Should Israel ban Palestinian flags at state-funded institutions?

Israeli and pro-Palestinian students stage protests at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on May 23, 2022. (Photo via Yoni Michanie on Twitter)

A national flag could be the most powerful symbol.

I grew up in New Jersey in a town called Ridgewood, a suburb of Manhattan. One thing I remember the most from attending public school there was reciting the pledge of allegiance. First thing each morning, a different student from the school would begin the pledge over the loudspeaker.

Something stirred within me each morning as I looked at my country’s flag and recited those words. And in the past few weeks, flags and the symbolism of flags have been on my mind as Israelis have been debating the issue of Palestinian flags.

Two weeks ago, students at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba held a pro-Palestinian rally while waving Palestinian flags. In response, a Knesset member from the Likud party introduced a bill that would outlaw the flying of flags of an enemy state or the Palestinian Authority at state-funded institutions, including universities.

On the one hand, a flag is only a symbol. What’s the big deal with waving a flag which is a piece of cloth? But I also understand how a national flag could elicit such strong reactions. 

Each day in school, I remember feeling especially proud every time I got to the final words of the pledge of allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all.” Knowing that my country and flag represented such noble values made me beam with pride.

As I grew older and learned more about American history and politics, and with different current events, my interpretation of the flag expanded and evolved. As I learned about different American presidents, famous abolitionists, civil rights activists and women suffragists, and visited different parts of the country, I started to see all of this too in the flag.

And, I know that when others look at the red, white and blue of the American flag, they might see something completely different from what I see.

So, when the Palestinian flag debate ensued this past week, I wanted to understand the symbolism of the Palestinian flag. What does it mean to Palestinians and Arabs and what does it mean to Jews? Should Israel ban the waving of Palestinian flags in universities? Why does this flag engender such strong reactions?

We’re curious…

The images could not be more stark. About two weeks ago, two groups of students attended a rally at Ben-Gurion University in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. On one side, students waved Palestinian flags and on the other, students waved Israeli flags. The two sides faced each other as they waved the flags.

The pro-Palestinian rally took place after students were not allowed to hold one on Nakba Day, the day commemorating the founding of the State of Israel, which Palestinians refer to as the “Catastrophe” in Arabic. The students waving Palestinian flags were mostly Arab citizens of Israel, but there were also some Jewish students there, according to reports.

The students with Israeli flags set up a counter-demonstration, and the two sides were separated by barriers, police and campus security personnel.

The rally sparked an outcry among many Israeli politicians, with the mayor of Beersheba, Ruvik Danilovich, calling the pro-Palestinian rally a “disgrace,” and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman arguing that the university’s funding should be reduced because of the incident.

In response to the pro-Palestinian rally, Eli Cohen, an MK in the Likud party in the opposition, introduced a bill that would outlaw “the flying of the flags of an enemy state or the Palestinian Authority” in any state-funded institution, including universities and hospitals. 

The bill passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset last week, but several parties in the governing coalition were absent, and the bill would need to pass three additional readings to become a law (you can read about Israel’s legislative process here).

“In the State of Israel there is room for one flag: the Israeli flag, this flag,” Cohen, who sponsored the bill, said at the Knesset, as he pointed to an Israeli flag hung behind him. “This is the only flag there will be here.”

According to Nira Lamay Rachlevsky, a legal advisor in the Knesset, flying a Palestinian flag in and of itself is legal under current Israeli law.

However, “when there is real concern that raising the flag” indicates “identification or sympathy with a terrorist organization, or there is a high likelihood that raising the flag will lead to a severe disruption of the public peace,” police must act, she said at a Knesset meeting about the issue.

The controversy over Palestinian flags continued to make headlines. In protest of the bill, the left-wing organization Mehazkim, which promotes progressive messages in the public sphere, hung up Palestinian flags alongside Israeli flags in three Israeli cities, including Ramat Gan.

The two flags were accompanied by a banner reading “We were meant to live together” in Hebrew and Arabic. However, the Palestinian flag in Ramat Gan was promptly removed at the order of the city’s mayor who said that it would be replaced by a flag with symbols of the Israel Defense Forces, Shin Bet, Israel Police and Border Police.

A man removes the Palestinian flag from a building after it was displayed by a left wing group on June 1, 2022 in Ramat Gan, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

All of this comes on the heels of the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, when police were seen taking Palestinian flags from mourners, and the Jerusalem Day flag march in which Israelis pass through the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem waving Israeli flags. While the participants say this is a celebration of Israel’s victory in 1967, Palestinians view it as an act of provocation.

As Israelis continue to debate the appropriateness of Palestinian flags in the Jewish state, and whether they should be banned at state-funded institutions, we wanted to take a deeper look at the issue.

Diversity of perspectives: What is the meaning of a Palestinian flag?

In many cases, Israelis’ perspectives on the issue depended on how they interpreted the meaning of the Palestinian flag. Does it represent the aspiration of the Palestinian people to have a state (alongside a Jewish state), or does it suggest something much more sinister?

Ruvik Danilovich, the mayor of Beersheba, who strongly disapproved of the pro-Palestinian rally at Ben-Gurion University, wrote in a letter to the university president:

“The Palestinian flag is being proudly raised and songs sung praising Israel’s enemies whose only desire is to destroy it. My heart goes out to the dear bereaved families, who lost those dearest to them and are watching this disgrace. Another red line was crossed today.”

