The Israeli Flag
On October 28, 1948, the blue-and-white “Flag of Zion” officially became the national flag of the State of Israel. Prof. Chaim Noy, of the School of Communication, discusses the power of symbols, and particularly, the national flag
The prevalence and strength of symbols depend on the extent to which groups of people recognize, understand and identify with them; national symbols and sport, military and other emblems have great power, which serve to define collective identities and a sense of belonging. On the one hand, symbols of the nation-state – and above all the flag – have deep, powerful and emotional meaning for large swaths of the population. The American sociologist Robert Bellah argues in his book, “Varieties of Civil Religion,” that modern civic nationalism has gained the status of a religion, and its symbols are perceived as sacred. At Israel’s national ceremonies, for example, one can readily see the power and awe of the Israeli national flag. Not surprising, in many countries, including Israel, desecration of the national flag is considered a criminal offense.
As a portable symbol, the flag undergoes a process of museumification. Thus, at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, a large American flag, which was found in the ruins of the Twin Towers and restored, is prominently displayed. There the flag symbolizes the spirit of American national volunteerism and underscores the fact that the terror attack targeted the United States as a whole. In Jerusalem, at the National Memorial Site on Ammunition Hill, the original Israeli flag that Israeli paratroopers raised above the Western Wall during the 1967 Six Day War is on display. The flag is etched with the paratroopers’ handwriting, signed with the words, “Liberators of Jerusalem.” The soldiers’ inscription on the flag cloth serves as a symbol and commemoration of that heroic moment in Israeli history. Another well-known historic event was the hoisting of the “Ink Flag,” an improvised Israeli flag drawn on a white sheet, in Eilat (then Umm Rashrash) by soldiers to mark its conquest in March 1949. The photograph of the flag became iconic, even though the flag itself was never found.
On the other hand, the English-Jewish scholar Michael Bilig claims in his book, “Banal Nationalism,” that national symbols, and, above all, flags, have become common and prevalent. The national flag has penetrated our daily lives and surroundings; citizens wave the flag from balconies, and pennants adorn family cars – nationalism has permeated our neighborhood, our homes and even our personal lives. This is how flags define political spheres and tribal identity “from below,” by ordinary people and not just by those holding senior state positions or appearing in grand ceremonies. Here in Israel, we have recently seen flags raised at demonstrations near the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem residence on Balfour Street and across the country. The Israeli flag is held alongside black or pink flags, creating a new symbol which represents Israeli patriotism and nationalism intermeshed with a critical and provocative dimension.
Tune in to Prof. Noy’s Hebrew podcast, “Israelis, Tourists and National Commemoration in the Visitors’ Book at the Ammunition Hill Museum,” by downloading Bar-Ilan’s free podcast app!
or read his recent book, “Thank You for Dying for Our Country: Commemorative Texts and Performances in Jerusalem”