State of Amnesia: 2005-2012

By Yael Bartana and Avi Feldman
Table of Contents

Israel today has been shaped by two major government initiatives. The first, in 2005, was the disengagement from Gaza, which saw the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and the army’s withdrawal from Gaza. The second was the construction of what is known as the Separation Wall, begun in 2002, which divides most of the West Bank from the State of Israel and is expected to reach 650 kilometers, or 400 miles, at completion.

The disengagement from Gaza is considered by some sectors of Israeli society as one of the most traumatic events in its history. For the first time since the Six-Day War in 1967, land regarded as part of “historical Israel” was relinquished unilaterally. Signaling a change in ideology as well as in political policy, the disengagement from Gaza marked the government’s failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and simultaneously revoked the Zionist project of establishing Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line (the borders established in 1967).

Since the introduction of these measures, periodic military operations have replaced peace negotiations. Thousands of dead civilians, the utter destruction of Gaza, and the constant rockets launched from Gaza towards Israeli cities have led to an escalation of fear, violence, frustration, and the rise of extremists on both sides. At the same time, ongoing conflict and nearly fifty years of occupation have intensified denial, silence, and apathy in many Israelis.

In relation to the visual arts, this condition might be described as a state of visual amnesia. This situation becomes evident when one realizes that most of the video art produced in Israel since 2005 addresses neither the construction of the Separation Wall, nor the disengagement from Gaza, nor the occupation in general in any meaningful way. It might be that in-depth reflection requires the passage of more time. This was the case with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which only began to be addressed by Israeli filmmakers many years later. As literary scholar Michael Gluzman has observed, “Trauma is never comprehended at the moment of its occurrence.” Dana Arieli-Horowitz, who has curated several exhibitions dealing with Rabin’s assassination and published extensively on its treatment in Israeli art, also notes the limited political and public discourse in Israel about the assassination and its devastating consequences.

Signs of the current state of separation between Israelis and Palestinians permeate all of the works presented in this program. Most of the works do not directly address the traumatic events of the early years of the twenty-first century, but traces of the open wounds left by the occupation and an ongoing state of war can be detected in many of them. Evidence of these wounds can be seen in the recurring themes of barriers, separation, and isolation that appear throughout these works. Whether examining Israel’s current political situation by documentary means or utopian or absurd scenarios, these videos depict and challenge the political dynamics of a battered land in a period marked by extreme political, economic, social, and cultural forces.

Humor plays a large part in many of the works presented here, often as a way of processing traumatic events both personal and national. Recognizing the political potential of humor in conflict settings, these artists use absurd or funny situations to enable us to address what might otherwise be repressed, and several of the videos use humor to confront a grim present and a fearsome future. For example, Roee Rosen presents his young son as a kind of Pinocchio in reverse — that is, a puppet directly controlled by his father — in his Confessions Coming Soon (2007). In this “trailer,” Rosen’s son, standing in front of a green screen of a type used by broadcasters and video artists alike, reads an English passage displayed on a teleprompter that promises a scandalous exposé of his father’s evil, perversion, sacrilege, and deception. His choppy speech and earnest but confused expression make it clear that he does not speak English and does not understand the words that he struggles to sound out phonetically. His misarticulated and distorted words result in a systematic disconnection between meaning and linguistic forms. The humor here arises from language, or more specifically, from the gap between language and its purpose — that is, communication. The work also incorporates references from Jewish mysticism, such as dybbuk, into a confession format (a practice more typical of Christianity than Judaism). The boy, for example, is directed to perform the Nazi salute as part of his exploitation by his father. Rosen uses humor in this work to tackle multiple issues: the disconnection between language and communication, the responsibility of parents towards their children, and, of course, the manipulative capacity of cinema and popular culture as a whole. The work expresses the notion of Israel’s younger generation being haunted by the past, and suggests that it has limited resources with which to break away from the ideologies of its predecessors.

The video by Rona Yefman, made in collaboration with sound and performance artist Tanja Schlander, also invokes children and the sins of their “parents” (i.e., their political leaders). Unlike Rosen, she more directly refers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, positioning the beloved character of Pippi Longstocking against the Separation Wall. In Pippi L. The Strongest Girl in the World! at Abu Dis (2006/2008), Pippi, played by Schlander, strains and pushes against the wall, attempting to tear it down with her superhuman strength. Recognizing the character’s iconic red braids and freckles, the women passing by play along, encouraging her with a smile.

