New Symbolic Role for the Israeli Flag

About me
Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history from West Chester University in West Chester PA. His academic research focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He taught courses in Middle East history, the history of science and modern European intellectual history.

(23 February 2021)

by Lawrence Davidson

Part I—Flying the Israeli Flag

During the January 6 insurrection, hardly any of the U.S. media took note of the following fact: amongst the signs and banners of rightwing organizations—the “South will rise again” Confederate states enthusiasts, the fascist-like Rambo militias, and the disparate run-amok MAGA maniacs—stood a very large Israeli flag.

If you are looking for comment and contextualization of this appearance, the best place to go is the Israeli progressive web-based magazine, 972.  There you will find a very good piece, dated 22 January 2021, by Ben Lorder. 

Lorder explains that the presence of the Israeli flag in this milieu is not a rarity. “It is hardly the first time,” he tells us. It has also shown up at “Straight Pride parades and pro-Trump car caravans.” Indeed, according to Lorder, “for the ascendant forces of right-wing populism in the United States and around the world … support for Israel takes on a special intensity.” Now, why would that be so? Not exactly for progressive and humanitarian reasons. It would seem that for the rightwing hate-groups presently feeling their time has come, “Israel has become a symbol for a set of values, an entire worldview. … A canvas to project their own fantasies of nationalist chauvinism.”

Interestingly, this rightwing admiration is limited to the Israeli state, which is seen as powerful, aggressive and xenophobic—all necessary qualities for the defense of the Caucasian West against “ethno-religious Others.” This admiration does not extend to diaspora Jews, because American and European rightwing revival is also anti-Semitic. This situation makes for strange bedfellows. Most of these rightist ideologues share the Zionist hope that all those diaspora Jews will pack up and leave—for Israel. 

Part II—Making the Identification—the Israeli State

One might raise the objection that this identification of a demonstrably racist Western rightwing movement with the Israeli state is a serious misinterpretation—resulting in a misappropriation of the Israeli flag. Israel just can’t be the fiercely xenophobic place these fanatics think it is. 

Unfortunately, this objection runs counter to the facts. There is abundant evidence the State of Israel is aggressive and xenophobic and, what is more, is willing to ally with the present Western rightwing movements. The flag, of course, comes along for the ride. For instance, in a Washington Post article by Ishaan Tharoor, entitled “Israel strengthens its ties with the West’s Far Right,” the author notes that “Under [Prime Minister] Netanyahu’s watch, Israel has amassed a conspicuous crop of illiberal allies. Some, like [Italy’s Matteo] Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, represent political movements with histories of neofascism and anti-Semitism. Others, like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, espouse the agenda and rhetoric of would-be strongmen, promising the destruction of their enemies while scoffing at pearl-clutching human rights activists.” 

This has not gone unnoticed among American Zionists such as Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the Jewish American group 

J Street. Ben-Ami said that “In their zeal to maintain the occupation and reject all criticism of its policies towards the Palestinians, the Israeli Right clearly feels kinship with other ultranationalist leaders who are demonizing ethnic minorities, civil society groups and democratic institutions.”

Finally, one can point out that Prime Minister Netanyahu has hired Aaron Klein as his new campaign manager. Klein is a “former reporter for the right-wing Breitbart News site [and] worked with Steve Bannon on Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign. … Klein also collaborated with Bannon to support disgraced former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting multiple women. The Yeshiva University graduate wrote articles in Breitbart in an effort to discredit Moore’s accusers.”  All one can say here is like finds like.

Part III—Making the Identification—the Israeli Jews

Yet, one can still raise a doubt. One can say that just because the Israeli government has gained racist allies who support its policies of ethnic cleansing, that does not mean that the majority of Israeli Jews are supportive of this. But again, the evidence is incriminating. After all, Israeli Jews democratically elect their prime minister and Netanyahu is certainly not an unknown politician. He leads the country’s rightwing Likud Party and has run the government since 2009. Obviously, he and his policies are both familiar and acceptable to at least a hefty plurality of Israeli Jews. Perhaps as a result of this fact, few Israelis are making a fuss about the use of their flag by the extremist right. 

