ISRAEL: Erasing racism


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People are often told to heed ‘the writing on the wall,’ danger signs warning something is amiss. It is almost a cliche. But some writings on the wall are literal, and this week, a group of Israelis has decided to take them seriously and clean up the country’s walls -- and act.

From the Bible to Israel’s Scroll of Independence to plain common sense, Jews are commanded to coexist with and have compassion and tolerance for the Other: neighbors, converts, widows, orphans, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised or otherwise different. But years of troubles and political and religious divisions have worn down whatever natural tolerance Israelis may have had for others, and this is reflected throughout the country on walls bearing hateful graffiti. Some are just spiteful, others downright racist.


Israel has legislation against incitement -- incitement to violence, incitement to racism. But it is a tricky thing. Many, particularly among the left, argue that authorities are lax in enacting anti-incitement legislation. Others, mostly to the right, feel it is enforced in a one-sided manner, with the other camp comfortably protected by freedom of expression. The debate has an annual flare-up around the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed in 1995 by a religious Israeli Jew, a law student who believed he had a rabbinical dispensation.

The fine line between freedom of speech and the right to protest, and just how to manage a genuine ideological dispute without falling over the edge, is a challenging and sneaky business.
Last year, a soldier was thrown into the slammer for yawning inelegantly during a memorial ceremony for Rabin at his army base. The overreaction reflects a panicked confusion, a gratuitous throwing of the book while letting flagrant expressions slide elsewhere.

Israelis are quick to recognize discrimination and racism when they are the target but can be tone-deaf when others are victimized. Decades of passing by graffiti declaring ‘Kahane was right’ and ‘Death to Arabs’ have desensitized people, who don’t give the hateful scrawls a second look while walking down the street and down the slippery slope toward general intolerance.

Graffiti against Arabs are the most common, but there are plenty of others debasing Jews, homosexuals, the religious and secular. And there are the swastikas too.

‘Erasing Racism’ was initiated by Other Voice, a grassroots organization of citizens from Sderot and the Gaza Strip area dedicated to citizens’ initiatives for forging a better future of hope and nonviolence for the region, and carried out by an ad hoc umbrella of social organizations. Hundreds of volunteers took to the streets to paint over dozens of racist graffiti reported by citizens by phone or special Web form, with hopes of erasing hate etched on public walls before they become permanently etched in young hearts and consciousness.

Shmuel Marzel of Other Voice managed the project. He defines as racism any act directed against a group defined by a particular belonging, religious or ideology. The project’s aim is not only to erase these slogans technically but also to erase the notion of their permissibility from people’s consciousness and create the awareness that this is not normal and that it is immoral and intolerable, he told Israel Radio this week. Marzel was particularly frustrated over a ‘Death to Arabs’ graffiti near a school in Petah Tikva, which he’d reported to the authorities several times. Children have passed it twice a day for years; these messages sink in, he warns.


The project was accompanied by a charter against racism, signed by Jews and Arabs in a ceremony held in the Bedouin town of Rahat in the Negev. ‘We, Arabs and Jews, citizens of Israel, hereby declare we shall take action to remove racism from our streets and hearts,’ states the parchment, signed by the municipalities of Beersheba and Rahat and the NGOs Other Voice and Kafa, the Assn. for Social Change in the Negev.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photos, top to bottom:

  1. Eric Yellin of Other Voice and Ibrahim Hasnat of Kafa. Credit: Julian Chaitin
  2. Signed charter. Credit: Eric Yellin