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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    What’s in a flag?

    When the Palestinian flag was taken down from the UofA Bookstore’s “”International Flag Display”” in the Student Union Memorial Center over two years ago, not a peep was uttered nor a mouse found stirring. But, then, why should anyone care? What’s in a flag?

    To some people – that is, those who bother to give the issue any thought or regard – a flag is a banal ideological or national symbol of very little consequence, if any at all. To others, a flag represents something much more profound and meaningful – even something taken away or denied of a people’s social or political reality.

    Christopher Gunness, Spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), spoke with me last month from his West Bank office in Jerusalem on a number of issues concerning his work, including what flags mean for people, societies and cultures. “”A flag is, in many ways, a hugely important, symbolic thing,”” he explained, pointing out that flags represent much more than statehood or nationality, but a people’s future and history and social aspirations. “”In this case, it’s very interesting because the Palestinians don’t have a state … the flag, in this instance, illustrates what the Palestinians don’t have, but what we all dearly hope they one day will… “”

    Using such language as “”heritage,”” “”respect”” and “”growth,”” the bookstore’s online principles state that the display (self-hailed as the “”largest flag display in Arizona!””) is instituted to “”celebrate a global spirit””, while proclaiming that the store “”recognizes and respects citizens from all countries and territories.”” The carefully-worded, dulcet-toned decree reads somewhat like a awkwardly smiling museum curator: “”We promote a ‘home away from home’ environment and a sense of belonging by displaying flags representing the homeland of every registered student.””

    Yet as the most recent UA Factbook (2007-08) indeed registers three students from Palestine enrolled currently, the flag’s absence (notably illustrated by a flagless pole in the spot where the bookstore’s own IFD pamphlet lists Palestine should be, just left of the center lobby above the General Books section), the controversy has generated concern and understandable complaint among the UA community. Education doctoral student Mohammad Naser, who is also the Social Justice Coordinator of the university, was among those who inquired into the matter personally as a Palestinian, rightfully pointing out the “”discrimination based on nationality”” in the act of taking down the flag, whether deliberate or not.

    Moreover, according to a member of the UA chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and former employee of the bookstore (wishing to remain anonymous), last spring the bookstore’s director suggested to him in informal conversation that a controversy lay behind the flag being taken down in the first place. Danielle Short, Event Coordinator of UofA Bookstores, elaborated in more detail: “”In the past, (the Palestinian flag) wasn’t hung because it was determined that the United States does not recognize Palestine as an official territory, even though it is recognized by some other countries.”” Well, you have to hand it to the bookstore when they are (mostly) correct, as the U.S. government indeed does reject Palestinian self-determination. The only inaccuracy lies in the language that “”some”” of the world does recognize Palestine, “”territory”” or not.

    At a major UN session in December 2008, a resolution on “”the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”” was adopted by world vote 173 to 5 (with the U.S. leading the rejectionists including Israel and the American dependency countries in the Pacific). A similar resolution in 2008, the annual vote on a “”peaceful settlement to the question of Palestine,”” was adopted 164 to 7 (U.S., Israel, Australia, Pacific Island dependencies), with three abstentions.

    This quite lucid diplomatic pattern of the entire world being on one side of law and decency, while the other is on the narrow side of war-crime and illegality, is decades long. Recently, one could put the bookstore on the shameful side of outlaw states (notably our own), but after people took it upon themselves to contact the bookstore concernedly on numerous occasions, reminding them that the UN does recognize the existence of Palestinians, their history, memory, genealogy, culture – Short and the bookstore director Frank Farias tells me that the Palestinian flag will now go up. By this decision the bookstore will join the side of what Israeli critical peace group New Profile calls “”civil-ization,”” the philosophy of civilizing oneself and one’s culture (from directly at the source of the problem) to standards of decency and human rights.

    Eminent historian and activist Howard Zinn wrote an article in 1959 entitled “”A Quiet Case of Social Change”” documenting the desegregation of the Atlanta public library system. He described the events: “”There had been no lawsuit, no headlines, no violence.”” Very worth recording, he notes, the historical moment offered “”a glimpse into the subsurface mechanics of peaceful, purposeful change.””

    Similarly, this case shows that institutions of authority, governments and bureaucracy more than usually do not correct themselves on their own. They are often forced by those who take up direct democratic measures to challenge and change defective social or political norms, from a variety of methods. And while the flag still isn’t up in the bookstore owing to a bureaucratic protocol awkwardly explained by the bookstore officials, concerned people like Naser will continue to watch them, and make certain their principles demonstrate themselves honorably with fact and merit.

    Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a junior majoring in art, literature and media studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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