The tumultuous demonstrations against institutionalized racism and police violence against blacks in the United States were accompanied by an unprecedented shock wave. First in state after state in the United States, and later in country after country in Europe, they began to reconsider the values and the heritage that are commemorated and glorified in public spaces.
At first it was demonstrators who destroyed and toppled statues of slave traders and cruel colonialist rulers. Later they were joined by local authorities and the government – in England and Belgium, for example – in soul searching and the public discussion of the nature and the identity of the icons admired by students, residents and tourists. The discussion centered on which values, heritage and culture deserve to shape public awareness.
In Israel, statues and monuments probably won’t be toppled anytime soon, but here too there is need for a public discussion about the values and the heritage that shape the public space and about the message and the sense of belonging that they convey to Israeli citizens.
Israel is a young country, a fifth of whose citizens are Palestinian Arabs, and the tension between its “Jewish” and “democratic” nature is always present – in the public space as well. The comprehensive health-related, economic and social crisis that we are still experiencing has emphasized for the first time the solidarity and shared fate of the Jewish and Arab citizens who share this country. As opposed to security-related crises in the past, this time the contribution of Arab citizens received broad public recognition.
Arab doctors and health care workers became heroes thanks to their battle against the coronavirus. How do they feel at the end of a shift, when on the way home they drive on the Ayalon Highway under the bridge named after IDF general and politician Rehavam Ze’evi, who supported the transfer of Arab citizens? Or when on the road to Nazareth they drive on the highway named after former IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, who in response to stone throwing in the West Bank said that we have to build more settlements there, until the Arabs there “scurry like drugged cockroaches in a bottle”? Why was the protest against commemorating Raful, at the entrance to an Arab city of all places, ignored?
In the eighth decade of its existence, commemoration in the public space in Israel is still reserved for the most part to generals, politicians and founders of Zionism, almost all of them Ashkenazi Jewish men. Public sites or places of importance named after people who made outstanding contributions to science, education, philosophy or culture are still very rare – and certainly there are no sites named after Arabs. Even women and Mizrahim are almost entirely missing.
Many Jewish Israelis find this situation infuriating, but from the point of view of Palestinian Arab citizens it’s far worse. On the one hand, society and the establishment offer them integration in employment, education and commerce – and on the other hand every foray into the street, the highway interchange or the city square makes it clear to them that they don’t belong.
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The Israeli space glorifies mainly those who wanted to harm and exclude Palestinian Arab citizens, and sends them a mixed message: As workers, as service providers and as consumers they are wanted, but they shouldn’t expect us to respect their heritage and their culture, or to demonstrate consideration of their feelings in the public space.
The public discussion of heritage and social values is supposed to include all the citizens, and must take the culture of minority groups into consideration. It’s not only about the degree of legitimacy of those who were commemorated over the years, but to a great extent also to what the public chose to ignore and to erase, what disappeared from Jewish eyes.
As opposed to the demands of the black community in the United States, in the case of Israel’s Arab citizens, commemoration of heroes of culture and heritage is only a small part of the story. Here we are still deeply involved in the battle over the place and status of Arabic in the public space, recognition of the history and the sites that were erased without a trace, and sometimes about the basic right to build monuments and to give Palestinian names to streets and sites even in Arab cities and neighborhoods.
When many public sites and cultural institutions are still failing to make their information and services available in Arabic, and national parks and museums ignore Palestinian heritage and history, it’s too early to speak about statues and city squares. The demand to create a respectful, shared and equal public space for all of Israel’s citizens is very different from the battle now taking place in Europe and the United States – here it’s far more current, relevant and urgent.
The writer is co-director of the Shared Society Department in Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, and a lecturer on the media and social change.