'We’ve taken back what belongs to us'

On Israel’s 75th birthday, the flag takes on new meaning as a symbol of protest

The national flag was for years shunned by the political left as a far-right symbol, but the recent wave of anti-government protests has seen it reclaimed as a mark of opposition

Israeli demonstrators are seen through Israel's national flag during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Cesarea, Israel, Friday, March 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israeli demonstrators are seen through Israel's national flag during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Cesarea, Israel, Friday, March 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Avigail Arnheim has been protesting Benjamin Netanyahu for years, starting with the demonstrations in Jerusalem that began in 2020, calling on him to resign as Israel’s prime minister.

When Netanyahu returned to office in December, Arnheim again took to the streets — this time to protest Netanyahu’s attempt to sap the Israeli Supreme Court of its power. And now, she comes armed with what she sees as a potent symbol: an Israeli flag emblazoned with the words of the country’s Declaration of Independence.

“I feel that the people of Israel woke up, and finally understand that life needs to come with values, with morals and with caring,” she said at a mass protest Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, as Israel began celebrating its 75th Independence Day. Arnheim believes those ideas are reflected in the declaration, which was signed on the day of Israel’s founding, traces the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, and pledges democracy and human rights.

She added, “I think that the meaning of the flag has received a place in a society that wasn’t aware of it for a long time.”

Seeing the streets of Israel festooned with flags is one of the hallmarks of the country’s Independence Day, called Yom Haatzmaut in Hebrew. It’s common for flags to line streets and hang from balconies. A popular children’s song sung on the holiday begins, “The whole land is flags.”

But this year, Israel’s quintessential national symbol has taken on a different meaning for some, as the hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters have, for months, made the flag the icon of their cause. The flag has become so associated with the protests that Zichron Yaakov, a city north of Tel Aviv, briefly banned the flag and images of the Declaration of Independence from its Independence Day parade.

Demonstrators hold flags and raise a menorah during a rally in Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul bill, as the country begins celebrations for its 75th anniversary, on April 25, 3023. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Voices on the right have chafed against the idea that the flag now indicates opposition to the government. But there was little, if any, skepticism about that idea on the streets of Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, where protesters enthusiastically adapted a range of Independence Day traditions to express their opinions.

Some protesters viewed their embrace of the flag as a corrective that now allows the flag to represent what they see as Israel’s founding aspirations, following years during which it was perceived as a symbol of Israel’s right wing. Before this year’s protests, another prominent political association for the flag was with religious nationalists who hold an annual “flag march” in Jerusalem’s Old City that has stoked Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

“It’s a symbol that had been hijacked for way too long by the right,” said Roy Rob, a graphic designer at the Tel Aviv rally who splits his time between Israel and Brooklyn. “It’s the same in the States: The American flag has really been hijacked and pigeonholed.”

Israelis stand still to observe two minutes of silence as air raid sirens sound to mark Israel’s annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, in Tel Saki memorial site for 1973 war in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, on the border with Syria, April 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Regarding the Israeli flag, he added, “Now it’s being democratized again. It makes sense that the people who really care about the origin of Israel, what Israel is all about, use the original symbols of it.”

Some right-wingers aren’t ready to yield Israel’s national symbols. Gideon Dokov, an editor at the right-leaning newspaper Makor Rishon, called the idea that the flag represents opposition to the judicial overhaul “absurd.”

“By mistake or intentionally, it seems that in recent months, there are those who are trying to take ownership of the national symbols — the flag and the Declaration of Independence — on behalf of the protests, just as they’re trying to take ownership of [the concept of] democracy,” Dokov wrote earlier this month. “Both are incorrect.”

In any case, flags were ubiquitous at Tuesday night’s protest. When asked where they got theirs, several protesters made a perplexed face that seemed to ask, “Where have you been all this time?”