Nonetheless, it is important to understand that the present Israeli ethnocentrism and the racist policies it engenders are not new. They do not have their origin with Benjamin Netanyahu’s time in office, or the current generation of Israeli Jewish citizens. The present culture and politics have a deeper origin. It lies with the nation’s founding ideology of Zionism.

Part IV—Zionism Sets the Direction

Let’s take a look at Israel’s founding ideology and the factors that historically shaped it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

First: Zionism is the ideology that makes the claim that the Jews are a nation and they have the right to their own state. It arose as a predictable consequence of long periods of European (not Middle Eastern, Arab or Muslim) anti-Semitism. It also arose out of a 19th- and 20th-century European political culture wherein the standard organizational arrangement was nation-states, most of which were relatively homogeneous in population.  

Second: As a consequence of this political standard, the Zionist leaders concluded that the answer to the suffering caused by anti-Semitism was the creation of a Jewish state.

As the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann said, the goal was a state “as Jewish as England is English.” By the end of the 19th century, the World Zionist Organization had launched a campaign to convince Europe’s great powers to support the founding of such a state.

Third: The open question was where such a state would be founded. Although, most of the Zionists were not religious, they eventually fixated on Palestine because of its Biblical relationship to the ancient Hebrews. By 1917, in the midst of World War I, Chaim Weizmann managed to recruit British backing for the founding of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine.

Fourth: And “therein lies the rub,” as Hamlet would say. The mass influx of Europeans, in this case Jews, into a well-populated non-European land—according to British Mandate records, there were some 700,000 Arabs living in Palestine—presaged disaster. The fact that these Zionist immigrants sought domination, ultimately a state for one group alone, would inevitably introduce a corrosive racist element into the country. The indigenous population would eventually have to be segregated out and denied resources and rights—a process, which over time, would lead to an apartheid state of affairs. 

The fact that this predictable path discouraged neither the Zionist Jews nor their British patrons tells us that, when Weizmann made his deal with the British, it was done in a time and place operating on the racist assumptions of colonialism. Indeed, it turns out that Israel is the last great disaster of the age of colonialism—an age in which Europeans took their superiority (both physically and religiously) for granted. And, if they lorded over non-Europeans it could only be for the benefit of the latter, as was suggested by Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.” All of this was shown to be both obsolete and obscene with the coming of the Nazis and World War II.

Fifth: The racist prognosis described above has been realized in Israel. Here is a snapshot of the present situation. B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human-rights organization, has been documenting the violations of human rights in Israel’s Judea and Samaria (more properly known as the occupied Palestinian territories) since 1989. Earlier this month, it issued a position paper announcing that it has decided to call out Israeli policy for what it is—organized, state-sponsored racism. The paper is titled “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid.” The paper makes the case that “what looks like apartheid—which the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines as inhumane acts committed under a regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups—ought to be called apartheid.”

Sixth: Present-day Israel came about in a predetermined way flowing from Zionism’s initial assumptions. In the first half of the 20th century, Europe and the United States saw nothing wrong with colonialism and helped the Zionists establish a Jewish national home in Palestine. Then came World War II, and the West’s attitude toward racism changed. Yet, in the shadow of the Holocaust, now stood Israel, whose leaders were convinced more than ever that only an ethnocentric, exclusively Jewish nation-state could guarantee survival. So their original purpose and their original racist practice never has changed.

Part V—Conclusion

The resulting apartheid state has attracted the rising wave of today’s rightist fringe like bears to honey. Whether they are white nationalists, Christian nationalists, or just nationalist thugs in suits, they all sense something laudable in Israel. It is a standard-bearer for their own hopes and dreams. To repeat Ben Lorder’s phrasing, the Zionist state has become “a canvas to project their own fantasies of nationalist chauvinism.” As a consequence, the Israeli flag is no longer just Israel’s. Its symbolism has become broader in an all-too-negative way. That is why it was so avidly displayed at the failed insurrection of January 6. 

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