Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Saturday 13 July 2002

Flying a Flag – a gesture or an ‘insult’?

A couple of months ago, the wife of the President of the European Central Bank (Wim Duisenberg), both of whom it so happens are Dutch, was heavily criticised by some of her fellow citizens because she chose to hang from a prominent window in their Dutch home the flag of the Palestinian Authority; Jewish groups in Holland categorised this as ‘anti-Semitic’ and an ‘insult’ to Israel. It seems her husband wasn’t exactly over the moon about her gesture, either, saying that in his position as President of the ECB it was preferable to be ‘low key’.

There are lots of things to say here – from what I can gather Mrs Duisenberg was breaking no Dutch law (whatever other considerations of ‘poor taste’ might be advanced, legitimately or not), the flag being flown was that of an internationally recognised entity (even, in theory, by Israel). She apparently told her husband, until eventually she relented and took the flag down, that his position as President of the ECB was not her affair and that she could not be bound by his need to be ‘low key’ as a Dutch citizen in her own right.

Personally, whilst I do not exactly share her viewpoint in its entirety, I have considerable respect for Mrs Duisenberg in making her ‘statement’ by flying this flag – by no stretch of the imagination, in my view, is it legitimate for her gesture to be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ or an ‘insult’ to Israel, and attempts so to do must be repudiated for the nonsense they are, unless genuine evidence can be provided in support of the claim. It is quite unacceptable for commentary criticising policies of the current Israeli government immediately to be categorised, in an hysterical manner, as anti-Semitic. It is perfectly possible, no doubt, that some criticism of Israel may be motivated by what are in fact at least partially ‘anti-Semitic’ sentiments, but it is quite outrageous, in my view, immediately to categorise all criticism of Israel as such. It seems to me that ‘smearing’ all criticism of Israel as ‘anti-Semitic’ is simply a cover for attempts at denial of free speech.

As it so happens, some weeks later (and a few weeks ago now), an Egyptian long-term resident of Los Angeles apparently took great exception to some of his neighbours flying the US flag (the ‘Stars and Stripes’) in the wake of the terrorist outrage of last September 11 – in the wake of the atrocity he himself carried out at Los Angeles International Airport against people at an EL Al counter there, on what was both his own birthday and US Independence Day (in ‘rebellion’ from the country of which I am a proud ‘citizen’ and ‘subject’ – the latter term does not offend me in any way of course, and the US is now our greatest and longest-standing ally), it seems he had voiced the view to his neighbours that they were ‘rubbing his face’ in it (whatever ‘it’ was) by flying the Stars and Stripes. My gut reaction to this is that this is absolute rot – it comes to something when citizens of a country can’t fly their own flag. It seems clear his actions were motivated by anti-Israeli sentiments (even if it is not entirely clear they were 'anti-Jewish' per se). As a British person, it has often struck me, when visiting the US, how ‘strange’ it is (to a Briton, where the gesture is much less frequent) to see the US flag flown so often, not just outside public or commercial office buildings, but outside private residences, too. This may not be our ‘style’ here in the UK (in some ways, more’s the pity), but it certainly is in the United States and indeed in many other countries – just to mention a few, Switzerland, Norway and Thailand immediately spring to mind – and I have personally always found the ‘Stars and Stripes’, at the most banal level, to be pleasant to look at, quite apart from the fact that it symbolises a pretty noble outlook on the world (unless you espouse the view that the US is ‘the great Satan’, which I most certainly do not!). So the outrage in Los Angeles against people who would with a high degree of probability be Jewish, if not necessarily Israeli, can never be justified. And his neighbours are, I hope, still flying their flags if they wish to do so.

Finally, it so happens that I have a number of small flags on display in my own study (being something of an amateur vexillologist), including the Union Flag of the United Kingdom (naturally!), but in addition flags of various countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, and the United States (plus a view historic variants of the current US flag). If anyone wants to send me, or to tell me where I can obtain, small pennant flags of Israel or the Palestinian Authority, I will gladly find a spot in my study to display them, too.

And if I occasionally write or voice criticism of Israel, or the Palestinian Authority, under their respective current leaderships, please don’t bore me by asserting that I’m anti-Israeli or anti-Palestinian or indeed anti-Semitic.

On that note, lunch beckons.

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