With one religion, we cannot listen.

With one color, we cannot see.

With one culture, we cannot feel.

Without you we can’t even remember.

Join us, and Europe will be stunned!

Triggered are memories of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, also evoking the consequent implementation of the Zionist dream with its disastrous displacement of the Palestinian people, al-Nakba. Tears well again, not only within me but also with others I observe watching the film around me.

But I will not cry on command nor identify on cue. Identification provides a comfortable solution: one can choose heroes or villains, aligning oneself in relation to the story and with how one wishes to render one’s own self-image. It is harder to counter the automated response, to suspend the urge to cry just enough so that a thinking process can enter. This time, it is the film itself that helps me plug the faucet, forming what I argue is not an act of repression, but the conscious implementation of suppression as a means for temporary emotional deferral. In his masterful formulation about the relations between the somatic and the psychic, Sigmund Freud identified repression as an unconscious mechanism operating upon the instincts. Here I distinguish suppression as a conscious act of restraining a compulsion. For me this restraint is a necessary tool to ward off the coercive institutional apparatuses, years of built-in “Kodak moments” commanding me to “please proceed and cry here now.”

One can always cry later, cry in solitude, cry obliquely, cry for others and not for oneself, cry for everyone and not just for those with whom one’s constructed sense of self directs one to identify. And you must also cry for those you hate.

“Return to Poland,” the speech-maker pleads dramatically—a generous invitation extending a peaceful offering to the Jewish people. In some ways viewing Mary Koszmary now recalls the events of May 2010, when White House correspondent Helen Thomas opined rather ahistorically that the Jews should return “home” to Poland and Germany.3In contrast, Bartana’s invitation opens to interpretation our understanding of the consequences of past events and how to begin to remedy them in the present. As such, it ethically implicates the Europeans in the fate of the Jews (and thus of the Palestinians), rather than once again assigning single-sided blame.

True, the West overwhelmingly tends to favor the Israeli position over that of the Palestinians, but outbursts and simplistic over-identification will not bring about the balance necessary for resolving the conflict. Is it too much to ask of those in the United States who sit in the comfort of the academy and the media to refrain from perpetuating divisiveness?4 Over and over again, I have watched individuals betray what they preach: those holding anti-nationalistic positions wave other people’s flags, those who dedicate their work to a subtle critique of representation engage in blatant propaganda, and those who oppose essentialism fetishize those bearing marks of difference. Whether arrived at through sympathy or contempt, such unreasoning partiality is always corrosive to the processes that might move us forward.5My beef is not with the position of my colleagues, but with the blindness to their “formal” choices when it comes to politics, especially disturbing since most of them perform these kinds of analyses daily in their own work. Their failure to extrapolate from their work to their politics is a collapse of critical thinking where it is most needed. True justice is compromised when the ends justify the means.

…and Europe will be stunned issues an invitation that is bold and unsettling. Contemporary Poland’s intelligentsia stepped up to this challenge when they chose Bartana, a foreign national, to represent their pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011.6 One such Polish visionary is Slawomir Sierakowski, founder and editor of Krytyka Polityczna (The Political Critique), who appears in the role of the orator and leader of the JRMiP in Mary Koszmary. It is (partly) in his own words that he speaks, as he is also the main author of Mary Koszmary’s script. The video’s call directly reflects Sierakowski’s own quest for a contemporary internationalist and just society, as well as the position of many of the contributors to the book that accompanies the installation, A Cookbook for Political Imagination.7 Both Mary Koszmary and Cookbook attempt to envision radical possibilities for humanity’s future, and Bartana intends to test the legal and practical feasibility of a Jewish Renaissance in Poland at a conference during the 2012 Berlin Biennial. Whether Jews returning to Poland is realistic or not, however, is beside the point. At issue is a proposition that serves to open our minds to new political solutions beyond the conventional trappings of nationalism.

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson analyzes how capitalism, the invention and development of print, and the consolidation of manifold idiolects into centralized vernacular languages supported the construction of common histories, which then formed the ideological basis of nationalism. Demonstrating how these fabricated affinities created the foundation of modern-day nationalism, in contrast to the religiously sanctioned dynastic rule that preceded it, Anderson makes it evident that national affinity is anything but natural or inherent. Most alarming is this observation: “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” 8As he chronicles the conditions that have made nationalism seem so organic, it makes sense for us to envision other forms of kinship and affinity. Rather than allowing contrived historical processes to sweep us along, we can in fact take the reins and reformulate them now, not on the basis of hierarchy and exploitation, but on grounds of justice and equality. Of course, humanity would be required to act in a rational manner, which we unfortunately know is not often the case. But surely we should never be ready to give up, and thus I speak to my American audience.

