Public Space / Hagar Kotef

Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

We like to think of public spaces as sites of democracy, democratic spaces. The agora in Classical Greece, the idea behind the “town square”, Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, or Rothschild Boulevard of protests and revolutions circa 2011, the street as a meeting point between strangers who can at any moment become ad-hoc partners in destiny – these are but a few examples of public spaces that are perceived as both a condition for a dynamic democracy and its symbols. As Hannah Arendt argued, the political sphere can only emerge in and by means of public venues in which we move among our equals (or those who politics fabricates as equal, even if momentarily), exchange ideas, and act together. Yet “democracy” should not necessarily be perceived here as peaceful coexistence. Public space is not only the available, open, and accessible venue for equal presence or public activity. It is the place where different entities struggle over the question of who is the public: who is contained within or excluded from this imagined collective body. This, too, is a democratic struggle, and the social fixedness that would have become rooted without it typifies racist or totalitarian regimes rather than democracies (indeed, Arendt characterized such regimes as typified by the obstruction and clogging up of   public spaces). Consequently, viewing public space as a venue of struggle (as opposed to a venue of dialogue or harmonious coexistence) also signifies it as an unequivocal democratic venue and as a condition for and symbol of democratic existence.

In the following paragraphs I wish to ponder this struggle and its relation to democracy. I argue that democratic spaces, with the freedom they seek to ensure, cannot be considered separately from the violence that serves as their foundation. Toward the end of this essay, I shall also add a few words about the ”here” and ”now”, beyond this structural argument.

The struggle over the boundaries of public space is symbolic – including the words or gestures that can be bandied about in this space without sanction (think about the word kusit [“hottie”], about whistles, or the movement against “manspreading” on buses), the visual images permitted in it (for example, can misogynous or racist images be disseminated in it under the pretext of advertising?—and what is considered “misogynous” or “racist” to begin with? or when does the demand for non-offensiveness itself become paralyzing – stopping all possible movement?), dress codes (the struggles in certain parts of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, or ultra-Orthodox colleges can serve as examples, as well as the “short-shorts in schools” rebellion, but also the question of the veil that is a question concerning the forms of dress that can pass as “universal” and consequently “non-threatening”, but more importantly, calls us to ask why something has to be “universal” or “similar” to be non-threatening), and street names (changing Arabic names of streets, junctions, neighborhoods, and settlements to Jewish names is of course a prime example). All these are struggles over the question of who is the public for whom the space is indeed “public”; who can move freely, and who should subordinate her identity, bend it, adapt it, so she can move in the space as if it were hers – even though it is not hers – and perhaps even re-appropriate it as “hers”. The tension I wish to highlight here is between the pole wherein the individual is “included” in the public, and the pole wherein this inclusion  changes the character of the public itself.

But this struggle is also a concrete one, and it signifies public space – specifically and precisely because it is a venue of democracy – as a space of suspended or actual violence. It is the violence manifested in closing public spaces to certain people (roadblocks, mobility and separation regimes, unequal allocation of police violence), in making it unsafe for others, or in the construction of certain people as threats who by their very presence in the public space block it to others. Thus, for example, refugees (or “infiltrators” or migrants) are presented in an ever-increasing number of places as turning public spaces into blocked spaces, especially to women. We encounter this perception in South Tel Aviv, in Germany, Hungary, or France, and repeatedly hear the argument concerning the danger these men– always brown, always non-European – pose to women, to the integrity of their bodies, and by implication to the integrity of society as whole. Their violent removal is thus perceived as an ostensible condition for the non-violence of public space, and can be proclaimed as a feminist act. In other words, it can be presented as egalitarian or in favor of disadvantaged groups (i.e., women). This struggle over public space should be understood within the racist and postcolonial system that accords it meaning, and yet this does not necessarily render it non-feminist (to stay with our example, or more broadly concerned: it does not necessarily render it a struggle merely posing as a struggle for the benefit of disadvantaged groups—it is often indeed such a struggle.)  Differently put, it should be acknowledged that there are multiple forms of oppression, and at times a struggle against one form of oppression is a collaboration with another. It is not my intention to call for this kind of collaboration or to state that it is an inevitable given that cannot be challenged. On the contrary, I seek to acknowledge this collaboration in order to try and find other forms for organizing public space – and hence, by necessity, the boundaries of the “public” itself – that surmount this kind of collaboration, that unravel and reweave the web of connections of the struggles within it.