The flags, they said, aren’t hard to get. Many were distributed for free at earlier protests, along with black T-shirts that read, “De-mo-cra-cy” in Hebrew block letters, copying the central chant of the demonstrations. Other shirts, like Rob’s, which read, “There’s no democracy with occupation,” were also distributed by activist groups at earlier protests. Many flags included the phrase “Free in our land,” which comes from Israel’s national anthem.

Demonstrators walk with Israel’s national flags next to a banner showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against plans by his government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Others already had flags at home, and some bought them recently. At the protest, a man who was selling the flags and other assorted tchotchkes out of a stuffed shopping cart said the flag itself, without a pole, costs around $5.50 (NIS 20). He said he bought his merchandise from stores and was reselling it, but would not provide further details.

The flags with the Declaration of Independence text, Arnheim said, went for about $13.75 (NIS 50) and were sold by their creator via group chats used to organize the protests. Nati Hochberg, who traveled from a town north of Tel Aviv to demonstrate, said he bought his flag (with pole) for some $11 (NIS 40) at a hardware store, after someone stole a previous flag of his from his motorcycle.

Thousands of Israelis protest against the planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, April 22, 2023. ‘The rotten one,’ reads the banner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s picture. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“We’ve taken back what belongs to us,” Hochberg said of the flag. His friend Tal Vardi, who traveled with him and has had his flag for years, added, “This population for many years ceded these symbols and now it’s taking them back. … I don’t know if it happened coincidentally, but it’s a feeling that it also belongs to us.”

That the flag has turned into a protest symbol, said one woman from northern Israel who declined to give her name, elicits a mixture of “pride and sadness” regarding the political conflict raging in the country.

“It’s clearly preferable for this not to be,” she said while holding a flag identical to Arnheim’s. “But if it is like this, at least the flag should have meaning.”

The protesters didn’t shy away from adapting other Independence Day pastimes, either. A white, foamy spray traditionally blasted by children on the holiday was being rebranded at the protest as “democracy snow” (one big can for about $2.75, or NIS 10).

Demonstrators protesting the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the official state ceremony celebrating Israel’s 75th Independence Day, at Mt Herzl, Jerusalem, April 25, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

At a less crowded area of the protest, someone used the spray to spell out “democracy” in large letters on the ground. On a nearby bicycle path, the word “Leave,” used as a chant against Netanyahu, was also written in the spray. A cyclist stopped short before running it over.

Soft plastic hammers, another holiday mainstay, were also visible throughout the crowd. And a DJ blasted classic Israeli dance music in the middle of the demonstration, including the American Jewish summer camp favorite “Zodiac,” sung by Yaron Hadad.

In general, signs of the protests freckle Tel Aviv, which has been the nerve center of the demonstrations and the bastion of Israel’s left-wing minority. Municipal bus stops bear signs playing on the words of the national anthem and implying that the protests will keep Israel “Free from racism,” “Free from repression of women” and more. Graffiti supporting the protests — such as “Bibi is a traitor” — also isn’t hard to find, though there is also a smattering of pro-overhaul graffiti such as one message calling Israel’s Supreme Court a dictatorship.

Some paraphernalia at the demonstration trumpeted specific causes, like an LGBTQ pride flag, a flag that spelled out “democracy” in the colors of the Israeli and Palestinian flags, or a T-shirt, given out by a self-styled “moderate majority” activist group, that read “I [heart] Bagatz,” the Hebrew acronym for the Supreme Court.

Some participants got more creative. At a table in a sparse area, a few people offered free alcohol to passersby while a young man using a megaphone sang “Democracy and arak” to the tune of the famous riff from the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”

Demonstrators wave flags during a rally to protest the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plans, in Tel Aviv, on April 22, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The idea, his colleague Ron said, was to give people free drinks to celebrate the country and the protests — which they hope will preserve the possibility for young people to get an education and find dignified work.

“In general, this is our last shot to save democracy, so everyone who wants to save democracy gets a shot as a gift from us,” said Ron, 23, who declined to give his last name. ”We love everyone, and we love democracy.”

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