Friday, November 4, 2011

Can Certain Price-Tag Incidents be Considered Legitimate?

The majority of "price-tag" incidents in Israel are reprehensible, but some non-violent
instances contain legitimate forms of political expression by Israel's Right.

By: Tobias Finkelstein

Due to recent developments regarding the settlement activity and the Gilad Shalit exchange, Israel has witnessed a wave of “price tag” incidents through which right wing activists have engaged in vigilante reprisals for government action they perceive as illegitimate. The majority of the Israeli public and media coverage accurately condemned this activity as an affront to government authority. These “price tag” activities are acts out against either Arab property or what the activists see as traitorous Israeli policy. Recent price tag operations have included sabotaging Palestinian farm-land, vandalizing Arab gravesites, and attacking IDF units in the West Bank. The actions are combined with protests and graffiti reading “price-tag” in Hebrew, and the goal of these price tag operations is to engage the military and political echelons.

Many of these despicable acts are truly divisive and an affront to Israel as a democracy. However, one incident stood out to me as an exception. Last month, a price tag operation left the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial covered in paint with the words “price-tag” in Hebrew. Yitzhak Rabin, the decorated military officer who became a beloved Prime Minister, was regarded as a maverick because of his efforts to negotiate peace agreements with Yassir Arafat, and was ultimately murdered by a right-wing activist. The site of his murder in Tel Aviv has been developed into a beautiful and well-known memorial, and is a frequent destination for political protest and public discourse. While price-tag operations are generally condoned by extreme right and left wing elements in Israeli society, the tagging of Rabin’s grave could actually be considered somewhat legitimate - however asinine and deplorable -  sharing an unusual political resonance with public protest in different countries around the world.

What do I mean by ‘legitimate’? It is certainly illegal – painting over a public memorial and then covering it in graffiti is vandalism, plain and simple. Furthermore, Yitzhak Rabin is among the most respectable and admirable of Israeli patriots; destroying his memorial that so many people see as a dedication to his character, accomplishments, and principles is morally offensive to many in the Israeli community. However, this memorial is a public structure, and Rabin was a political figure. His memorial is public space and as such is an attractive destination for the right-wing perpetrator and his graffiti just as Nilin or the West Bank is for left-wing protesters.

Price-Tag operations are branded as unacceptable because they are acts of vigilantism that specifically target  Arabs, endanger lives, and erode Israeli civil and military authority. There isn't much legitimate justification for destroying olive trees, disrespecting in any way a Muslim or Arab holy site, or physically attacking the IDF. However, some of these instances, especially non-violent episodes, are permissible forms of political protest that convey genuine anguish by a certain demographic. The defacing of Rabin's memorial, however deplorable, could be viewed as such an incident, no matter how disrespectful the act may seem. On the other hand, the state of Israel has very sensitive and complex relations with various Arab communities, and it is a serious threat - and moral crime - to public security and national order to engage in vigilante attacks against them. 

American inter-personal and governmental-personal law is based on the protection of ‘Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”. This guiding philosophy has influenced most modern law in the Western Hemisphere and specifically the Israeli Judicial system, which uses similar guidelines both to establish legislation and in legal rulings. Price tag operations that target the Life, Liberty, or Pursuit of Happiness of Arabs are not legal, nor should there be any leniency in punishments for transgressions. These attacks are civilian to civilian attacks and therefore constitute crimes under the jurisdiction of Israeli and Palestinian policing and judicial authorities.

Attacks that target the IDF are attacks on the armed forces of Israel and are tantamount to treason. Price tag operations have been carried out against the IDF both in the form of physical attacks and in the form of vandalism. Both right-wing and left-wing activists have called for operations against the army, justifying their actions through their political and religious ideologies and the IDF being a ‘Citizens’ Army’. The IDF is indeed a Citizens’ Army which has clear implications for the draft process, policy decisions, and delegation of authority, but it does not make the Army or its’ property a political platform and certainly not a target for physical attack. The Army is an organization in which normal freedoms and rights are suspended during times of mandatory military service. Any discussion or disagreement about the armed forces is to be held in channels outside of the IDF itself. This is a protection to the armed forces that every democratic country makes, including Israel.

This all disqualifies price tag operations that harm people or national security, but the vandalizing of the Rabin Memorial does not fall under any of these parameters. Actually, unpalatable as it is, vanadalism, while illegal, is both common and ubiquitous in political expression. Graffiti and vandalism are common practices for disgruntled activists seeking to vent their anger and frustration against the respective political establishment. It is a tool that can reach a large audience in shared space. While engaging in such activity on public property is illegal, it is often dealt with leniently, as authorities give a bit of freedom of speech and assembly at the cost of offensive material. With this vandalism, the activists were trying to reach out to a public and get a message to them, however disconcerting or appalling that message may be to individuals who don’t share the same ideology.

A quote from Politics and Art commentator Matthew Harrison Tedford from his reporting on graffiti in the Libyan civil war for the magazine Art Practical is useful is useful in supporting this understanding. Tedford writes: “Another interesting observation is that many murals and graffiti scrawls contained English text, suggesting they were intended to be viewed by foreigners just as much as by locals.” Tedford writes that graffiti and similar art tends to consist of a political message directed at an audience. The same phenomenon can be seen in Athens where graffiti reading “F**k the Euro” is found on many government buildings. Similar to the Libyan and Greek youths, the disgruntled Israeli activist has an audience for their graffiti, however different the motives or ideologies may be. Note that the “Price Tag” writing is in Hebrew, meaning that it is intended for the Hebrew speaker and, more specifically, the Israeli community.

Self-expression through graffiti doesn’t cause any physical harm. There is no encroachment on Life, Liberty, or the Pursuit of Happiness, not even to national security. There isn’t even permanent damage to the structure, and it is not the official or religious resting place of Rabin, it is a public memorial. This operation is offensive to those inspired by Rabin, it is an attack on Israel’s history and unity, and it cost money to respond to the vandalism. But the perpetrator is expressing an idea in public space, there is much to be gained for Israel’s freedom of expression.

Just as New York authorities have bent rules to allow for the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, as have numerous other North American and European cities Israel should also distinguish between violent and non-violent events. This kind of calculation will not lead to any erosion of authority. It is normal - no matter how for disgruntled youth to vandalize in this way, and the community should respond as any enlightened community would – recognize these ideas and distinguish between crimes that are vigilante transgressions and expressive engagement.

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