Your Flag is (not) my Flag

9 Nov

Galilee is home to Arabs and Jews – a short sentence that’s long on unfinished business.  After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Arabs fled, or were driven out.  Yet many stayed in their homes, in their towns and villages.  They became part of newly established Israel.  They became citizens, like it or not.  Many will admit they do not like living under Israeli rule, but recent surveys have shown time and again that they’re in no great rush to move to the West bank, to Jordan, or any other neighboring Arab country.

Israeli Flag in Upper Nazareth

It’s not perfect, but they accept it as a fact of (better) life.  The Arabs here live in a democracy; they gripe about the usual issues: discrimination, unequal opportunities to education, jobs.  Yet the Israeli Arabs of the past are gone; they’re upwardly mobile, they run businesses, and they want to move where Jews live.

A case in point: Nazareth.  To be specific, Lower Nazareth is exclusively Arab, home to Christians and Moslem.  They lived there for centuries.  In the 1950s, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had a vision to “Judify” Galilee, to build Jewish towns and villages as a counterweight to the Arabs.  That’s how Upper Nazareth came into being.  My wife Pnina grew up in Upper Nazareth, then a backwater town on the “Frontier.”  Its main export was dust, isolation, tired-looking grocery stores.  For years Jews and Arabs in Upper and Lower Nazareth co-existed.  Pnina’s mother shopped for live chickens, produce and coffee at the Arab souk (market).  In time, the Jewish town grew.  Built from the ground up, hundreds of apartment units covered the hilltops.  Industrial parks shot up to provide work for Jews.  Schools, government buildings soon followed.

Fast forward to the 90s.  Jewish Russian immigrants settled in Upper Nazareth in great numbers.  The city expanded.  Lower Nazareth also grew (pop. 75,000) but was limited by available land.  Flush with cash and eager to join the middle class, the Arabs started moving to Upper Nazareth, buying up homes.  Jews panicked, moved out.

Today 17% of Upper Nazareth’s 40,000 population is Arab, and growing.

The mayor, Shim’on Gapso, wants to reverse the tide.  He wants to take back the city street by street.  He started renaming them after Israel’s founding fathers.  Recently he erected 4 giant Israeli flags in the entrances leading from the Arab villages and into the city.  He plans to erect 3 more in other strategic locations.

The Arabs don’t like it.  They contend that  his patriotism is misguided, offensive.  An Arab city councilman says it borders on provocation.  He’s okay with flags; he’s not okay with their size.  Other Arabs join in.  They say the mayor suffers from an identity complex and that he tries to shove Israel down their throats.  A woman Arab Member of Israel’s parliament, Hanin Zo’abi, says, “The flags’ size are unnatural and their location opposite Lower Nazareth send a message to the Arabs that the Israeli flag does not represent them.”

Nazareth City Emblem

The mayor is not backing down.  “They can go screw themselves, if they don’t like the flag.  America waves its flags proudly.  Why can’t we?”

The Israeli flag is greater that the sum of its parts: fabric and color.  The flag embodies identity, history, heritage, patriotism, inexplicable feelings.  It speaks of one people – the Jews.

To most Jews the giant flag is a source of pride and beauty.  To Arabs it’s an eyesore, an attack.

The controversy led to a fire storm.  The support for the mayor is overwhelming.  It’s not even close, more like 95% are in favor of hoisting the flag even higher, bigger.  Here are some of the comments on-line:

“Ban all Arab businesses in Lower Nazareth, then they’ll see.”

“Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city.  You don’t like it  – move!”

“You Arabs like your welfare checks, avoiding the draft, and your standard of living, but the flag bothers you?!”

“Put up cameras by the flag poles.  Punish anyone who vandalizes them.”

The support is genuine, widespread, emotional.  Yet, it rings hollow.  Many of the comments undoubtedly come from Jews living in Tel Aviv, far, far away from Galilee.  They’re not unlike Americans who send $10 to the Red Cross after a disaster strikes a distant state.  They’ve done their share from the comfort of their living room armchair.  Their conscious is clear.  They wrap themselves with the flag.

Yet 65 years after Israel’s independence, Galilee is 50% Arab, 50% Jewish.  How Galilee will look like in 50 years is anyone’s guess.

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6 Responses to “Your Flag is (not) my Flag”

  1. Sandy Galfas November 9, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Hi Maurice, I agree with you. It’s a complex matter that needs to be approached with care. Snap judgements lead to snap/unwise actions. I wish you and your family well, as I wish for peace between Arabs and Jews. 🙂 Sandy

    • Maurice Labi November 9, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

      Nothing’s simple here. It’s all more complex or less complex. Thanks, Sandy!

  2. M. McIntyre November 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

    I guess humanity is still in Neanderthal mode after all. Loved the comment about armchair donators – rang very true in my opinion. Always enjoy hearing about your adventures.
    cheers Meg

    • Maurice Labi November 9, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

      Pride is primitive, I agree, Meg. Thanks for following my stories

  3. Mark November 9, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    There is no easy path here. If both groups can benefit economically they should be able to see the advantages and work together. It’s always hard to walk in another person’s shoes. The alternative is to just go barefoot.

    • rachel bar November 10, 2012 at 3:08 am #

      I really like this post. Interesting and challenging, and yet you’re not indicating your bias. This is really good reporting. Bottom line for me is that the Jewish/Israeli flag IS the flag of the country. The Arabs live in Israel and by and large they live freely. I know that they feel like second class citizens, but they don’t like Israel, and therefore Israelis don’t like them. This always make me sad and hopeless.

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