By Daniela Porat
Graffiti plays a unique role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s not simply an expression of political beliefs, or an act of rebellion. Street art empowers each nation to engage with the conflict’s core issues and traumas.
Adam Heffez, a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has documented these visual debates in his book Words and Walls: Social Commentary through Graffiti in Israel and the West Bank.
In a conversation with Toronto Review contributor Daniela Porat, Heffez speaks about graffiti’s significance in helping Israelis and Palestinians cope with the conflict and, to some extent, participate in a process of reconciliation often absent from high-level peace talks.
A lot of these images exist in conversation with another image. How did these conversations work? Did you discern any rules?
It depends on who you are, and it depends on what you want to create. A lot of people who have frustrations that are in the moment, or they want to express an immediate hope, they’ll just write whatever is on the top of their head with spray paint. In terms of the West Bank, they actually have coordinated events in Bethlehem, basically every Saturday morning, where everybody comes out with their ladders and paint buckets, and they contribute to the community’s building of what they call the “Wall Museum,” which are a bunch of murals on the Wall that are done in cooperation with other international artists expressing local sentiments. So those are more organized events. But in terms of why graffiti is so great is that there are no rules, and that’s why it’s so spontaneous, so raw, and anonymous in a way that brings out honest emotions in a form that that can’t be expressed otherwise, especially in a region that’s defined by extremists on either side.
Has there been an Israeli response to the “Wall Museum”?
Interestingly enough, no. I think what Israeli graffiti is reflective of is the desire to forget about the Other – the desire to live a normal life, and in order to do that, drown out the voices of Palestinians who are living a stone’s throw away. So the Wall is not something they really engage with on a regular basis, versus for Palestinians that’s a very important part of their reality.
Now, some Israelis don’t have the luxury of forgetting about the conflict, principally in Sderot. Remember it’s a luxury to forget about the conflict and to discuss things like schisms in the Jewish community, gay rights, and immigrant rights. Those are luxuries. But many communities don’t have that luxury, like Sderot and other communities along the Gaza border. For example, there is a campaign that was part of a larger campaign that was called Zionism 2011 on Kerem Shalom, which is the exact spot where Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. There is this whole effort by the kibbutz to bring people or motivate people to move to the kibbutz and it’s a tough sell. It’s along the Gaza border, the Yasser Arafat international airport is right on the other side of the barrier, it’s a military zone, etc. So they paint snowmen, Christmas trees, fun childhood images on their side of the barrier in order to get people to overcome their fears. It’s a very different way of engaging.
Do you consider graffiti an effective form of non-violent protest?
I don’t know if I would call it a form of protest over there. I think what I would call it is a way to alert people to issues that would otherwise not come to the fore. And those in turn may awaken people to issues that do warrant some protest movement and some type of social activism or change. So graffiti plays a vital role in that region in awakening people. It’s an awakener. And I know the Israelis do see it in that way. I was talking to former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers whose principal role in the region was to cover up or wash over graffiti that was painted in Palestinian villages beside settlements because a lot of times that was an inciter to people, because it alerted people to a certain family struggle, for example, and that got people riled up and in turn they took action. A lot of the IDF’s role in Hebron is to cover up settler graffiti that is embarrassing to the state of Israel before it can be seen by the international community. These are things like “gas the Arabs” or “Arabs are sandn***”. In the village of Nebi Salih, which is sandwiched between two settlements in the West Bank, there is a huge protest movement that is surrounding a piece of land that is around a well that they claim used to be part of a Palestinian farmer’s land. It was discussed in a New York Times article called “Will the third intifada begin here?” With regards to that protest movement, there is a lot of graffiti painted about the Tamimi family, also mentioned in the article, which is a family of which several members have been put into jail for questionable reasons, and in order to quell that protest movement the army went in and covered up some of this graffiti.
People do realize on both sides that graffiti does have a tangible power in the region as an awakener and an inciter. It’s an important one on both sides to illuminate people’s struggles that haven’t been heard. Sderot has been pelted with bombs, Katyusha rockets from Gaza ever since early 2000s, but we never really started talking about it until 2005/2006 when Hamas got elected. Throughout this time residents of Sderot had painted on walls the word for “now” or “until when”. These are very in the moment cries that weren’t heard by the rest of their people because the centres of power in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv weren’t really feeling the traumas they were feeling.
I like what you said about the value of graffiti acting as an ‘awakener.’ I think that is characteristic of art in general, and what’s so great about graffiti, as you say, is that it’s for everyone and by everyone.
It’s a conversation between the artist and the public that’s seeing it, and also between the artists themselves.
In one part of the book you discuss images of Leila Khaled, the Palestinian and, depending on what side you’re on, freedom fighter or terrorist. And I find that dichotomy interesting in comparison to the image of the Israeli soldier as either occupier or defender of the nation. It’s fascinating that the same image can be consumed in very different ways by two different populations. Did you find any examples where these divergences came into dialogue?
