Art drowns under a heap of waste

By imaging the majesty of existence art inspires love, beauty, awe, fear or even hate. The power of the emotions it awakens is the motive for which political rulers and their acolytes patronize artists to broadcast the strength of their dominance and fulfill their personnel strive for immortality. Conquerors have made a point to include works of art in their booty and financial magnates have spent colossal amounts of money for their possession. But also, ideology driven political upheavals have affirmed their newly gained dominance by the wreckage of art. The biblical narration of the Golden Calf destruction, the desecration of art as “Degenerate” by the Nazis, the misdeeds of the Iconoclasts and of the Taliban are vivid testimonies of the might attributed to art in shaping the minds of society.

The Tel Aviv aldermen by negligence, ignorance and maybe a distorted understanding of priorities have allowed a pernicious profanation of art. As I was driving along Shederot Ben Zwi, an odd structure, midway between Abukabir and the Blumfield Stadium, awakened my curiosity.

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It turned out to be an abandoned drinking trough Sabil Abu Nabut erected in 1820. Adjacent to the  building lays a small park heavily shaded by trees. The site is repellent. Heaps of trash and foul odors evoke a meeting ground for junkies.

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Still, behind the waste and the dung, steel sculptures recognizable as the works of Tumarkin adorn the grounds, drawing me irresistibly to walk in. The ensemble is stunning. Each individual work stirs emotive thoughts. A miniature replica of the headless Nike of Samothrace on a barren table between two facing bleak sitters evokes the futility of military victory to resolve a conflict between two peoples that historical destiny has driven to covet the same territory; one calls it Israel, the other Palestine. The rigidity of the sitters conveys the depth of the cultural abyss between sides and is maybe an appeal for a dialog to end the deadlock.

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Gender conflict is forcefully evoked in several sculptures. In a bold but enigmatic composition the self-portrait of the artist lays between a dominant male and a vociferous female engaged in a violent dispute. The presence of wheels on rails suggests travel. Tumarkin’s mother and stepfather immigrated to Israel when he was still an infant. Is the sculpture an autobiographical metaphor?

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In another representation of a couple, tenderness emanates from the confluence of shapes. Yet, the aroused phallus points away from the female partner hinting that carnal attraction to an absent figure is tearing the union apart.

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From the back of the artist’s head the Golden Ratio emerges in response to his quest for the secret of the harmony one finds in Nature (with a capital N.) If the ratio between length and width of a rectangle equals the Golden Ratio recombining length and width will construct either smaller or larger rectangles but reproduce exactly the shape of the original rectangle. The sculpture also refers to the role of the Golden Ratio in the construction of the pentagon and the five‑pointed star.

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Another bewildering composition shows a laying body being drawn to a yellow pyramid. Remembering that Tumarkin’s Holocaust Memorial on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv has the shape of an inverted pyramid my first thought was that the composition alluded to the cremation of bodies in the Nazi death camps. But the body, again an auto-portrait of the artist, with exposed internal organs as mechanical objects, leads to a more insidious interpretation. Pharaohs deluded themselves by having their body embalmed and erecting pyramids as gateways to eternal life. The artist paraphrases the vanity of this futile creed and creates a striking metaphor of the ineluctable finality of life.

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Regardless of the way a spectator perceives the sculptures he cannot remain indifferent. I don’t know how these few lines can become an appeal for transforming this neglected site into a cultural jewel. To do that all it would take is to build a fence around the park with a couple of gates that would open at sunrise and close at sundown, a surveillance camera and a signpost to inform the visitors.

