Friday, June 07, 2019

The Constructed Semiotics of Flags

Some Jews are uncomfortable when they see a Palestinian flag.

For some, that's due to naught but raw prejudice.

But there are some Jews -- queer and not -- who have directly experienced violence, harassment, displacement, and even death that has occurred under the auspices of the Palestinian flag, whether literally or, as a stand-in for anti-Zionism, symbolically.

For these Jews, I can imagine how seeing a Palestinian flag might be triggering or traumatic. They see people wave it, and they interpret it as a threat.

And to them, in the interest of sensitivity, I have a simple message:

Suck it up.

I'm not saying your trauma isn't real. But the Palestinian flag is much more than, and means much more than, your particular narrow experience, and there isn't any justifiable way to ban Palestinian flags in deference to these "sensitivities" that is compatible with allowing Palestinians to take pride in their identity and peoplehood. So suck it up.

This, of course, is also my posture towards those who see a Magen David and can only imagine it as a symbol of Israeli state repression. It's not that these associations aren't real. But they also by no means represent the totality of what the Magen David represents, and allowing this particular and narrow interpretation of the symbol to occupy the entire field is incompatible with allowing Jews to take pride in our identity and peoplehood. So suck it up.

The point is, we can say that these negative meanings are extant and say there is no need to privilege this particular, negative interpretation. And so one of the great sins of the DC Dyke March's position on the Jewish Pride flag is that it helps construct and bolster a semiotic meaning of the Jewish Star of David and the Jewish Pride flag as a form of aggression against Palestinians and Arabs. I'm not saying that potential meaning was wholly absent before -- obviously, there are people who really have experienced violence, harassment, displacement, and death under (literally or symbolically) a Magen David.

But in privileging that semiotic interpretation, the DC Dyke March enhances its power. It makes it so that more people are more likely to see this flag as more intensely expressing that message. And it won't just be in the eyes of the beholder. No doubt some people who bring a Star of David pride flag to a LGBT rally now do so not simply to express Jewish Pride, but also as a point of defiance -- "you hate this flag? Well nyah nyah nyah."

In a sense, it's like that time a Texas Republican put out an Israeli flag on her desk to ward off Muslim community members coming to visit her office. The sheer pettiness of the action -- as if an Israeli flag scatters Muslims like Vampires and the cross -- masked a deeper evil: the politician, by using the Israeli flag in this way, was constructing a meaning of the flag where one of its uses is to signal "I don't want Muslims to be comfortable here". That's terrible. But it is not, at the end of the day, much different from what the DC Dyke March is doing -- entrenching and congealing a meaning of the Jewish Pride flag whereby its symbolism is "aggression towards Muslims, Palestinians, and Arabs."

And as it generates this semiotic meaning for the Magen David, it does something similar to the semiotic meaning of a Palestinian flag. It bolsters its symbolic meaning as a gesture of defiance against the Jews, against those who would proudly carry a Star of David. If -- as I suspect is likely -- more Dyke Marchers carried Palestinian flags upon hearing that Jewish marchers were going to insist on carrying a Jewish Pride flag, part of the reason they're doing so is to communicate this reactive, aggressive posture: "You're coming in, with that flag? Well I've got my own flag for you right here!" Again, it's not that these meanings were wholly absent before. But actions like that taken by the DC Dyke March help congeal and entrench them, they create a world where they may well be the primary meaning -- and that's destructive.

Each time this happens, this antagonistic, deleterious meaning gets further amplified, and so each time it becomes harder and harder to say "suck it up".

But that's all the more reason why we have to hold the line now. The more controversies we have like the DC Dyke March, the more difficult it will be to ever extract ourselves and our symbols from these horrible semiotics.

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