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Why is Acre afraid of old signs?

An artist placed re-designed street signs, from the Turkish period, in Acre – and Israelis think this “undermines law and order.” Why?

Artist Walid Qashash took a political stand (Hebrew): He designed street signs for the Old City of Acre, as they would look under the Turkish rulers, and hanged them near the normal street signs. Suddenly, after sixty and more years of repression, the street of Sahed Abboud reemerges; Suddenly, Genoa Square, a relic of the town’s crusader past, emerges again from the mists. Qashash has invoked the ghosts the Jews of Israel have been trying to banish, unsuccessfully, for decades.

Which is why this act, which would seem logical in any other city with a historical quarter – so logical, the town would place the signs itself – raised so much anger. Of course, Israel is emphatically not a normal country. It is based on a huge act of theft, which it insists on whitewashing. This is why streets in Jaffa and Acre and Jerusalem are now named after unimportant generals and less worthy Zionist apparatchiks. The entire non-Jewish history of this tortured land – Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Mamluk, Turkish – had to vanish, to be erased, to be scraped away. The fact that during most of the recorded history of this place, only a small minority wrote or spoke Hebrew, had to pass away. The names of former Palestinian towns and villages had to become a fading memory. Majdl stands no more; Call it Ashkelon (and try to forget its last original residents were deported in 1950, a long time after the war of 1947-1948 ended).

Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomine nuda tenemus: Names are the most enduring things. Rabin Square will still be called, automatically, “Kikar Malkhei Israel” for at least one more generation, possibly more. Myanmar will remain, stubbornly, Burma. Nablus is so called by the entire world aside from Israeli Jews, who claim it is the biblical Shkhem – and its name is an Arab mispronunciation of Neapolis, the name given to it by its creator, the emperor Vespasian. People of my generation will always think of St. Petersburg as Leningrad, but it returned to its real name as soon as the Communist regime collapsed, and this artificial name will be remembered, in a generation or two, only by historians or Soviet enthusiasts. The Turks called their capital Istanbul, but the world still remembers its original name was Constantinople, even 550 after Byzantine Empire fell. The final loss of names, and their replacement with new ones, generally indicates a great catastrophe, in which several generations were lost, so that no one could recall the old names – a rate and traumatic event.

Israel is based on such a trauma – a manufactured one. A stubborn denial of reality despite all the facts. Elik, Moshe Shamir’s mythic character, was not really born from the sea. History did not begin in 1948 (or 1917, or 1897, or 1882). Israeli Jews know, deep inside, that they are inhabiting stolen lands of a people expelled or exterminated. Which is why the denial is so angry – and so old. Rashi starts his exegesis on Genesis by claiming the Bible begins as it does so that gentiles could not claim Jews have stolen Eretz Israel: It was given to them by He who spoke and made the world. But why is such a denial of the theft necessary, on the part of a Jew living in 12th century France? Because the taking of Canaan by storm, as described in the Book of Joshua, is an act of horror; it must be explained away: Jehova is the ultimate excuse. We were only following divine orders.

The Acre municipality threatens to have Qashash tried for… something. Presumably they’ll find an article that’ll stick. After all, Acre is the town where a Palestinian driver was arrested and indicted for driving on Yom Kippur – which is not in violation of any law (Hebrew) – for which he was nearly lynched. The municipality also allows itself an unusually coarse reply, which it almost certainly wouldn’t use towards a Jewish artist:

“We are sorry Mr. Qashash is venting, and is looking for despicable ways to sour relations between Jews and Arabs in the city. He’s better stop whining and join activity for the benefit of the city’s residents, Jews and Arabs alike.”

Ynet’s poll, always indicative of the Jewish mob’s mood, suggests as one of its options “This is a nationalistic act, undermining law and order.” Naturally, this is the preferred option of most people taking the poll. In Israel, mentioning local history is nothing less than a “nationalistic act,” which undermines some imagined “law and order,” that is the law and order which say this is a Jewish state; and that it always was so, even if it was under temporary management by someone else; it was not anyone important, anyone with a history, you see; just a nomad, a migrant worker. And should anyone dare say otherwise, we’ll huff and we’ll puff and we’ll cry “anti-Semitism,” perhaps even “de-legitimization.”

And one more thing: Following the events in the Arab world, it is customary to say that social networks are a tool of revolutionary change, or other such nonsense. Well, yours truly was surprised this weekend to receive an email from Flickr, which loudly informed me it decided to take down one of my pictures – it can be seen here, and used to be called “Fascists on the Prowl” – because, I was sanctimoniously informed, “Flickr is a personal photosharing site, not a venue for interpersonal conflict. In joining Flickr, you agreed to abide by the Terms of Service and Community Guidelines. Specifically, you must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Flickr members.” I was also threatened they may delete my account without any prior notice should the incident repeat itself. I sent an aggressive email back, informing them to the best of my knowledge, the two chaps in the pictures are not Flickr members, and that anyway I can defend my “fascist’ claim at length. I also asked for instructions on how I, as someone whose photos deal often with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the internal Israeli conflict, should behave under a threat of immediate deletion. I received a laconic mail back: “Yes, you can re-upload the photo.” Revolutionary tool, my foot.

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    1. RichardNYC

      Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Israel is stolen and that the author’s characterization of Israeli Jewish denial is correct. Does this change the fact that bringing “justice” to the situation (returning at least a few million Arabs) would be a good thing? Jewish denial may be real, but so is the extreme left’s denial of the presence of millions of Israeli Jews who don’t want to share a country with hostile Palestinians. Though the author may feel clever about pointing out things that “they don’t want you to know”, but his vision of the future seems delusional. Bringing moral order to Palestine according the the leftist vision will not result in peace let alone a livable country. This is more dangerous than denying the history of a street name.

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    2. Yossi, what a great article! This restores one’s faith that there are some truly sensible and moral voices in Israel. This obliteration and erasure of Palestine’s real history must end. Israel is now pursuing this dispossession of Palestinians with a frenzy, as one can see in Jaffa, Lud, Al Araqib in the Negev,in the Galilee, and with the Judaisation of East Jerusalem and cities right across Israel and the West Bank. Just as with the campaign to restore the village of Lifta in Jerusalem to its rightful owners,( many who live nearby but are denied return), instead of illegal selling off the real estate for Jewish-only luxury housing, so the fight to restore and recognise the history of the Naqba, and past histories and civilization that were not Jewish is gathering strength. The denial of this by Israel indicates its insecurity and only emphasises illegitimacy when its actions get more hysterical. Yossi’s courageous article brings balance and sense into the picture,and like the organisation Zochroth, are redeeming factors in Israel’s lost soul.

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    3. Amin Nusseibeh

      It is based on a huge act of theft, which it insists on whitewashing….You said it better than I could

      Its time for Jews to exercise their right of return so we can exercise ours

      Reply to Comment