Udi Edelman, Eyal Danon, Ran Kasmy-Ilan
Throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, European Jewry underwent far-reaching transformations, characterized by fierce competition between national, religious, socialist, and various other ideological currents. In the end, the ideological narrative that achieved hegemonic status was that of the eastern branch of the Zionist movement, which argued that the solution for rescuing Jews from the fate of being a minority living in a hostile environment was to concentrate them in their historic homeland, where they would be the majority and enjoy their sovereignty. Furthermore, the return of Jews to their homeland, and their gathering in one particular territory rather than another, was perceived as a means for bringing them back into history: of turning them into a modern people that controls its destiny. Seeing as this ideology was inspired by the dominant model of Western European nationalism, it adopted, among other things, certain ethnocentric elements that were used to define the place and essence of Jews in European consciousness—elements that have Christian and even antisemitic roots. As a European-born national movement, Zionism adopted to a large extent the Christian-theological standpoint regarding the status of the Jews, and the idea of their return to their homeland being a sign of redemption. This generated a paradox according to which Jews had to be displaced from Europe and from Western civilization, in order that they could finally be accepted into it.
The historical movement of the European struggles for emancipation, the great Pogroms, and finally the Holocaust, secured the status of the Zionist-Nationalist conclusion: That the establishment of a sovereign nation-state with its own military power, in which the Jews of the world would concentrate—thereby putting an end to their shameful, diasporic existence—is the only solution that could guarantee that people’s continued existence.
And yet, during the same period, a variety of suggestions for solving “the Jewish problem” emerged both within and outside the Zionist movement. Some were attempts for a territorial solution outside of Palestine, based either on the doubt regarding the possibility of establishing a state there, or on the view that Jewish existence in that part of the world would not enjoy peace and security. Other proposals suggested establishing Jewish centers within existing states, with various movements and individuals were looking into options in Africa, Alaska, South America, Australia, and elsewhere. Eliyahu Binyamini in his book States for Jews (Medinot la’yehudim, 1990), reviews more than thirty such historic suggestions for a territorial resolution. Some of these existed only in the dreams of a handful of people; some received enough support so that for a few moments they were seen as viable options for Jewish existence. Such suggestions were not marginal fancies, and they enjoyed the support of several dominant figures within the Zionist movement and the Jewish settlement in Palestine. The most well-known of these involves the drama that took place during the Sixth Zionist Congress of 1903, with the debate over the Uganda Plan. The plan was presented by Theodor Herzl, receiving the support of 295 out of 600 delegates. Another case is Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s surprising support for a Jewish territory outside Palestine. Furthermore, the idea of some or other territorial solution did not exclude the option of a different, parallel territorial alternative, nor the option of an ongoing cultural and communal Jewish existence within other states. In this sense, such proposals were discussed not as a single, absolute solution, but as a form of existence for Jews who could not find their place: one that was supposed to be implemented alongside other alternatives. It is almost needless to say that, with the triumph of the movement that demanded a solution in Palestine, and in the period immediately following the establishment of the state of Israel, these alternatives were marginalized to the point of extinction. The memory of these alternatives, along with their history, was forgotten, erased almost entirely as part of defending and validating the land of Israel as the one and only viable solution.
The background of this choice of a single nation-state solution allows us to view such phenomena as Israel’s fear of Iran’s nuclear program in a different light. In order to understand Israel’s fierce objection to the Iranian program, and its willingness (at least at the level of statements) to take great risks in order to undermine such development, we have to analyze this threat not only in militaristic or statist terms. A nuclear Iran appears to threaten Israel by pulling the rug from under Zionism’s main argument regarding the formation of a singular safe haven for world Jews—a promise that an Israel existing under nuclear threat could no longer live up to. Nationalist Zionism thereby looses its primacy, calling for a reevaluation of the narrative that triumphed in the aforementioned historical debate.