Like Yefman, Yossi Atia and Itamar Rose’s work, The State of Judeo-Arabia (2007), seeks to promote political change, but their use of humor is somewhat darker. In many of their short videos, Atia and Rose address urgent political and social issues such as the state of refugees in Israel and Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. For The State of Judeo-Arabia , the duo interviewed residents of the Palestinian town of Tayibe, which sits on the Israeli side of the Green Line. These people were presented with a hypothetical scenario in which, by the year 2020, an Arab majority would prevail in the State of Israel. In this scenario, the participants are told, Arabs and Jews engage in relations of mutual exchange. However, this set-up is, in fact, a subversive experiment meant to illustrate the absurdities of ethnic segregation. By playing with the conventional emblems of the nation-state, Atia and Rose suggest that such idyllic collaboration between Arabs and Jews in a united and fully democratic Israel holds little chance of success. The participants are encouraged to draw a new flag for this hypothetical state — half Palestinian and half Israeli — but the well-known children’s song that can be heard in the background tells a different story. Like the setting in the video, the melody of the song is pleasant and peaceful, but the lyrics of the song are foreboding: “In the country of the midgets…the army is dressed for war.” With a bellicose song in the background, the video’s scenario, in which Arabs and Jews come together to face a new, common enemy, seems ridiculous. By means of prodding, controversial role-play, and improvisation, Atia and Rose manipulate their subjects into participating in a performance that bears a striking similarity to the current state of affairs.

Humor and absurdity enable Rosen, Yefman, and Atia and Rose to confront atrocities and shared traumas. Seeking to create new meanings and new tools for re-imagining and deconstructing deeply entrenched and seemingly unsolvable conflicts, these artists share an interest in contemporary events in Israel. Giorgio Agamben defined the contemporary person as someone “who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness.” In Agamben’s sense, the works in this program are profoundly contemporary; not only made in recent years, they courageously direct their gaze, and thus our own — when most are reluctant to do so — towards a dark time in the history of the State of Israel.

Like Rosen as well as many international artists, Avi Mograbi experiments with cinematic structures in order to probe the nature of narrative. How do we construct stories? Who speaks and whose stories are told? What forces underlie the words and actions of a given character? Mograbi’s Mrs. Goldstein (2006) addresses the Hebron Massacre, in which twenty-nine Palestinians were killed and a hundred and twenty-five wounded, and which was carried out by the religious fundamentalist Baruch Goldstein at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. The video opens abruptly with a shot of a clapperboard that reads: “Massacre in Hebron – Testimony of Miriam Goldstein, Wife of Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron Mass Murderer.” Three actresses play Mrs. Goldstein; each performs her own unique interpretation of testimony given by Mrs. Goldstein at her husband’s trial. Avoiding documentary material and explicit images, the video examines the banal cruelty of Miriam Goldstein, positioning her as a symbol of the moral deterioration of a wide sector of Israeli society. Here again, the artist looks back at recent history in order to tell the story of the present. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin denounced the massacre and declared the group of Jewish settlers to which Goldstein belonged to be outcasts and adversaries of Israel and Judaism; a year later, Yigal Amir, another fundamentalist, who believed that Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 was a betrayal of the Jewish people, assassinated Rabin. Today, one can only speculate about how Israeli-Palestinian relations might have developed had Rabin lived, but a Palestinian state might well have been established.

One can unequivocally say that Israeli society has become further entrenched in violence, separation, and denial since the time of the Oslo Peace Accords. Nira Pereg’s diptych Abraham Abraham and Sarah Sarah (both 2012) also focus on Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, a holy site for both Jews and Muslims. Since the massacre, access to the cave has been strictly divided between Jews and Muslims. Each year, use of the restricted chambers is granted to Jews on special holidays. Pereg documents the handing over of the cave, drawing our attention to the mundane acts of clearing the space of all signs of either Jewish or Muslim worship. In Abraham Abraham , plastic chairs are piled atop one another, banners are rolled up, and carpets are laid out, marking the Jewish handover to the Muslims. Sarah Sarah offers a mirror image of packing up and preparation for the handover from the Muslims to the Jews. In both videos, these images are interspersed with shots of Israeli soldiers, whose presence, with its own choreographed regularity, signals the fragility of the separation between Jews and Muslims. The coexistence of Jews and Arabs in Israel, maintained by military force rather than the realization of similarities between them, is in a state of constant dysfunction. Like Mograbi, Pereg focuses on minor details, repeating them in an effort to understand brutality and to construct a kind of ballast against it. The repetition of the secular rituals that are part of life in this holy site emphasizes an equivalence that relies on a strict separation. The mirroring of each group’s efforts to clear and re-inhabit the cave can be read as a metaphor for the impossible yet enduring separation between the two religions in the region.

