SENT INTO UNKNOWN TERRITORY
- Galia Bar Or
In May 2006, springtime, around Independence Day, Israel Roly Netiv began photographing the Israeli flag in various places in the country's north. Shortly thereafter the landscape turned from green to yellow, and the region was virtually paralyzed by the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. Hizbullah missiles reached as far inland as the vicinity of Tivon and Ramat Yishai, Netiv's place of residence. The destruction and loss on either side of the border left deep scars and a sense of distress.
Throughout that period, Netiv continued to photograph the Israeli flags while moving on the roads; as the summer began, he "put his flags on the air" by e-mailing them to friends, colleagues, acquaintances. The mailing list grew from one mail to the next, and the mails were forwarded on and on, during the war in the north and thereafter, spanning photographs taken in the city and in the country, in the Jewish sector and the Arab sector. Netiv continued to send out flag after flag, like a bottle sent into the unknown, carrying a message with a logic all its own, cumulating new layers and insights over the course of time.
Netiv's flag photographs were sent from the intimacy of his home, calling for a personal dialogue via e-mail, which is likewise located in the private sphere, partly opening up to the semi-public sphere, to workrooms, offices, studios and workshops. The flags were put on screen from north to south: flags hoisted on poles against the backdrop of azure skies, flags gnawed by the ravages of time, a dusty faded flag in Bir el-Maksur, possibly worn out by the Sisyphean endeavors to lure customers to the nearby shops; flags in official institutions, on the balconies of apartment blocks, on the street, in courtyards; and there was also a flag photographed in the Haifa Bay Industrial Zone, by now a mere skin and bones in the form of a Star of David cutout hanging by a blue strip, exposing traces of violence or mere wear and tear. One little flag standing there with a weathercock, was sent by Netiv as a New Year greeting card, by e-mail of course.
In the meantime autumn came, as happens on every Jewish New Year, and winter followed. Acquaintances kept pointing Netiv to Israeli flags which they had noticed, as if for the first time, while driving along the country's roads. Over time, Netiv's flags became a code of communication, initially unidirectional, later bi-directional, and finally - multi-directional, namely collective. Responses gradually came in, and a new type of forum was created around the evolving texture of the flags. The dialogue set in motion an interaction between people, bringing into focus insights which shifted from the critical, sociological, anthropological, and ideological dimension to inner, personal insights that touched upon hidden strata.
The waving flags, collecting everywhere, stuck out from a car, hanging slovenly, neglected flags, slowly decomposing in a landscape devoid of a caring hand - all these raised thoughts about what was defined in one e-mail as "a signifying code for the most Israeli collective feature - sloppiness." Observing the photographs, it seemed as though the collective mechanism which abruptly activated the flags' hoisting is the very mechanism that pushed the worn out flags out of sight, as it were. That which had set their ostensibly instinctive hoisting in motion, was now working to drop them tattered and worn into that categorical inversion where they are literally converted from banners and pennants into an environmental eyesore, a hazard of vanity and haughtiness, neglect and hard-heartedness. Netiv's story, the story of his flags, acquired a metaphorical meaning, sending him and his addressees into unknown realms, charged with a disconcerting dialectic of time, society, and way of life.
What is the meaning of that ubiquitous banality, discernible in the photographs of the flags forgotten at the festival's end, decomposing away; a routine where there is room for neither caring nor putting away, not even a respectful gesture. Would it have been better to bury the tattered flag, as customary in some countries, such as the United States? The act of genizah - putting out of circulation, archiving, shelving - is reserved in Jewish culture for Torah scrolls, not flags, nor state ceremonies. Should the act of genizah also be applied to the memory carried by the flag, the memory of other days?
