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, but to no avail. He even turned to the press where he 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 wherever it was found. Although graffiti calling for the death or expulsion of Israeli Arabs is most prevalent, some targets other groups as well. In some communities, neighbors spontaneously joined in.
What made the difference? Merzel joined a grassroots organization. The story began a year ago, when Merzel 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 NIF grantee 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 hosted the closing ceremony in the presence of the mayor. SHATIL also provided public relations assistance to the campaign.
Shmulik Merzel at the closing ceremony - the sign says "End Racism" in Hebrew and Arabic.
On the eve of Shavuot, the teams fanned throughout the country with cans of donated paint and covered over the offending graffiti. Citizens had written into Kol Acher's website, 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 grassroots 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.
Gili Baruch and her team - the graffiti they are erasing says "Kahana was right."
"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 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."