Nir Evron’s A Free Moment (2011) also focuses on a historically significant architectural site. The video consists of a single pre-programmed robotic shot. Mounted on a unique motion-control head, a 35mm film camera performs three simultaneous rotations that pan across a fascinating structure: the Tell el-Ful palace. Located on a hill in northeast Jerusalem, the palace was commissioned by King Hussein of Jordan in 1966, but its construction was halted by the Six-Day War in 1967, during which Israeli forces battled Jordanians on the hill. Abandoned on the deserted hilltop, the neglected ruin is a monument to its unrealized glory. Evron intensifies the duality embedded in the structure — regal palace and derelict ruin — as he cinematically turns it upside down, shifting perception in an effort to reveal what has been repressed, abandoned, left out of sight, or simply forgotten.

The state of separation highlighted in these works, the division that dictates the shape of Israeli society, is engrained in almost every aspect of Israel’s social infrastructure. Talking about the failure of the Israeli “melting pot,” Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s current president, has identified four “tribes” that make up contemporary Israeli society. These “tribes” are clearly evident in Israel’s school system, in which the first-grade population is composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, almost 25 percent ultra-Orthodox Jews, 15 percent national-religious (observant) Jews, and 25 percent Arabs. But these children do not share the same classroom. Israel’s school system is segregated, with schools for Arabs, schools for ultra-Orthodox Jews, schools for national-religious Jews, and secular, public schools. Israeli society no longer has either a clear majority or clear minorities, and Israeli culture is being re-negotiated as the country takes in diverse peoples from diverse cultural groups. At the same time, it must deal with its own history and the ongoing consequences and inequities produced by that history. One example of the changing discourse in Israel is the movement, led by a growing number of Mizrahi Jews, to reclaim Middle-Eastern Jewish identity. Mizrahi Jews, who trace their origins to Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, have recently begun to resist the institutionalized marginalization and discrimination they have encountered in Israel since its founding by predominantly Ashkenazi (European) Jews.

In terms of what President Rivlin calls the “new Israeli order,” Dor Guez’s video, a personal story of racism, is part of an evolving debate about the role and influence of minorities and underprivileged communities in Israel. In (Sa)Mira (2009), Guez poses the tangled question of whether Israeli society is capable of accepting diversity, and the work suggests that it currently is not. For the video, Guez interviewed a young psychology student who was working as a waitress in a Jerusalem restaurant. Casually dressed, she speaks Hebrew and appears to be a typical Israeli. Yet Samira describes an experience that highlights her oppression as an Arab. The restaurant manager asks her to Hebracize her name because her real name makes the customers uncomfortable. This request echoes a practice common in the last two centuries around the world; many immigrants changed their names in order to assimilate more easily into their adoptive societies. In Israel, this practice was deeply entrenched, from the first wave of Jewish immigration in 1882 until a few decades ago. Today, the practice has mostly faded, yet Guez’s work suggests that, rather than dying out, it has shifted from a Zionist gesture to a racist imposition on non-Jews.

Closing the video program on a more meditative note, Sigalit Landau’s DeadSee (2005) juxtaposes the Dead Sea, known in Hebrew and in Arabic as the Sea of Death, with its opposite — a living human body nestled among five hundred sweet watermelons. It is in this seam that connects Israel, Jordan, and Palestine that balance and coexistence must be found, not only for the Jewish and Arab communities of the region, but also for the sustainability of the Dead Sea itself, which has already been severely damaged by climate change and commercial exploitation by both Israeli and Jordanian industries.

Contemplating Landau’s quixotic DeadSee and the nearby empty palace in Evron’s video, one cannot but relate these works to the global economic turbulence of recent years. Global developments and the spread of neo-liberalism have produced tremendous challenges for Israeli society. Spurred by unending conflict, the main question that arises is how, or perhaps whether, Israel can continue to exist as both a Jewish state and as a democracy. From its early stages, Israeli society has been caught between its wish to contribute intellectually, economically and culturally to the global community and its desire to maintain its unique Jewish character through strict religious exclusivity and segregation. The videos presented in this program expose this ongoing tension, which has led to Israel’s current crossroads. If Israeli society is to avoid further separation, isolation and violence, it must now find the means with which to cultivate a flourishing multicultural and liberal society.