We've got a flag!

I've always loved this Eddie Izzard sketch about flags, and it's one that was quoted a lot at university by my friends. I thought of it again last Friday as I was walking home from West London's fantastic Yom Ha'atzmaut Oneg Shabbat (Shabbat celebration for Israel Independence day).
As I left the synagogue, having enjoyed dinner, speeches, and dancing with Shir who always get us up and dancing dancing together, I looked up into the hall where the celebrations were winding up but were still going on. I could hear Israeli music and clapping, and in the window were hanging a string of small Israeli flags. I smiled, and then as I looked back at the street, noticed who was around me, also looking into the window. For those of you who don't know West London Synagogue, we are situated just off the Edgware Road, also known in London as Little Lebanon - essentially the Arabic quarter, bustling with Arab shops, restaurants and shisha bars. It's a fantastic area, but as I saw 3 of our Arab neighbours glancing into the same windows I had been, I was surprised to find this made me a little nervous.
On an incredible trip to Israel and the West Bank last November with 4 Muslims, 4 Christians and 4 Jews, I was reminded of how words mean different things to different people. One of the most powerful of these words is 'Zionism' which means very different things to different people, and one is not always aware of the others definition. What saddened me most was the fact that I was aware of a fear in myself that by being seen to celebrate the establishment of Israel as a modern state and haven for Jews, we in London were opening ourselves up to attack. As many of you will know, I'm often unhappy with how the Israeli government conducts itself, and am personally a strong believer in the need for justice and rights to be accorded to the Palestinian people. Neither side is going anywhere, so must somehow learn to live so that all can enjoy peace and dignity and live without fear, a common denominator on both sides.
One of the aims of our trip (for me at least) was to explore how we improve the conversations and dialogues around these issues in the UK, where so often it is either the elephant in the room, or a herd of elephants that trample over the whole conversation and destroy it. Walking past those windows, I was acutely aware of how much work there is to do, and how saddened I was to note an internal fear of attack that I so rarely feel.

A little further up the road, flying high above an Exotic Car dealership, two more flags greeted me, this time the St. George's cross - England's flag. Again I was aware that these made me a little uncomfortable, and how sad that was! I am an English woman, whose family have on one line been here since 1710. The sadness is, that these flags and emblems have so often been co-opted by the far right, that rather than a proud National symbol, they become a symbol of racism and fear of the other. When I lived in Sweden, I was at first surprised to discover a Swedish flag flying outside my apartment block, and often appearing on buses and street posts. But why should the flag represent keeping people out? Can we feel proud of our national identity whilst also welcoming those who will add richness and diversity to it as many of my great grandparents did? Perhaps the problem goes back to Eddie Izzard's sketch, and a reminder of how flags and nationalism were powers misused in the past, and continuing to be used today by those who would use them as symbols that divide and exclude, rather than welcome and unify. So maybe it's time to claim our flags back, whilst also acknowledging we shouldn't be fearful of the flags of others, which add colour and diversity to a world that would be very dull otherwise!

A Postscript...
Someone wrote on Facebook in response to this:
You made me think Debbie... Do you think something can be a sign of unity without excluding? Why do we need to be brought together by a flag that symbolizes the unity of a single group and not just be satisfied with all being one and the same by default - just people?

I thought this was an excellent point, as dividers can often be perceived of as negative, particularly nationalistic ones. But here was my response:
Unity doesn't have to mean uniformity, but flags ultimately identify one group as not another, which you're right, can be divisive. It reminds me of the flags of the Israelite encampment in the desert - each tribe was distinct, and had thei...r own flag, but they were all one unified camp. The real challenge is to have people feel comfortable with difference - when we can do that we've come a long way! The reality is we will always have differences, so learning to celebrate those rather than use them to attack and denigrate each other seems a good way forward!


  1. Sometimes there can be a fine line between celebrating who we are and diminishing those who are not 'us'.

    I am interested that you consider yourself to be a Zionist while being 'a strong believer in the need for justice and rights to be accorded to the Palestinian people'. I was under the impression these two positions were mutually exclusive. Have I been misinformed?

  2. Hi Karin, absolutely agree.
    These positions are not mutually exclusive, and are held by many. One can believe in the right of the State of Israel to exist alongside a Palestinian state, and that in fact this is the best way to a safe and secure future for both. Of course many would disagree.
    http://www.countdowntoyachad.org.uk/ is a new organisation (site launched today!) which represents some of these views.

  3. Thank you for clarifying that, Debbie. I had been under the impression that Zionism was aggressively anti-Palestinian. I am interested to discover that those Israelis who wish to live peacefully with their Palestinian neighbours can also be Zionists. I thought Zionism was more than just wanting for there to be a state named Israel.

    Whether it is possible for Israelis and Palestinians to trust each other enough to live peacefully side by side as two independent nations with equal rights remains to be seen.

  4. Apologies to those who previously commented - I had really enjoyed reading your thoughts but blogger meltdown today seems to have eaten them!!

  5. Yes, I saw others had that problem, too. It was still a useful exercise, thanks.


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