Sunflower: To consider forgiveness is unforgivable

For reasons a recently published essay “France without the Jews” by Danny Trom strives to unveil, France is the cradle for the revival of murderous antisemitism that threatens Jews throughout the Diaspora. In this disturbing context, it is comforting to note that there are also people in France who think that a theater show with the theme of the Holocaust has its place on the French cultural scene. In a world premiere held in Tel Aviv, Thierry Lhermite, in a one man show, tells with poignant restraint a story “Sunflower” based on book by Simon Wiesenthal. Against the background of atrocities committed by the Nazis the narrator has endured and witnessed, the play raises the question of the possibility to forgive. After the emotion aroused by the theater magic and the talent of Thierry Lhermite had quelled, an uneasy feeling seized me. As a child during the war, twice I escaped being reduced to smoke and ashes. I have known fear, I was beaten, I was hungry, I got cold, I lost loved ones. All this for the sole reason I was a Jew. Those who chased me didn’t know me. They were ruthless machines, soulless, and deprived of the meaning of forgiveness. Undoubtedly, you can’t forgive machines.

During my professional career in Israel I have guided the training of young students from all over the world. Their choice to come here was often dictated by their desire to witness the dynamism that a new nation engenders. Among them were also Germans with whom I am still in contact. We never discussed directly topics relating to the Nazi era.  Yet I could detect by their attitude that the past left an indelible stain on their soul. In the heart of Berlin, between the Brandenburg Gate and  Potsdam Square, the Holocaust Memorial is erected on several thousand square meters. No passer-by can forsake the significance of this monument. Forgiving is also forgetting. Germany and the Germans do not want to forget. The recollection of their crime is their gateway to redemption. They don’t want us to forgive.

Fleurs de Soleil, envisager le pardon est impardonnable

Pour des raisons qu’un livre récent « La France sans les Juifs » par Danny Trom s’efforce de dévoiler, la France est le berceau de la renaissance de l’antisémitisme meurtrier qui menace les juifs dans toute la Diaspora. Dans ce cadre inquiétant, il est réconfortant de constater qu’il y a aussi en France des gens qui pensent qu’une représentation théâtrale ayant pour thème la Shoah a sa place sur la scène culturelle française. En avant-première mondiale à Tel Aviv, seul sur scène, Thierry Lhermite raconte avec une retenue poignante « Fleurs de Soleil » d’après un récit de Simon Wiesenthal. Sur le fond des atrocités commises par les Nazis que le narrateur a subi et dont il a aussi été le témoin, le récit soulève la question : est-il possible de pardonner ? Passé l’émotion que la magie du théâtre et le talent de Thierry Lhermite avaient suscité en moi, un malaise m’a saisi. Enfant pendant la guerre, par deux fois, j’ai échappé à être réduit en fumée et en cendres. J’ai eu peur, j’ai été battu, j’ai eu faim, j’ai eu froid, j’ai perdu des êtres qui m’étaient chers. Tout cela pour la seule raison que j’étais juif. Ceux qui me pourchassaient ne me connaissaient pas. Ils étaient des machines sans pitié, sans âme, et sans pardon. La question ne se pose pas. On ne peut pas pardonner une machine.

Au cours de ma carrière professionnelle en Israël j’ai guidé la formation de jeunes étudiants venus de partout dans le monde. Leur choix de venir ici était souvent dicté par leur désir d’être témoin du dynamisme qu’une nouvelle nation engendre. Parmi eux il y avait aussi des Allemands avec lesquels je suis encore en relation. Jamais nous n’avons évoqué de manière directe des sujets ayant trait à l’époque nazie. Pourtant je pouvais détecter par leur attitude que le passé laissait sur leur conscience une tache indélébile. Au cœur de Berlin, entre la porte de Brandebourg et la place de Potsdam, sur plusieurs milliers de mètres carrés est érigé le Mémorial de la Shoah. Aucun passant ne peut s’abstenir d’être confronté par la signification de ce monument. Pardonner c’est aussi oublier. L’Allemagne et les Allemands ne veulent pas oublier ; le souvenir de leur crime est le portail de leur rédemption. Ils ne veulent pas que nous pardonnions.