There was nothing miraculous about the voice in my teenage head pulling me away from identifying with the state; it was the inevitable slotting together of circumstances that had made up my life. The screen of “state-truth” had begun eroding years before. In an extra-curricular painting class in multi-ethnic Haifa, I began to notice the mutterings of my Arab classmates every time our Russian-born teacher spoke his Zionist truisms. These experiences allowed me to observe my family’s process askance. In our house of mourning, pain turned to hatred as I watched memorial days, holocaust documentaries, history, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyad, Ayyubid, Ottomans, British Mandate, the news. I knew it did not have to be this way, not personally, not collectively. Things just had to change. I fled to all that Haifa had to offer: a museum, a theater, a Bahai temple, diversity, communes, deep-water port, British pubs, and the Arab side of town. On the stairs of the local cinematheque, I first met the charismatic Spartacus Mer-Khamis and his wounded soulful brother Abir, preaching anarchy and Bakunin. Instead of going home I followed them around town, disappearing on my anxious and tortured parents for days on end into the communes of Khalisa where Haifa’s multi-ethnic university students would talk aesthetics and politics long into the night.

Offering refuge to those disillusioned with nationalism, there is such sobriety, such veracity, in Slawomir’s words. Yet, as always, the clarity of his call begins to erode with application. In the second episode of Bartana’s trilogy, Mur i wizen (Wall and Tower) we see the JRMiP implement its agenda. A group of Jewish youth raise a wall and tower in an urban park located at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Muranow. The historical referent is a guerilla tactic developed in the 1930s by the Jewish Chalutzim (pioneers) under the British Mandate in Palestine. In order to subvert the British freeze on new settlements, the Chalutzimwould erect a wall and a tower, the bare minimum needed to be considered a settlement, and thus bind the land for a Kibbutz to be established.

Yael Bartana, Mur i wiez ̇a (Wall and Tower), 2009, video still.

Yael Bartana, Mur i wiez ̇a (Wall and Tower), 2009, video still. Courtesy of Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv.

The aesthetic of this video is fashioned after Israeli propaganda films of the 1930s and 1940s, which promoted the image of the robust, healthy Jew as farmer and worker, made in contrast to the image of the sickly Diaspora intellectual, who, unable to fend for him/herself, had been so easily victimized. This image of the new Jew was in many ways based on the heroic figures rendered by social realism, and the multiple iterations of this aesthetic’s return are addressed in this part of the trilogy. One such historic precedent appears when, before embarking on the building mission, the settlers place two Star-of-David wreaths on the park’s existing war monument.

Bartana’s video is a riff on a style employed for the purpose of persuasion. A clear irony marks the return of this historic aesthetic in our present, as the camera pans in slow motion across the overly emphatic faces of the glowing young women and men, at work and in the camaraderie of repose. The exaggerated pathos of the video is echoed by the overkill architecture of the wall and the tower. Crowned with barbed wire, the camera angles make it look like an archetypal jail or concentration camp. A searchlight guarding the periphery at night shines also on the Muranow monument.9The structure is illuminated like an actor on a stage, announcing both its artificiality and its affect as an aesthetic device. Juxtaposing these various iterations of social realism reminds us that form can never be fully responsible for the content it carries, and that all formal strategies are made malleable by the ideology that employs them.

Overall, Bartana’s project is Brechtian, an epic that begins in history and ends in the present. Like Bertolt Brecht’s theater, it does not follow one aesthetic prescription, but rather allows multiple forms to weave a larger picture, pitting various aesthetic approaches against each other. Bartana’s project adds to Brechtian experimentations with social reality by placing it in dialogue with various levels of fiction. This opens up possible contradictory outcomes, such that the narrative and the aesthetic come into conflict with themselves and/or with each other. There is not one voice or clear position speaking through the work; introduced instead are various stages, platforms, and arenas—sites upon which political positions push and pull between idealism and human reality.

Such push-pull is the subject of Sami Michael’s realist novel Refuge(1977), which tells the story of the Communist Party in Haifa as it comes into crisis at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war in 1973. The Jewish comrades are torn between their loyalty to Israel, a land that has given them refuge (double-edged as both shelter and trap) and their commitment to Russia, which is arming the Egyptian side. A web of cultural differences between Jews of various backgrounds, and between Israeli Arabs and their Palestinian relatives, is subtly described in the book. The main plot tells the story of Shula, a reluctant child of the Party, giving refuge to a famous Arab poet, as sexual tensions soaked in myriad differences produce an endless net of misunderstandings.

