November 18, 2019

Painting love over hate on vandalized Workmen’s Circle mural

An organization that fosters Jewish identity has attempted to turn a recent act of vandalism into an opportunity for bridge-building between Jews and Muslims. 

Last weekend, the SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle added the Arabic word “Salaam” — and its Hebrew and English equivalents, “Shalom” and “Peace,” to a vandalized mural that covers its home in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. 

The organization’s addition to its 1998 mural is a response to incidents that took place on Feb. 6. That’s when vandals spray-painted the words “Free Palestine!!!!” onto the mural. Hours later, another set of vandals responded, in turn, by turning the word “Free” into an expletive

The graffiti remained until its recent removal by the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works Office. An ongoing investigation by police has not identified any suspects. 

[Related: Graffiti at Workmen’s Circle]

In the wake of the incidents, Workmen’s Circle denounced the vandals in a public statement. Its district committee voted to make the addition to the mural out of the belief that the best way to respond to acts of hate is with compassion.

Eric Gordon, a district committee member, said, “It often does take an extreme act, a catastrophe, an accident, to awaken you to needs you didn’t think you had before. … What are we going to do? Respond to an act of hate by saying “F— Palestine” on the mural? So, we’re trying to be responsive.

“We agree with ‘Free Palestine.’ It’s not the best way to express it. We are sorry and angry that they chose that way to express it, but they do have a point,” he said.

The wall-sized mural itself — titled “A shenere un besere velt” (a Yiddish phrase meaning “A more beautiful and better world”) — depicts cultural, biblical and historical imagery. The imagery includes a menorah, Israelites wandering in the desert, a young girl waving Israeli and American flags, and more.

SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workmen's Circle summoned muralist Eliseo Silva (below) to make an addition to its mural. Photo by Ryan Torok.

For the addition, the group summoned the mural’s original artist, Eliseo Silva. A non-Jewish, Filipino muralist and Los Angeles resident, Silva worked all weekend long on the mural, painting the new words onto three leaves. He also painted an olive tree.

It’s a minor addition to a mural extending the length of a 60-foot wall, but Gordon said the images send a message to the community that the only sensible way to respond to incitement is by being open to dialogue. 

It also represents a reunion between Silva and Gordon, who conceived of the mural when he took over the organization in 1995. 

“It doesn’t seem like a long time ago,” Silva said of when Gordon first commissioned him to work on the mural 16 years ago.

On March 15, wearing an apron and gesturing with fingertips covered in paint, Silva said he’s changed more than the mural. 

“I think I’ve probably gained 70 pounds,” he said. “Eric looks the same. He hasn’t changed.”