A few years ago I moved to New York, and lived near Columbia University, in close proximity to Harlem. Friends who had lived in the neighborhood in the past reacted in similar ways when they heard where I was going to live. ‘Don’t worry,’ they said (I didn’t), ‘it’s a safe area now.’ And indeed, the neighborhood seemed quite safe – or, in fact, safe for me. Although we were warned not to walk through the park after dark, the streets themselves were crisscrossed with police and security officers who made the public space accessible to movement – day and night. That is, to my movement and that of others like me. Because making the streets safe for some of us was tangles with making them less safe or less accessible to others – others who lived in the neighborhood before me and continued living there after I left; others whose vulnerability to police violence in the name of that very same safety is what sparked Black Lives Matter. In my friends’ reports on the neighborhood, my safety and the violence inflicted on the black residents of Harlem seemed inevitably connected, but also repressed, denied, and unspoken. In Israel \ this relationship is quite familiar – making Israeli public space “safe” is perceived as being inevitably conditional upon restricting the movement of Palestinians and limiting their presence in potentially joint public spaces. I have elaborated elsewhere on the ways in which freedom and violence unite in the same physical phenomenon: movement. Movement is the clearest and most tangible realization of the notion of freedom in a democratic-liberal society, but in colonial, racialized contexts, and contexts of social unrest (class protests for example), movement is presented as violence or potential violence that needs to be policed, restricted, and reduced. Thus, the body moving in public space constitutes a dual paradigm: of freedom and danger. It may be argued that what separates one (freedom) from the other (danger) is the identity of that body (black/white, Arab/Jewish, man/woman). But it could also be argued that this separation is artificial and based on an arbitrary point of view. Either way, the point is that in public space freedom and violence are interwoven in ways that preclude egalitarian democratic thought to appear as attainable without a price.

This Gordian knot usually remains transparent. Whereas some reflection will lead to recognition of the violent constructs that sustain our freedom and democratic systems, this recognition generally remains repressed, shunted into a corner of our consciousness so as not to undermine our personal and political identity. This ability to repress is a cultural and historical function, and its flexibility can be demonstrated in the astonishment of visitors from abroad at the level of normalization of violence in Israeli public spaces. From the presence of soldiers (in or out of uniform – who consequently appear to the non-Israeli observer as citizens) carrying weapons in public space, through pieces of old war ordnance that serve as monuments or playgrounds in parks or kibbutzim, to the way traces of the Nakba destruction have become part of public space as a kind of oriental decoration – a stone wall, climbing grapevines, arches of an “Arab house”. All these – whether traces of past violence or the means of present and future violence – have been so fully integrated into our public spaces that their presence has become banal and sometimes requires the observation of outsiders (or the presencing efforts made, for example, by Zochrot) for us to see what is right in front of us.

This refusal to see can be understood as denial, an attempt to build a public space which departs from the violence that creates it, and as such can be experienced as a space of freedom that is not threatened, or that has managed to contain threat (via walls, blockades, self-censorship of the media, reconstruction of the narrative in civics textbooks, and so forth). But perhaps this space should be understood differently, at least at the present historical moment. Perhaps, in contrast with spectacular violence, denial and voluntary blindness, or the perception of violence as some kind of necessary evil, what we see in public space here today is that violence is becoming so intertwined with life that it has become a norm in its dual meaning: normal, namely routine and commonplace, but also normative – in other words, appropriate.

To understand the degree of this normalization one can imagine a typical scene in the war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, when Hamas rockets struck extensive parts of Israel. Think of the cafés in Tel Aviv, packed as usual, when the sirens sound. At this moment, the café’s customers generally leave their tables, find shelter, wait to hear the sounds of an explosion, and a few minutes later return to the table – the croissant still waiting, the coffee quickly served, and the public space reorganizes itself from a space in a mini-state-of-emergency (if this is indeed a possible word combination) to a normal urban space. In this kind of space there is no longer any need to find packaging of justification for violence – shoot and cry, shoot and deny. It is now possible, to paraphrase Naftali Bennett, to shoot and not apologize anymore. Only time will tell if the change in the way we represent the violence rampant in our public space and articulate it for ourselves will also change its scope and intensity, but what is already evident now is that this change is making this space increasingly more obstructed – to words conveying particular content, to people of a particular identity, to political activities of a particular type.