The Walled Off Hotel, facing the separation wall
Yuval Ben Ami

-Essay-

BETHLEHEM — Some journeys begin with a sigh. An old acquaintance of mine, an artist, wrote on Facebook this week about a Banksy exhibition that was about to open in a shopping mall in the Sharon area, north of Tel Aviv. She complained that the cost of an entry ticket was 90 shekels (about $25). I went to the exhibition website to verify that the price was correct, but stopped short because I was overcome by nausea.

To get to the price, one had to click on a tiny drawing, the original of which is a huge mural on the wall of a gas station in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, east of Bethlehem, depicting a Palestinian youth hurling a bouquet of flowers instead of a stone.

Banksy is an anonymous street artist, political and very aware of the significance of location. What connection is there between him and a 90-shekel exhibition in a shopping mall? A quick inquiry showed that there was indeed no such connection: It was a project of his former manager instead.

There is another way to get to see Banksy's work, I wrote my artist friend: the real deal — though it involves breaking a law, the one that bans us from entering Area A of the West Bank. No one has yet been thrown in prison for committing this terrible crime, the crime of an encounter. One could view the act of ignoring the law as civil disobedience.

Two weeks ago, Banksy opened the Walled Off Hotel at the entrance to Bethlehem, coming from Jerusalem. The artist calls it "the hotel with the worst view in the world," with all of its rooms overlooking the separation wall. I suggested to my friend that she go there, but then I felt like a hypocrite, as I had not yet been there myself, despite my affection for Banksy.

wall israel bansky hotel palestine

One of the rooms at the hotel, looking over the wall — Photo: Luay Sababa/Xinhua/ZUMA

It is precisely because I did not want to be a hypocrite that I had not visited the hotel. Who wants to be the Israeli who takes a happy selfie in front of testimony to the oppression to which he is a party?

I suspected that Banksy himself was a hypocrite. The occupation is a profitable business. It is worth billions to the defense industries, to manufacturers of security cameras and security contractors. It is probably also worth a non-negligible sum to the British street artist. Worried that this was simply more "left-geschaeft," (left-wing business) I had not visited.

But the next day, we decided to go after all. The hotel is adjacent to the separation wall's "fjord": two parallel arms that extend into Beit Jala surrounding Rachel's Tomb, conserving it on the convenient side of the wall. Roadworks forced us to make a detour, but in the end we found the wall again, and in front it was the hotel's old-fashioned sign. Underneath the sign sat a model chimpanzee dressed as a doorman, and also a real bellboy, wearing a top hat. I was surprised to see Hebrew letters on a metal board behind him, reading: "Everybody is welcome."

The atmosphere in the lobby is afflicted by the here and now.

This is a real hotel: A group of people with suitcases were checking in at the reception; guests were seated at candle-lit tables reading books or sipping coffee. But everything in it appeared to be part of a dream residing deep inside this tormented country.

A drawing on one of the walls shows a gray Israeli army observation tower turned into a merry-go-round in an amusement park. Another drawing depicts children sneaking around the gates of heaven to get to the cloud on the other side — an allegory for a military checkpoint.

The atmosphere in the lobby is not contemporary, but it is afflicted by the here and now. Heavy red wallpaper covers the walls, one of which is equipped with security cameras sticking out of over-adorned wooden beams, like stuffed deer heads. Beneath them, a player piano played the theme from E.T. Everything was pretty and disturbing and elating and sad and cramped and vertiginous. A sign at the back of the room read "Museum." We walked over, paid 15 shekels a person and entered.

The museum's aesthetic does not cry out "Banksy," though he was involved in its establishment. This is a historical museum of the present. One of the first displays I saw was a glass table with the two license plates used in our country: The yellow one, with which one may drive on both sides of the fence, and the white one, which may only circulate on one side, and even then, with restrictions. Near the license plates were five ID cards issued in Israel for the five different statuses distinguishing people in this land: Jewish Israeli citizen, non-Jewish Israeli citizen, Palestinian West Bank resident, Palestinian Jerusalem resident, Palestinian Gaza Strip resident.

banksy pillow fight art soldiers hotel israel palestine

A Banksy piece featured in one of the rooms — Photo: Luay Sababa/Xinhua/ZUMA

And so it was impossible to evade that word, one I do not often use— but it was clear that we were in a museum of Apartheid, and that it spoke the truth.

It was also clear that there was no hatred in this place, just frustration and sadness about a situation that we Israelis are almost unaware of, even while we sustain it. All the significant signs in the museum are also in Hebrew and there are displays of Israeli voices that express empathy for the Palestinian experience. Banksy's hotel aims, among other things, to attract us here and to confront us, in a friendly manner, with all that is so difficult for us to contain.

It would obviously be much easier to go to the shopping mall, pay 90 shekels and be impressed by Banksy's clever drawings — but that would be betraying the artist and everything he represents. And more importantly, it would be forgoing an important opportunity to gain wisdom. My earlier suspicion that Banksy betrayed himself by opening the hotel was wrong. So yalla, let's go, Bethlehem is waiting for you all. Just make sure when you leave, to exit through the checkpoints intended for settlers, otherwise you'll get an earful.

Translated by Worldcrunch iQ contributor Tamar Vidon. Sign up to create your own iQ profile.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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