of any kind, and out of the 30,000 demonstrators who converged on the square, the vast majority did not bring or raise flags. A few dozen protesters decided to bring Palestinian flags, as well as a few Israeli ones. At first, the organizers asked everyone to lower them, yet they gave up rather quickly, and the flags — both kinds — were flown throughout the entire demonstration,.
Anyone who has ever been to a protest knows that this is how things go. Demonstrations are not a sterile zone; people bring a variety of signs and flags that are not necessarily agreed upon ahead of time with the organizers.
Yet the organizers did not renounce the Palestinian flags, and rightly so. Higher Arab Monitoring Committee Chairman Muhammad Barakeh opened his speech by addressing the headlines that had already appeared on various Israeli news sites, stating unequivocally that the Palestinian flag represents an oppressed minority, and that everyone has the right to raise it.
So why did they bring Palestinian flags to Tel Aviv?
For a few reasons. First of all, because they are Palestinian. There live two large nations in this country, alongside a number of other smaller groups. Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arab, those who are often called “Israeli Arabs,” who are Palestinian — part of the same nation that lives in the occupied territories and refugee camps in the diaspora. They are members of the same families divided by borders, they share the same culture, the same language, the same customs — and the same flag. Among them are those who identify more strongly with their Israeli citizenship, as well as those who identify with Palestinian nationalism.
The second reason is the Jewish Nation-State Law. The law seeks to legitimize one out of all the different identities of all people who live in this country. Only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel. The protest was a reminder that there is at least one more nation here, and it refuses to be silent. It won’t give up on its right to equality.
The third reason is that raising the flag poses a direct challenge and an opportunity to educate our own camp. Saturday’s protest was an event based on unity and partnership — of building a wider opposition to the government and the Jewish Nation-State Law. Not because all those in the camp, from Balad to members of the Labor Party, agree with one another, but because everyone agrees on a basic commitment to equality as a basic value in our society. In this situation, when the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee does something out of the ordinary and brings in thousands of Palestinians by bus and car to the heart of the White City, the demonstrators wanted to make sure that they were not erased, that their identity in this wider democratic camp in-the-making was not being ignored.
From a few conversations with protesters, it worked. It was the first time that many Jewish activists, who had never before taken part in a demonstration with so many Palestinians, encountered Palestinian flags and slogans in Arabic. For them, it was political education, forcing them out of their comfort zone to deal with the real meaning of Jewish-Arab partnership. Those with whom I spoke were not afraid. They stayed, they learned.
The ban on Palestinian flags was annulled in the early 90s. The police will sometimes try to prevent demonstrators from waving them inside Israel — and the army often confiscates them in the West Bank — whether through arrests or by laying out conditions for receiving a permit to demonstrate. In 2009, I was part of a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice to allow left-wing activists wave Palestinian flags during an anti-war protest. The police eventually let us demonstrate with the flags.
So yes, waving a Palestinian flag in Tel Aviv is legal, legitimate, and logical when Jews and Arabs demonstrate together against the Jewish Nation-State Law, and in support of equality. And if Israeli politicians — from the left to the right — don’t like it, it’s a good thing that we are joining forces to replace them.