Douglas Murray has described the corporate media as an “Eye of Sauron” that focuses relentlessly on one issue before abruptly pivoting to the next, rarely having done anything to improve the previous cause du jour.
As I assume you are well aware, the media spent the better part of two weeks focusing almost exclusively on the recent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. You could not escape this topic anywhere you went on social media, and you'd have been hard-pressed to avoid it in real life as well, at least in my social circle in Brooklyn.
I like to walk in Prospect Park every day. It cheers me up and provides a nice respite from the manic world of my screens. But two weeks ago, as I approached the Grand Army Plaza entrance for my daily stroll, I felt my worlds collide as I encountered a giant message written on the pavement in blue chalk: “ZIONISM IS COLONIAL SETTLERISM”.
My stomach dropped.
I had spent the day doomscrolling on twitter, watching one video after the next of scenes of urban unrest in response to the conflict in Gaza. There were the cars covered with Palestinian flags in London, their drivers calling out the window for the raping of Jews; the firework thrown in broad daylight in Manhattan’s heavily Jewish Diamond District; the two Jewish boys who had been cornered in Brooklyn by a gang with baseball bats, beaten when they refused to shout “Free Palestine”, but ultimately driven away to safety by a Muslim Uber driver who happened to pass by. Those were the images that came to mind for me when I saw that chalk writing. I know that the slogan was written by people haunted by other truly horrifying images. All I can say is that we all have our own Eye of Sauron.
I stood and stared at the chalk writing, unsure of what to do. I settled on the typically millennial response of taking out my camera phone and snapping a picture. Then I walked away.
I was very unsettled. One of my least favorite parts of our collective political nightmare over the past years has been witnessing the erosion of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in America. I remember being a student in college and discovering for the first time that supporting Israel was considered totally unacceptable by my hip progressive activist friends.
This shocked me then. Nowadays, I could never have been so innocent, and anti-Israel sentiment seems to have taken hold within liberal circles nearly as strongly as being pro-choice. It’s hard for me to understand how it happened, but somewhere along the line, even amongst liberal Jews, the battle of ideas was lost, and decisively so.
“ZIONISM IS SETTLER COLONIALISM” continued to roll around in my brain.
Well, it’s a free country, and someone was exercising their First Amendment rights. If I didn’t love this message, it certainly could have been worse. But my heart was pounding, and I knew deep in my bones that I would be disgusted with myself if I didn’t try to make it go away. Where did this compulsion come from? Was I being a snowflake?
I offer a great deal of lip service to the evils of “cancel culture”, and yet here I was, confronted with an idea that I didn’t like, and already plotting to make it disappear. There was hypocrisy in this, I was sure. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the stories I’d heard from both of my Holocaust survivor grandparents about the anti-Semitic messages that went up around their towns, first a slow trickle and then a deluge, and by that point the worst was unstoppable.
We are deluding ourselves if we don’t accept that there’s power in what’s allowed to dominate our public spaces; call it the “zeitgeist”, or “the Overton window”, or simply “what’s popular”, but this is what determines what beliefs are allowed to be acceptable and normal. As I continued walking past Barclays Center sports stadium, I saw a Black street vendor selling Palestinian flags next to basketball merchandise for the Nets and a pile of George Floyd t-shirts. “Oy vey,” I thought to myself.
I called a friend. “I’m going to try and wash away this chalk writing,” I said.
“Don’t do it,” he counseled me. “You’re only asking for more trouble. They can write their messages in broad daylight a hundred times and no one will stop them, whereas you could get into real shit. They own the streets, it’s finished.”
“I’m not going to respect myself unless I try,” I said.
I filled up a tote bag with some of the water bottles I’ve been stockpiling under my sink, and made my way back towards the Grand Army entrance of the park. It was about 7pm. I knew as soon I got close that it was a no go. Hundreds of people were gathered with signs at the park’s entrance. I drew closer.
