Political Graffiti Wars in a Tel Aviv Neighborhood

Meet Zipa Kempinski, a journalist whose documentation of Florentin's street language yielded 50,000 pictures and plenty of good stories.

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The graffiti with the picture of  Lubna al-Hanash.
The graffiti with the picture of Lubna al-Hanash.Credit: Zipa Kempinski
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

Let us begin with the story of one bit of graffiti on the walls of the Florentin neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. In January, the scribbles appeared on a wall and in less than three days a group of unknown people who forged a strange alliance of liberating evil between them – covered the walls of Florentin with abusive graffiti against the African migrants and refugees.

“The infiltrators are a cancer,” “deportation now,” “this is not Africa, the people demand deportation,” “don’t despair, the deportation is soon,” and as it seemed impossible not to hate Arabs too: “Terrorists should be killed, infiltrators must be deported.”

These statements aroused a response and were quickly covered up in a variety of ways, usually by replacing the word “infiltrator” with the word “racism,” so the corrected graffiti appeared as: “Racism is cancer.” On one wall, at 11 Florentin Street, a multi-stage battle took place: On December 3 the first writing appeared: “Infiltrators = Cancer.” On December 5, the first change was made: “The infiltrators are people, Racism = Cancer.” On December 26, a second change was made: A partial erasure left a somewhat ungrammatical message once again calling “infiltrators cancer,” with the addition of “don’t despair, the deportation is near.”

On December 29, a third variation appeared: All the graffiti was covered over with paint and hearts, with a title was painted above it that said: “WE R 1.” Alongside it in pink, the words "Love replaces hate," were scrawled. On Abarbanel Street, a surprising twist appeared. The word infiltrators was replaced and the graffiti read: “Corporations are cancer,” and “Jerusalem is now for everyone.”

The person who is following the political graffiti in the small Florentin neighborhood and who has put together a file documenting it is Zipa Kempinski, a journalist and former senior editor at the Hadashot and Maariv newspapers. For five and a half years she has been wandering the beloved neighborhood where she has lived since 1993. In an archive dated and indexed on her computer, she has collected about 50,000 pictures of graffiti snapped by cellphone.

“I am a researcher on my own behalf,” she said in an interview with Haaretz. “A bit in the spirit of journalism, maybe even a micro-local paper. I stand at a certain spot on the street and record.”

For years Kempinski has passed through the streets of Florentin, sat in her favorite cafe, gone to the neighborhood grocery store – all as a matter of routine. But at the end of September 2011, the framework of her comfortable life changed drastically. A tragedy happened in her family and a favorite relative passed away.

I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t sit at home, she says. “The sorrow and the pain and the shock shook me so much that I was unable to do anything,” Kempinski said.

“I was in shock and began wandering around the streets of Florentin. Walking, walking, walking. Automatically walking. Slowly I was taken in by the graffiti. There is a feeling of revelation when you walk alone and suddenly notice a picture that captures your eye. There is something arousing in it. I took out my cellphone from my pocket and began to photograph.”

“The day-to-day photography was random. I wandered, observed. With time the pictures accumulated, and phenomena were revealed. My view, my 'if I try to escape it,' remains in the end a journalistic view, pointed and focused. There are days I take 300 pictures. Let’s say 10 of them are worth something? That’s pure profit on my part,” she says.

A dialogue of defacement

Last month, the Red House (the Sheikh Murad House) an alternative cultural center in the Shapira section of south Tel Aviv, opened a solo exhibition of Kempinski's work. The exhibition, entitled “The House is Burning and Grandma is Brushing her Hair,” was at the invitation of Oren Fisher, the center's director. Kempinski hung a few of her most intense photographic investigations of the graffiti. The timing was not a coincidence, because the exhibition marks 50 years of the occupation.

In her clusters of photographs hung on the walls, Kempinski tries to show the efforts to erase the injustices of the occupation alongside the additions, such as hatred of the stranger, expressions of nationalism and racism that have spread in Israeli society.

“It’s pathetic to think that my exhibition will be effective. Certainly it will not help the family of Lubna Munir al-Hanash, who was shot in the head on January 23, 2013. The graffiti concerning her shocked me.”

According to an investigation by B’Tselem, al-Hanash, 21-years-old at the time, visited her relative Suad Jarah, resident of the Al-Aroub refugee camp. They walked the paths of the garden of the nearby technical college and at around 2:30 P.M. in the direction of the college gate, which is on Route 60. From there, al-Hanash was supposed to go home.

But when they were about 100 meters from the gate, shots were fired at them. Jarah noticed the soldier who was shooting at them as he stood alongside the road on the other side of the gate. Al-Hanash was wounded in her head and Jarah in her hand. They were evacuated separately to the al-Ahali Hospital in Hebron, where al-Hanash died of her injuries.

