by Tom Haviv
I first published the Hamsa Flag essay in the inaugural issue of PROTOCOLS in the summer of 2017. Almost two years later, the need for this project, and projects like it, feels even more pressing. On a daily basis, we see our ancestral and cultural symbols being co-opted by forces of hatred, violence and exploitation. We urgently need new language and imagery that reflect and articulate our highest values, our desired communities, and our actual bodies in a dynamic space that creates a path to collective liberation, and a culture that tends toward justice.
Since its introduction, the Hamsa Flag has been taken in and adopted by a range of communities and organizations: from JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice) to the Program for Jewish Arabic Cultural Studies at Tel Aviv University, as well as by numerous individuals and synagogues for gatherings of solidarity, protest, prayer, and visioning. The following essay, shortened from the original, is meant to serve as an open invitation to co-imagine, co-envision, and collaborate on the next phase of possibilities for the Hamsa Flag in the realms of direct action and community building.
You can find more about the Hamsa Flag at Ayin Press, on Instagram, and on Twitter; and buy it at the Ayin Press store. Feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions, ideas, or desire to connect.
Flag of One State | Flag of Binational State
I first imagined the Hamsa Flag in 2009 while reading an essay in the New York Times about a proposed one-state solution in Israel|Palestine. Up until then, I had only known of the two-state solution, and had abided by the idea that it was integral to the so-called peace process. As soon as I finished the article, I remember having an immediate, almost bodily response: for such a utopia to exist, the flags of both sides would have to be abandoned, and a new flag introduced. I was struck by what I saw as a design flaw intrinsic to the conflict. The design of the flags themselves, distinctly representing both peoples’ states and claims, was blocking our political imagination, forming yet another obstacle in the path toward civil rights, justice, and peace.
At its root, it was a simple thought. I felt that most Israelis would never agree to live under the Pan-Arab colors of the Palestinian flag and most Palestinians would never agree to live under the blue and white–the Magen David–of the Israeli flag forever.
As soon as the thought came, the symbol followed: the hamsa. It was instinctive, intuitive, and absolutely clear: this was the natural symbol of the merging of two peoples. The open palm.
It was a suggestion far more elegant than those proposed by the author of that Times essay–such as renaming the land Isratine. Moreover, it was connected to a larger history, to a wider family of thinkers of all backgrounds who had advocated for a one-state solution, far more reputable than the author, who strangely happened to be former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The proponents of such an egalitarian, one-state or binational solution in Israel|Palestine included Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, who co-founded the organization Brit Shalom in 1927, advocating for Jewish-Arab worker cooperatives on a platform of civil rights for all; and the Palestinian cultural critic Edward Said, exiled in 1948, who wrote about the value and pragmatism of the binational dream; as well as other thinkers across the century from Hannah Arendt to Judith Butler. None of these figures had been canonized, or even included, in the mainstream Jewish discourse and education I had encountered growing up. It became clearer as I followed this line of inquiry that I had been peddled a monolithic Jewish narrative that provided little room for liberatory or creative thought.
The Hamsa Flag
Why this symbol? Jews, Muslims, and Christians, Arabs, Turks, and Kurds, and people in the Balkans and across North Africa have all been wearing the hamsa in some form as a spiritual emblem for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It was a symbol that naturally bypassed otherwise sharp, or deadly, borders of history, culture and identity; in its simplicity, in its familiarity and other-worldliness, it seemed to have the power to unify, to create surprising kinships.
Why a Flag? Why create a new symbol so easily, and often, associated with militarism, colonialism, dogmatism, and hyper-nationalism? How to do it without irony, with humility? How to do it without replicating violent structures of thought and identity? I felt a flag was necessary because a movement would be necessary, because there need to be flags of peace and resistance, flags of the imagination, flags that can say things we cannot yet articulate in words. The flag was not designed as a reaction, or to be entangled in the dialectic of Jew and non-Jew. It was designed with the hope of challenging and ultimately dismantling the violent binaries that underlie the crisis in Israel|Palestine–and to set the stage for something new. The world to come.
Sephardi Flag | Flag of My Ancestors
Where did this symbol come from in me? As a Sephardic Jew, the symmetrical palm reverberated deep in my own ancestral memory. I had seen it in my apartment growing up. It was the gift that hung on my bedroom wall, mailed to me multiple times on multiple birthdays, from my Turkish-Jewish grandparents living in a suburb of Tel Aviv. It was a symbol of my Sephardic heritage. My father’s side of the family is descended from Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the Inquisition. After the expulsion, my family fled to the Ottoman Empire, which had famously opened its borders and welcomed the Jews in flight. Once they arrived, my family remained in the Mediterranean (in modern day Turkey and Greece) for over 400 years.