L’Espoir: titre de l’hymne national israélien

Fasciné, j’ai lu d’une seule traite l’essai de Danny Trom « La France sans les Juifs ». Sur le fond du traumatisme que la seconde guerre mondiale a infligé à l’Europe, le livre élucide les circonstances politiques, socio-économiques et culturelles qui renouvellent les menaces pesant sur les juifs de France. Finalement l’analyse cale le malaise entre deux pôles. Le premier est l’antisémitisme atavique des mondes chrétien et musulman qui font des juifs le bouc émissaire de leurs mésaventures et dont le prosélytisme doctrinaire s’émousse contre le mur virtuel du judaïsme. À l’anti-pôle apparait l’état d’Israël, calomnié par une presse gauchisante affublée d’œillères pervertisseuses, mais aussi qui ébranle l’allégeance des Juifs à la France. Le poids disproportionné des Juifs dans les niveaux opulents ou érudits de l’échelle sociale se combine avec la réussite technologique, économique et surtout militaire d’Israël pour attiser la virulence de ces pôles.

Le récit s’égare parfois dans une phraséologie ésotérique issue de la formation ou plutôt de la déformation scientifique de l’auteur. La curiosité m’a fait revenir sur les passages nébuleux. Grâce au soutien de Wikipédia je crois avoir saisi le fond de son discours.

Un frisson a parcouru mon échine en lisant que « la résurgence du problème juif . . . s’est produite non pas malgré l’extermination mais à cause d’elle ; non parce qu’il y a des juifs en France, mais parce qu’íl y en a encore ; parce qu’il en reste. » Je sais que l’hyperbole est parfois nécessaire pour sidérer le lecteur, mais je n‘oublierai jamais que je dois mon salut à la compassion d’un grand nombre de citoyens français tout à fait ordinaires.

Le livre ferme sur un avertissement angoissant qui émule l’attitude incrédule des Troyens face au cri d’alarme de Laocoon. Déjà, le danger que ressentent les Juifs de France se propage. Il a atteint la Grande Bretagne et il s’insinue subrepticement sous la mosaïque ethnique des États-Unis. Au-delà de son message le livre éveille en moi, juif Israélien, la crainte que l’indulgence complice accordée par le monde à la belligérance iranienne compromette le sort de mon pays.

Lecture obligatoire pour qui veut s’opposer à ce que l’histoire des juifs prenne fin.

Claude Lanzmann et l’essence de la condition juive

Je viens de terminer, confus et perplexe, la lecture des mémoires de Claude Lanzmann « Le lièvre de Patagonie ». Il nous fait partager sa perception d’événements personnels, culturels et politiques depuis son enfance, par la Seconde guerre Mondiale, jusqu’ au début du nouveau millenium. Son rôle dans la scène culturelle et politique de la France, même durant son engagement dans la Résistance contre l’occupation allemande, est celui d’un témoin. Une partie majeure du livre décrit comment, mais pas pourquoi il a créé son film « Shoah ». Le livre m’a conduit à regarder le film.  « Shoah » n’est pas un documentaire mais un témoignage horrible qui pousse la capacité humaine de la souffrance au-delà de toute limite imaginable.

La véritable nature du personnage demeure énigmatique. Il se voit un vrai Français mais aussi un Juif. Néanmoins, il n’admet aucun lien avec le judaïsme religieux, traditionnel ou même culturel. Pour quelle raison soutient-il fermement l’existence d’Israël ? Il s’aligne en faveur du mouvement prônant l’indépendance de l’Algérie et comme journaliste il rencontre les meneurs de la lutte. Cependant, le serment de Boumediene de combattre l’État Juif jusqu’à sa destruction éteint ses sympathies. L’idée de la mise à mort l’obsède. Il imagine les derniers gestes d’un condamné à la guillotine. Comme journaliste il assite au procès d’un curé coupable d’un meurtre sordide. Et Shoah est le récit individualisé de mises à mort à l’échelle industrielle.

Lanzmann vient fréquemment en Israël. Il y filme un documentaire « Tsahal », ayant pour sujet l’armée israélienne et un autre « Pourquoi Israël ». Il rencontre des personnalités politiques et culturelles. Pourtant il pense et se comporte comme un étranger ou plutôt comme observateur distant. Se referrant à sa francité il justifie son refus de réaliser l’espoir juif vieux de 2000 ans du retour à Sion.

