Israel: A White Colony in the Near East?!

A response to Kristin Flade: Unexceptionally Lovely Days

This “response” originates from my work for the open editorial board of a small independent German-Austrian philosophy and art magazine, engagée. I’ve written it for that magazine because I thought that a most controversial text like Flade’s Unexceptionally Lovely Days shouldn’t be published without fundamental changes. After her changes – which are documented partly in this article – turned out to be only superficial, I insisted to write a comment which should be published after her story. Because Flade on her part was not happy about the polemical tone of my text, she decided to withdraw hers – which made mine obsolete. I’ve decided to publish it here nevertheless: Firstly, because otherwise all the work put in this essay not just by myself but also by my proof-readers, Alex Colligs and Adrian Paukstat (who are not responsible in any way for its content – Adrian told me that he disagrees with it in most parts!), whom I’d like to thank here for their great work, would have been wasted; secondly, because I think that despite its weaknesses Flade’s text is an exemplary case for what I perceive as a highly problematic tendency within the context of “engaged” art these days. “Art” becomes an excuse for spreading bad ideas – and bad ideas become the excuse for producing bad, uninteresting art.

For two reasons it feels strange to write this response. Firstly, I have to admit from the beginning that I am not an expert on its topic. As a philosopher I am quite used, one could say: even trained, to write and talk about topics in which I am not an expert. Some topics, however, are just too serious, too tragic in a way, to become the objects of philosophical spiel, which is always comical in one way or the other. Both the cruel conflict in the small region between Mediterranean and Jordan which some call “Israel”, some call “Palestine” and the so called refugee crisis are such topics without any doubt. The philosopher should remain silent about them – the public, politically engaged intellectual, however, should talk about them.

Secondly, I am not sure how a prosaic, more or less “theoretical” text can “respond” to a piece of literature. I was thinking about writing a literary text myself – maybe it would have been a short story from the point of view of the blonde, chubby soldier[1] who appears in the text only as the representative of a certain “principle” not as a real person with an individual history and individual thoughts and feelings. However, even if I had the talent to write it, it would contradict my own understanding of literature to write in this way, i. e. to write in order to support or to neglect a certain political or philosophical position. Albeit I am not a strong supporter of a strict ideology of “l’art pour l’art”, I am of the opinion, that truly interesting, truly relevant works do not exist in order to support a certain ideological point of view but to undermine it and to show more than one perspective on a given object. They should be multi-perspectival in essence. And they should avoid simply supporting given perspectives but try to formulate radically new ones.

From this point of view I would claim that any piece of art is somehow “bad” or at least not interesting that can be summarised in a simple “message”, which is without any formal contradictions or ambiguities. In such works of art, the artistic form seems to serve as a mere front in order to attract the spectators’ attention to support a certain ideological cause. They are hardly distinctive from commercials. Interesting art is the opposite of it.

I have to admit that – from this point of view – Kristin Flade’s text is not even interesting piece of literature in my opinion. Therefore, I feel at least a bit justified in responding to it in prosaic form: I am justified as this literary text is in truth a prosaic one. One might even say: It would have even been better if Kristin Flade would not have written a literary text but a simple journalist reportage about her journey. To put it bluntly: The literary form serves her only as an excuse to use inappropriate metaphors and allusions in order to support a certain political cause that would immediately attract attention in a prosaic text.

Obviously, this is not her personal problem. My impression is that nowadays art often serves this purpose. As long it is somehow “artistic” one can say any reactionary, irrational, and incorrect sh* they want. If one criticises it, the answer is always: “Calm down, it’s only art.” But why “only”? Are bad views less dangerous only because they are presented in an artistic not in a prosaic manner? Aren’t they possibly even more dangerous due to the enormous manipulative, alluring potential that art possesses (and mere arguments do not)? No – if works of art are unequivocally of merely ideological nature, their aesthetic form cannot serve as an excuse for anything. They can and also should be critiqued from a political and theoretical point of view, too.

Flade’s text is “literary” insofar as it does not bluntly state its message but hides it behind a set of metaphors. It is not very difficult to decipher them, however. It deals with “the (im/)possibility of movement of Palestinians and through Palestine, as well as the movement of other bodies in a tightly regulated space”, or, to put it less “sophisticated”, it wants to show the absurdity and brutality of the Israeli policy of strict border controls. Fair enough. What is not mentioned in a single word in the text, however, is the political context in which this border policy developed over the last decades: The reoccurring terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, in many cases even children, undertaken by Palestinians. Even women camouflaged as being pregnant, teenagers, and children have been used to execute these cruel attacks. If one does not take the absurd position of denying Israeli the right to defend its own citizens (which is even his duty as a liberal state), one has to admit, that the Israeli border policy is in principle (one may disagree about the details) a justified measurement in order to reach more security for Israeli citizens – a goal that has even been reached to some degree.

