Thursday, December 23, 2010

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.

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 contemporary nations.

And note the structure:

—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. 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.


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 they 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 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 work. 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.

And 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.