L’importance qu’il donne à sa rencontre avec un lièvre ébloui sur une route de Patagonie est sa façon de circonvenir sa confrontation avec la signification de son essence juive. Est-il un Juif parce que même chez les plus éclairés des Français de souche il est considéré comme tel ? Ni Honoré de Balzac, ni Jules Verne n’étaient des antisémites. N’empêche, des passages dans « Eugénie Grandet » et « Le château des Carpathes » pourraient figurer dignement dans « Der Stürmer ». Le mot « Juif » se teinte d’un sens péjoratif. Pour éviter de l’utiliser les Français ont inventé le mot « Israélite ». Lanzmann ne semble pas  embarrassé par ces ambivalences. Il fait partie du cercle le plus intime des gens qui pivotaient autour de Sartre. Bien que prenant partie contre l’hostilité de Sartre à l’égard Israël, il ne met pas en cause l’ opinion sartréenne que l’antisémitisme engendre la permanence de l’essence juive.

La tuerie organisée de six millions de Juifs n’est pas la seule instance de mise à mort massive sous l’égide de la purification ethnique. Par le choix du sort des Juifs durant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale et du titre hébreu « Shoah » Lanzmann dévoile son essence juive. Pourtant le seul indice qu’il donne pour établir sa condition de Juif est le nez de sa mère. Apparemment il a difficile à reconnaître que même sans le contenu religieux la lignée crée une identité nationale indélébile mais immatérielle qui sépare les Juifs de la société des Gentils. Pourtant, l’Aliyah, l’immigration en Israël, rompt cette cloison. En liant l’identité nationale juive à son territoire ancestral   l’Aliyah alimente le mécanisme qui permet aux Juifs devenus Israéliens d’être à pied égal avec les peuples de toutes les nations.

Claude Lanzmann and the meaning of secular Jewishness

I just finished reading Claude Lanzmann’s memoirs “The hare of Patagonia”, leaving me stirred and perplexed. He recounts his perception of personal, cultural, and political events from his childhood, through World War II to the beginning of the new millennium. His role in the cultural and political scene of France, even during his engagement in the Résistance against the German occupants, is that of a witness. A large part of the book describes how, but not why, he created his movie “Shoah”. The book induced me to watch the movie. “Shoah” is a gruesome testimony not a documentary. It pushes human endurance to suffering beyond any imaginable limit.

The true nature of Lanzmann’s personality remains an enigma. He considers himself a true French but also a Jew. Still, he alienates himself from Judaism as religion, tradition and even culture. Antisemitism he encountered only as a youth during his schooling years. He is a staunch supporter of Israel. He sided with the Algerian independence movement and as a journalist met with the leaders of the rebellion. However, independent Algeria leaders’ vow to wage war until the destruction of the Jewish State dimmed his sympathies. Inflicted death obsesses him. He tells how he imagines the last gestures of men led to the guillotine. As journalist, he covers the trial of a murderous priest. And Shoah is the individualized story of inflicted death at an industrial scale.

Despite his frequent visits to Israel, a documentary movie about the Israeli Defense Forces “Tsahal”, a movie “Why Israel”, his meetings with Israeli political and cultural figures, he thinks and behaves like a foreigner or more accurately like an outside witness. Referring to his “francité”, a word that encompassed all the traditions, culture and idiosyncrasies that characterize French people, he explains why he does not feel the need to fulfill the 2000 years old Jewish hope of return to Zion.

The importance he assigns to his encounter with a hare on a Patagonian road is his way to evade the question of the essence of his Jewishness. Is he a Jew because even enlightened “Français de souche”, stem-rooted Frenchmen, unwillingly see him as such? Neither Honoré de Balzac nor Jules Verne were antisemites. Yet, passages in “Eugénie Grandet” and “Le Château des Carpathes” fit the tone of “Der Stürmer”. To ease referring to the Jewishness of people in their midst, the French have laundered contemptuous “Juif” into neutral “Israélite”. Lanzmann does not seem to be bothered by these ambivalent attitudes. He was in the innermost circle of people orbiting around Sartre. While taking issue against Sartre’s hostility toward Israel, he does not question the sartrean view that antisemitism ensured the permanence of Jewishness.

