A dear friend of mine had sent me a message – or (as I saw it) an invitation – to respond to a matter that matters to me. His words:
“Below is a e-flux anouncement about their new editor for the “Notes”, Aaron Schuster. He is my dear good friend, and I have mentioned him to you.
In the listed texts is the letter by Franco “Bifo” Berrardi reacting to accusations of anti-semitism. It’s in relation to the Documenta discussion, but beyond that specific context, I feel a lot of affinity for how he describes his ties with jewish thought. I’m actually quitecurious what you think …”
Let me very briefly summarise Bifo’s argument in “Who Is Anti-Semitic?” for those who prefer to skip the reading, even though it is very short. Bifo, during the recent discussion on Antisemitism under Documenta Fifteen, recalls his personal experience from the exhibition’s fourteenth edition to which he was invited to contribute. He proposed a performance named ‘Auschwitz on the Beach’ where he aimed to associate the fleeing and migration of Jewish people during the second world war with current immigrants who similarly encounter a fortress Europe, despite their escaping from living conditions induced by European colonialism. Bifo was condemned as Antisemitic by extremist pro-Israel groups like those attacking this year’s Documenta, which eventually delivered him away from his fear to voice his opinion: “Because of the systematic violence that Israeli colonialism has unleashed in the past several decades, the beast of anti-Semitism grows throughout the world. As it is impossible in some countries to openly assert that the politics of the Israeli state are wrong and dangerous, many don’t say this explicitly, even if they cannot stop thinking it. This silence is also what fuels existing anti-Semitic hate.”
In the next few paragraphs, I will attempt to introduce my view on some of the issues related to the antisemitism dispute that pervaded (or was it even dominating?) the discourses around Documenta Fifteen. I desire to assume that my reading audience is somewhat, but not thoroughly familiar, with Jewish history and its contemporary position in the world. Not because I devalue your knowledge, but because I believe that Jewish people and the state of Israel are not the centremost points of the world. With such an assumption I wish to approach Bifo’s argument in a further explanatory manner and in consideration of the Jewish subject and its ethnic, political, and economic positionality. Further, I will emphasise the lesson I think is most important and relevant to us all (people of various religions altogether) in Jewish history and Jewishness.
I read about the commotion surrounding the banner of Taring Padi, in art magazines and newspapers in Israel and abroad. After a short period of following the events, I was able to tell what this year’s Documenta main discourse will be about – Antisemitism in Germany, again. It troubles me because, like many others, I think the significance of Ruangrupa and other lumbung members to the ‘West’ could not be more concrete, important, and relevant to our current crises of human extinction and social and ecological injustice. Unfortunately, much of it was overshadowed by one specific discourse, which is important too but has aggressively side-lined other acute issues. Moved by Ruangrupa’s letter of apology, I went to Documenta Fifteen to see for myself. There, I found open space for deliberation and for asking questions. I explored the exhibitions which made clear the toxic manifestations of colonial and imperial power, and capitalist politics; the misery and injustice that our social and economic architecture induces; and (most importantly) how they intersect. Within this context, the state of Israel appeared several times, alongside a few images with a similar intention, but with more accent on the Jewish element. Let me please describe how I see the position of Jewishness and the state of Israel under the context of critiquing and criticising their power.
What do we understand from an image of an orthodox Jewish person with long sharpened eyeteeth, opposite an image of an Israeli soldier in a green uniform directing his gun at children? In the specific context of the exhibitions in Documenta Fifteen, both are expressing a critique (with which we can agree, or not) of an (allegedly) economic elite and colonial power that benefits from its suppression of the other. What is the difference though between these images? While the first one aesthetically draws from and resonates with Nazi German propaganda of the 1930s that was race-ideology based, the second condemns an image whose affiliation to oppression is national. To some, this is clear – the separation between religion and state. But in the case of Israel, there is an overlap between the two since the foundation of Israel is relational to the holocaust – a safe place for Jewish people was needed after they were persecuted and systematically exploited, abused, and murdered. This overlap is indeed a confusing one, and to some, controversial. (In fact, within the Israeli population too, the constitutional status of a few religious principles is the source of many longitudinal interior conflicts between religious and secular communities.) Certainly, decades have passed since the acute and urgent moment when the situation of Jewish people required finding a safe and permanent refuge. Decades have passed since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. Bifo implies this in his text, and like him, I maintain that ever since the despairing failure of the assimilation of the Oslo Agreements (1993), Israel’s occupation and policy in the territories has been contentious, inhumane, dismaying, and un-Jewish. It is un-Jewish because I do believe, like Bifo, that our history of persecution and immigration should not function as a pretext or justification for the oppression of other people, but as a ‘bleeding memory’ to drive us to be more compassionate, moral, and loving.
