By Tom Einhorn, University of British Columbia | –
Thousands of people recently took to the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem for the annual far-right Flag March.
Every year, on Jerusalem Day, marchers descend on Jerusalem with Israeli flags in hand and terrorize the city’s non-Jewish population. As they make their way to the Western Wall at the heart of the Old City, they chant racist slogans, vandalize storefronts and homes and beat up anyone in their path.
As with previous flag marches, counter-protests also took place. But this year, Israeli pro-democracy organisation Tikva called on its supporters to participate in a counter-march in an unusual way. The group tweeted: “After we took back the flag and the Declaration of Independence, it’s time we take back Jerusalem Day as well!” The statement was accompanied by an Israeli flag emoji.
The tweet referred to the rapid transformation the Israeli flag has undergone recently. The flag has long been associated with the political right. As evidenced by the Flag March, the right often uses national symbols centred around the flag.
But in just a few short weeks of protest, Israeli pro-democracy activists managed to make the flag switch sides. What was previously staunchly seen as the property of the right is now a contested political battleground.
Claiming the flag
Since late 2022, Israel has been swept by an intense wave of protests against the government’s proposed judicial reforms. Critics say the reforms are anti-democratic and will undermine the county’s judiciary and weaken the separation of powers.
The government’s efforts to enact the reforms have been met by massive demonstrations across the country.
The most striking visual element of the protests is the overwhelming presence of Israel’s national flag, practically drowning out all other symbols.
Given that anti-government protesters are generally associated with Israel’s centre-left, this is quite unusual. Israeli left-of-centre politics has tended to downplay national symbols, and particularly the flag, in recent decades for various reasons, leaving the right to lay claim to them mostly uncontested.
Yet the national flag is now taking centre stage at anti-government protests. This shift has dramatically changed attitudes towards the flag across the Israeli political spectrum. Protesters report they no longer feel alienated by the flag and fly it proudly, while right-wing figures are calling on their supporters to not give up on the flag.
The association between the flag and anti-reform dissent had grown so strong that police refused to grant a licence to protesters on Independence Day unless they promised not to fly the flag.
Flags as protest symbols
Throughout Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s many years in power, opposition groups have used different symbols to mobilize popular dissent, with varying degrees of success. The 2020-2021 protests that briefly ousted Netanyahu used the Black Flag as its primary symbol, imagery taken from a well-known Israeli proverb.
Using the national flag this time around didn’t happen by chance. Movement leaders organized to make Israeli flags available to demonstrators at major protest sites.
Shikma Schwartzman-Bressler, one of the protest movement’s leaders, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
“Our activity is having an effect. We have already reclaimed the national flag, the national anthem, the Declaration of Independence – symbols that until not long ago were [seen as] assets of the nondemocratic camp. Today it is clear to the public that the flag is us and democracy is us.”
Symbols are able to convey complex cultural meanings quickly, and activists use them to capture fleeting public and media attention and as powerful aids for mobilization.
It’s no surprise that when we think of social movements, often the first thing that comes to mind are the symbols most strongly associated with them.
Think of the rainbow flag, for instance, originally designed as a protest symbol in the 1970s and now often the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the LGBTQ2S+ community. These symbols are imbued with meaning by social movements during times of protest and continue to resonate long after the protest has subsided.
By reclaiming the Israeli flag, protesters are denying their opponents one of their most powerful symbols. But more importantly, flying the flag allows activists to frame their protest as a popular uprising and deny the right the opportunity to label any type of dissent as anti-patriotic and treasonous. Pictures of the protests frequently show a sea of Israeli flags stretching out as far as the eye can see in every direction. How can this kind of protest be unpatriotic?
Centering the Israeli flag has benefited the protest in some ways, but it has also alienated Israel’s Palestinian population. As the Israeli flag’s prominence grew, Arab and Jewish anti-occupation activists found that tolerance towards the Palestinian flag diminished, prompting some to ask whether Palestinians are even welcome and what kind of democracy protesters are advocating for.
Israel is experiencing an open public debate over who gets to claim national symbols, which national symbols are represented, who gets to speak for the Israeli public and who is included in that public.
This debate might ring a bell for Canadians as they recall the Freedom Convoy protests. Truckers and their supporters adopted the Canadian flag as a symbol of their movement which served as a major element in their messaging.
For many Canadians, seeing the flag used that way — particularly, seeing it flying next to hate symbols like swastikas and Confederate flags — sparked uneasiness with the flag and what it represents. That led to a debate about what the flag represents, what it should represent and the history of the flag.
Protests are social arenas in which meanings are made and fought over. The Israeli and Canadian cases demonstrate how battles over meaning aren’t limited to new or obscure symbols. Israeli activists’ swift rewriting of the political meaning surrounding their national flag, and Canadian trucker’s co-opting the Canadian flag, show how even very established symbols can be dramatically reinterpreted.