Bamidbar Numbers 1 &2: Flags and Folly

This past week I filled out a census form for the Government of Canada online under threat that I would be fined $600, at least that is what I was personally told, if I failed to complete it by the assigned deadline. In this week’s parshah, the Israelites, on the second month of the second year after they entered the wilderness, underwent a military census. It was taken by groups, by the ancestral house or clan, of those males who were at least age 20 years of age and who were capable of bearing arms. The exclusion of the Levites from the main census confirmed it was a military census because the Levites had the unique responsibility of taking care of the Mishkan and were not required to go into battle.

Chapter 2, verse 2 of Numbers reads:

ב  אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ.2 ‘The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own standard, according to the ensigns; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.

Each tribe had its own standard or flag with symbols depicting the unique strengths and characteristics of that tribe. Each flag had a different colour and special symbols and, according to the Talmud, every group of three tribes formed a company in modern military terms with its own flag. Each tribe also had a different stone on the breastplate of the warriors from that tribe. And then there was the uniting symbol for them all, not a military flag, but a religious symbol, the tent of meeting, the Mishkan, around which each of the tribes were arranged like the numbers on a clock. The Mishkan provided the united national expression that they all were Israelites.

The ancient Israelites who fled from Egypt quickly learned the importance of communitarianism, of team loyalty, but also of a common national spirit, that the divisiveness of particularism had to be offset by a spirit of unity, a national rather than just a tribal spirit.

The Israelites were united by religion, by a common mission and by a common narrative. Yet, they were divided to create their own local loyalties to develop and perfect the characteristics attached to that tribe. For example, the tribe descended from Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, had a flag with a rising sun like the Japanese flag symbolizing the first born and the beginning, the first hour of the birth of a new nation. The flag also had a blossoming plant, for Reuben was thoughtful and considerate and the flag showed him with an infant in his arms. Reuben was sensitive and collected flowers for his mother. He tried to save Joseph from the wrath of his brothers. On the other hand, he rashly slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. He was a loving and caring man in all senses of the term.

But flags are also symbols of conflict and militant divisiveness. Earlier this week, Israeli flags were set on fire outside two German synagogues in the city of Gelsenkirchen. The flag burners marched through the town shouting “shitty Jews” and chanting “free Palestine.”

Today is Friday May 14th, the day before Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, the catastrophe they suffered when Israel was created on 15 May in 1948. Jews in Israel and in France have learned that anti-Israeli passions are often aroused in the sermons given in the mosques on a Friday, especially when the media carry stories of Muslim worshippers being attacked right in the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem and when their predominant ownership of the plaza on which that mosque and the Dome of the Rock are placed, a plaza believed to be an exclusive Muslim gathering place or, at the very least, a predominantly Muslim one. But the border police see the worshippers as threats to the Jews below saying their prayers at the Western Wall being subjected to stones being thrown down on them when they go there for the prayers that they recite at the beginning of their sabbath.

The Muslim worshippers carried with them not only their holy book, and their book of prayer, but allegedly stones and certainly Palestinian flags, a tricolour of three equal horizontal stripes (black, white, and green from top to bottom), overlaid by a red triangle issuing from the hoist. That was the flag adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on 28 May 1964. In the protests that almost inevitably follow a sermon at this time of year, but especially in the aftermath of the Sheikh Jarrah protests, the 1,700 missiles being shot at Israel and the reprisal air raids by the IDF in Gaza, and, most significantly this time, the inter-ethnic riots between Jews and Israeli Palestinians in the mixed cities of Akko and Ramle, Jaffa and especially Lod, one watched in fearful anticipation and dread of even worse violence, more destruction, and more innocent civilians killed and wounded on each side.

Flags unite. But flags also divide, but they divide in potentially violent ways when parties are not united by an overarching symbol and a common narrative. Instead, what we have is an almost irreconcilable narrative of Palestinian replacement and displacement by invading Jews on one side and a story of a return to their homeland to create a prosperous, dynamic, creative country on the other side, a side which treats its Arab citizens with tolerance and respect but not always with equality.

But how can there be even basic equality when Jews in the same city of Jerusalem can use Israeli law to reclaim the land they lost in the 1948 war, but Palestinians cannot use the same law to reclaim the property they lost in that same war. Recall that in Jerusalem, 2,000 Jews were displaced in that war from East Jerusalem and resettled in Western Jerusalem, while 20,000 to 30,000 Palestinians lost their homes. There were 37,000 Jewish refugees and 720,000 Palestinian refugees. In addition, of the 250,000 Arabs left in Israel proper, 100,000 were displaced. They had lost their homes or their villages had been razed.

This year, and uniquely, the narratives of displacement and replacement of the Palestinians in Gaza, where 70% of the inhabitants are descended from refugees, the Arabs in the West Bank, especially from Area C, the residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and a large percentage of the Palestinian Israelites have a demonstrably common theme – displacement and replacement.

They march and demonstrate with calls and signs announcing, “Palestine from the river to the sea” and, echoing the fascists in Charlottesville, Jews will not replace us. In the Lod riots, three synagogues were torched. And Jews responded by lynching an Arab and killing two others, attacking Palestinian-owned businesses and homes. An interethnic war had been ignited that carried nationalist sloganeering to extremes.

And behind it all was a census and a demographic battle. For living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there are almost the same number of Arabs as Jews. They are virtually at parity – 6.5 million Arabs and just a few more Jews. Instead of the two tribes being counted in a common census around a common religious symbol, religion divides them.

But there is hope. The leader of the radical Orthodox Jewish ultranationalist party in Israel, Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), is Itamar Ben-Gvir, That party won one of the six seats as part of the Religious Zionist List. That party led protests in Sheikh Jarrah against the Palestinian squatters who had lived in their homes built by the Jordanians since 1956. He advocated immediate eviction. However, in the aftermath of the violence in Lod and in other mixed Arab-Jewish towns and cities, he advocated a cessation of violence and strongly deplored the mob of Jews who had lynched an Arab.

On the other side is, Mansour Abbas, leader of The United Arab List Party (Ra’am), an Islamic Palestinian Party that won four seats in the Knesset. He had suspended negotiations for an Arab backed Jewish coalition government in Israel. However, he also promised to resume discussions when the rioting stopped and there was a ceasefire in Gaza. He too strongly deplored the violence as did the leader of the other Palestinian Party.

Further, Abbas is actually a close friend and ally on a number of issues with Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas Party, the largest of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset with 9 seats. They unite on a number of points close to conservative religious hearts.

Saner heads may hopefully prevail. And perhaps one day the Palestinians in Israel and the Jewish Israelites will be able to assemble and march under a common flag with the symbols of both groups. Someday.

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