The characters in Refuge are based on real people, including Naim, the son of an Arab party leader and a Jewish mother. In one scene, as the war sirens rage, Naim is mistaken for a Jew by an old man he helps into a shelter. Naim impulsively tells the man his name is Mahmoud, eliciting a racist tirade from the old man. Offended and outraged, Naim threatens to “kill” the man—”kill” being a figure of speech—and in the chaos that ensues Naim is protected by a Jewish officer, then whisked away by Shula. The confusions in this scene echo the tenuous connections that comprised the Communist Partyin Haifa, and the conflicts that ultimately thwarted its effectiveness. It was the party’s incapacity to cohere that eventually drove the real-life people represented by their counterparts in Refugeto leave it and turn to more direct forms of activism on the ground.

The third chapter of …and Europe will be stunned brings to the fore such shortcomings of parties and ideologies. In the video Zamach (Assassination), Bartana questions the ability of culture to persuade large groups of people to follow one-dimensional ideological solutions. Zamach warns us that the most progressive ideology has the potential to turn dangerous. As the Polish Pavilion’s press release explains:

The plot of the film takes place in not too distant a future, during the funeral ceremony of the leader of the Jewish Renaissance Movement, who had been killed by an unidentified assassin. It is by means of this symbolic death that the myth of the new political movement is unified—a movement which can become a concrete project to be implemented in Poland, Europe, or the Middle East in the days to come.

Yael Bartana, <em>Zamach (Assassination)</em>, 2011. Video still.

Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011. Video still. Courtesy of Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv.

The aesthetic phoniness of Zamach is so exaggerated that it becomes repulsive. Echoing the heartbreaking eulogy delivered by Yitzhak Rabin’s granddaughter in the memorial ceremony that swept the Israeli nation (cynics included) in 1995, a character playing the orator’s Israeli wife recalls the last moments of his life. She resembles Noa Rabin, but the latter’s tragic delivery is here estranged by what seems to be poor acting. The disturbing artificiality of the actor’s delivery functions as a ‘ technique, as does the internal joke-laden text of her speech. The assassination of the leader took place in an art exhibition (underscoring to the viewer that they should be paying attention to the aesthetics), which is named “The Chosen”—a joke on the idea of a “chosen people,” deftly skewering the use of antiquated religious texts to justify the infliction of injustice upon one’s neighbor. The malleability of fact is emphasized all along, as is the total dependence on media to produce our concept of history and political truth. The trilogy tells us that truth is never in the idea itself, but somewhere between the message and its means of delivery.

Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011. Video still.

Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011. Video still. Courtesy of Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv.

Like all formal ceremonies, this video is excruciatingly boring in its slow processions and pompous speeches. I am no longer captivated, but two major elements compel me to keep watching. Rivka, “the ghost of return,” whose quilt was stolen in her childhood, comes back from the death camps to walk amongst the living. Also, familiar personalities appear on stage as themselves, delivering scripted speeches that represent various positions that fly in the face of JRMiP ideology, and shrewd intricacies are woven into the part of the ceremony in which these real figures speak. Anda Rottenberg, the Polish art historian and curator, wears a keffiyeh patterned scarf as she speaks in English about Polish history.10Alona Frankel, a Polish-born Jewish illustrator, speaks in Polish about having been first disinherited by the war and then later forced to abandon her beloved Poland because of anti-Semitic persecution. Yaron London, an Israeli journalist and television personality, insists in Hebrew that the Jewish people still deserve their own place under the sun, calling the leader naive and a fool for thinking years of hatred and riots can be erased. In a position that fully contradicts the movement’s agenda, London sees the state of Israel and its army as the only guarantee against another Holocaust. As the movement’s youth take the stage, we return to fictional characters. Speaking against nationalism, persecution, and discrimination, they offer asylum to everyone, regardless of origin stories or identification paperwork. “We shall be strong in our weakness,” rings the new slogan, printed also on many of the attendees’ t-shirts and some of the manifold placards and banners that the ethnically and sexually diverse crowd carry around.

Youths in starched white shirts ascend the stage to sing. Their song rings true with those in my memory, reminiscent of our shared culture.11Despite the fact that the ceremony is filmed in Poland, the stage is the same stage of my youth but the farcical aesthetic prevents any emotions from forming. As the uniformed youth later gather candles to form the symbol of the movement, the Brechtian device of making strange is pushed to new capacities. The camera pans over their beautiful faces, surveying the scout uniforms of the young ones and continues on to those of their leaders, which more and more resemble army uniforms. Ambivalence is here at play. The movement’s emblem, a combination of the Star of David with a Polish eagle, has a strong Fascistic character, contradictory to what by now is beginning to sound like a new age agenda. By employing such haunting aesthetics, Bartana is undoubtedly playing with fire. Ultimately, this project questions the ethics of emotions as it insists that the viewer interrogate her/his position. The trilogy is deliberately indecisive, stressing the point that all identification can be blind. It warns that all sides are wrong, and asks, “How shall we proceed?”

