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Banksy In Bethlehem, Lessons For A Skeptical Israeli

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


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.

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.

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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