When a Jewish camp raised a Palestinian flag

August 1, 2017

Two weeks ago, a Jewish summer camp in Washington state raised the Palestinian flag. The story went viral, and Jews around the world went berserk. Not long afterward, the flag came down and the camp administration apologized. “Jewish Camp Sorry for Raising Palestinian Flag in ‘Friendship,’ ” read a headline July 31 on the Jewish Daily Forward website.

My reaction? Deep disappointment.

According to news reports, Camp Solomon Schechter of Olympia, Wash., had raised the red, white, black and green Palestinian flag to welcome a delegation of Palestinian youth that was visiting under the aegis of Kids4Peace, an Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to “ending conflict and inspiring hope in Jerusalem and other divided societies around the world.” The predictable collective howl of disgust from the Jewish community led to an email of explanation from the camp to parents, followed soon after by an official statement of apology. And with that, an attempt at outreach had been eclipsed by an instinctive negative Jewish response to a controversial symbol.

If you check out the comments section below the story on any news site, you’ll find a fair amount of blatant anti-Palestinian racism, and some limited support for the camp, but the majority opinion is that camp officials committed an outrageous act by choosing to fly this flag. I believe this group reaction to what took place is a shame on our community.

In candor, I might have reacted in similar fashion a month ago, before I traveled with an organization called Encounter to Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Ramallah and other areas in the Palestinian territories. Encounter assembled a group of around 30 people dedicated to ahavat Yisrael — the love of Israel that Encounter considers a core value of all its trips. These were rabbis, Jewish educators, NGO executives and other Jewish influencers chosen to go on a “listening trip.” Over an intense four days, we met a multitude of Palestinian speakers who steeped us in narratives that ran counter to those we’d grown up with — their narratives.

[David Suissa responds: Raising a Palestinian flag is not the best welcome sign]

When I’m agitated, my shoulders have a tendency to rise. And early on the first day, they were probably up over my ears. I heard words that didn’t sit well with me: “Palestine,” “occupation,” “Nakba.” And I saw symbols that distressed me: graffiti of raised knives, portraits glorifying Yasser Arafat, and yes, the Palestinian flag. But I discovered that as I opened my heart to our speakers, fellow human beings with very different viewpoints and life experiences, my shoulders reached equilibrium, I quickly got past years of knee-jerk reaction, and was able to hear and appreciate some very uncomfortable stories.

These Palestinian kids, walking into a pro-Israel Jewish camp, were reaching out across decades of conflict to make a connection. What an act of courage and hope.

Understand, I didn’t walk away having adopted every position of every speaker I was exposed to, but I got past a lot of automatic negative response, allowing myself to be open to nuance. Because for the first time in four visits to the region, I met and interacted with Palestinians, the people with whom Israelis live side by side, and with whom they will continue to live whatever the future may hold.

My four days with Encounter, which included an overnight stay with a welcoming Palestinian family in Beit Sahour, gave me a far deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the years I’ve spent reading and talking about the topic. It turns out the simple and obvious and crucial element is honest, open interaction. And that happens to be the concept to which Kids4Peace is dedicated.

I personally have no problem at all with what Camp Solomon Schechter did. These Palestinian kids, walking into a pro-Israel Jewish camp, were reaching out across decades of conflict to make a connection. What an act of courage and hope. It seems to me a quintessentially Jewish response on the camp’s part to welcome these citizens of nowhere — neither Israel nor Palestine — with a symbol familiar to them. I understand that some have a more negative gut reaction to the Palestinian flag than I do. And I believe that Camp Solomon Schechter should have anticipated the outcry and sent an email to parents ahead of time, explaining the rationale and putting the act in context.

But nowhere in the internet comment threads did I see anyone evince any interest in the actual visit. Everyone is so caught up in an emotional argument about a piece of cloth that the real story is utterly obscured. What did these Palestinian kids have to say? How did the Solomon Schechter campers respond to them? Were connections made? That’s the story; that should be our focus.

The camp directors explained to parents that their intention in flying the Palestinian flag was to offer campers a “teachable moment” about acceptance. Here’s hoping that we American-Jewish adults can use this story as a teachable moment about our own priorities as a people.

Joshua Malina is an actor best known for his roles in “The West Wing” and “Scandal.”

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