My family was particularly proud of this story, and looked back at their roots as a kind of exalted heritage. They believed they had come from a glorified age, in Al-Andalus, an era in which Muslims and Jews partnered intellectually and creatively–coexisted–only to have been saved from catastrophe by the Ottoman Empire. Unlike the Jews who had left Spain and Portugal and went to Latin America, who would be pursued by Catholic persecution even through the 19th century, the Jews who had gone back to the Middle East entered a kind of second Golden Age.
I remember once hearing my late grandmother tell a waitress in Ohio–where she lived the final years of her life–that she was from Córdoba, rather than Istanbul, her birthplace, or Tel Aviv, her home of over 60 years. I feel this is a common sense among many Sephardic Jews: that the memory of our seemingly distant Andalusian or Iberian roots were never far off–and that this memory was a kind of talisman that protected them through the treacheries of political history–and even the pains and pitfalls of everyday life.
Ottoman Flag | Post-Ottoman Flag
Under the banner of the Ottoman Empire, even without equal rights, Jews were able to practice their rituals mostly without the fear of persecution felt by the Jews in Europe. Ottoman Jews often lived with close cultural, personal, and economic ties to Muslims and Christians, often studying in the same schools, often co-running businesses. My grandmother tells stories about the Catholic school she attended in Istanbul. In her memory, the school was one third Muslim, one third Catholic, one third Jewish. A teacher there, a nun named Mère Emmanuelle, asked the whole class to write and sing the Shema in 1944 as a prayer for peace and safety for the Jews in Europe. In other words, it couldn’t have been easy, but we all lived together, with our separate languages and rituals, in relative peace.
This normalized experience of coexistence changed in the twentieth century when the Ottoman Empire fell apart following World War I, and Turkish nationalism blossomed in its absence. The sprawling Ottoman territory was annexed and broken up by French and British forces, forming the nation-states we know today: Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Saudia Arabia, etc.
During this time, in the rise of nation-states, my grandmother learned Turkish. She was the first in her family to learn the language, after 400 years living in and around Istanbul. Up to that point, her parents spoke Ladino, Greek, French, and Italian. Turkish was never necessary. Again, the tribes could live together, even within distinct linguistic communities. My grandmother’s own personal transition into nationalized culture was iconic in our family. She was the Valedictorian of her high school class and, for that reason, was asked to deliver a bouquet to the revolutionary leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk when he came to visit her school. This occasion was emblematic of the pride and hope my family had in Turkish nationalist culture, which would in many ways transfer over to a hope and passion for a parallel movement: Zionism.
In the years that followed my first vision of the Hamsa Flag, I went deeper into the study of my ancestry. I learned that the stories and histories of Jews of non-European descent had been suppressed, dismissed, and often brutally erased by the dominant narrative of Israel’s colonial project and the hegemonic Ashkenazi narrative of Jewish identity. This “whitewashing” of Jewish history found partners on the left and the right: from conservative Jews I met in shul who swore by the the rhetoric of The War on Terror, to the progressive Jews I knew in high school who would readily proclaim themselves “pro-peace,” but never say the words “pro-Palestinian.”
The hamsa extended its fingers further into my mind. So I sank deeper into my past. I studied Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), the cousin of Yiddish, spoken by Jews throughout the Mediterranean. I learned about its history of sacred and secular poetics–often belittled in relation to those in Yiddish and Modern Hebrew. I learned about Shabbatai Tzvi, the Jew from Izmir and famed “false messiah,” who was banished from the Jewish community because, among other things, he had mixed Jewish and Muslim rituals. I learned about the profound irony of my last name, Haviv, which had been translated from its Arabic spelling, Habib, in 1948 (and previously from its Turkish spelling, Habip). I thought of this with a backward glance to the 1990s and early 2000s narrative of terrorism, which made suburban Jews I knew fear and hate Muslims and Arabs.
This fear was not just present in the Orthodox shul I briefly attended when I was young, where I heard the first notes of fire and brimstone Zionism, but also in hippie, “peacenik,” guitar-swinging Reform synagogues. Fear and xenophobia was the norm. On the news in the US, we were taught that there was a strict and violent dichotomy between Arab and Jew. This never felt right when I heard it, although I had no language or evidence to explain it. In my twenties, it became easier and easier to learn the words of refusal: how could that be the case if my last name was Arabic and is now Hebrew? How could this be the case if many of the great Jewish scholars–including Maimonides himself–wrote in Arabic? How did the conflict between Muslim and Jewish culture make sense if my grandmother would say mashallah as often as she said mazal tov?