Four years ago, I listened to a symposium about Palestinian art that took place at my university. I was glad to be able to listen to those whom I did not have the chance to meet and speak with within my country. At one of the breaks a British woman approached me and asked: “Why do the Jewish people need to have a state?!” To me, two probable premises are possible for this question to emerge: One is ignorance of the holocaust, and the second is antisemitic. There is no question about why we needed to have a country, as I made clear in the previous paragraph. Does it justify the violent occupation of the Palestinian people? Absolutely not. What I would like to make clear here is that even though Jewish religion overlaps with the state of Israel, one should have a clear understanding of what exactly they criticise, to make a distinction between anti-semitism and anti-Israelism. By the same token, Jewish history should not be leveraged to make an excuse for the occupation of Palestine, but to be discussed in the larger context to which it belongs: racism and the hatred of the other, which is unfortunately relevant to many places, Israel included.
In writing “Because of the systematic violence that Israeli colonialism has unleashed in the past several decades, the beast of anti-Semitism grows throughout the world”, I do not think Bifo intends to justify antisemitism through the critique of Israeli barbarism, but sees it more as a warning sign, which to me begs the the following: Israel has become a racist and violent country, both institutionally and socially. The occupation of Palestine has not only made the lives of Palestinian people miserable but also rendered the Israeli society militant and toxically aggressive. As much as I admit that, I am also urged to express another thing. When we represent the anti-Israel struggle with Nazi aesthetics, we fail in reproducing the representation of hate of the other. Antisemitism should not be tolerated in the same manner that racism must be denounced. A pro-Palestinian opinion based on antisemitic grounds continues to fuel the cycle of racism, hate and oppression.
When Bifo testifies about his Jewishness – an identity that he feels he developed by a cultural and intellectual becoming – he specifies a few Jewish authors and scholars with which he has spiritual ties. Amongst them is Amos Oz, whose writings were of dear inspiration to me as well. In his less acknowledged text ‘Dear Zealots’, which he wrote several years before he passed away, he intended to pass on to the next generation his concrete ideology considering the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Here is a small section:
My Zionist point of departure, for decades now, has been a simple one: We are not alone in this land. We are not alone in Jerusalem. I say the same thing to my Palestinian friends: You are not alone in this land. There is no escape from dividing up this little house into two even smaller apartments. Into a duplex. If someone from either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide comes along and says, “This is my land,” he is right. But if someone says, “This land, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, is all mine and only mine,” then he is out for blood. […] On both sides there are many people who loathe the very idea of compromise, viewing any concession as weakness, as pitiful surrender. Whereas I think that in the lives of families, neighbours, and nations, choosing to compromise is in fact choosing life. (Oz, 2019, p. 105)
Since 1995, when PM Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli opponent to his political agenda, the relationship of the state of Israel with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has been continuously deteriorating and is today fuelled by fanaticism. At the very root of the conflict, both sides hold onto their just reasons as to why they need and want this home. Unlike Bifo, I do not think that separation of citizenship from cultural identity is feasible in the near future. It can be practically less pronounced, however, for example by loosening the prerequisites for citizenship. But as long as antisemitism continues to chase Jewish people down, Israel will continue to serve as the only safe place for us. This is why a decolonial perspective on the conflict would always experience friction with the circumstances that ongoing antisemitism brings. The complexity is as such: the Jewish person within the Israel-Palestine territories is the occupier, the oppressor, the privileged. Outside of Israel they are a persecuted minority. How do we deal with that? Land reclamation, a principle that is widely linked to the rights of Palestinian people is a problematic principle to defend. Regarding this specific conflict, it is being out for blood, favouring one side of the divide over the other. How can we choose to approach this conflict? – by resisting racism and opposing violence and the violation of human rights. Certainly, with a plea for mutual compromise.
 There was a fascinating exhibition in the Netherlands exactly about this very duality in Jewish identity: https://humanityinaction.org/news_item/news-item-the-netherlands-landecker-lievnath-faber-are-jews-white/