“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” Brooklynites were chanting, many of whom were likely pacifist two-state solution types with no understanding of the territorial implications of the slogan, much less of its popularity as a call for ethnic cleansing amongst radical terrorists.
Well, clearly this was a bad time. As I walked back to my apartment, I decided that my best plan would be to come back after midnight. I also knew that given the state of my nerves, I would be better off with a companion.
I called around, and found a friend, lets call her "T", who was willing to help me out.
T said she had been having frustrating arguments with her colleagues all week, and wanted to do something to take action.
I was incredibly relieved. A thrill-seeking rock-climber and motorcyclist, T was as fearless and calm under pressure as I was panicky. Her presence and collaboration would be invaluable. She suggested we bring scrub brushes to help with the job, and also wanted to bring chalk to write her own message. This made me nervous, as I didn’t want to escalate the situation, but she insisted on this as a condition of her participation.
We made our way to the park at 12:30am. There were a few people passing by, but no overtly
sketchy characters. I walked up to the chalk writing and started pouring a water bottle over it. T knelt down with a brush to start scrubbing.
And suddenly, we had company. “Hey, woah, what are you doing?” demanded a voice. I looked up and saw a young Jewish guy with fluffy hair and a yarmulke. I guessed that he was eighteen years old, based on the cartoon-covered “Class of 2021!” sweatshirt that he was wearing. As he blinked at me through his spectacles, I had the distinct feeling that we were all characters in a Woody Allen movie.
“Mind your own business,” I said, surprising myself with the level of harshness in my voice. I’m typically very friendly, especially to strangers, but with the amount of adrenaline I was experiencing in the moment, I was finding it hard to even control my speaking volume.
“Is that water?” he demanded.
“Of course it’s water,” I snapped. “What else would it be?”
“I thought it might be kerosene,” he said.
I rolled my eyes and cracked open another water bottle. Clearly the anti-Zionist Jews weren’t sending their best.
“You know, we have First Amendment rights in this country,” he said. “If you don’t like that message, you should write your own message contradicting it.”
“You’re giving me a lot of credit,” I said. “Maybe I just don’t like looking at this.”
I knew he had a point. Maybe I should have taken the chalk and written a pro-Israel manifesto. (Maybe that’s what I should be doing right here. But I digress; I think the point I want to make is something different.)
“I kind of agree with you,” piped up T from the ground where she was scrubbing. She was addressing the kid. “I felt uncomfortable with censoring the message, I kind of wanted us to contribute our own thoughts instead.”
"Don’t encourage him!” I said angrily to T, as the kid eagerly turned his attention towards her. But T, notoriously bubbly and extroverted, was more than happy to engage him in a dialog. As I took over her scrub-brushing duties, she was earnestly describing her childhood in France, and the Jews she had known who had immigrated to Israel due to a rising sense of insecurity. Then their conversation turned to the comparative morality of the Israeli government versus Hamas. At some point, the kid’s friend arrived, a tall Black kid, and he also started chatting with T.
“Well, I’m glad you’re all so friendly,” I said, irritated, and they laughed. T’s lovely personality and charming French accent contrasted amusingly with my “short angry Jewish woman having a meltdown” vibes, and our evidently close friendship seemed to indicate to the strangers that I was stressed out and passionate, but not totally crazy. I started to feel more relaxed, and was even momentarily grateful for the two boys’ presence as I knew that, should trouble have arisen, they would have protected myself and T. My relaxation turned to sadness as I reflected that this earnest young kid in the yarmulke clearly had his heart in the right place, and though he was green and inexperienced today, in the years to come he might become a formidable activist and organizer.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” he said to us as we prepared to leave, having completed our task. Though I would have preferred to leave nothing there at all, T had insisted on drawing a star of David inside of a heart next to where the erased message had been.
“Get home safe,” said the Black kid.
“Thanks,” we said. “You too.”
