Erasing Racism: Arabs and Jews Expunge Racist Graffiti in National Grass Roots Campaign
June 2nd 2009
When Shmulik Merzel lived in Petah Tikva, he passed by a piece of racist graffiti while walking his dog near a public school every day. “Death to the Arabs”, painted in large letters on a wall, was also the message school children saw twice a day on their way to and from school. Merzel tried to get the municipality to erase the offending slogan, to no avail. He even turned to the press but was told it was a shame – but not a news story. These slogans are all over Israel, they said.
Last week, however, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, Merzel’s wish came true – not just in Petah Tikva but all over the country. Teams of Jewish and Arab residents from the Negev to the Galilee gathered in a campaign to cover over racist graffiti (calling for death or expulsion of Israeli Arabs, which is the most prevalent but also racist graffiti targeting other groups) wherever it was found. In some communities, neighbors spontaneously joined in.
What made the difference? Merzel had joined his voice and his desire to that of a grass roots organization. A year ago, Merzel picked himself up and moved to Sderot. “I couldn’t see living safely in Petah Tikva while people in Sderot were suffering Qassam attacks,” he said. In Sderot, he joined Kol Acher (Another Voice), an all-volunteer group working for rapprochement between Jews and Arabs. The group liked Merzel’s idea of a national campaign to counter (and erase) racist graffiti and joined forces with organizations throughout the country – including the Union of Local Authorities in Israel –which urged local communities to cooperate with the effort. SHATIL got involved with the campaign and connected Kol Acher with Qafa, a Bedouin organization in Rahat, which also hosted the ending ceremony in the presence of the mayor.
SHATIL also provided public relations assistance to the campaign.
On the morning of Shavuot eve, the teams fanned throughout the country with cans of donated paint and covered over the offending graffiti. Citizens had written into Kol Acher’s web site, telling them where such graffiti was located in their communities.
Gili Baruch, a community organizer in SHATIL’s Be’er Sheva branch, participated in a team painting over racist slogans on bus stops in the Negev.
“I travel this way every day, and every day I am shocked by how these slogans have become part of the scenery, how accustomed people have become to it, to the point that they don’t even see it,” she said. “In order to wipe out the hostility and hatred it’s important that both sides see they are not alone, that they have partners. That another way is possible. This grass roots collaboration was powerful and real.”
Merzel, 72, who is the retired director of the social education department of the Tel Aviv municipality, agrees that while people may not notice the graffiti because it is so ubiquitous, the hateful messages penetrate and influence us. After the Gaza War, Merzel read an article about Israeli soldiers writing racist graffiti on walls in Gaza.
“I said to myself, maybe these soldiers passed by such graffiti on their way to school as children. And then I knew we had to do something,” said Merzel.
Shavuot was a likely holiday, given that it celebrates the giving of the Torah, which states clearly that people – and not just Jews – are created in the image of God and repeats again and again laws about being kind to the stranger, he said. Campaign materials also stressed the fact that racism violates the tenets of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the Jewish people’s experience in history.
“More than the technical erasing of the graffiti, what was important was bringing this racism to public consciousness,” said Merzel. “We always talk about the existential threat to Israel but no less important is the threat to our soul. “