Israeli educator Uri Pilichowski had a similar reaction, saying on Twitter:

“When the Palestinian Authority stops paying Palestinians to kill Israeli Jews we can begin talking about displaying their flag in Israel. Until then the Palestinian flag is just a reminder to Israelis that they are forced to live among people trying to kill them.”

However, the Haaretz editorial board saw a different message in the Palestinian flag, writing, “The Palestinian flag is the flag of the Palestinian people, and it is to be hoped that one day it will be the flag of a Palestinian state established alongside Israel.”

“In waving the flag, the Palestinian citizens of Israel express identification with the Palestinian national movement, this in addition to their identification as citizens of Israel. There is no contradiction between the two,” the editorial board added.

(In the past, Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List party, has expressed this idea, saying, “We are Arabs, and that needs to be internalized. We have a culture, a language and a history. I am a member of the Palestinian Arab people, and a citizen of Israel at the same time…Accept me as I am.”)

Sara Hirschhorn, a visiting assistant professor in Israel studies at Northwestern University, agreed, writing on Twitter, “Waving a Palestinian flag alone does not presuppose the destruction of the state of Israel. (For some, that is a two-state solution for others it is not — you have to listen, not just look.)”

In a Haaretz op-ed, Arab-Israeli professor Raef Zreik wrote that Israeli Jews should understand that “this isn’t the flag of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], but rather the flag of an entire nation — the flag of the Palestinian people in its entirety.” 

(The PLO has carried out many terrorist attacks against Israelis since its creation in 1964. The Palestinian flag and PLO flags are extremely similar in appearance.)

“Those who have a present and a future are the Jews in Israel, while those who have a past but no present, no future and no hope are the Palestinians. Waving the Palestinian flag is an act of protest against this situation,” Zreik wrote.

Meanwhile, Michael Koplow, Chief Policy Officer at Israel Policy Forum, argued that “national flags are never inherent threats, but it is all about how they are deployed.” Flags can be used in both “defensible” and “indefensible” ways, and the context matters, Koplow argued.

“There is a way to have the Jerusalem Day flag march be about pride in Israel and Israeli sovereignty in its capital, and there is a way to have it be about rubbing Palestinian noses in their defeat,” he wrote.

“There is a way to fly Palestinian flags as an expression of hopes for independence and sovereignty, and there is a way to do it as a threatening message to Israelis about their safety and security,” he concluded.

Koplow went so far to suggest that the treatment of Palestinian flags as a threat “betrays a deep and unwarranted sense of insecurity about Israel’s durability and legitimacy,” adding that “Protestors waving Palestinian flags…does not threaten Israel’s sovereignty or security in any tangible way.”

Reactions from Israeli society

Before the Palestinian flag was hung (alongside the Israeli flag) in Ramat Gan, the mayor of the town, Shama-Hacohen, posted a survey on Facebook asking the city’s residents to vote for or against this display.

The majority of respondents voted against hanging the Palestinian flag, but the flag was put up nevertheless, YNet News reported.

“Throughout the day, passersby near the banner were heard exclaiming ‘shame,’ ‘I’m embarrassed to be a resident of this city,’ and ‘It’s a sad day for Ramat Gan,’” YNet News reported.

One resident of the town told the Israeli newspaper, “I see this and tears fill my eyes. Who signed off on this filth? Where is the mayor? In the heart of our country, a country whose finest sons sacrificed their lives, the flag of the enemy is proudly waved.”

However, the left-wing organization Mehazkim, which hung the sign, viewed it as an expression of Arab-Jewish coexistence. 

After the Palestinian flag was taken down, the group posted on Twitter, “The sign may have been removed, but our message is alive and kicking. We are meant to live together. There are two peoples here, Jews and Arabs, who will continue to fight together for a better joint future.”

Israeli writer Yonie Michanie pushed back on this, tweeting: “After a wave of terror attacks and a Palestinian government that funds them, you expect Israelis to be optimistic and enthusiastic about ‘coexistence’?”

Each side of the issue further claimed that the position of the other side would only escalate tensions between Arabs and Jews. Shama-Hacohen, the Ramat Gan mayor who ordered that the sign be removed, argued that, despite the “positive message that calls for coexistence,” displaying the Palestinian flag “paves the way for extremist elements to simmer tensions.”

But Ori Kol, the director of Mehazkim, took the opposite view, saying that the proposed legislation to ban Palestinian flags “is a provocation whose intention is to escalate the relationship between Arabs and Jews, to create more violence, more tension.”

Meanwhile, some Israeli students at Ben-Gurion University like Galia Or Malka said that the pro-Palestinian rally is part of a bigger context of rising tensions between Jewish and Arab students on campus.

“My friend, a student, gave birth a month and a half ago and said that she couldn’t come to class because she didn’t know who would take care of the baby if something happened to her,” Or Malka said at a meeting with Knesset members. “It’s a real fear. It feels like there’s a war here, and the clock is ticking until something happens here.”

Ben-Gurion University president Professor Daniel Chamovitz told Knesset members he was “troubled” by the the waving of Palestinian flags at the rally at his campus, but that “once [the flags] were raised, we understood that this was lawful and that no action could be taken to remove them.”

“If you think that the law recognizing the Palestinian flag should be changed, please do so,” he told the Knesset members. “It’s not in our hands.”