Scholar discusses religious graffiti’s role in Jerusalem life
Dr. Yair Wallach spoke about a chapter from his recent publication about urban text in Jerusalem.
The Schusterman Center for Israel Studies held a seminar with Dr. Yair Wallach on Thursday Oct. 15, called “Text and Violence in Jerusalem: Hebrew Graffiti on the Western Wall.” Wallach, a senior lecturer in Israel Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London, spoke about a chapter of his recent book, “A City in Fragments: Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem.” He discussed a new perspective on how graffiti has been used as a religious ritual on Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Wallach’s research focuses on urban texts in Israeli people’s everyday lives, as opposed to newspapers and books, which are more academic texts. Stone inscriptions, street names, shop signs and institutional signs surround people all the time, yet we often do not realize the effect they have. Wallach explained, “These things construct our lives because we encounter them in urban situations.”
From the 1800s to modern day, text in Israel's urban spaces has greatly increased due to advances in technology. While the increase in texts interested Wallach, he specifically wanted to focus on textual pieces that have been erased or forbidden.
While searching for archives in a London Museum, Wallach found images of the Western Wall covered in Hebrew graffiti. This was the first time he had seen graffiti on the Western Wall, and he immediately began to question the images. “‘What is this graffiti? Who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who erased it?’” he asked. Although the Western Wall is a well-known historical, cultural and religious site, Wallach said he had never encountered these images before.
Through his research, Wallach discovered that the graffiti consisted of Hebrew names. When Jewish people went on a pilgrimage, the men had a ritual of inscribing their names, either in paint or deep inscription on the stone, into holy sites. This ritual is not specific to the Jewish people or even the land of Israel. There is evidence, for instance, that ancient Greeks inscribed names into their holy sites, and inscriptions have been found on Christian and Muslim holy sites as well. The practice of writing one's name on a religious site to mark their presence dates back at least 2,000 years, Wallach explained.
This ritual was seen as a serious and religious activity, not a simple inscription. The men inscribing their names wrote in square Hebrew script, which is considered a sacred script. From the images and retellings that Wallach found, the writing had to be done very slowly and carefully. Graffiti was not an individual activity, but something one would do with a group of men.
After describing the creation and significance of the Western Wall graffiti, Wallach explained what led to the inscriptions' removal. After the 1929 Palestine riots, the British created a League of Nations Commission to discuss and hopefully end disputes over the Western Wall. The Jewish members of the Commission argued to keep the graffiti because it showed Judaism's connection to the Western Wall and acted as proof that the wall is a Jewish holy site. The Muslim members of the Commission argued that the graffiti was a Jewish attempt to make a territorial mark on the holy site. The final decision of the British was to ban future writing but keep the past inscriptions. The rules of the Western Wall now include a ban on any new graffiti or inscriptions on the wall.
The idea of graffiti being used as a religious ritual is clouded by the modern day definition of and association with graffiti, Wallach clarified. Western tourists tend to leave graffiti — their name and date — on Middle Eastern holy sites, which Wallach believes is a colonial practice of Western visitors trying to establish their presence. This practice is completely different from the graffiti that was written on the Western Wall. Those who are not familiar with ritualistic graffiti are not clear on the difference between religious graffiti and individualistic, modern day graffiti, Wallach said.