a kaddish for the israeli flag, may it rest in peace

People say that there are a lot of reasons to open up a bible. Here’s one of them you might not have ever been asked to think about. And a reason why using the bible — especially לך לך — as a basis for validating nation-building is not a terribly good idea. We can lay all this quite literally at the feet of Abraham.

And then there’s the flag. And you might ask, well what does the Israeli flag have to do with Abraham? And any Arab or Muslim on the planet is likely to have a ready answer. And which we’re going to look at. But first, let it be said that—

Abraham does good microcosm.

If all the rest of the Torah disappeared except for the passages on Abraham, we’d all still have plenty left to argue about. I’m not sure the world would be any different than it is now. The essential arguments are right there. Starting with לך לך (lech l’cha).

And YHVH says to Avram — take yourself out from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you …

And the trouble has begun. Right there.

Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe the trouble has already begun a whole lot earlier. But I tend to date trouble right here, starting with Avram. Starting with Avram’s troublemaking, paradigm-shifting deity. Known affectionately as the Tetragrammaton — the four-part piece of grammar.

So YHVH orders Avram out. And stranger things, I suppose, have happened, but this one’s at the top of my strangeness list. Instead of downing his meds, Avram follows the incorporeal orders and ships himself off. He goes, and schlepps everyone with him. Now what’s with that?

Yes. I fault Avram right there. He clearly wasn’t raised the way I was raised. The Tzaddik and Mrs Tzaddik insisted on questioning everything. Everything. Maybe we’ve got to do it, (religiously, I might add) because Avram didn’t. He’s just terrible at being what we now call Jewish. Why doesn’t he argue?

So, to speed things up here. First his god orders him to go and points him in the ‘right’ direction. And gives Avram the great big come-on — it could as easily have been Jim Jones speaking.

Do what I say, and I’ll bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you…

How’s that for power tripping?

It’s not like trouble is coming out of nowhere. It’s right there at the beginning: plenty of warning. If you’re not thinking Jim Jones, how ’bout The Godfather?

Because wait, there’s more. When Avram gets to Canaan, YHVH makes him an offer he can’t refuse.

The same offer, over and over again.

—I will give this land to you and your offspring …

—For all the land that you see, I will give it to you and your offspring forever …

—I’m the god who took you out of Ur (Casdim) in order to give you this land as an inheritance …

—[my personal favorite:] To your descendants I have given this land, from the Egyptian River, as far as the great river the Euphrates, — the land of the Kenites, the Kenizites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Yebusites…

Yup, kiddies. Occupied territory. And map it out: it encompasses about five distinct sovereign  nations today.

And note the structure:

—Go
—I will give
—I give
—I have given

It’s word magic: Abra’cadabra: I create as I speak. Abraham’s YHVH utters the magic word, et voila…

And only then comes the bit with Hagar and the birth of Ishmael. Yitzhak is still not even conceived of being conceived, if you know what I mean.

But wait, there’s more.

—To you and your offspring I will give this land where you are now living as a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan shall be yours eternally, and your descendants.

—All you have to do is keep my covenant, circumcision. [Pretty good deal, if you ask me. I’d do it… I think.]

Turn the page again. Okay. Plot thickens. Now we’ve got Yitzhak to worry about. And the deity makes it clear — or rather the text makes it clear that the deity makes it clear that the ‘covenant’ is with Yitzhak, who isn’t even born yet.

Gevalt.

And we haven’t even gotten to the Akedah yet.

Okay. Close your eyes. And picture a map of the Middle East.

—Picture Egypt, with the Nile flowing from south (Upper Egypt) to the Mediterranean (Lower Egypt).

—Turn your eye eastward toward the great Tigris and Euphrates (running north to south, and dumping into the Chott el ‘Arab — around where Ur used to be— and then into the Gulf).

—Picture the Nile as one blue stripe. And way on the other side, picture the Euphrates as another.

—Now draw a Star of David right smack encompassing all the land between them. Can you see it?

It looks (strangely enough and what a surprise) exactly like the Israeli flag.

Not to Israelis of course. Not to Jews everywhere. No, to them the flag looks like the Jewish prayer shawl.

But it doesn’t look like that to the Arabs, or to Muslims everywhere.

Skip the Akedah for now. We’ll deal with that one another time… For now, just look at that flag.

I think the flag’s a problem. It illustrates visually (to those sensitive to it, which is a good chunk of the planet’s human inhabitants), the assumed Israeli agenda. That ‘the Jews’ intend to and will appropriate all the land between those two great rivers. And can back up the land grab by just pointing to those validating passages in Lech L’cha in the bible.

I’ve never met an Israeli — or even a Jew anywhere — who has any idea of what I’m talking about. Even Abba Eban. I talked to him about it, when he came to speak honoring my father. He had no idea what I was talking about.

But to Arabs everywhere? To Muslims everywhere? To the PLO pamphlets distributed a whole generation ago? The Israeli flag screams ‘biblically sanctioned land grab.’ From Egypt to Iraq. Including (if you follow the geography of the YHVH passages) southern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and even the northernmost tip of Arabia. Now that’s a chunk of change.

So. How’s about a simple act of visual redefinition? An Israeli flag (if there must be one at all—which is a different question altogether) of less provocative design. Not screaming ‘land grab’ with no alternate interpretation to trump the visual landscape on the flag. How ’bout something a little more modest. And it’s got to do away with those two distinctive stripes of blue! As long as those two stripes are there, the biblical allusion is the only one that will come to mind for those who care.

Change the flag, and much becomes possible. A re-thinking of intention. A flag that doesn’t look like a colonizer’s wish list. All blue, with a white Star of David is a little too much of a ‘pushed-into-the-sea’ look, so that won’t do. And all white, with a blue Star of David looks a little too much like the white flag of defeat.  We want no losers here.  None at all.  Losers insist on revenge.  It’s the Middle East outside, remember?  Keep it simple. But make it work.  I have no idea how..

But most of all, make it something the neighbors can live with. Something that when they see it waving across a friendly little border, doesn’t invoke Abraham’s out-of-line deity giving away the neighborhood, or Yitzhak’s descendants appearing to peer covetously across some invisible line.

And when you redraw that map, please think before you hoist it up the flagpole for all to see.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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10 Responses to a kaddish for the israeli flag, may it rest in peace

  1. erin says:

    What do we know about authorship, dates of recording relative to dates of alleged events, and editorial history of the passages sanctioning the land grab? I always want to ask who had what to gain when by telling the story how. That period is not my specialty by a long shot; do you have comments to make in that general direction? 

  2. mira says:

    For starters go to: http://www.sjsu.edu/people/mira.amiras/courses/c4/s0/Jewsx_Zionism_State_x239A98.pdf which is a background course for undergraduates called Jews, Zionism and the State. There are some baseline books listed there. (Excuse the fonts — I was experimenting with what turned out to be annoying fonts that semester). In addition, check out the following: (in no particular order)

    Ladislas Farago — Palestine at the Crossroads (1937)

    Ibrahim Abu-Lughod — The Transformation of Palestine (1971)

    Walid Khalidi — From Haven to Conquest (1987)

    Benny Morris — Righteous Victims (1999) and his latest, 1948 (in which he changes his mind)

    Walter Laquer — A History of Zionism (1972)

    Arthur Goren, ed. — Dissenter in Zion — The Writings of Judah Magnes (1982)

    Robert Nathan — Palestine, Problem and Promise (1946) note the date

    Martin Gilbert — The Atlas of Jewish History (1993)

    Edward Said — The Question of Palestine (1979)

    Theodore Hertz — The Diaries of Theodore Hertzl (1956)

    Mark LeVine — Overthrowing Geography (2005)

    and for the Torah, I’d recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s bilingual edition called ‘The Living Torah’ — which does includes maps, genealogies, diagrams, and a zillion important footnotes that are not to be found in the English only edition.

    That would be for starters.

    Or: just look at a map.

