The Writing On The Wall


What do Israel’s left-wingers and right-wingers, religious zealots and punk rockers, sports fans and cynics have in common?

All of them apparently feel quite comfortable strolling up to a wall in a public place with a can of spray paint and leaving behind their sometimes quite elaborate messages.

To stroll the country’s urban streets is to instantly learn what’s ticking off the locals, from the lousy performance of the prime minister or a sports team, to rising prices to the shortcomings of someone’s romantic partner.

During a recent visit I was struck not only by the abundance of graffiti around the country, but the diversity of messages.

In a Tel Aviv square not far from where Yitzchak Rabin was slain, an optimist painted Am Yisrael Chai, the nation of Israel lives, while a later pessimist replaced chai with meit, for dead.

On a street that connects the secular center of Jerusalem with fervently Orthodox strongholds Geula and Mea Shearim, a soccer enthusiast painted the name of his favorite team. Less than a block later, a defender of the faith warned immodestly dressed women to steer clear (though a more polite billboard saying essentially the same thing hung nearby).

Across the country, from the Tel Aviv bus station to as far away as northern Nahariya, it’s hard to escape the slogan “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman.”

Appearing to the uninitiated as gibberish, it’s actually a mantra used by Breslov chasidim. The mantra is said be inspired by their sect’s founder, Rabbi Nachman, an advocate of meditation (though probably not of vandalism.)

A less tranquil but equally ubiquitous slogan is “Kahane was right,” a reference the slain Jewish Defense League leader’s anti-Arab views.

Visit Sderot, and you’ll likely come across a few choice words for Ariel Sharon, who relinquished Gaza, and his successor, Ehud Olmert, faulting them for the ongoing Palestinian missile barrage.

Artistic murals and subway-style “tags” are not unheard of in Israel, but messages are far more common. Most are rendered in black paint and in large script Hebrew letters rather than the block letters used in signs. The oddest example I encountered was on a series of electrical boxes around the center of Jerusalem in which someone had painted the entire aleph-bet, evidently with the use of a stencil. Someone’s idea of an education initiative, perhaps.

In a region as politically and physically volatile as the Middle East, abundant graffiti as a sort of underground newspaper isn’t uncommon or surprising. But Israel has a free press that is rich with criticism of the government. So it may be surprising that so many Israelis are compelled to spray-paint their gripes.

Then again, we Jews are known to be somewhat fanatical about expressing opinions.
“Because of the [upcoming] Annapolis convention, people are becoming more extreme politically,” says Haifa University sociology professor Oz Almog. “Jerusalem, in particular, has a large number of extremists, so you will see more of this kind of graffiti. Also, because people object to Olmert, generally.”

Graffiti has a history in Israel going back to biblical times. The Western Wall was said to be inscribed with passages from Isaiah, and before Israeli control of Jerusalem, portions of the Kotel had Hebrew names painted on it from the 1800s.

A famous inscription at Jerusalem’s Shar Hagai during the War of Independence made Palmach fighter Baruch Jamili a household name, and the subject of a folk song. The name, date, unit and initials for Petach Tikva (his hometown) he left while guarding a water pump was preserved as a war memorial for nearly 40 years, until a water company controversially removed it in 1984.

Political and social graffiti in Israel surged following the Rabin assassination, and the security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank is a particularly inviting target for messages and artwork, as is the border with Gaza.

First Lady Aliza Olmert, a noted painter who presumably prefers canvas to Jerusalem stone, has shown a fascination with graffiti, taking hundreds of pictures of the illicit art and displaying it in an exhibition and in a book, “Wall Language,” published last summer.

My own fascination began during a visit over a decade ago when I found an elaborate political joke sprayed on the wall of a building on a quiet Jerusalem side street lined with cafes and bars. The off-color, election season joke played off the names of several political parties and, in particular, the slogan that Likud was using at the time. Some of it may be lost in translation, but it read: “The lazy to Labor, the tired to Meretz (determination), the dead to Techiya (resurrection) and the impotent to Likud, because only Likud can.”

During the same trip I saw one of the last things one expects in Israel: a synagogue vandalism. On a wall outside Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, someone who was evidently both fed up and Sephardic posited: “Enough, enough of Ashkenazi racism.”
We New Yorkers know about graffiti, now elevated to a fine art here after being all but banished from the subways.

When I was a kid, it was the rare B train that rolled into my Brooklyn station with bare metal unblemished by dozens of intricate tags. Classic New York graffiti was never about politics or religion but self-expression by people who felt overlooked by society (which is not to justify their crime). The MTA and the city under Ed Koch waged war on graffiti in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, stiffening penalties and using cars that were harder to tag and easier to clean. Compulsive vandals have now moved on to “scratchiti,” etching on the windows.

Municipal officials rightly sees it as a serious quality-of-life crime that hurts the city’s self-image as much as it hurts the wallets of property owners.

Israeli police haven’t waged a similar war on graffiti, but neither do they look the other way.

Israelis convicted of defacing property can spend up to a year in jail, and 486 people faced that charge in 2006, as reported in an excellent article by Esther Hecht on Israeli graffiti in Hadassah Magazine last March.

Chief Inspector Mickey Rosenfeld, national spokesman for Israel’s police, told me in a phone interview that patrolling for graffiti there is largely the jurisdiction of youth crime officers, and mostly on weekend nights, when such crimes proliferate.

In addition, “there are always many police officers on the street both in regular patrols and undercover, ready to deal with regular crime and arrest individuals who are causing public damage.”

Then how to explain large, lengthy messages like the above political joke, that could take several minutes to paint, left in open spaces by people seemingly unconcerned about a cop passing by? There’s an obvious comfort level among perpetrators.

“You have to understand,” said Rosenfeld, “we deal with a lot more serious incidents, such as terrorism. It’s hard to give something like this the same amount of time and effort.”

But Almog of Haifa University says that if Israeli cops are soft on low-level crime like graffiti, it’s not just because of preoccupation with security.

“Because Jewish history is at the center of our Israeli mentality, we react to criminals, especially when they are young, in a very moderate way,” says Almog. “In America you are free, until you cross a line and are punished. Then there is no negotiation. But in Israel, if a policeman catches you, you can discuss it with him. Maybe a relative served with him in the army or knows his wife. It’s a big, huge family.”

And that may be a bigger commentary about Israeli society than anything written on the walls.