Our language and rituals were never pure, they had always been syncretic; we were always ciphers, never absolute.
This false sense of purity remains one of the most entrenched barriers to building solidarity within our divided Jewish communities and with our allies beyond the Jewish world.
In the words of Sephardi poet Ammiel Alcalay:
Although my family seemed “European,” something was different. My name told me as much. My ancestral myths always spun glorious tales of Sepharad, of al Andalus, of Jews and Arabs, philosophers, poets, alchemists together…But in the Promised Land, it was precisely this part of the Levant that seemed farthest away. The living manifestations of Old Levantine World (the native Muslims and Christians, the Arab Jews) either found themselves completely transformed or walked on as ghosts…. Again, my name provided a clue: In it, Hebrew and Arabic not only existed side by side, but were incorporated into one. My heart and my head, my name: all spoke to me of the possible, while everything around me dictated the impossible.
Flag of Mediterranean | Flag Beyond Border
As I read more, I began to think of the hamsa flag as a symbolic weapon against binaristic thinking of all kinds. I wondered how it could help dismantle the false binaries of Arab and Jew, and possibly offer a more nuanced perspective on the American and European constructs and caricatures of the Muslim and the Jew. I saw it as an icon that demonstrated the irreducible complexity of our origins and pushed against the violent language patrolling the borders around our imagined origins, as well as, above all, the state-disseminated discourse about “the Arabs.” I began to think of what a symbol like this could mean in a broader sense. Could it be the symbol of Muslim-Jewish solidarity? Of a binational state? A symbol of Sephardi/Mizrahi culture and resistance? Could it be a symbol of Mediterranean culture? Or another broader culture that defies binaries and tribal boundaries? Or, finally, as my father–a veteran fighter pilot in the IDF–had daydreamed: a federation of Middle Eastern states. He always thought that Israel’s further acceptance of its “Middle Eastern-ness,” as he put it to me growing up, would bring it closer to its neighbors, to its truth, to itself.
I saw the flag as a meditation on the conditions of hybridity that my ancestors came from: the cobblestoned streets of Islamic Spain, of Al Andalus, to the islands and cities–Salonika, Athens, Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin–that thrived under the Ottoman Empire. These–all prior to the rise of nation-states in the Middle East–were the conditions I imagined would have to be recreated in the utopian end game of Israel|Palestine. I felt that we had taken a painful detour in the twentieth century away from our roots. Somewhere in my mind, between hope and despair, the flag flew.
Flag as Empty Signifier | Flag as Floating Signifier
Yet, however elegantly this symbol presented itself in my mind as a container for such utopian hopes, this abstraction–and the flag I imagined it on–could only invoke a future social and political form that I could not name, and maybe one I could not even comprehend. For one, I still did not know what a one-state or binational state would or should mean in practice. All I had was an image, an open hand, extending itself in my mind’s eye.
I let all these possibilities simmer in my mind for years, unactivated, a private question of identity rather than a public question of action. I lived my secular and relatively privileged American life avoiding every connection to “that place” and the urgency of these questions. And yet, no matter how much I placed the subjects of ancestry and fate to the back of my mind, sometimes (and with greater and greater frequency as the years passed), when the news was particularly damning and horrific, the hamsa flag would literally flash before my eyes.
When a friend told me about how their Palestinian family could not visit their homeland since they were displaced in 1948, while I was able to go there freely–the hamsa flashed in my mind. When I learned that I could not visit a loved one in Lebanon and Kuwait because of the city of my birth, Tel Aviv–the hamsa flashed in my mind. When I saw settler violence, when I learned about the flaws and deceptions of the Israeli dream, the exploitation of Mizrahim, Ethiopians, and other Jews of Color–the hamsa flashed in my mind. Whenever I felt the pain of this “homeland,” the hunger to heal my Jewish soul–the hamsa flashed in my mind, reaching its long symmetrical thumbs toward the borders of sense, identity, family history. The hamsa held my seemingly small life together with my ancestors’ lives, which loomed impressively over me (from my great-grandfather, an Ottoman officer who escorted Theodor Herzl on his first expedition to Palestine and advised him against his choice of homeland, to my great-grandmother who had allegedly banned talk of God in her home at the turn of the twentieth century). But none of these conversations and encounters with my friends or the specters of my ancestors impelled me to act on this idea. They all just heightened my sense of confused, disjointed connectedness that I had been struggling with since I moved from Israel to the United States at the age of three. As an American, I did not feel like I had the permission to take this on as a political project.