The B’Tselem report states that Lubna’s father, Munir al-Hanash, petitioned the High Court of Justice on April 10, 2014, with B’Tselem, seeking an order the Military Adjutant General to decide whether to put those responsible for his daughter’s death on trial. On June 29, 2014, the military prosecutor closed the case without putting the soldier who shot al-Hanash on trial.

“The story of the killing of Lubna al-Hanash was very important to me,” says Kempinski. The wall devoted to this tragic story is one of the most powerful in the exhibition, and it is hard to look away from it. “The first time I ran into the story of the shooting of al-Hanash by an Israeli soldier was in graffiti painted on the wall of Zevulun Street, on February 11, 2013, 20 days after she was killed. Her image and the text were printed in orange-gold on the dark gray wall. I saw, photographed and continued on walking.”

“Two weeks later, on February 26, I saw a different message, this time on Hashuk Street. This one told of the killing of Ouday Kamal Darwish, 21 years-old, by IDF soldiers on January 12, 2013 in the southern Hebron hills, near Meitar, when he tried to pass through the separation barrier. On March 11, at the end of Levinsky Street, I saw another message, about Anwar al-Mamluk, also 21-years-old, who was shot by IDF soldiers in the Gaza Strip on January 11, 2013. His brother, who was not injured in the incident, said that Anwar was studying for a test in an open area when he was killed. On March 30, 2013, I ran into on Markolet Street, a message that tells of the death of Samir Awad, 16, on January 15,2013, who soldiers shot with live fire alongside the separation fence near Budrus.”

In May 2013, Kempinski noticed more and more similar graffiti in many places around the neighborhood, most of which concerned Lubna al-Hanash. “Some of the graffiti was already erased or ruined, some was complete. On Jaffa Road her face was spray painted, on Hahalutzim Street someone drew green tears streaming from her eyes and made a green X on the text, and later, on July 26, someone covered her eyes and mouth in black.”

Since then more and more pictures were added. Another one was covered up on Zevulun Street on July 7, because the entire wall was painted in white. “Only recently someone printed, in exactly the same place, two cats’ heads. A few days later, on July 13, I noticed the orange-gold writing was covered in red and the drawing of her head had horns added. Since then, the wall has been painted gray and there is no sign of the message.”

“Another piece of graffiti on Zevulun Street was painted in black. I saw it for the first time May 18, 2013, when it had already been defaced and the writing erased. In October 2013, I passed by again and saw that someone had pasted eyes on al-Hanash. Her look was piercing, but in December 2013 someone took out her eyes. It looked like abuse to me.”

Kempinski did not succeed in learning who created the original graffiti about al-Hanash, with the English-language text. But she continued to follow the fate of the graffiti.

What did you document?

“In the graffiti in which the picture of Lubna and the three young people shot in 2013 appeared, the images of the young people remained but the text was completely erased. In this specific graffiti, the erasure was aimed at the content and someone returned to the picture to erase it. Some of the graffiti suffered damage from time and the weather, but some continued to be covered up and erased intentionally. Because the defacement was done in different ways, I assume it was not the same person who erased it then.

"Either way, as far as I’m concerned, the layers of erasure and covering, especially of the details of the shooting and killing, are more than the erasure and covering up of graffiti, they are an intentional cover up of the horrible actions that the occupation has given birth to, in order that we won’t know about them.”

The “infiltrators” series in the exhibition was photographed in January and within three days, in dozens of places, the neighborhood was filled with graffiti: “Infiltrators equal cancer,” says Kempinski. “The House is Burning and Grandma is Brushing her Hair,” is a Romanian saying.

“This statement, which is so right about Israel too, was imprinted into me and was appropriate for the name of the exhibition,” she says.

“The word occupation was erased from consciousness, so the goal of the exhibition is to show how this term was erased on the street. We don’t want to know, don’t want to hear and also don’t want to allow others to talk about it. I want to talk about it. It is important to talk about it. What is this, defeatism? Because the left is a minority, we must actually speak clearly. I am not Haredi, not a settler, I am not Mizrahi, I don’t need to apologize for that and not only do I have the right to speak, I have the obligation to speak,” says Kempinski, born 60 years ago in Rehovot. She studied industrial design the Holon Institute of Technology and studied literature at Tel Aviv University, but never finished her degree because in 1984 she went to work in journalism. “With great sorrow I see what has happened to the press, I don’t know why I still care so much.

"I admit that I’m naive, but I think that journalism is done out of a motivation to fix the world, to influence and change the situation. In the years I taught journalism I noticed that young people do not want to change the world so much. What interests them is actually to become part of the system and make a living.”

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