Confronting antisemitism today is more difficult than in the past because antisemites are becoming increasingly devious and antisemitic events are less “in-your-face” than the mass protests and violence characterizing earlier years. I want to use the antisemitic mural that was put up in the Student Center at York University in 2013 to demonstrate contemporary symbols of antisemitism. It is a perfect example.
There are no easily recognized symbols of antisemitism in it, such as the Swastika, the Star of David, the Yellow Star – those are all symbols from the twentieth century. Today’s symbols focus on Israel and Zionism.
The Antisemitic Mural at York University
The mural is entitled “Palestinian Roots”, and I believe it constitutes a call to violence against Israelis. It expresses in symbols the idea that violent attacks against Israeli civilians are a means for achieving “peace and justice” for Palestinians. However, as Sheri Oz described in her article concerning this painting, it may fall short of actually violating hate laws as they appear in the Canadian Criminal Code.
That does not mean that this is not an antisemitic mural; it does not mean that the student community should remain complacent about such subtle and little-understood messages of antisemitism.
The New Symbols
The mural illustrates two types of terrorist attack and contains 6 symbols that are associated with terrorism and 1 symbol associated with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Symbol 1: The checkered kfiyah as a symbol of Palestinian terrorists.
The figure is wearing the black-and-white checkered kafiyeh that emerged as a symbol of terrorist early on with Yassar Arafat, the founder of the Palestinian Liberation Army.
The black-and-white checkered kafiyeh was later adopted by other Palestinian terrorists and terrorist organizations, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which Canada has designated as a terrorist organization.
The symbol is also widely used in artistic renditions of the conflict.
A map of the entirety of Israel,Gaza and the West Bank alongside the Palestinian flag appears on the scarf of the figure in the mural. The map and Palestinian flag appear together in order to convey a rejection of the two-state solution accepted by Palestinians and Israelis at the Oslo Accords. The same map is incorporated into Hamas’ emblem, an organization Canada has designated as a terrorist group. To Palestinian flags encircle the mosque in the center.
The central iconic symbol of the First Intifada is that of youth throwing stones. Hamas depicted the conflict as “the war of the stones” and the youth who were caught on camera throwing stones at Israeli soldiers became known as the “children of the stones” (Gilles, pp 85-86). In fact, Palestinian youth (who vary in age from pre-teens into their twenties) often place tires or burning tires to block civilian roadways and then hurl stones and Molotov cocktails and the cars and buses that cannot continue to drive along the road. Civilians have been burnt alive. The First Intifada also features grenade attacks, stabbings, and shootings that have until today killed 59 Israeli civilians (more than twice the number of military deaths) and injured approximately 1,400.
Symbol 5: The phrase “peace and justice”
This iconic war of “children of stones” played a key role in portraying the First Intifada as a spontaneous uprising, although it was orchestrated by older leaders of a new terrorist organization, Hamas, that began to challenge the PLO’s control of the West Bank and Gaza.
Western groups were unsuccessful in encouraging Palestinians to act against the so-called occupation through peaceful resistance during the First Intifada. In order to justify the use of violence, Palestinian terrorists and solidarity groups adopted the phrase “peace and justice.” This phrase is still used to promote violence against Israelis.
Here is, for example, a post from October 2015 on the Facebook page of “United for Peace & Justice,” a network of over 70 “peace and justice organizations” worldwide.
As of December 23, 2015, terrorists involved in the Third Intifada had murdered 24 Israelis and injured upward of 250.
Symbol 6: Black Smoke
The smoke in the painting looks as if it might be rising from a chimney or perhaps the smokestack of the bulldozer. However, Israeli houses do not have chimneys (there are only two coal-burning power plants in Israel and residents heat with kerosene, gas, or electric power; wood is not available), and tractors have not released gray or black smoke since the middle of the last century.
Olive trees take many years to bear fruit, and then may live for many generations. Palestinians have harvested olives for generations. The olive tree signifies their heritage, legacy, and connection to the land. The bulldozing of olive trees is viewed by Palestinians as a nationalist attack and in fact Palestinian leaders have charged that it constitutes a war crime.
Art and graffiti require interpretation within the context that they were created. The use of iconic Palestinian symbols in this mural indicates that the context is that of the struggle between Palestinian terrorist groups, most likely Hamas, and Israelis (in particular the civilians of the town).
The message of the mural is clear within this context: to achieve peace and justice, attack Israelis. Toronto is home to a large Israeli expatriate community, approximately 50,000. Hence, incitement to violence against Israelis presents a danger to this community.
Even if many Jewish, Israeli and non-Jewish members of the community do not recognize these well-established terrorist symbols, such as the call for “peace and justice” which is now advocating for the Third Intifada, does this not still qualify as antisemitism?
Do the map, buildings and the smoke not symbolize Israel? And is the map and thus the State of Israel not a Jewish symbol? And does it not become important to the community when a mural like this is hung in a public space (no matter what the artist’s intentions are) and not challenged?
When, and under what circumstances, DO we get to call it antisemitism? Or, in other words, how much ground do we give up (we JUST have to wear a star, we JUST have to move to a different part of town….we JUST have to ignore the clear symbols in this mural?) before people wake up and start calling it antisemitism?