Peace and Conflict through Graffiti in Israel/Palestine
Graffiti is the most anonymous, intimate expression of how people in Israel/Palestine interact with their reality. The images below chronicle my journey in search of hope and understanding throughout this war-trodden region, narrated in graffiti.
The words Am Yisrael Chai (the Nation of Israel lives) are packed with meaning and emotion for Israelis, who rejoice in the existence of the State of Israel, the ultimate triumph over attempts to annihilate the Jewish people throughout their history. The red image beside it negates the patriotic statement with a hammer smashing the Magen David (Star of David).
Graffiti engages competing Israeli and Palestinian voices in a conversation through art—between Am Yisrael Chai on one end, and the battered Magen David on the other. Such images tell a story of two rival societies narrated through their graffiti, one of the most uncensored expressions of their future hopes. Graffiti artists are not people with money, power, and influence, but rather common individuals trying to shape their surroundings, make sense of their lives, and find an outlet for anger and frustration. The images I share here do not come from the soapbox of the elite, but rather from the souls of citizens.
This graffiti advocates for a peaceful future in which Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. As Gal Alon, a resident of the hipster Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin says, Jews and Arabs cannot just tolerate each other. “To tolerate” in Hebrew comes from the verb “to suffer” (לובסל). “We will remain enemies unless we upgrade ‘tolerance’ into a ‘brotherhood.’”
Near a furiously religious neighborhood of West Jerusalem, this graffiti calls on Jews to interact well with each other and not just with God. The Torah was not made to be a constitution for a nation. It came down to the Jewish people to constitute a way of life for a community free of responsibility for internal and external security, an economy, a military, minorities, and other issues. It was easier for Jews to embrace derech eretz when this was assumed to mean treatment of fellow Jews in a respectful way.
The existence of Israel raises an important question: how do Jews move from the Torah of the ghettos of Europe—where they didn’t have control over any of these issues—to the Torah of the state? The saying “Respectful treatment of others takes precedence to the Torah,” which comes from the midrash (interpretations of Jewish texts), suggests that people cannot personify the Torah until they demonstrate respectful treatment in everything that they do. This is a challenge to some segments of the orthodox community who at times seem insensitive to their fellow Jews who are not practicing the commands (mitzvot) of Torah. But it might equally be a challenge to those secular Jews who are so critical of the orthodox lack of tolerance, but seem at times oblivious to the cries of pain of their fellow Israeli citizens who are Palestinians, not to mention those who live under Israeli occupation.
The text in this image reads:
As long as deep in the heart
The human soul yearns
Inside, backwards, and forward,
To justice, an eye sees
Our hope will not be lost
The hope of the dawn of days
To be cool in our land
The land of [crossed out] and Israelis
Graffiti not only expresses peaceful ideas about how Jews should relate to one another, but also about how they should relate to the Arab “Other.” The artist of this image rewrites the lyrics of Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah (The Hope), so that they don’t alienate the one-fifth of the country’s citizens who are Arab. The official version of the anthem speaks of the yearning of the “Jewish soul” for “Zion.” This modified version speaks of the yearning of the “human soul” for “justice.” Thus, this graffiti proposes more inclusive lyrics so that HaTikvah can be sung with pride by all of Israel’s citizens.
Changing HaTikvah to include the Arab minority—to be a universal Israeli anthem rather than just a Jewish Israeli one—calls into question the country’s identity as a “Jewish” state. This graffiti reflects the belief that Israel should not compromise its democratic character for the sake of preserving its “Jewishness.”
It is an enduring tragedy that Jerusalem, regarded by Jews as the “City of Peace” and by Muslims as al’Quds (the holy), has so often been a city of war—from biblical times, to the Crusaders, and until the present day. The city of an all-good, all-merciful and all-just God has become the vortex of an unrelenting conflict. As this graffiti in East Jerusalem suggests, while religion complicates the problem, it can also inspire a solution.
Since 2005, when Israel unilaterally evicted and dismantled its Gaza settlements in what is called the “disengagement,” thousands of low-precision rockets have been fired on Sderot and the surrounding area. These rockets are called “Qassams,” named after the military arm of Hamas that launches them, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. When the words “Code Red” blast on the loudspeakers, residents have only fifteen seconds to get to a shelter before a Qassam explodes. Inside the striking zone of these rockets, it is better Code Red than dead.
There is no place more apt to call for “Peace Please” than inside a bomb shelter. Sderot and Gaza, two traumatized neighbors, will one day require one peace.
On one of the most serene promenades in Israel, etched into the slope of Haifa’s Mount Carmel, a graffiti equates hate with pigs, an animal that is not Kosher, and thus not allowed.
“Israelis can’t just physically survive,” said Naomi Chazan, a former member of the Knesset. “Survival is dependent on the continuation of our values: the acceptance of others—Arab and Jewish—democracy, and religious tolerance.”
Haifa was the final stop on my journey in search of hope and understanding, narrated through graffiti—a form of public testimony by Israelis and Palestinians of the realities in which they live. Their walls tell the story of two peoples trying to make sense of their tangled world.