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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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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