This realization requires us to reexamine the question of the future of the Jewish people. Is Jewish diasporic existence, previously rejected as precarious and feeble, a more appropriate alternative for survival nowadays? Is the concentration of Jews in a singe territory a safer or perhaps more dangerous alternative, in a world of weapons of mass destruction? Are there alternatives for a secured Jewish existence? And could certain alternative forms of Jewish existence within Israel be preferable, in light not only of external threats, but also of the strengthening nationalist and racist currents within Israeli Zionism?
The exhibition Where to? is the final stage of an annual project taking place at The Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon. It is an attempt to reexamine ideological currents and modes of activity within the framework of the modern Jewish revolution in general, and the Zionist movement in particular, which emerged and then rejected, and to engage them in reference to contemporary Jewish existence and its problems. The point of departure for the project and the current exhibition is the similarity between questions regarding Jewish existence that emerge in the contemporary context, and those that emerged in the context of the second half of the nineteenth century. In both periods we detect a sense of anxiety. In the past, this sense arose out of the failure of Jewish emancipation, the Pogroms, and social rejection, all of which led to mass migration, alongside an incredible ferment of creative ideas and experimental, creative answers to “The Jewish Question.” A similar anxiety is felt nowadays with respect to the deadlock reached by Zionism in general and Israeli nationalism in particular—including the way nationalist and racist trends occupy an increasingly central role in Israeli society, Israel’s isolation from the international community, and its maintaining a sense of permanent threat as the only means for guaranteeing national cohesion.
Through the exhibited works and the historical materials gathered for the exhibition, we suggest reintroducing these forgotten currents and ideas to the public discourse, bringing the “losers” of history to the center of the stage, and once again presenting the question of Jewish existence as a current problem that remains unsolved.
Our aim is to return to the question that the triumphant branch of Zionism aims to present as a closed and sealed business; to re-open it as a contemporary question, and a vivid thought about Jewish present and future: a thought that does not necessarily seek an alternative territory; that has no interest in obtaining a foreign passport or a different “homeland”; a thought that wishes to utilize the imagination in order to deal with what is un-decidable about the Jew, about the place of the Jew; a thought which seeks to give back to the imagination its central place in such processes. The equivocality, the option of not making a single, clear-cut decision, are central to the possibility of re-imagination, and of coming up with alternative forms of existence for Jews in this day and age.
In a certain sense, what seems completely unimaginable today is not the possible existence of a different Israel in a different territory, but the existence of multiple forms of “Israeli” life; of territorial and non-territorial ways of being that exist in parallel. Such an imaginative horizon, even when based on suggestions emerging from within the Zionist movement, poses a threat to Zionism, and can easily be regarded as anti-Zionist or even antisemitic. In this sense, the simple call for bringing back imaginative thinking into Zionism goes beyond the narrow legitimate bounds of the contemporary Zionist being.
This return, via the field of art, to the historic interests and questions that have been on the mind of Jewish thinkers, authors, and politicians in the early days of Zionism, brings to light the complex relation between art, imagination, and politics. The historical materials that have been examined, while paying close attention to their visual dimension, revealed an extraordinary plethora of images. Photographic and design gestures, along with documents and other objects, all served as an envelope for an ideology, and as central elements in the formation of a new identity. They formed part of an array of practices that sought to turn phantasmatic possibilities into a reality: official gatherings and ceremonial events that were recorded in the form of yearbook photographs, maps that marked territorial outlines, emblems and flags of various movements; anthems, cornerstones, seals, and posters; photographs of workers and families starting a new settlement; propaganda films, official reports and surveys, newspapers, personal letters, and many other kinds of materials.
