It is July 2006, and Israel is at war again with Lebanon. Terrible waves of shelling sweep over densely populated south Beirut and the Israeli army enters southern Lebanon. Small mines, shaped and colored like toys rain from Israeli planes into farmer’s fields, making a deadly harvest. Each day, missiles assail the northern Israeli towns closest to the border. There is little protection for Arab Israelis. Their communities are hit hard. An overwhelming silence about Lebanese casualties engulfs the country—a wall of support-our-troops-bomb-them-into-the-next-century rises up into the air. On Israeli television a few heartfelt cries to please stop the bombing come from Arab Israelis standing in the ruins of their neighborhood, places forgotten long before the war.
I am in Tel Aviv, “Israel’s urban bubble,” where there are no demonstrations. (This is not to say that there are never any protest for peace in Israel. Here’s one from the other day. They’re just hard to find during wartime). At Hagada Smalit, the Left Bank, a cultural center, art gallery and the headquarters of Hadash, Israel’s communist party, a few painted placards lean against the wall in the corner behind the stairwell. Another kind of commentary is emerging on the city’s surfaces—quietly covering the walls and boulevards of particular neighborhoods, and entering into the everyday experiences of walking, riding and driving in the city. Commentary like this:
Am Israel hai: The people of Israel live
Am Israel hai?: The people of Israel live?
Am Israel hai al kharbo: The people of Israel live by the sword
Am Israel hai al heshbon mi?: The people of Israel live, [but] at whose expense?
Tel Aviv is indeed a surprising, confounding place to be during war-time. Despite the city’s absorption of refugees from the besieged north into its homes and hotels, and the signs at restaurants, bars and other shops offering free food and merchandise to refugees, everyday life in the “city that never sleeps” does not appear altered in any significant way. A stroll along the lively boulevards of the city reveal musicians playing at street cafes or sun-darkened French, American and Israeli children building in the sandy surf of the Mediterranean. At dusk lounging on one of the city’s many rooftops, with the darkened water shimmering just beyond the palm-tree line boulevards, and throughout the night, the sounds of construction on the any one of the city’s many new high rises are all that disturbs the peace. There is no great increase in the ubiquitous armed military or police personnel; there is no announcement by authorities for citizens to ready themselves for attack. In the apartment building in which I stay, residents remove their bicycles from the basement bomb shelter (which doubles as a music studio from time to time), and someone brings in two water containers. Within a few days, the bicycles are back and the water jugs removed. Tel Aviv, geographically and psychically, remains in experience a few kilometers outside of the war zone. For this reason, the events and inscriptions that refer to the war, directly or otherwise, are most striking and most difficult to easily categorize or explain.