Spraying for peace in the Middle East
Nathalie Rothschild reports from Hebron on the Western spraycan activists who are graffiting the West Bank.
Many international graffiti artists have travelled to the Palestinian territories to paint slogans and stencils on the concrete separation wall. Banksy, the elusive, anti-capitalist ‘guerilla artist’ is the best-known champion of such spraycan activism. He has, on more than one occasion, traded his usual digs in the English west country for the West Bank, to spray a series of highly priced images on to the concrete wall. Many graffiti artists – of varying talents – have followed his lead, organising days of graffiti activism in places like Bethlehem and Ramallah.
But not all international spraycan-armed peace activists are left-wing, keffiyeh-sporting ‘guerrilla artists’. No, some of them are heading to the Middle East in solidarity with Israel, in particular with right-wing, Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Artists 4 Israel is an artists’ collective set up during the 2008 Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead. Its founder and president, New Yorker Craig Dershowitz, tells me it was ‘an organic outgrowth of creative individuals and artists who sought to show their support for Israel’. Dershowitz has organised trips to Israel for international street artists, mainly American non-Jews who, like the pro-Palestine graffiti activists, have no personal connection to the region. Among these pro-Zionist artists’ objectives are proving to the world that there is support for Israel among the ‘liberal, arts community’ and showing ‘solidarity with the young men and women of the IDF’.
The artists have painted bomb shelters in Sderot, a southern Israeli town that has experienced steady rocket attacks from Gaza, as well as the West Bank separation wall and the streets of Jewish settlement towns Hebron and Ariel. The latter was recently subjected to a boycott by a group of Israeli artists.
Considering that the high-profile West Bank graffiti actions covered by foreign press have been pro-Palestinian, and that artistic boycotts of Israel are more of a rule than an exception these days, I ask Dershowitz whether people are generally surprised to hear of pro-Israeli graffiti actions. He responds that ‘it is only in the media that the idea of artists being anti-Israel exists’.
So does Dershowitz see any parallels between Artists 4 Israel and those non-Arab street artists who come to the West Bank to paint the wall in solidarity with Palestinians? It seems to me that although they are expressing solidarity with people from opposite sides of the conflict, they are trying to achieve similar goals with similar means. Dershowitz’s response is dismissive: ‘If those who work on the “opposite side” keep their work as a cultural dialogue then yes, we share the similarity that we prefer artistic discourse over violence, hate and misinformation. We believe art can heal and change. However, often, on the “opposite side” we see that art is manipulated or paid for by the same sources who fund terrorism and propaganda – we have nothing in common with them.’
Street art in Hebron.
So what does Zionist street art look like? Well, in the embattled West Bank town of Hebron, it has more than a tint of spirituality. Here, murals on bulletproof walls, concrete blocks and army bases depict IDF emblems and colourful ‘tags’. But there is also a mural depicting the meeting between a pair of notorious rabbis, while another shows biblical scenes and others yet depict Jewish holy sites, such as the ancient temple and the tomb of the patriarchs. The paintings were created earlier this year by Artists 4 Peace, following an invitation from Danny Cohen, the local, Brooklyn-raised, rabbi from the orthodox Chabad movement.
I met Cohen around the corner from the tomb of the patriarchs, one of the most contentious sites in the Middle East, which is heavily guarded by military forces. He tells me a main motivation for inviting the street artists over was ‘to give Jewish Hebron a better name… I wish that when people hear “Hebron”, the word “cool” and not “fear” will come to their heads. Hebron is usually associated with religious and political tension and conflict.’
Well, there is good reason for that. In Hebron, some 500 orthodox Zionist settlers, guarded by hundreds more troops, live in the midst of some 160,000 Palestinians. Yet while Israelis and Palestinians live in unusual proximity here, the two populations’ movements are also restricted by checkpoints and barriers. Yet rather than being the constant warzone it is often depicted as, the Israel-controlled part of Hebron has a spooky, sleepy air. It feels at once tense and extremely dull. The old town’s Ash-Shuhada Street, once the main market area, is today a row of boarded-up shops, each end guarded my Israeli soldiers. By the entrance to the Palestinian-controlled part of the town, a sign lists holy sites that can be found there and points out, in demonstrative red letters, ‘Jewish Access Forbidden’.
Of course, it seems highly unlikely that a few colourful murals will change either the image or reality of places like Hebron, where the changing face of Zionism is apparent. Once an ideology associated with, and defended by, secular leftists, today Zionism is only upheld by religious ‘hardliners’ willing to compromise heavily on their living standards in order to further the cause of a establishing a Greater Israel.
A graffiti depiction of the ancient temple.
Inviting a bunch of street artists over is perhaps an effective way of adding some colourful splashes to a monochrome landscape, but it was clearly a demonstrative act to promote the legitimacy of Jewish presence deep in the West Bank. As Cohen put it: ‘We’re here to live in the houses that Jews have lived in for thousands of years, not to fight the Arabs… Jews have been here [in Hebron] since the days of King David. We’re not here because of the 1967 war when we liberated – or, some would say, occupied – the city.’
For the Palestinian population, these graffiti actions, sanctioned by the Israeli military authorities, are seen as a provocation. Cohen tells me that when the artists painted a checkpoint in Hebron, Arab teens threw stones at them. He shrugs his shoulders, saying ‘they were upset about us beautifying the Jewish side I guess’.
Israelis and Palestinians look set to have to live with even more garish graffiti in the future. ‘We are working on another large-scale mission to Israel with a number of the world’s greatest graffiti artists’, Dershowitz reveals. He is also planning to open up the Dershowitz Center for Israel-Inspired Art in Ariel.
Dershowitz and his friends may frown at being compared to pro-Palestinian graffiti activists, yet both crews seem to have a lot in common. These are international outsiders ‘expressing solidarity’ through graphic PR stunts. For both sides, graffiti action trips to the Middle East are an outlet for their own political frustrations, accrued at home but projected on to the walls of Israel and Palestine.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.