Flag of Palestinian Solidarity | Flag of an Anti-Occupation Movement
This feeling changed in 2014 during the siege of Gaza. In response to the pressure of this moment and the rage and betrayal I felt, I got involved in a new organization called IfNotNow. I was invited by a friend who had been inspired by my ruminations on the Hamsa Flag and I quickly found myself in a heated conversation about what Jews could do to stop this reality. Community–even in this space of polarized “not in my name” rage–was still not believable or accessible to me. I began to feel the walls that cut the Jewish community into smaller pieces: walls of difference between observant and non-observant Jews, liberals and radicals, over-educated and working class Jews, Jews with institutional access and those who lived on the margins of Jewish communities for longer than they could remember, etc. This mosaic was not moving; the lack of common language across groups was clearly impeding our ability to face injustice together, let alone build a compelling counter-narrative that could lead us all out of the ongoing political catastrophe.
Within this context, and exacerbated by the deepening knowledge of the open-air prison “we” had created in Gaza, my rage began to feel unplaceable, again, and began to push my sense of disconnection to its farthest limit. I was willing to give up on the Israeli government and ask hard questions about what was being sacrificed by putting our faith in its military industrial complex. I began to question the very basis of Zionism as envisioned by Herzl. So I began to dream again, and the hamsa opened in my mind one more time. My friends with whom I was organizing encouraged me to develop the flag as a symbol of a movement to come, even if the movement seemed far off, or impossible to name, or just plain impossible. Even if I was an absurd–or the wrong–person to take it on.
Yet as I got closer to this project, working with different collaborators in 2014 and 2015, my feeling that I did not have true permission to work on the flag became even more and more acute. I still did not identify as an Israeli, even though I was born in Israel, and I still felt that the conversation belonged to Palestinians above all. The sense of ownership of the narrative, and the ambiguities around who could say what, provoked in me a deep and overwhelming anxiety. And, again, on a pragmatic level, not being a political theorist myself, I still felt shut out from the meaning of the one state or the binational state. How would it function? What were its particulars? Would it be a leftist egalitarian fantasy, such as the one Martin Buber had in mind, founded on socialist values? Would it be a right-wing expression of the full annexation of the land, as it seems today, with endless displacement and real estate speculation?
I again thought back to the coexistence my ancestors experienced under the Ottoman Empire, and I began to wonder if the very form of the nation-state was to blame. Was this social form simply unable to hold my people in all their complexity? If so, how could it hold both Jewish and Palestinian peoples? Was our adherence to a nation-state impeding a path toward something like codetermination or interdependence? I began to think that the nation-state was an inadequate container for the complexity that is us–the shared complexity that might connect us across selves and across tribes. Seeking two states, or a bi-national state, or any kind of new nation, would never address this intrinsic problem.
So again, I turned my attention away from political reality. I drifted more toward the idea that the flag was a post-nationalist symbol, an icon of borderless culture. Former ideas returned: could the hamsa be the flag of the Mediterranean? Of the Levant? Of a federation of Middle Eastern states, as my dad had proposed? Or was it more abstract? Was it the flag of a feeling? Of impossibility? Of imagination itself?
I felt that we had to go beyond Israelis and Palestinians, beyond Jews and non-Jews, in order to expand our sense of the possible. My new idea: we needed to design a new social form before we began to build a truly various movement.
Flag as Poem
The obscurity and strangeness of this undertaking brought me back into the realm of art. Inventing new forms was a Modernist tradition I had been fascinated by, in all its violence and grandeur, from an early age. Could we–through our shared language of ancient forms–accept what history has done to us, and begin to imagine new ways of bringing the world we want into our present-day lived experience?
From 2015 on, I began to think of the flag as a poem—not unlike the poetic object David Hammons, the African-American sculptor and conceptual artist, designed: the Black Nationalist flag. Before it was more broadly adopted, Hammons would fly the flag outside his gallery shows. He described it as a way of demarcating the gallery as a space beyond the laws of the American nation. Conceptualism, for Hammons, brought him into the real, and gave him the latitude to refute and counter his historical context.
Inspired by this, I wrote a book of poetry and nonfiction called A Flag of No Nation, which meditated on my family’s complex history and experience in building the Israeli state as Sephardic Jews, and the existential oscillation between hope and despair that resulted from their participation in the construction of this culture.