I think what’s interesting, even more so than the contrast between how images are perceived in both populations, is how images are perceived within populations. The dialogue and the healthy debates that are sparked by these images such as Leila within the Palestinian Territories is a fascinating issue in itself. For example, just starting conversations with passersby in the street, which is exactly the audience of graffiti, about these images of Leila. Some Palestinians brought up the fact that she was hero and drew attention to the cause. Others debated that fact and said that she serves to discredit the struggle with questionable maneuvers against the Israelis. So that conversation about the nature of terrorism, and the role that it plays in either bringing the Palestinian struggle to the fore, or discrediting the Palestinians in the international community, is a really interesting dialogue that graffiti sparked. I think graffiti plays a role in civil society and engaging populations that don’t necessarily agree on all these issues, but who we in the international community see as monolithic. Graffiti really engages civil society in debates that affect them in the struggle for existence on both sides.
There are also stories on the Israeli side. For example how they’re treating refugees. That’s a huge debate now in Israeli society that’s really been brought to people’s attention through graffiti. A lot of the graffiti about African refugees is in north Tel Aviv, where you can go all day and not see African refugees, who live in south Tel Aviv primarily. This makes people not forget about issues occurring in other places, not only in other countries but in their own city. In terms of the African refugee, talking to passersby on the street who were looking at a very provocative graffiti around this issue, that involved a comparison between Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, and a boy who was about to be deported from the Warsaw ghetto to a concentration camp. This is very strong imagery, especially in an Israeli context. This sparked the question among a lot of people: have the roles turned? Once Jews were the ones who were turned away form other countries in a time of dire need, and now in a terrible irony, the roles have been reversed. Now they are the ones turning people away. How do we handle that question? I think graffiti makes people not ignore that question because it brings these issues into their neighborhood while they’re very much segregated spatially and geographically otherwise.
What’s great about the graffiti in a lot of the examples you showcase in the book is that some historical imagery that we may associate with the suffering of Jewish people are now associated with the suffering of others, and vice versa. There is one photo that you took of Palestinians fleeing in 1948, and seeing that image in another context, you might say, ‘Oh, well that image looks like Exodus.’
Absolutely. Human experience has so much in common with each other.
What was one of the most powerful images you encountered?
There is an artist who put band-aids in spots where significant traumas happened, either these are crimes on the street or larger terrorist bombings. This graffiti is found principally in Tel Aviv. I think that the message is so powerful and so reflective of the mentality of Israeli society. The way that you win is not by fighting back. It’s by healing. Israelis, especially in Tel Aviv where there is this huge, powerful will to live a normal life, and in order to do that you have to forget about those trials you went through in the past, especially during the 2nd intifada. That image sums it up.
Another significant one, actually this one is probably the most powerful one, is in Kiryat Menachem, which is a very, rather poor neighborhood in the southwest outskirts of Jerusalem. It was on a bus station that was the site of a bombing, which you probably read in the book. It says on the roof, “we shall fill our mouths with laughter,” a very ironic slogan for a place where such a terrible atrocity took place. This bus station is still running, which I think attests to the spirit of Israelis and the fact that, yes there is retaliation, but everyday people, the way that they win is by moving on, and by maintaining their lifestyle. I think that “we shall fill our mouths with laughter” shows that incredible will to maintain a normal life despite their circumstances.
In terms of the Palestinian side, the most powerful piece of graffiti for me, was a Palestinian graffiti that was on the Wall. I didn’t feature a lot of graffiti from the Wall because a lot of that graffiti is done by foreign artists, and I wasn’t so interested in those for the book. It said “Warsaw 1943, Compton 1995, and Bethlehem 2005.” So just the list like that that evokes a lot of thought. There is a huge backlash in the Palestinians Territories to what is called the Naqba Law in Israel. Basically, this financially sanctions schools if they discuss the Naqba in the context of the Israeli war of independence. So there’s a movement on the Palestinian side to remember the Naqba through graffiti and to counteract these efforts on the Israeli side to drown out that part of their narrative. And I think that’s a really powerful statement, comparing the Jewish ghetto to the African American ghetto, which is an attempt to internationalize their conflict, to the Palestinian ghetto. That really shows the Palestinian’s commitment to keeping their Naqba alive and relevant, 60 years later. I think the message I got from that is that they don’t see the Naqba as some event, some tragedy that occurred in 1948. They see history very differently from Israelis. Israelis try to move on. Palestinians try to remember it and to keep past events as a continuum, (a) 60-year perpetration (of) what they see as atrocities against their people. That comparison between Palestinians and Israelis, how they see their realities, how they see the process of dealing with their history: Israelis moving on versus Palestinians constantly remembering, everyday, that the Naqba is not just something that occurred to them in 1948, but something that has continuously occurred since that day to the present day.
You could argue, however, that Israelis see their own tragedy as the Holocaust, and in some extreme discourse, the Holocaust is spoken of as something on a continuum, as something that can happen any day, and that, to some people and politicians, serves as a justification for certain policies. This gap between the Israeli present and the Jewish past hasn’t been reconciled.
Right. Versus Palestinians, (who) are forced to reconcile with it everyday. The graffiti really shows where they are as people and as nations and their process for attaining what they hope to attain. Israelis are just far more secure and along in their process and in terms of national fulfillment that they can address these issues and remember their history in really different ways.