This week I decided to systematically examine the graffiti panorama known as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the roads connecting them. My tour offered a healthy dose of what one might call the latest public art, albeit illegally rendered. As with bumper stickers, billboards and the popular television show, "Eretz Nehederet", graffiti reflects a host of trends, issues and divides in the Jewish state.
Photo: Matt Lebovic
Doubt trumps joy
To my dismay, some of the large "Na Nach Nachma" installations along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road have been erased, assumedly by authorities bent on reclaiming concrete. Though not highly observant, I've always enjoyed seeing this religious-based mantra throughout Israel and – on occasion - its Breslover Hasidim-chanters dancing atop a van. I particularly admire Reb Nachman and his followers' connection to joyful living, well expressed by our friends atop the van.
In Tel Aviv, the Nachman graffiti often lives in close proximity to its cousin, "Am Yisrael Chai" (The People of Israel Live). Large red questions marks have recently been added to many of these proclamations, throwing the status of Earth's thirteen-million Jews into question. Maybe it's Tel Aviv's large foreign worker population, or simply its cosmopolitan flavor, but at least one petty criminal wants us to think twice about the Jewish future.
Red hearts and the Hebrew words for "Tolerance, Equality and Love" have appeared in downtown Jerusalem, particularly in the heavily Anglo-inhabited German Colony and Baka areas. Some of these installations live adjacent to the date for last November's Jerusalem gay Pride demonstration, no doubt a response to incitement and actual violence perpetrated by some of Jerusalem's holiest homophobes before the rally. With another Pride rally scheduled for June 21, it's appropriate the municipality has not removed these rejoinders in red.
Photo: Matt Lebovic
What the municipality should - and must - erase, however, are the dozens of "Kahane was Right" declarations scrolled throughout the city. Banned twice by the Knesset for racism, Kahane and his plan to deport all Arabs from Israel represent a gross distortion of Jewish values and Israel's founding ideals. Fortunately for the Foreign Ministry, most of the thousands of Taglit/birthright participants visiting this summer will be unable to decipher these Hebrew words, whether for lack of Hebrew or local political acumen.
The national mood
Jerusalem in recent months has been graced by a wide array of stock art depicting famous personalities. Men (but no women) including Moshe Dayan, Winston Churchill and Kermit the Frog have made their home on electric boxes, support beams and buildings throughout the city center. My personal favorite is Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinjead sporting pink bunny ears, a depiction I connect with eating Haman's ears for Purim and the Jewish knack for making light of our enemies.
Usually devoid of text and randomly placed, the representations offer no apparent political message other than, "Look, it's Kermit the Frog!" Perhaps there is a method to the sprayed madness, however, when one considers public confidence levels in our national leaders, most of whom would kill for Kermit's popularity.
More explicit political graffiti certainly exists, and my personal favorite is a billboard warning against forest fires near the start of Road 443. "Just one fool can burn down an entire forest," reads the text above a half-extinguished cigarette. One of Israel's tallest (or most industrious) public artists has taken the liberty of crossing out the word "forest" and replacing it with "country."
The display was particularly ironic as our Egged bus was only on Road 443 because another bus had caught fire on Road 1 outside Jerusalem, thus closing traffic. Can't blame that on Olmert, right?
Photo: Matt Lebovic
The most curious of all recent graffiti trends might be the hundreds of "aleph-Zion" displays centered in Jerusalem. According to my Hebrew dictionary, this spells the word for "so;" however, the translation far from explains the enigma. Like a Syrian peace offer, "aleph-Zion" calls for probing and analysis, or at least ignoring.
An obvious interpretation would be the recurring, urgent question of, "So, what now?" This "so" – also known as "nu?" in Hebrew - marks the intersection of uninspired leadership and serious security threats which continue to top the national agenda. It is slightly accusatory, coming on the heels of withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza that have led to anything but quiet.
Hundreds of "so's" can be spotted in Jerusalem – on construction signs, traffic circle markers, walls and doors. Often appearing with the stylized tagin crown atop the Zion, these "so's" mirror today's Middle Israeli far better than Nachman, Kermit or Kahane, in-your-face and a little muddled.
Matt Lebovic is an MA student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His blog can be read