Someone in crowd holds up Stop Bombing sign with image of watermelon
People wave Palestinian flags and hold up an image of a watermelon as they gather for a protest in Berlin on Oct. 28, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

How the watermelon wound up as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism

(JTA) — When the social media watchdog group StopAntisemitism this week posted a photo of actor Jennifer Garner’s daughter, it called attention to her sweatshirt, which showed a watermelon cut into the shape of a map.

The group took offense at the map — meant to display the shape of Palestine — saying that it “erases the entire country of Israel,” envisioning a Palestinian state in the territory that now encompasses Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

StopAntisemitism was mocked by many people for raising alarm over a picture of fruit. But the sweatshirt featured one of many graphics that have established watermelons as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism that dates back decades and has seen a resurgence during Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza.

Watermelons are linked with Palestinian activism because their colors — red, black, white and green — match the colors of the Palestinian flag. That symbol became widespread during the decades when Israel banned the waving of the Palestinian flag in Gaza and the West Bank. In lieu of the banner, Palestinians would use pictures of watermelons “as a metaphor for the Palestinian flag and to circumvent the ban,” prominent Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani, who was in his 20s when the first intifada began in 1987, told the Washington Post in 2021.

In the 1980s, Sliman Mansour, a Palestinian artist, reportedly had an exhibition shut down by the Israeli military because the works featured the colors of the Palestinian flag. Mansour has recalled in subsequent years that the officer told him even a picture of a watermelon would be illegal. According to the New York Times, Mansour included a painting of a watermelon in a 1987 book of Palestinian folk tales.

Israel allowed the display of the Palestinian flag after the Oslo peace accords in 1993, and contentions over their display receded. But the symbol experienced a revival earlier last year, before the war broke out, when Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s far right minister of national security, attempted to ban public displays of the Palestinian flag as the country became convulsed with protests against far-reaching judicial overhaul proposed by the government.

In June, the Israeli activist group Zazim purchased ads on shared taxis in Tel Aviv that displayed a watermelon alongside the text “This is not a Palestinian flag.”

Watermelon depictions have proliferated since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, and the watermelon emoji has become a signifier of pro-Palestinian sympathies on social media over the last three months. The symbol has in turn sparked controversy for its offensive meaning in another context.

The New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America used it on a poster to call out the pro-Israel position of U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Hakeem Jeffries’ constituents demand ceasefire now!” said the poster, with a depiction of a huge watermelon slice, calling for a Nov. 17 rally.

That backfired: The fruit is also seen as a bigoted reference to Black people, something Jeffries’ spokesman seized upon.

“The watermelon has long been deployed as a dehumanizing racist trope by white supremacists in America,” Andy Eicher told the New York Post. “In connection with the planned rally targeting our district office, the use of racially inflammatory imagery should come as no surprise given the role NYC-DSA and other gentrifiers have played in aggressively attacking Black elected officials.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.