September 17, 2008
The presidential race, instead of focusing on the best energy policy, the best Mideast policy, the best health care policy, was all about moose and pigs and pitbulls. The financial companies that once defined stability have teetered or collapsed. The stock market is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a hurricane ate our Gulf Coast refineries and, by the way, is anybody noticing that Pakistan is imploding?
Meanwhile, over at the Israeli Consulate, they're planning a massive, pull-out-the-stops effort to ... raise the Israeli flag?
That's right. On Sunday, Sept. 28, thousands of people are expected to rally outside the Israeli Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard to watch as the blue and white national flag is raised permanently in front of the building.
You would think there are more important things to focus on right now. To be honest, when Consul General Jacob Dayan first told me his idea, that was my gut reaction -- which I kept to myself. The world is going nuts, and that's what you want us to do -- raise a flag?
But I've let the idea percolate; I've turned it over in my head, and sure enough, I've changed my mind. It's the perfect thing to do. It's brilliant.
Neither Dayan nor the building's owner, Jamison Services, will discuss why until now no Israeli flag has been allowed to stand in front of the otherwise nondescript office tower at 6380 Wilshire Blvd.
But let's hazard a wild guess: security.
Building owners and Israeli ambassadors themselves regularly cite concerns over protests and terrorism as the primary reasons so few Israeli diplomatic stations display their country's flag.
It's not an unreasonable concern. From 1969 to the present there have been at least 30 attacks on Israeli embassies, according to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (The ministry actually lists and details the attacks on its Web sites, which could not have made Dayan's job convincing his landlord any easier). The most recent one occurred this past February, when a group calling itself "al Qaeda in the Magreb" fired shots at the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania, wounding three local residents.
It's a fact of life: Israel's blue and white is a red flag for the fanatics. Wave it, and they are likely to charge.
Sometimes, the reaction is horrific, as at the El Al ticket counter several years ago, when a man opened fire by the flag. Sometimes, it is boringly predictable, as at those Hezbollah rallies in Lebanon, where they actually have to make their own Israeli flag just to destroy it. Sometimes, it is pathetic: In the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem last spring, a 50-year-old Orthodox Israeli man waving his flag on Israel's Independence Day was set upon and beaten by members of the anti-Zionist Naturei Karta Jewish sect.
Given these reactions, it's only wise and natural to be cautious, to fear the fanatics and abide by their rule: Don't you dare display your flag.
And now, Dayan is offering his response: tough.
In his book, "A Case for Democracy," Natan Sharansky offers up a test to determine whether a society is truly free and democratic. He calls it his Town Square test:
"If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a 'fear society' has finally won their freedom."
I suspect the default reflex of Jews is to rest inside a fear society. Centuries of persecution have conditioned us to cut our losses and accept a base level of fear and intimidation, so long as our families and livelihoods are not immediately threatened. Our mental public square has always been inhabited by thugs: We have grown comfortable with them.
The establishment of the State of Israel was supposed to have freed us from the physical ghettos in which Jews found themselves and from these psychic ones, as well. A free people in a free land could not be bullied, need not live in fear.
The physical and psychic shackles cracked in 1948, when the Israeli flag was first raised over the independent, sovereign Jewish state, and they broke in 1967, when the country swept to victory in the Six-Day War and the flag flew over a united Jerusalem.
But that was then. Now, with terror at our doorsteps and Israel still in peril, most of us are content to lay low. It turns out we are less butterfly than hermit crab. Survival teaches us that rather than float free, better to run from shell to shell.
But if we let our city fail the Town Square test, we delude ourselves in thinking we can forever be safe off the square, in our synagogues, at our schools. Whether we fly the flag or not, those who would do us harm will find us anyway.
In the Age of Google, there is no way to hide. We can be better or worse targets, but we are still targets.
The vast majority of us want to live in a world where disagreements don't demand violence. We don't want the crazy few determining how we live our lives, demonstrate our loyalties, express our identity. We want a thousand flags to fly (including, yes, the Palestinian one). We want to be free.
That's why I love Dayan's vision. He saw reality and raised it -- hell, he went all in. Once he received approval to fly the flag, he could have just quietly run it up one morning and left it at that. But no: He has arranged to close off Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. He has invited schools, synagogues and churches to come out and show their support. There will be a stage, speeches (short, he promises), dignitaries and performance by a recording artist Macy Gray.
The Israeli flag is going up on Wilshire Boulevard; attention will be paid, and I, for one, will be there.