From the beginning, the text builds up a network of metaphors which sets the Israeli policy in a different context, however. It begins with the little remark that the two Russian soldiers who execute the first control talk Russian among themselves – not Hebrew. The next Israeli soldier – who is described in the original version of the text not just as chubby, but in also as blonde – speaks German, even as if it “were his Mother tongue”. Later in the text, Israel is described as a polylingual state with “privileged White citizens” and “soldiers who speak all languages”.[2] What should one make out of this characterisation? The actual reason why Israeli society is so polylingual is obvious to anyone: It is a society of refugees. Refugees who came to the Near East because they fled the anti-Semitism in their home countries. Not only did they come from the “White world” – Europe, mainly Russia and Germany – but also from various parts of Asia and Africa. There are many Black and Arab Jews who are not White but yet fully recognised Israeli citizens. There are even Arab citizens who are not Jewish. And even those who fled from Europe decided to leave exactly because they were not recognised as being “properly White” – and in many cases are not today. Accordingly, it is absurd and ignorant to characterise Israel as a White state. Foremost, it is a Jewish state – but the “Jewish problem” is based exactly on the fact that Jews are not recognised as being White, even if they speak German as their Mother tongue and are blond and chubby.

Flade’s metaphors cast a different light on Israel’s “White”, polylingual character: Her message seems to be that Israel is a White colony within the Arab world. Not even a true national state but a polylingual, artificial construct where White people gathered from all over the world supress native Arabs and Black refugees. No – they do not even do the same thing, they even behave worse than their European counterparts. This bad behaviour against Blacks and Arabs alike is characterised using the metaphor “the Prison”. Everything is a prison: the refugee camp – which is described in the original version of the text not only as a “detention centre” but a “concentration camp” – and the nearby prison for Palestinian criminals; and, one might easily add: the whole Palestinian territory. Again, everything is blurred in order to make the bold moral judgement that Israel is a fascist and racist state of White colonisers who even sets up concentration camps in the desert. Russians and Germans who prepare a new holocaust. I doubt that Israel can be pictured in a more absurd – and more hateful manner.

I do not support the current policy of the state of Israel; neither its policy towards the Palestinians nor its policy towards refugees. I do not even regard it as a hallmark of “solidarity” to support these policies – even convinced Zionists should oppose it (and some even do). It leads to nowhere, it does not lead to a sustainable solution of any of Israel’s massive internal and external problems. As a friend of Israel, as a strong supporter of the idea that stands behind the foundation of Israel (to give shelter to those who had to flee from anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere) I think that its current policy should be altered. However, I am neither a politician nor an expert. And I am also fully aware of the fact that Israeli policy is in large parts a response to external factors that are beyond its immediate influence – it is possible (even if I doubt it) that Israel’s current policy is even the best response to an incredibly bad situation.

The only positive proposal I have to make on this topic is that we do need more intellectual, open debate and more cultural exchange and more multiperspectival art concerning this issue. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is not least a cultural one. What strikes me most about it is the incredible hate and the toxic level of prejudice which can be observed on both sides. Enlightenment, open dialogue, and critical, non-ideological art seems to be the only thing we can hope for in this truly fucked-up situation. This is the reason why I agreed not to censor this text despite my heavy criticism: Because this topic is all too often silenced in favour of peace and quiet. But how can this conflict ever be solved if irresponsible political, religious, intellectual, and artistic leaders spread hate and prejudice freely and more responsible, more balanced voices keep silent because they fear the violent yelling that can be heard daily from Tel Aviv to Teheran (and surely also in Frankfurt and Berlin).

This art, however, should not be “engaged art” in the sense of Flade’s text. Such art only makes an already most complex conflict even more difficult to solve. It does not open up the minds of the spectator but only affirms his or her already existing ideology: Who is in favour of the Palestinian cause might like it (even if s/he thinks that it is not the best work of art), who is more ready to support Israel dislikes it. But true aesthetical judgement should not be about “like” and “dislike” and not about ideology at all. An aesthetical judgement should not work like a “judgement” on Facebook – and an interesting work of art should not invite such as pseudo-judgement.

Why not forming a multi-ethical theatre group with members of all relevant parties and just playing Lessing’s Nathan the Wise? In Tel Aviv, in Gaza (if they allow it), all over the Near and Middle East. No better piece against religious prejudice and bigotry has ever been written. And that is mainly because it is much more than a political didactic play – it is simply a felicitous one. It is well-written, pulsating, interesting, romantic, and even funny. What we definitely not need today is more “political” – what we need is good art.

[1] After my criticism Flade deleted the adjective “blonde”. It is used, however, in the original version of the text which has been published three times on the internet (cf. http://thewildword.com/unexceptionally-lovely-days/, http://www.applied-theatre.org/blog/unexceptionally-lovely-days, http://recording-ghosts.blogspot.de/2015/06/unexceptionally-lovely-days.html; checked on 10|05|2016).

[2] In the original version of the text, this passage sounds a tiny bit different than in the current one: “[I]ts privileged White Citizens and soldiers who speak all languages”.

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