This wealth of historical images also suggests the mutual correspondence and echoing between different movements that promoted different alternatives—especially between mainstream Zionism and those alternatives it rejected. Such similarities, at the level of the visual language, are particularly pronounced in photographs. This feature of Zionism’s visual repository encouraged both conscious and latent responses in many of the works created for the exhibition. A work of art that addresses such a repository amounts to experimenting with the creation of similar repositories, thereby continuing the chain of images—a continuation, however, which is already based on a unique interest in the visual and in its critique. Images generated through the same tools and gestures function as “double agents” of identity: they carry on the same practice, while injecting it with alternative—competing and disorienting—contents. The reference to the visual dimension, shared by many ideological currents, positions these artworks within Zionist history’s canonic field of symbols and images. At the same time, they form a new generation of images that, while relying on this visual history, uses this history in order to undermine it, or at least to once again take part in the power formations responsible for its creation and preservation. In many ways, the engagement with the question “Where to?” allows the artist to go back to forming relevant images, which can operate within the Israeli cultural and national field, thereby reexamining the role and relevance of art, while reestablishing ideological currents and myths.
Participating Artists: Effi & Amir | Yochai Avrahami & Doron Tavori | Ariella Azoulay | Ronen Eidelman & Yulie | Khromchenco | Michael Blum | Yael Bartana | Joseph Otmar Hefter | Michael Zupraner | Elad Larom | Avi Pitchon | Nirit Peled & Malkit Shoshan | Chaya Ruckin | Melissa Shiff, Louis Kaplan & John Craig Freeman | Nurit Sharett
The “Where to?” project began with a research phase in April 2011, and ends with this concluding exhibition.
The initial, research phase took place between April and June 2011, during which a historic-visual archive, dealing with the Jewish question and with the solutions that were offered in different times, was built. The archive, which serves as a basis for the entire project, includes literary texts, historical materials, studies, and visual materials, along with works of art. The materials were initially gathered in preparation for the project, and later on sorted and expanded by its different groups. The archive served as a dynamic and temporary basis for raising alternatives, and for a creative reexamination of the past and present. Through this move we have attempted to generate an array of knowledge that would blur the distinctions between the archive’s different materials, and would contain documents and studies regarding Zionism’s early experiments, alongside contemporary attempts to deal with these questions—attempts that take place almost entirely in the field of art.
The archive was put to the service of six teams of artists and researchers for set periods. Each team studied a question that was defined as a starting point, and suggested a way of handling the archive, which included examining the materials, expanding upon them, marking, and sorting them according to the study. The examination process was presented through selected materials that were spread across the walls of the exhibition hall, generating an expanding web. The materials that filled the walls suggested both conscious and random ways of connecting and dispersing different kinds of materials, inviting visitors to return to the places from which these were taken, in order to re-read them in a different light. The process of working on the archive was open to the public throughout that period.
Over and above the use of the archive for research, the manner in which the materials were spread, and the relations that formed between them, suggested a renewed thinking about the way knowledge is gathered and organized. One of the central questions in this context, is how does existing archival knowledge become exposed to those leafing through it. The apparently technical question of how one can search for a piece of information in an archive immediately defines that which cannot be found in the archive: that which the archivist defined as irrelevant or as accessible only to certain people. The modest attempt to build an archive for this project was also a suggestion for chance archivists to offer different readings and different modes of cataloging that would be publically accessible: encoded in their own manner, hiding and revealing certain things, but also admixing with other archives and archivists, generating unconscious modes of access to existing materials.
The artists and researchers who took part in that phase, and who conducted research in the exhibition hall, were Yochai Avrahami and Doron Tavori, Ronen Eidelman and Guy Briller, Public Movement, Avi Pitchon, Michael Kessus Gedalyovich and Motti Mizrahi, and the team of curators.
Following the opening phase, the participating as well as other artists were invited to develop new projects, based on the collected archival materials or responding to the questions discussed in relation to them. These are now displayed as a central part of the exhibition.
A record of the final archival phase of the project can be viewed at: http://whereto.digitalartlab.org.il
Along with the exhibition, the journal Maarav is coming out with a special issue on “The History of the Jewish Question and Contemporary Jewish Existence,” edited by Udi Edelman. The journal is accessible in both English and Hebrew at: www.maarav.org.il