Menachem Oren, an educator from Kibbutz Beit Hashita sent to teach in a camp for displaced persons in Cyprus, described the children's response to the Star of David flags: "From the very first moment the flag was, for the children, their entire world. All the children over the age of three were attracted to the flag, and physically wanted to hold it in their hands." Oren added that "the children were thirsty for a consolidating symbol, a unifying content" and that "the heart of the immigrant child was filled with love for the Star of David." (1)
In correspondence about his flags, Roly Netiv wrote to his colleague, photographer Gilad Ophir: "It takes me to other places, some of which I am still uncomfortable expressing out loud. All of a sudden my photographs scare me." Ophir wrote back on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day: "Your recent photographs make me shudder too." Netiv replied that he found the confrontation tough, "but I want to deal with it, rather than evade it as I did nearly my entire life."
What does the flag in the photograph have to do with the sense of shudder? What inner affinity may be invoked by the flag, which is ostensibly only a "rag on a stick," as it was described by Baron Hirsch more than a century ago? Perhaps it is because the answer is not that simple, that Netiv chose to initiate a sharing process with a forum of his own via the Internet. Only later, gradually, did he realize that the time had come for a book format. A significant group of works gathered in a book opens up a broad perspective, enabling leafing back and forth, furnishing conditions for suspension and attentiveness, reinforcing the intricate affinity between photographs.
Theodor Herzl argued against Baron Hirsch that a flag is much more than a mere rag on a stick; a flag is required because "if we desire to lead many men, we must raise a symbol above their heads." (2) Thus he wrote in his book The Jewish State where he proposed a white flag with seven golden stars, representing seven work hours for all - a universal socialist message in a new land.
Eugene Kolb, the energetic critic of the Al Hamishmar daily, later to become director of the Tel Aviv Museum in the 1950s, published an essay in July 1948 entitled "What is a Flag? A Rag on a Stick?," in which he rejected adoption of Herzl's seven golden star flag as the State's official flag, adamantly arguing that "if there is one symbol that has always invoked feelings amongst all Jews and has always been understood - it is the Star of David."
What kind of local dynamics of erosion would have operated on Herzl's seven star flag, or alternatively - on the majestic flag proposed by poet Yonatan Ratosh - golden bull's horns (in the form of the Hebrew letter Alef in ancient script) against the backdrop of blue and crimson? Would Israel Roly Netiv, in May 2006, have chosen to photograph a flag of Israel devoid of the Star of David?
Gershom Scholem noted that the Star of David symbol was selected by the Zionist movement not because of the memory of the past, for no unique Jewish meaning has been tied with it; it was selected as a symbol of hope for the future, concluding his essay with the following words:
But far more than the Zionists have done to provide the Shield of David with the sanctity of a genuine symbol has been done by those who made it for millions into a mark of shame and degradation. The yellow Jewish star, as a sign of exclusion and ultimately of annihilation, has accompanied the Jews on their path of humiliation and horror, of battle and heroic resistance. Under this sign they were murdered; under this sign they came to Israel. If there is a fertile soil of historical experience from which symbols draw their meaning, it would seem to be given here. Some have been of the opinion that the sign which marked the way to annihilation and to the gas chambers should be replaced by a sign of life. But it is possible to think quite the opposite: the sign which in our own days has been sanctified by suffering and dread has become worthy of illuminating the path to life and reconstruction. Before ascending, the path led down into the abyss; there the symbol received its ultimate humiliation and there it won its greatness. (3)
We are nearing May 2008, it will soon be spring, the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, and once again Israeli flags, large and small, will be hoisted everywhere. Israel Roly Netiv's book will come out, gravely treating the symbol that has transformed annihilation into a sign of life, charged with an olden-day yearning, perhaps preserving something of the hope for the future as well. The introspection is without allowances. All is foreseen but freedom of choice is given.
- Galia Bar Or
(1) Menachem Oren, Mineged Tir'eh et Ha'eretz ('For thou shalt see the land afar off') (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1985), p. 60 [Hebrew].
(2) Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State (Filiquarian, 2006), p. 81.
(3) Gershom Scholem, "The Star of David: History of a Symbol" (1949) in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, trans: M. Meyer (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), p. 281.