Zamach is dedicated to the famous actor Juliano Mer-Khamis (1958–2011). Juliano, brother of Spartacus and Abir Mer-Khamis, was assassinated in the Jenin Refugee Camp for running the Freedom Theatre, during the very same week in which Zamach was being shot. Despite the loss of one of its founders, the Freedom Theatre continues on as the only professional theater in occupied Palestine.12 Juliano was the source for the character Naim in Refuge, and his family’s history with the Communist party in Haifa is featured in the novel. The Freedom Theatre was started by Juliano’s mother, Arna Mer-Khamis (1929–1995). In the years following the events fictionalized in Refuge, Arna, disenchanted with the ability of the party to affect real change, instead turned to working directly with children in refugee camps, organizing for their education and empowerment.13As it turns out, it was not only those children Arna helped: her house on Allenby Street was also always open those Jewish youth who needed refuge.

Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011. Video still.

Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011. Video still. Courtesy of Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv.

Nizan Shaked is a member of the editorial board of X-TRA. She is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History, Museum and Curatorial Studies, California State University Long Beach. Shaked is currently working on her manuscript Critical Identity Politics and the Legacy of American Conceptualism.

Footnotes

  1. The difference between the two utterances should be underscored. Thomas’s comments have been posted in part on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQcQdWBqt14, accessed January 28, 2012). She fails to acknowledge the role played by Western nations in establishing the State of Israel, which in many ways was meant to compensate the Jews for the West’s refusal to offer refuge during the 1938 Evian Conference on resettlement. Thomas’s later remark—that the Jews could have stayed in Europe as they were no longer persecuted after the war—is also historically wrong, for it is an established fact that numerous refugees were murdered in the chaos that ensued at the war’s end, and many Jews spent years in temporary camps throughout Europe, as the West still did not open its doors. However, what should or should not have happened after the war has little impact on the problem today. Moreover, Thomas displays ignorance of the fact that the majority of Jews in Israel today hail from Eastern or Sephardic, not European, descent. Undoubtedly, Israel’s atrocious policies and failure to comply with international as well as its own laws should be overturned immediately, but for that to take place we need to be able to think, assess, and extrapolate, employing knowledge and (relatively) rational thinking while avoiding malevolent forms of language.
  2. Slow change isn’t thrilling and alluring, but that is usually the case with real work. I am here compelled to cite an organization, Just Vision, whose relentless work achieves results without employing sensationalism or metaphors to describe the occupation. I would argue that occupation in and of itself is so horrific that its shrill depiction not only seem gratuitous, it also thwarts the ability to find common ground and encourage negotiation.
  3. For example: Why, for an intellectual identifying with the plight of the Palestinians (and rightfully so), would waving the Palestinian flag be such a knee-jerk reaction? Flag waving thwarts other possible solutions, some of which are in fact on the table, like several versions of a one-state option (often far more radical, and which also account for the Palestinian right to return). Nuanced solutions preclude flag-waving or sound bite toting. They also require honest self-examination of how and why one’s position may be formulated to support the fashioning of self-image.
  4. This largess of the mind was not shared by the Israeli government, which chose to shun Bartana’s presentation there.
  5. Sebastian Cichocki and Galit Eilat, eds., A Cookbook for Political Imagination(Berlin: Sternberg Press, co-published with Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, 2011).
  6. Benedict R. O. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed., (New York: Verso, 1991), 7. In his preface to the second edition, Anderson contextualizes his work as a “period piece,” one specific to the time in which it was written. Nevertheless, I find his proposition still relevant today.
  7. The 1948 monument was created by Nathan Rapoport (1911–87); a replica exists at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel. In another example of the many intricate internal referents woven into the texts of this project, the Israeli site is evoked in the third video by the ghost that returns from the past. The ghost returns not only from the numerous death camps she recites but also, “from the shrine of memory, to the mausoleum of the architecture of the sublime in Jerusalem.” She is the repressed that cannot be healed because it is frozen in the past and can thus be instrumentalized by the state (any state). Similarly, the monument’s aesthetic succumbs to the same fate, as it cannot but serve very different agendas. In Israel the monument commemorates the Jewish heroes of the Ghetto uprising and by extension the Holocaust. In Muranow, their Jewish identity was downplayed, glorifying instead the uprising’s communist protagonists. See Adrian Wojcik, Michal Bilewicz, and Maria Lewicka, “Living on the ashes: Collective representations of Polish–Jewish history among people living in the former Warsaw Ghetto area,” Cities27.4, August 2010, 195–203.
  8. Recently, the pattern used for keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, has become fashionable, worn by many who have no idea what they are signifying, as well as by Westerners who wear their politics on their sleeve.
  9. The music, also used in the second film, is the Israeli national anthem played backwards.
  10. See: http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/.
  11. See: http://arna.info/Arna/herstory.php.