I learned about the real and ordinary people who had designed the Israeli and Palestinian flags (a Jewish-American graphic designer from New York; an exiled Palestinian literary society in Istanbul). I saw myself reflected in these ordinary stories of longing and displacement. I, too, was connected to an intimate arts community. I, too, was a kind of designer, working my day job, with my heart thousands of miles away. I wondered why I couldn’t be another ordinary person who could offer an alternative to the prevailing regime of signs that have been hanging over–in turns animating and in turns obscuring–our sense of the possible.
Mystic Flag | Flag of Mystic Politics
A poet friend of mine once said to me: “I can’t speak to the value of the flag; it is not for me to say, it’s not my taste even, but all I can say is that it is clear that you have been ‘called’ to make this, and that needs to be followed.”
I wrote these lines in my first chapbook, which are included in a larger book of poetry and nonfiction being released this fall by Jewish Currents:
CAVE IV 
As the air carves the flag, flag carves the air.
My father learned to make his way in a desert.
A desert is a flattened cave. Like a cardboard
box, taken apart, the desert is. Creates no shadow.
Is completely exposed. We walked across it,
figuring the dirt, figuring those who had brought
us here. The scene is flat. The scene has no depth,
no cave. We lift it inside, inside the song that encloses
the song of collapse. We carry the cave in our arms.
For David Hammons
When the flag covers your head. When it rests on your
vision. When strange night turns into lawful day.
The flag is torn from itself. The flag announces
your name. A flag is pulled from the flag.
What is pulled stands between man
and man, sight and sight. When perception falls
through. Take this sight, into the heart of. Those fruits
that have fallen [pomegranate, orange]. They will lie
on the ground, ripe, for as long as we need them to.
CAVE VI 
As a cave falls behind you, shadow, its contents not
disclosed, but, rather, turquoise, touches the surface
of song. Together, we lift the corners of the light.
The light is tugged taut at its four corners. A roof
forms over our history, and that which is unwritten.
Now we can witness unending space. Lift the corners
of light higher. Let the air stir it. Lift the corners of
earth. Lift the corners of body. Higher. Under the
banner of darkness, we share new light. We practice.
Flag as Question
After numerous iterations, today, I see the hamsa flag as a symbol of resistance, solidarity and collective imagining: for Jews and Muslims, for Mizrahi and Sephardi people, for the imagination of new social/political forms (binationalism, one state, post-nationalism, federationalism, etc.), and above all, for the fight for justice in Palestine.
There is a perpetual stream of emergent and evolving questions that require ever-new voices and fresh perspectives:
What form should it take?
What place or no-place should it represent?
Who will raise and fly it?
What causes will it represent?
A binational state?
A federation of Middle Eastern states?
A flag against nationalism?
A flag of renewed internationalist or post-nationalist movement?
A post-Zionist flag? An anti-Zionist flag?
A flag of Palestinian solidarity?
A flag of Mizrahi & Sephardi solidarity?
A flag of Jewish & Muslim solidarity?
A flag of Palestine?
A flag of the Levant?
A flag of the Mediterranean?
Is it a flag of peace?
Is it a flag of resistance?
Can it be both?
This essay and the flag itself serve as an open invitation to the reader to bring this conversation into their community: What are the symbols of the world to come? What new language do we need to build that world together? How can we do so across the many sovereign borders of identity, history, nation-state and cultural allegiance?
I meet you here, at this point in the Hamsa’s journey, inviting you to co-imagine this with me.
On the Design of The Hamsa Flag
The colors of the flag, turquoise and copper, together signify activation. Copper (Cu) is the element that, once oxidized in water, creates the compound turquoise. Therefore, copper is the source of the activated potential that is turquoise. Taking this further as metaphor, the copper and turquoise flag suggests the potential for political, spiritual, and communal activation inherent within each one of us. Thus the flag’s image reveals an elemental, latent source (copper) resting on the backdrop of an activated turquoise expanse.
In some craft traditions, a turquoise stone is used as an eye at the center of the palm of the hamsa. In the case of this flag, the turquoise eye has been expanded and abstracted into the all-embracing background, creating an ocean or horizon of activated turquoise behind the open palm. The hamsa in this formation is designed to represent a vast, shifting, hybrid community of many tribes (and beyond the very notion of tribe), of many nations (and beyond the very notion of nation), all emerging from a common elemental source.
The hamsa is an apotropaic symbol; a symbol that turns energy away from it (from apo, which means away, and tropos, which means turn, in Greek). The talisman is typically used to protect its wearer from the evil eye; the hamsa in its new formation—on a flag—intends to serve as a collective ward against evil.