Sometimes a flag is not just a flag. In the current era of postmodern “whatever-ism,” symbolic gestures are largely understood as just that — a meaningless symbolic gesture. A low Presidential bow to a foreign sovereign is just a bow. The gift of an iPod to an allied sovereign is just a kitschy gift. And on January 18, 2011, a raised Palestinian flag in Washington, D.C. is just a flag — a little wink and nod to the Arab residents of the disputed territories.
But in the Middle East, a symbol is never just a symbol. Even the smallest of gestures is packed with diplomatic meaning, and the policy ramifications of that gesture are almost always far-reaching.
For example, in the Old City of Jerusalem, a rickety old ladder placed outside a window in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since sometime around 1852 has remained in the exact same location for 159 years. Why? Because in 1853, the Church’s numerous religious sects and factions decided that the use OF and control over the different portions of the Church should stay the same in perpetuity. Any change in the control over the Church since that time is considered by all parties to be a severe provocation.
To the Western mind, this entire situation seems to involve a substantial measure of absurdity. “Surely,” most Westerners think “the removal of a five-stepped ladder would not have any practical effects on the division of control over the Church. It’s just a ladder.” But in the historical-minded culture of the Middle East, this ladder is not just a ladder. It’s an important symbol of the region’s — of the world’s — recognition of the power and prestige of different religious sects. Thus, the positioning of this ladder is considered so important that a metal grate has been erected over the window in order to keep anyone from changing the physical position of the ladder — and the metaphysical positioning of the Church’s sects.
A similarly significant issue arises from the unfurling of the Palestinian flag in Washington, D.C.
The Palestinian flag was informally adopted by the PLO terrorist organization after its creation in the 1960s. By the 1970s, the flag had been “officially” adopted as the flag of the PLO. Until the Madrid “Peace Conference” in 1991, the PLO was recognized by the United States as a terrorist organization. However, in 1993, the PLO “officially” renounced terrorism and violence and claimed to be a legitimate representative of the Palestinians and a partner for peace with the Israelis.
Lest anyone be mistaken in believing that the PLO’s official renunciation of violence was worth more than the paper it was written on, the PLO commenced the Second Intifada in the year 2000, resulting in the deaths and injuries of thousands of Israelis. The PLO, all public statements aside, today remains very much a terrorist organization dedicated to violent attacks against Israelis and brutal repression against its own population. Just last month, the PLO imprisoned an atheist in the city of Qalqilya, simply because he wrote a blog supporting atheism. The Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, an armed paramilitary sub-faction of al-Fatah, itself an organization of the PLO, continues to attack Israeli citizens on a regular basis.
Thus, the Palestinian flag remains the flag of a terrorist organization, albeit a terrorist organization with more media savvy than its earlier incarnations.
So while numerous public places around the country (rightfully) ban the flying of the Confederate flag, and the courts have interpreted the Constitution as prohibiting most displays of the Ten Commandments, the raising in the nation’s capital of a terrorist flag symbolizing the often murderous “struggle” of the Palestinians has now become acceptable.
The current administration has put much emphasis on the so-called “peace process” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The president has declared that this peace process requires “patience,” and his secretary of state has proclaimed that “there is no substitute for face-to-face discussion” between the Israelis and Palestinians. But despite these empty platitudes, the current administration has decided to charge full steam ahead, in lockstep with the Palestinians’ new strategy of getting the world to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state in all of the disputed territories.
In the Middle East, symbols matter. The waving of the Palestinian flag in Washington, D.C. sends a loud and clear message to Israel and the world: The United States is now one very big step closer to recognizing a Palestinian state, with or without security for the State of Israel.
And the United States is willing to fly a terrorist flag in Washington to send this profound and unfortunate message.