The blue and white-washing behind Israeli calls for ‘democracy’

Rania Hammad & Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  March 10, 2023

The obsessive focus on the Israeli flag within the current anti-government protest movement shows its goal is simply to preserve the apartheid status quo.

The Israeli demonstrations for “democracy,” opposing the looming judicial reforms or overhaul which threaten to weaken the judiciary vis-á-vis the legislative and executive branches, have been noticed internationally, especially after their growth in number (last Saturday, an estimated quarter of a million demonstrators took to the streets across the country, with about 160,000 in Tel Aviv alone). And if one set of colors stands out at these demonstrations, it is the blue and white – the colors of the Israeli flag – carried by an enormous number of protesters. 

Israeli flags have pretty much drowned out the few Palestinian flags that are carried by those who want to point to Israel’s apartheid and occupation as part of the problem. This has been intentional on the part of the organizers – after a demonstration where Palestinian flags appeared and were snatched by vigilantes, the organizers decided to mandate Israeli flags en masse. Shortly after, the picture of a sea of blue and white became the hallmark of the protests. 

The message inherent in these flags is quintessentially Zionist – the flag itself is actually the Zionist flag that existed decades before Israel came into being. The Star of David at its center represents Judaism, signifying the idea of a Jewish State. When these protesters wrap themselves in these flags, they are perhaps unknowingly applying the idea that created the flag itself, as intimated by David Wolfsohn, the Zionist founder who conceived of it. He recalls how the flag came into being in 1897 at the first Zionist Congress in Basel:

“At the behest of our leader [Theodor] Herzl, I came to Basel to make preparations for the Zionist Congress. Among many other problems that occupied me then was one which contained something of the essence of the Jewish problem. What flag would we hang in the Congress Hall? Then an idea struck me. We have a flag — and it is blue and white. The tallith (prayer shawl) with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this Talith from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations. So I ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted upon it. That is how the national flag, that flew over Congress Hall, came into being.”

The flag, then, clearly has a religious significance. Its use in the Israeli context, particularly by these protesters who appear to be predominantly secular, also carries a nationalist meaning. 

Usage of religious symbols in flags is not uncommon. Many Christian or Muslim countries feature a cross or a crescent moon. But Israel’s extreme definition of Judaism as a nationality in and of itself (as well as a religion) makes the Jewish symbolism on the Israeli flag exceptionally nationalist.

Israel actually negates Israeli nationality altogether and defines Israel as the Jewish State. The purpose of it is ultimately to describe Israel as the exclusive “nation-state of the Jewish people,” as is the official name of the 2018 quasi-constitutional law, also called the “Nation-state law” for short. 

Now, all this would be fine if these Israeli Jews were living on an otherwise uninhabited island, where they could cultivate as many of these nation-state laws as they liked, and could wrap themselves in their Zionist flags and sing “Hatikvah,” the national anthem that speaks of the longing of the Jewish soul, like they regularly do in these demonstrations from sunrise to sunset.

But the Palestine that these Zionists decided to colonize was not empty, despite their fantasies of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” And in order to solve this discrepancy between an exclusively Zionist Jewish island and a land populated with an overwhelming majority of Palestinians, they ethnically cleansed most of the Palestinians and have prevented their return to this day (with complete support across the Zionist political spectrum).   

Those demonstrating with their blue and white Israeli flags might think they are engaging in a positive act of patriotism that is redeeming a unifying symbol that the fundamentalist right has desecrated. To drive this point home, the slogan “we are one people” has been central to the protests. But as many have pointed out, including +972 Magazine editor Haggai Matar, it is clear we are not “one people.” Still, most Jewish Israelis cannot see just how toxic the obsessive waving of this flag is to Palestinians. By wrapping themselves in the flag, the protest leaders are saying that this is an internal matter between Jews and the Jewish state and that the Palestinian issue is of no concern. 

It’s one thing to insist on the integrity and wholesomeness of that flag, as it were, as a symbol of pureness and righteousness. But that insistence will never address the greater paradigm and the elephant in the room – that is, the Palestinians and the apartheid that oppresses them. 

In fact, these protests send the message that there appears to be a strong need for Zionists to compete to see who is the most authentic. The more leftist Zionists insist that liberalism is a more authentic expression of Zionism and point to the Declaration of Independence, with its promise of “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” – even though none of these people actually want this equality applied to Palestinians. The more rightwing Zionists are more unabashed, like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who called for the erasure of the Palestinian town of Huwwara last week. 

And yet the message remains the same.

It is impossible to ignore the apartheid, persecution, and ongoing oppression of Palestinians. Israelis should put the Palestinians at the heart of all their political debates because that is the truth, and it is not going away. They have to face it. The blue-and-white-washing, greenwashing, pinkwashing, and all the other messaging gimmicks, will never wash off the original sin and the ongoing Nakba.

It’s time to face that truth. The reality is that Israel built itself through ethnic cleansing, and there are seven million Palestinians between the river and the sea and seven million outside that still and will always consider the right of return as their legitimate right, as recognized by international law and reiterated by UNGA Resolution 194, and it is inextinguishable. They will not just go away.

The recent, more blatant turn to fascism is a strategy to find a solution for the Palestinians’ presence and to answer the problem that Israelis have with existing on the same land as Palestinians. This matter includes and impacts everyone, and failure to address it will only mean the continuing dehumanization of Israelis themselves as they dehumanize Palestinians. 

In the end, Israelis want to wash themselves, and be washed by the flag. They seek to symbolize the hope of a unified nation through a symbol that has become synonymous with apartheid and oppression. It is impossible to ignore this matter. Meanwhile, the exclusion of the Palestinian flag from these protests reflects how the centrality of the Palestinian issue is erased in Israeli society. The reason the protest leaders cannot see the problem with mandating the exclusive use of the Israeli flag is denial, just like the Nakba denial central and foundational to Israeli thinking.

The focus on the Israeli flag signifies that the main aim of the protesters is to preserve the status quo that they knew before this government. One that is less explicitly fascistic, one that the world has an easier time living with, and that has a semblance closer to democracy.

An apartheid state cannot be a democracy, and no number of blue and white flags can erase that fact. The oppression of the Palestinians will always be at the center of this problem, and ignoring it merely means prolonging the pain and the dehumanization. How Israel treats and relates to Palestinians is and will define what it is and what it becomes. Therein lie both its predicament and its redemption.

Rania Hammad is a Palestinian-Italian author and activist.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark