Dear Jewish community, let’s stop being scared of the Palestinian flag

Parts of the Jewish community are up in arms over a harmless goodwill gesture to visiting Palestinian kids at a Jewish summer camp. My dear fellow Jews, is this really us? Are we really this scared?

By Rob Abrams

Palestinian youths hold up a large Palestinian flag. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian youths hold up a large Palestinian flag. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Camp Solomon Schecter, a Jewish summer camp affiliated with the Conservative Movement in Washington State decided to raise the Palestinian flag last week. The camp was playing host to participants of the Kids4Peace initiative, a Jerusalem-based project that brings together Jewish and Palestinian children in the hopes of fostering friendship and coexistence. Since a number of Palestinian children were to be spending a few nights with them, the camp directors believed that raising the flag might be a nice gesture and “a sign of friendship and acceptance.”

The reaction, however, was beyond imagination. Pamela Geller, best known in recent years for her Islamophobic New York City bus advertising campaign, compared the camp’s actions to a “Nazi flag flying over a German Jewish day school in 1938.” Other extremist groups piled on as well, encouraging public campaigns against the camp, which ultimately relented and apologized.

Let’s put things in perspective. Raising the Palestinian flag was a small gesture on the part of a pretty mild face-to-face meeting project. The flag is a symbol which represents the hopes and dreams of millions of people for freedom. You would think that more of us, the Jewish people, would be able to relate to that feeling.

I may get some fellow leftists scoffing at me for this, but how many of us as children, coming from the diaspora, stood in awe of the sight of a Magen David flying proudly on a flag for the first time? How many of us then spent god-knows-how-many retrospectively embarrassing years gawking at anything with that symbol on it? This is a common denominator for most people who grew up in diaspora Jewish communities and youth movements, regardless of what path they took later — whether they’re now a leftist or living in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

Remember that feeling. Then try, if you might, to put yourself in the shoes of the Palestinian child who was held up at countless checkpoints and by endless and humiliating military bureaucracy just to make it to a nice leafy American summer camp. Upon arrival, they found that one of the only symbols by which they proudly identify themselves to the world had become the cause of contention with a group of people who, if they’re lucky, just might concede that they and their people actually exist.

My dear fellow Jews, is this really us? Are we really this scared? Did we really battle, against the odds, as a people, to survive the last millennia just to be blown over by the wind that keeps a simple quad-color flag aloft? Sure, this land we’re talking about is holy. But shouldn’t our perceptions of holiness extend to the people right in front of us and not just the piece of earth on which they stand? After all, if it weren’t for everything they would probably be our closest, most relatable nation in an otherwise cold and distant world that cast us out not so long ago.

Let us not forget that some in Europe once euphemistically called us “the Palestinians among us.” Well, the Palestinians among us are suffering. What can we do for them? To paraphrase a friend who I won’t name here, they don’t need fluffy face-to-face meetings over hummus at summer camp, nor your hysterics every time they express their identity. What we can do for the Palestinians is to see them as the human beings they are, and to stop being afraid. Violence is derived from fear.

Despite everything that some in our community would try and convince us of, acknowledging the Palestinians’ trauma doesn’t compromise our own. Learning about their beliefs and customs doesn’t make you forget the Torah. Speaking their language doesn’t render Hebrew undesirable. And the simple act of flying their flag has never killed anyone.

Rob Abrams is a Jewish anti-occupation activist from London, UK. He grew up in the Masorti Movement and recently completed the ‘Achvat Amim/Solidarity of Nations’ program in Jerusalem, volunteering with Ir Amim, Rabbis for Human Rights, and others. He is also active in the diaspora anti-occupation collective, ‘All That’s Left.’