  3. mira says:

    Oh. And ‘land grab’ is not my language, but a conveying of the point of view of the disenfranchised. My own language is very very different — offering a multitude of perspectives. And if you’re wondering where I fall, in the mixed bag of perspectives offered in the readings above, well, in the classroom, I never say. Giving my own perspective is not helpful. But for you, here, let me admit that I am squarely in the camp of Judah L. Magnes, who in my opinion, nailed it — and lived long enough to die on the ‘wrong’ side of the border, in order to make the point. No surprise that that would be my point of view.

  4. erin says:

    I love it when I accidentally ask a much broader question than I intend and get a broader answer than I thought I was looking for.

    I was asking about the authorship, intent, etc. of the Avram passages in Torah–why did those passages get written the way they did, etc.–which you did answer, along with so much more. Thank you!

    • erin says:

      Or, rather, you gave a source for answering the question. I’ll see what I can find.

      • Reb Deb says:

        Mira gave you sources for looking at contemporary Zionism through a variety of lenses.

        The territorial boundaries in the Abraham story don’t correlate to anything historical that anybody’s sure of; only King David’s kingdom was described as being anywhere near that big, and again, one doesn’t know how historical, ideal, or mythical those descriptions are.

        I suggest “The Jewish Study Bible,” which has in its commentary both the best of contemporary academic scholarship on Biblical text and extensive knowledge of how the text has been interpreted in Jewish tradition. There’s even a map (on pages 628 and 1735) showing the extent of David’s kingdom, which is well short of both rivers. There are also a couple hundred pages of scholarly essays at the back.

        As far as when/where/why different parts of Biblical text were written — it’s great stuff, and the field evolves. James L. Kugel’s “How To Read The Bible” includes an entire section on the evolution of the conversation over the historicity of the Abraham stories.

        This may not answer your technical questions above, but for a totally different and powerful way to read Biblical text, read Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s “Reading the Women of the Bible.”

  5. mira says:

    Well, I thought maybe it would do to list some sources in case anyone wanted to indulge, rather than giving a lecture! But also, I was hoping that Reb Deb might enter into this conversation with her insights, before I had another go at it.

    • Reb Deb says:

      Reb Deb really wanted to be part of this discussion from the beginning. But funerals put me out of commission for quite a while, sometimes. I’ve been focussing on home and self, not on intellectual activity. More anon.

  6. Reb Deb says:

    Mira — my internal response from the beginning has been: But wouldn’t it be much worse if Israeli Jews, and Jews elsewhere, *did* see the Israeli flag as a territorial manifesto?!

    I think you’re saying that Palestinian Arabs, and other non-Jewish Arabs elsewhere, do see it as such. Of course I can see that. How horrible.

    But you are imagining a place I can’t get to. This is the flag we have. This is the canon we have. My question is, what do we do with it?

    And my answer is the same one I give to religious Jews and Christians (not familiar enough with Islam to quote the sources) who are struggling with acceptance of homosexuality. It’s not a conflict of humanist values vs. religious values, it’s a conflict between religious values. “Love your neighbor as yourself” vs. whatever you want to put on the other side. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” vs. … “Each human being is created in the image of God, including all male and female human beings” vs. whatever is challenging that.

    Put that way, it’s much clearer: When religious values conflict, then the choice is up to us which one we privilege. So I don’t give any credit to people who cite their Jewish tradition as the justification for their bad behavior. Because their Jewish tradition provides at least equal justification for choosing good behavior.

    Not only that, but one of the things our founding myth gives us is that it places the responsibility for choosing squarely upon our own, limited, human shoulders. The ability to make real choices is, after all, one of the things that “created in the image” might mean. And at the other end of the Torah, we have “Therefore choose life, that you and your children may live.” I read that as “choose life-affirming values”: Life over death, order over chaos, compassion over vengeance, etc etc etc.

    • Reb Deb says:

      So my question is, how do we make a just and sustainable peace *even with* that flag?

      And since Egypt and Jordan have managed to do it, it’s obviously not impossible.

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