The organized killing of six million Jews is not the only instance of ethnic massive murder. Telling the fate of the Jews during World War II and using the Hebrew word Shoah to title the movie reveals Lanzmann’s Jewishness. His life story and his oeuvre epitomize the elusive nature of Jewish identity. The closest he comes to suggest what makes him a Jew is the shape of his mother’s nose. I believe his problem is not recognizing that with religious tenets removed, lineage creates the indelible but immaterial national identity which segregates Jews from gentile society. Fulfilled Zionism removes this barrier. By attaching the Jewish national identity to its ancestral territory it powers the mechanism that sets Israeli Jews on equal footing among people of all nations.

Freedom of thought, freedom of expression and breaking silence

In one of my old vinyl recordings Pete Seeger sings “Die Gedanken sind frei”, “Thoughts are free”. In Nazi Germany expressing freedom of thought was a deadly endeavor that Hans Fallada made powerfully vivid in his novel “Jeder stirbt für sich allein”, “Every man dies alone”. In the former Soviet world, gruesome was the silence of parents for fear their children would inadvertently divulge dissident words heard at home.

Israel was born as a true democracy and still is very much so despite the violent hostility in which it was conceived, gestated, and developed. The press and whistleblowers can expose wrongdoings that powerful people at the highest level of government commit. Yet, repeated insidious undermining of freedom of expression granted by the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel has prompted me to break silence. My outcry stems from the official inference that targets culture, arts, literature, and academic freedom. It endangers freedom of thought that spurs creativity.

The implementation of a new code of ethics that would prevent University professors to expose discriminatory rules targeting dissidents and Arab viewpoints is as venomous as the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Painter Yair Garbuz was denied the highest award granted by Israel because he is used deleterious wording to qualify a superstitious slice of the population that most certainly ignores his oeuvre and even his name. Yair Garbuz may have overlooked talisman worship is a remnant of strict obedience to rituals which shielded Jewish communities engulfed in oppressing environments. Still, the denial aims at muzzling the thoughts that feed his artistic imagination.

Cutting the funding of a theater because its program includes readings of Mahmoud Darwish poetry is another measure to quell dissident voices. The rhythmic sound of words gives poetry its magical sense. Translation loses this power but still carries the strengths of Darwish’s nostalgic images of a lost land. His voice needs to be heard although it strikes phony sounds to my ears. From his verses emerges also repeated reference to blood and weaponry revealing an atavistic hatred that distorts the true meaning of the past. Did he forget that the Arab sword conquered Palestine still inhabited by Jews and the murderous attack carried out 1300 years later by the armies of five Arab countries on the day following the rebirth of the Jewish State?

Government interference against freedom of thought culminated with the contradictory rulings about closure and reinstitution of public broadcasting. The hidden purpose of the saga was to silence criticism of the Prime Minister and of his household. Episodes could have raised laughter like medieval farces played in the forecourt of churches had they not threatened the livelihood of hundreds of people. Using economical pressure to muzzle embarrassing revelations and to promote political agendas is a pernicious form of public opinion control. I keep in mind that the media, commercial and public, are not always at the service of objective truth. They have their own agendas that exert control on the selection and presentation of the material they publish. The multiplicity of media that generates competition for ratings enforces self-regulation from which reliability finally emerges. Yet, perversion challenges even this form of check and balance when, during an election campaign, the owner of a leading newspaper, known for his sharp criticism of the Prime Minister, proposes to mitigate his attacks in return for limiting the diffusion of a competitor. Advertisement, which fuels commercial media, interferes with freedom of thought by shaping the way we purchase goods and entertainment. Still, the freedom of choice remains our own responsibility. Advertisers also have an impact on the contents of radio and television programs as they seek to reach the widest possible audience, often at the expense of quality and good taste. Freedom from these constraints is the main “raison d’être” of public broadcast because it is the channel of cultural innovation.

I find comfort in being able to write this post.