Last week, Camp Solomon Schechter in Washington state hosted a group of kids brought to the camp by Kids4Peace, an interfaith organization that does amazing work in bridging divides between Israeli and Palestinian kids in Jerusalem. The thirteen kids were Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans hailing from Seattle and Jerusalem, and in an effort to make the Palestinian kids in the group feel welcome, the camp flew a Palestinian flag alongside the American, Canadian, and Israeli ones already flying. However, instead of the flag serving as an example of intimate dialogue, it turned into a national controversy. The camp ultimately apologized for upsetting some of the campers and staff, and for “neglect[ing] to foresee in such actions the serious political implications.”
So, does it matter whether a Jewish camp flew a Palestinian flag? And what should we take away from this incident?
It isn’t surprising that flying a Palestinian flag at a Jewish camp would upset many in the Jewish community. American Jewish camps tend to teach campers an uncomplicated Zionism intended to instill a love and an appreciation for Israel and avoid any talk of its complicated politics. In this context, the sight of a Palestinian flag on the camp flagpole would indeed be jarring for many, and all the more so for the Israelis who often work as camp staffers.
But the focus on the flag is also sadly misplaced. The story here should not be that a Jewish camp went out of its way to display a Palestinian national symbol in order to make a group of Palestinians feel welcome, but that a Jewish camp hosted a group of Israelis and Palestinians who are trying to rise above the structural forces that push them into conflict. Being upset or enthused about the flag misses the forest for the trees in this case. If you are happy that the camp flew the flag, wouldn’t your emotional energy be better dedicated to determining whether the actual dialogue between Jews and Palestinians was successful in fostering understanding between the two sides? If you are angry that the camp flew the flag, wouldn’t you be better off focusing on the fact that a group of Palestinian Jerusalemites was willing to travel with a group of Israeli Jerusalemites and visit an unabashedly Zionist institution of American Jewish life? The flag is a red herring for both sides that distracts from the far more important details of what actually took place.
The uproar around the flag incident does reveal something important though about the real importance of symbolism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond just being a cudgel for each side to wield. Symbols may not matter as much as actions, but the premium that Israelis and Palestinians place on them give them an outsized role in resolving the dispute between the two sides. This can be seen unusually clearly in the most recent poll of Israelis and Palestinians on their attitudes toward two states and what issues hold the most potential for getting them to change their views.
The good news is that majorities on both sides – 53% of Israelis and 52% of Palestinians – still support two states, and somewhat surprisingly, the Palestinian percentage has jumped eight points since the pollsters’ last survey in June 2016. Perhaps even more encouraging though is that those on both sides who register a preference for something other than a two-state solution are easily flipped when their emotional needs are addressed and their symbols are recognized. 43% of Israelis opposed to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal drop their opposition if a future Palestinian state recognizes Israel as a Jewish state and acknowledges the historical and religious ties of Jews to the land. On the Palestinian side, 42% of Palestinians opposed to a peace deal would reconsider their stance if Israel recognized the Arab and Islamic character of a future state of Palestine, and 32% opposed to a peace deal reconsider if Israel apologizes for the plight of Palestinian refugees.
In thinking about what has traditionally torpedoed negotiation efforts between the two sides, these results are remarkable. Stumbling blocks such as Palestinians ceding anything but a token right of return, or Israel sharing Jerusalem as a capital – actual, tangible concessions – are not as important to getting the populations on board as recognizing the other side’s narrative. Symbols, in other words, have been elevated to such a degree that they overpower everything else.
I am often critical of the symbolic demands that both sides make, since they are more often than not used as spoiling mechanisms to distract people from the more practical considerations at hand. After all, what practical difference does it make to Israel’s Jewish character or to Jewish history if the Palestinians recognize these things? But the advantage to turning symbolic molehills into mountains is that they can be traversed with nothing more than words and acknowledging someone else’s version of events. Contrary to what some may think, apparently history does matter when it comes to figuring out how to move forward.
Which brings us back to Camp Solomon Schechter’s decision. Sometimes flying a flag is just a gesture to make someone else feel welcome, and sometimes it can mean something much larger. I don’t think that Jewish camps or schools need to permanently put up a Palestinian flag as a gesture of goodwill, but neither do I think they need to run in fear from acknowledging any form of Palestinian symbolism when the situation calls for it. It has always stuck me as hollow to hear the same people demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state or Jewish history on the Temple Mount – both of which are undeniable – while at the same time insisting that Palestinians do not exist. Accepting each side’s symbols is a good thing, and it does not mean that you accept the legitimacy of the other side’s actions or agree with their arguments; it means that you acknowledge their existence.
There aren’t many things more likely to make a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem less susceptible to extremism and more interested in meaningful coexistence than seeing his or her national flag flying in a Zionist Jewish summer camp, and that should matter to anyone wanting to see a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a gesture of basic recognition that costs nothing, and it is tantamount to Israel’s demands of the Palestinians. We would do better to see the way that such small actions in a single moment can have a big impact that continue to reverberate into the future.