‘Rips in our fabric’: Reimagining Israel’s national flag

A new exhibition showcasing more than 90 Israeli artists who incorporated tattered and torn Israeli flags into their works opened last week

Its design is simple: two blue stripes on a crisp, white background, with a Star of David sitting proudly in the center. Yet for many Israelis and others around the world, especially during this time of crisis and war, Israel’s national flag evokes powerful emotions ranging from fierce love and patriotism to extreme antisemitism and hatred.

Now, some 90 Israeli artists have taken the highly recognizable and emotive symbol of the Jewish state and reimagined it using worn-out and weather-beaten flags that once lined a road in the Arava Desert. While the works offer a new dimension to the flag’s design, all express the heartbreak, fear and hope the nation of Israel is experiencing after more than eight months of war.

A week ago, the exhibition titled “From Erosion to Hope,” which opened last month in Tel Aviv ahead of Israel’s Memorial Day, arrived in Mevasseret Zion, a town just outside of Jerusalem where Arnon Zamora, the hero of the daring Gaza operation that saw the rescue of four hostages earlier this month, grew up.

The 36-year-old chief inspector of the Israel police’s Yamam special forces, who was killed in the high-stakes mission, was the son of a longtime elementary school teacher in Mevasseret.

Hours before the exhibit officially opened its doors in the town, hundreds of tearful residents lined the main boulevard waving a new set of Israeli flags as Zamora’s wife, Michal, and other family members made their way towards Jerusalem’s military cemetery on Mount Herzl.

The juxtaposition of the new flags waved ahead of Zamora’s funeral, set against the repurposing and reimagining of worn-out and battered flags in the exhibition was not lost on Yoram Shimon, Mevasseret Zion’s mayor.

“The flag is a symbol that connects the individual to his or her country,” Shimon said as he opened the display, which is being managed by the Association of Artists and Art lovers in Mevasseret Zion in a repurposed store in one of the town’s shopping malls.

The day of Zamora’s funeral “was a day when Mevasseret Zion was the focus of the whole country, so [it] is even more meaningful that this exhibition is opening here today,” Hannah Rothschild, the curator and brainchild of the exhibition, told Jewish Insider at the opening event.

Rothschild, an artist who is also a trained clinical social worker specializing in the field of trauma, has been working with survivors of the Oct. 7 massacre. It was during a trip south to counsel evacuated residents of the devastated kibbutzim that she came up with the idea to turn Israel’s national symbol into art as a way to identify with the country’s pain and the hostages still being held in Gaza.

“I was on the bus, and I saw this row of flags that were really worn out and waving in the wind,” Rothschild recounted of a recent journey to the Arava Desert, where one of the evacuated communities is now being housed. “What fascinated me most was that the erosion of the flags was happening all around the edges, just like erosion happening now in Israel because of the hostage situation, because so many soldiers are being killed and because of Oct. 7.”

On another of her visits to the evacuated community, Rothschild noticed the eroded flags had been replaced with new ones. She wondered what had happened to the old flags and was soon connected with Yonatan Rotem, the man responsible for the flags decorating the area’s main highway.

“He was really happy to give them to me because he himself did not know what to do with so many eroded flags,” Rothschild said, adding, “When I told him my idea to use them for art, he was very happy that we would be giving them new life.”

“When you get something that is worn out, everything you do to it makes it feel new, so by working with these specific flags, adding, mending and fixing them you build something new,” she explained.  

Armed with a pile of tattered and torn-up flags, Rothschild described to JI how she reached out to more than 100 artists across the country, asking if they would like to be part of this project. More than 90 of them responded positively, she recalled.

Many of the artists, Rothschild said, felt like being part of the show was their form of miluim, or military reserve duty.

Distributing the flags two months ago, the curator said she made only one request to the artists: to be respectful with the nation’s symbol, which became a controversial flashpoint during last year’s clashes over the government’s controversial plans to reform the judiciary.

The works produced by the artists range in type and form, with all expressing their reaction as Israelis to the events on Oct. 7 and beyond. There are fragments of flags sewn together with other national symbols, such as parts of IDF uniforms or religious garments. There are flags that are screwed up and stuffed into pickling jars – for preservation – and another where the artist placed the flag inside a Palestinian Coca-Cola bottle mimicking a Molotov cocktail.

Some of the works offer hope, with a golden Star of David replacing the faded blue one, or another that appears to be the belly of a pregnant woman bringing new life. Others are less positive, with some emphasizing the scorch marks caused by the sun or adding drops of red blood.

In one work, artist Daniella Meller sewed up her flag with surgical stitches and connected it to a blood transfusion. In the notes, she explains that Haim Perry, a hostage from Kibbutz Nir Oz who was recently pronounced dead, was a close friend.

Each piece includes a treatise explaining the meaning of the work and a short bio of the artist; the details are written in Hebrew, English and Arabic, which Rothschild hopes will allow Israelis from all sectors to connect to the exhibit. She also has plans to display the exhibition in other places in the country and, at some point, is hoping to take it to the U.S.

Rothschild said that most of the proceeds from the show, including sales of the artworks, will go to the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.

There are reminders of the hostages in multiple other works.

In “Through what has been unraveled,” Tel Aviv artist Dana Cohen pieced together two different flags and overlaid the new flag with tiny swaths of yellow felt, the color that has come to represent the plight of 240 people who were kidnapped to Gaza Oct. 7.

“What I received was a used flag that was torn into two pieces and immediately those torn pieces gave me the feeling that this country is torn too,” Cohen told JI. “I felt that I needed to respond to that national breakdown in both a general way and a personal way.”

Dana Cohen, Through what has been unraveled

In a general way, Cohen said she chose to focus on the hostages because it “is the reality of life” in Israel since that fateful day and because those being held have become “part of our own identities.”

“I worked with the yellow ribbons that are now identified with the fight for the release of the hostages because I felt this material could represent the collective worry for their safety and their return, which has now become part of our nation’s history,” she said, adding that it was really important to her that the yellow be fused into the fiber of the existing flag using a technique called “needle felting.”

“I wanted to put that material inside the flag and see the flag go through a change that would give our new history a visual element,” Cohen explained.

On a personal level, the artist said that through her work she always tries to find hope for the future or new life in something from the past.

“I try to give my audience a chance to find beauty and life in something they thought was already dead,” she said. “As individuals and as a collective, this creates a positive and hopeful outlook.”

Tali Navon, who titled her work “We are 2024,” also offers a ray of hope. Her tattered flag is set in a plexiglass frame imprinted with a line of oil painted figures holding hands.

Tali Navon, We are 2024

“The minute I received that torn flag, I felt that it was in the same state as our nation,” she told JI. “It’s not that someone came and cut it with scissors, we are really worn and torn.”

But, the Givatyim artist said she noticed something else happening in Israel on Oct. 7 – “the people had a desire to connect.”

“We are a nation that is smart, sensitive and humanitarian and even those communities that were attacked on Oct. 7 wanted to connect to the people on the other side [in Gaza],” Navon said, explaining the idea for the row of human figures facing the torn flag.

“I want us all to be together living in peace,” she added. “I don’t know how we get there but that is my desire and so I tried to piece it all back together, connecting the torn flag with pins, which are something that hurt people and added the people in front of the flag.”  

“I do believe it might be possible for us to connect if the desire comes from the people, not from our leaders, but even if we do get back together those rips in our fabric will never disappear,” Navon said. “It is a type of hope, even though it is very difficult.”

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