The next morning, I woke up and made my way towards the park to inspect the aftermath. From afar, I saw large crowds and tents crowding the plaza. I despaired, assuming that this was yet another rally. Then I realized it was simply the weekly farmer’s market.
“You need to chill out,” I told myself.
But as I drew closer to the site of our chalk escapades from the night prior, I was filled with horror once again. Though it had seemed in the darkness that we had managed to erase the chalk, in the light of day, it was revealed that we had in fact accomplished little more than smearing it around slightly. Now it said, “ZIONISM IS COLONIAL SETTLERISM”, with a Jewish star in a heart next to it.
Great. I was the biggest shmuck in Brooklyn.
Not only had I failed to do something as simple as erase chalk, but I had made the matter worse by seemingly providing Jewish endorsement of the message. Clearly God was laughing at me, teaching me a lesson about getting too worked up about things I can’t control, and reminding me that I suck at being an activist. I called up T to commiserate and we shared a laugh at our own expense, deciding that we would do nothing and let this one go.
The next day as I walked into the park, though I intentionally trained my eyes upwards to the Brooklyn Library, something made me glance down at the pavement. My jaw dropped. Someone had come in the night to make their own edit—now the chalk message read: “ZIONISM IS NOT COLONIAL SETTLERISM”. Holy shit. I couldn’t believe it. I had an ally. Who were they? Could they possibly know that I had made my own clumsy attempt before them, or did they, like I had, feel totally alone?
T reminded me of a legend explaining where King Solomon chose to build the Temple Mount. In a nutshell, there were once two brothers, each of whom feared that the other would go hungry due to a poor harvest that year. To spare his brother’s pride, both brothers would secretly carry bags of grain to the other’s storehouse under the cover of night, each hoping to secretly enrich the other. Neither brother could understand why the level of grain in his storehouse never seemed to diminish, until one night, the two brothers met one another in the middle of a field, consecrating the site of where the Holy of Holies would be revealed.
“Maybe we’re a little like that,” said T happily.
The next day as I walked past the park entrance, I could see clearly that someone had attempted to wash away the newly added “NOT” to restore the message to its original anti-Zionist form. They would have to learn the same lesson that I had, because though the water stains were clearly visible, the “NOT” was only slightly faded.
“Sucks to suck, losers,” I thought.
But they turned out to be persistent. By the following day, they had managed to do much better, almost entirely erasing the “NOT”. “Get a life, it’s just chalk,” I grumbled to myself. I wondered how many people were actually stopping to read the frankly clunky and verbose slogan still written on the ground. Strangely, though less than a week had passed, it felt like everyone in Brooklyn had moved on from the Israel-Palestine conflict. The cease-fire had taken effect, and the Eye of Sauron had moved on. To cicadas, or the January 6th commission, or something.
A professor I had in college once described the goal of making art as “afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted.” That had made perfect sense to me when I was 18; if there is suffering in the world, you must be propping up injustice, and therefore you have no right to be comfortable. That’s certainly the belief that underlies our activist culture today.
It might even be true.
And yet, somewhere along the line I have developed a total horror of politics and the way that they can be instrumentalized to psychologically dominate public life. I guess that means I favor the status quo, that I’m comfortable and don’t want to be afflicted. Fair enough. But I think there is more to the way that activism is deployed in our national discourse than the simple dichotomy that was once presented to me by my teacher.
Clearly, it can be co-opted by cynical actors. Clearly it can become mob rule.
And clearly, it can degrade the pleasurable experience of sharing public space as a community, transforming every walk into a doomstroll, and every park into a live re-enactment of Twitter.
Yesterday, as I walked past the park’s entrance, I saw a food truck stopped by the curb that I had never seen before. The lettering on the side read, “King David Tacos”.
Well, that about settled it, I figured.
Yahweh had expressed his divine will through tacos, and that was as clear a message as I could expect to get. I ordered some refried beans and ate them lying in the grass, closing my eyes while the sun’s rays warmed my skin.
But as I exited the park past the chalk writing, my prayer was for rain.