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.

Tel Aviv. The transliteration of the blue text is ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ (The Nation of Israel lives).

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.

The Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv. The text says ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’

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.’”

West Jerusalem. The text says ‘Derech eretz (respectful treatment of others) came before the Torah.’

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.

Nahlaot, West Jerusalem.

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.”

Outside the Garden Tomb, believed by some to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus, near Damascus Gate, East Jerusalem. The text says ‘Invitation to (interreligious) dialogue.’

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.

Inside a bomb shelter in Sderot.

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.

Louis Promenade, Mount Carmel, Haifa.

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.

Adam G. Heffez is a writer and photographer based in Chicago. Last year, he lived in Israel as a Dorot fellow.
tags: Culture, Israel/Palestine, War & Peace   
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5 Responses to Peace and Conflict through Graffiti in Israel/Palestine

  1. wo September 24, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    The name of the blog attracted my attention as it made me think that you might be bringing graffiti from both sides, Israelis, Palestinians, the occupier and the occupied. However, you might have been trying to be objective, thus did not call it israel or Palestine.
    However, I can not see any palestinian graffiti, and this is really shocking, as (generally speaking) graffitis from ghettos are very powerful and hold many different stories behind their art.
    Even if by palestine israel you meant what is practically now called israel (historical palestine), the west bank has a lot of art to be shown, not necessarily requiring you to go into the neighbourhoods, ghettos and refugee camps of west bank or gaza, just simply jump on the other side of the apartheid wall and check the graffiti drawn on it. Since your blogger, and graffiti is were you interest is situated, i really recommend you to do so, maybe even draw a comparison with ones from the Berlin wall or the ghettos of warsaw.
    I do not want to jump into politics, since this more about graffitis, but you said a very important sentence ”..he ultimate triumph over attempts to annihilate the Jewish people throughout their history.”
    The zionist movement started as a secular movement, many many jews around the world including many arab jews in israel (including Nablus) are against zionism and see it completely against judaism.
    Best of luck mate

  2. Jonathan September 27, 2012 at 5:11 am

    What a totally one-sided piece! Where are the “death to the Jews” and “death to the Arabs”? Why are all the examples Jewish? (Except, possibly, the Jerusalem one.)

    This article should have been subtitled “our reporter with rose-tinted spectacles hand-picks the evidence for two peoples yearning for peace.”

    • Mara Ranian August 20, 2015 at 9:02 pm

      Who knows, the people who really wrote those graffitis were Arabs to demonize Israel! I compared the writings with nice and sloppy ones in Hebrew!

  3. James September 29, 2012 at 12:59 am

    I second Jonathan’s comments. How can you claim to be covering both Israeli and Palestinian voices when your token Arabic example is some general call for dialogue? Moreover, these examples you have selected are mere platitudes that reflect little of the current political climate in Israel and the occupied territories. What about price-tag attacks? You also do not address at all the innovative ways Palestinian street artists are making their presence known in Jerusalem and elsewhere in ’48.

  4. James September 29, 2012 at 11:57 am

    This is not peace and conflict as told through the graffiti of Israel/Palestine, but rather an overview of Jewish graffiti. Anyone who has walked through the streets of the Old City or Jaffa knows that the diversity of graffiti is far greater than what you have selected. Indeed, it is really amazing to see how Palestinian street artists have managed to keep their connection and attachment alive through choosing symbols affiliated with their national cause, i.e, strategic placement of the Jaffa orange or emblazoning an image of Mahmoud Darwish on the side of a building. Or one of my personal favorites was walking through the Old City at night and finding “Yes to hunger, no to surrender,” inscribed in Arabic, in solidarity with the spate of hunger strikes by Palestinian political prisoners this spring. This piece is also severely lacking in that it does not address the price-tag attacks, and in effect, you fail to cover much of the current political discourse in Israel and the occupied territories.

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