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A Sderot Bomb Shelter, as Art

A screaming comes across Washington Square Park

Marc Tracy
March 29, 2011
One side of the Bomb Shelter.(All photos by the author)
One side of the Bomb Shelter.(All photos by the author)

Yesterday, around lunchtime, I walked to Washington Square Park to get a look at The Bomb Shelter, a multimedia art installation sponsored by Artists 4 Israel and Birthright Israel. Located in the center-west of the Greenwich Village park (near the dog run), it was a wooden replica, built to exact specifications, of the sort of bomb shelter that dots Sderot and other towns near Gaza. But the first thing you’d notice were scraggly guys in baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts spraypainting the walls of the replica, covering over ugly, anti-Israeli logos and slogans; and then the next thing you’d notice was what they’d painted there: Gorgeous, vibrant, vaguely political but really mostly Dada (in the best sense of most graffiti) images that captured the eye and held it close. (More pictures below.)

And, periodically, there were rocket drills. An artist named Seth Hamlin—who looked not like the graffiti artists but like a Jewish summer camp counselor (which, he confirmed to me, he at one point was)—gathered the couple dozen onlookers, ushered them several feet away, and mimicked the daily reality of life for children and others in Sderot: At the sound of the Tzeva Adom alarm, you have 15 seconds to run into the small hut, no more than nine by nine feet if I had to guess, to protect yourself from incoming. While I did not participate in the “drill,” I did step inside, where a television, powered by a generator that hummed several feet away outside the shelter, displayed images of the aftermath of rocket attacks in Israel. Standing inside, cramped and pitch-black except for the sickly light of the monitor, you saw the shelter for what it most resembled: A demented sukkah. It was really depressing, in exactly the way it was intended.

Apparently, about a year ago, Birthright gathered some of New York City’s most renowned graffiti artists—they have their own gallery shows and everything—and took them to Israel, where they did this to a couple of shelters. The plan was to have them now do this on a bunch of college campuses. But then the rocket attacks from Gaza, beginning the weekend before the last, intervened, and it was decided, according to one organizer I spoke with, to get a permit for Washington Square Park—the once-great downtown public space of left-wing activism and folk revivalism turned lame Berkeley imitation (but colder) and New York University quad; retaining only the iconography of the arch and the fountain, which most people these days probably just know from Friends anyway—to press the urgency of the occasion. They attracted plenty of passersby, but I do not know if they got more people who came out of their way to experience the exhibit or more members of the media who came out of their way to cover it (Fox News had a camera on the scene).

The organizers were striving to be above politics. This was easier for the artists themselves: One of them, Fernando, told me, “It’s just beautification. There’s not a direct message. Concerning the situation, we’re very neutral about it.” The organizers insisted on same. “That’s all I am saying: Children should not have to be in bomb shelters,” Hamlin told the crowd. When I asked him about the irony of holding what was surely in intent a pro-Israel demonstration in the lefty bastion of Washington Square Park, he responded, “We want to cut left and right out of it. Politics aside, children and bombs shouldn’t be in the same sentence.” It’s an admirably above-politics sentiment. But, as with all statements that, on their faces, everybody could sign onto, it begs another question. Children and bombs shouldn’t be in the same sentence. All children?

One answer to that question was a hipster-ish young man wearing red-framed sunglasses and a kefiyyeh who sat quietly on the outer edge of the crowd holding a sign that read, “Palestinian Deaths Outnumber Israeli Deaths 6:1,” with his source cited being the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights (otherwise known as B’tselem). The young man, Brett Chamberlin, spoke only when spoken to and was unflappable, and unflappably polite. “I felt that this was representing a one-sided view,” he told me of the exhibition. A man came up to him and challenged him on his statistic: “Isn’t that just a consequence of their war against Israel?” Chamberlin, non-combative, basically ceded the point while insisting, “We want the end of deaths on all sides.” His lackadaisical approach made me more impressed with his personality and less persuaded by his argument.

I was neither persuaded nor impressed by the folks who showed up a little after 2pm wearing black t-shirts and bearing more hard-core signs about Israeli war crimes and what-not. “We’re with many different organizations,” one, Sarah, told me, including, she said, a group that wants to sail another flotilla to Gaza this coming May. They brought the pacific scene the closest it would get to a confrontation, encroaching upon the installation while one of the organizers complained to the policeman on the scene—a nice guy who most of the time looked bored and cold, and who told me this protest/exhibition/whatever was typical in its calmness—that their permit prohibited counter-protesters from approaching within 500 feet. The cop, being good police, utilized as much pragmatic reason as letter-of-the-law authority, which worked to keep the peace until one obnoxious black-shirted “End The Siege of Gaza” counter-protester, having engaged in an increasingly heated argument with a supporter of the exhibit, started threatening to get physical.

Don’t take her bait, I wanted to yell at the man, whom I had seen earlier carefully explaining—there was much explaining!—the Israeli side of the position, namely the more or less self-evident point that no other nation would be asked to tolerate rockets without recourse to retaliation. Everyone can see she’s the crazy one! But, of course, he took her bait, threatening to get physical right back—bursting the vindicating high-ground balloon—causing the policeman to break them up, while the woman shouted, “You can’t hurt me here! This isn’t Israel!” “The best lack all conviction,” Yeats said, in one of those lines you feel angry at other people for also having discovered, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats was wrong. Conviction is good when it is right. But I understand why he wrote that.

Related: Tagged [Tablet Magazine]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.