Image description: a girl between 8 and 10 years old holds a rose and an Israeli flag. She’s wearing a backpack and looking at the camera without smiling. A boy is visible behind her. Photo credit: Brian Hendler.
This picture was featured on last week’s photo roundup on JTA. The girl is a Georgian refugee whose family has chosen to immigrate to Israel to escape the fighting. The image certainly says a lot about the girl’s current state, but I think it says a lot about Israel, too.
A couple of disclaimers:
1. Obviously I’m not a mind-reader, so don’t interpret this as my attempt to pick this particular girl’s brain. My reading of the photo is on a purely symbolic level.
2. As a Diaspora Jew, I know that I don’t have insider knowledge of life in contemporary Israel (although many native-born Israelis seem to feel they have insider knowledge of life in the contemporary Diaspora).
What’s interesting about the photo is that the girl has apparently been given a flower and an Israeli flag upon her arrival at Ben Gurion. Only the top of the flag is visible, but I recognize it as the same type I was given at the Birthright Mega-Event a few years ago. For those of you not familiar with what goes on during a Birthright trip, the Mega-Event is the culmination of a tour around the country for Jews ages 18-26. The evening is crammed with the gaudiest spectacles you can imagine – laser shows, dance troupes, pop stars, visiting heads of state, a post-show rave – and little plastic Israeli flags are made available to the thousands of audience members. The official purpose of the flags, I suppose, is to give Birthrighters a memento of their trip. The real purpose becomes clear, though, whenever Israel is mentioned during the show. The stands appear to quiver as everyone cheers and waves their flag. Anyone not waving one can’t help but feel almost seditious.
The symbolism of a national flag can’t be underestimated. It’s what you hold up to support your government’s actions, to demonstrate solidarity with the other inhabitants of your country (the ones that look and sound like you, at least), to show support for your country when it’s challenged or threatened by another country, or to display your love of the ideals of your country. You wave it at national celebrations or in times of collective crisis. You lower it when in mourning for someone who supported it. You use it to contrast your country with others, to show what you are by highlighting what you’re not.
The flag doesn’t have to be about that, of course, as I’ve discussed before. But those are the most commonly accepted connotations. It’s a symbol of pride in and loyalty to a particular nation – and a way of establishing a very clear-cut identity.
So this new Israeli has just arrived from a war-torn region. She’s lost her home, most of her belongings, and quite possibly close friends and family members. She looks tired and distracted. She’s holding the flag she’s been given, but she’s not smiling.
What are a Jew’s motives for moving to Israel? What are Israel’s motives for encouraging refugees to immigrate?
The easiest answers are the cynical ones. Why not move to Israel when your home has been destroyed? Why not exploit a humanitarian crisis to recruit more citizens, when part of your government’s strategy is to entrench itself in someone else’s territory through illegal settlements and state-sanctioned violence? When your national identity is based, in part, on being a safe haven for a persecuted people – which ties a little too nicely into justifying the persecution of the people who put down roots during the 2,000 years you were gone?
And there’s truth in those answers. But there’s truth in the stickier answers, too. A few Georgians were quoted as saying that they’d already been considering moving to Israel; the war was just the catalyst. It’s a joke to claim that anti-Semitism abruptly vanished in the latter half of the 20th century. Recently I was helping a student brainstorm essay ideas, and she mentioned her youth group’s trip to Poland – where, upon spotting the boys’ yarmulkes, people felt free to shout “Heil Hitler” at them. The Lithuanian government regularly engages in various anti-Semitic activities, and the Jewish school in Paris where I picked up my charges as an au pair had to be protected by a fifteen-foot-high wall and police officers. Jews are routinely harassed, attacked, and killed – not for opposing Palestinian rights (in fact, many are attacked while participating at progressive rallies), but for having the gall to be Jewish. To say that Jews have no reason to want a country of our own – not to criticize the location of that country or the ethnic cleansing that has been occurring since its inception, but to claim that we were fine as we were – is a pretty profound act of hatred.
But maybe anti-Semitism didn’t play a role in those refugees’ deliberations. Georgia isn’t known for having a particularly high level of anti-Jewish sentiment. Even without hostility, though, there’s power in wanting to be around other people like you.
And despite (because of) the corruption, hawkishness, and racism riddling their government, Israelis do sincerely believe that it’s better to be a Jew in Israel than a Jew in the Diaspora. According to that logic, one’s arrival in Israel is a cause for celebration, even if the circumstances are tragic.
Which brings us back to the photo. I’m struck most by the contrast between the object and the face – the joyful, congratulatory gesture of a flag coupled with the fear and uncertainty of a refugee; the simplicity of nationalism at odds with the complexity of survival. Is the flag a distraction? An insult? Maybe she was smiling a moment before. As always, the issue of Palestine looms around the edges. Why does this child deserve a haven and a home more than a Palestinian does? Why can’t they both have it? To say that it has to be one or the other is unacceptable.
I don’t know how to accomplish this – not in this all-or-nothing climate. It saddens me that to acknowledge the humanity of both Jews and Arabs is, on either end of the political spectrum, an act of radicalism.
To the girl – if you or your family is reading this, I hope I didn’t use your image unfairly. I wish you the best of luck in your new home.
(Cross-posted at Alas, a Blog)