By Hannah Sullivan
As an American Jew, I am often assumed to be an avid supporter of the State of Israel and their policies. I realized when I got to college that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a complex issue and that as a young adult, I cannot be expected to answer everything regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. However, I did not have much understanding of the issue at all. Therefore, when the College of Wooster had a program to spend three weeks studying the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I could not say no.
In January 2018, I was in Israel on the College of Wooster’s TREK to Israel/Palestine. I studied at Hebrew University-Mount Scopus in a program called, “Coexistence in the Middle East.” We met with many civilians, groups, and professionals to understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and different options to seek peaceful change. One of the people we met with while in Israel was Colonel Reserve Danny Tirza, the Israeli Defense Force’s Chief Architect for the Security Fence separating the West Bank and the State of Israel. He explained the wall and the fence. The fence is ten feet high and is also underground and is not electric, but it is electronic. In other words, the fence will not shock people, rather it will sense anyone near the metal of the fence and cameras will move to that area to determine if it is a threat or not. If a threat is perceived, barbed wire is present to slow down those trying to cross, and three patrols will close in on them in less than five minutes. According to Col. Danny Tirza, the concrete wall sections are 45 centimeters thick, 27 feet high, with cameras and sensors present. Col. Tirza explained that the walled sections exist because the expensive fence was not realistic in densely populated areas, and certain areas needed protection from sniper attacks; he also showed us all the graffiti on the Palestinian side, telling us that for a short while, Israel was painting over it with a special paint used in New York City that does not allow graffiti to stick, but then realized they had no place to shut down Palestinian graffiti and removed the paint.
A few days later, we entered the West Bank. I was expecting graffiti in Arabic, maybe even Hebrew, with disdain for the Israeli government. The graffiti, in my mind, was an outlet for the Palestinians and a protest against the Israeli government which would just be explicit on the wall. But I was wrong. I was greeted with familiar memes, TV references, and political figures—memes that I am aware of from living in the United States, TV references from shows I may not watch, but I know many do (particularly Rick and Morty), and the President of the United States, Donald Trump.
Postcolonial theorist Mary Louise Pratt introduced contact zones as places where different cultures meet and come to terms with one another. However, as you scroll through the images below, I urge you to recognize the multitude of contact zones and what I believe to be a “universal contact zone”: one that moves beyond the bounds of language and only appeals to a single audience.
“Levi’us Alone”, a play on a popular denim brand, “Another Wall Bites the Dust”, referencing a Queen song, a Nike Swoosh with Just Remove it, a play on Nike’s slogan “Just Do It.”
“I went to Palestine and all I got was this stupid stencil” mirrors silly shirts grandparents get for their grandkids that say, “My grandparents went to ______ and all they got me was this stupid shirt.”
“Look Morty, I turned myself into a Kosher pickle… I’m Kosher pickle RIIIIICK.” He is also wearing a Kippah, a traditional Jewish head covering.
“*Burp* M-Morty Welcome to *Burp* Palestine, we gotta solve the *Burp* whole damn Middle East Crisis!”
Donald Trump referencing an Eminem song.
Donald Trump holding the wall, referencing his desire for a wall separating the US and Mexico.
I only focused on memes, shows, and politicians from the US because it is a contact zone, we as people aware of American culture, can enter.. However, it is important to note that the West Bank does not have a contact zone only for Americans and those in tune to American culture, but for everyone. The wall is covered with different languages and images I cannot understand, but I am sure there are people who do not understand the Rick and Morty memes, or care about Donald Trump.
As travelers, it is important to recognize contact zones and how they are affecting what we are seeing. The West Bank’s side of the wall is a prime example of not one, not two, but endless contact zones coming together. In every photo I included, I am sure that you, as someone reading a travel magazine from a college in Wooster, Ohio, focused on what is in English and comprehendible. However, every single photo can tie back to a different culture making contact with the West Bank. For example, Image 2 says “Pour la Palestine el le Quebēc Libresl.” In one small image, there are multiple contact zones. Some understand the top of the photo, and some understand the bottom, or perhaps both, or none. I urge you as a reader to go back through the images and look at the photos holistically, and not just what you can understand in English or American culture.
The West Bank is also interesting because it has become I am going to call a universal contact zone: the West Bank uses images that are universal in order to allow people to understand their living situation. I think a prime example of the universal contact zone is in Image 1. Near the top of the wall, two sections appear to be splitting. Then, two angels appear to tear the wall apart. There are no words, there is no language, there is simply an image that every single person in the world can grasp.
What is the point of the contact zones and the universal contact zone in the West Bank? I believe that the West Bank graffiti is a free expression of art and individuality, but it also has more meaning than just that. This contact zone is a tool for Palestinians to get a message across to those who enter. But since image 8, below, demonstrates that Israelis cannot even enter the West Bank, their message is not meant for Israelis to understand their struggle and make a change.
Rather, it is for those who enter from different countries to see, understand, and hopefully try and make a change.
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a prominent issue. When I went to Israel/Palestine from December 2017 to January 2018, I realized the complicated nature of the issue. Every person, both Israeli and Palestinian, I spoke to had the same message, “we can’t agree on a past, so hopefully we can come to a solution together in the future.” The land has so much history and emotions. To me, these contact zones have a specific goal; to educate visitors on the inhumane nature of the wall. My program talked about mediation between the two cultures, and whether an outside mediator was needed in the conflict. I am not here to answer that question, or even give my own opinions on the conflict. I am simply writing to urge you as a reader to recognize contact zones and their reason for existing. Ask yourself, who initiated this contact zone? Is it just one zone, or multiple and competing zones? Is there a primary goal to the graffiti? As travelers, we must learn to better understand the spaces we decide to enter.