“Free Palestine!!!!!” can look like anti-Semitism. Having turned fighting words into hate-speech, and hate-speech into hate-crime, the vandals who recently defaced A shenere un besere velt, the mural by Elisio Art Silva, might have thought the local branch of the Workman’s Circle in Los Angeles was a liberal synagogue. Did they know that the Workman’s Circle used to be a labor organization when it was founded years ago, that today it’s a secular Yiddish culture organization devoted to left-progressive causes, that the branch had hosted a BDS event, that a progressive minyan davvens there? I’m sure they could have cared a less about the message of justice projected by the mural; because it’s the medium that’s the message. The mural projects a Jewish face out into the world. And that’s all that matters.
With this kind of performance, this act of vandalism, what matters more than the message, semantic meaning, or ideological intention is the public surface and its appearance. “Jews” and “Judaism” and “secular Jewish culture” in the diaspora are all stuck together and stuck to “Israel,” grammatologically. Outside Israel, there’s less freedom, no way to separate these things in a satisfactory or convincing way. “We” might know the difference, but “others” don’t, and we shouldn’t expect that “they” will understand or care about the fine distinctions that might matter to intellectuals. In effect, the actual difference gets lost. At the purely visual level, the Yiddish for “a more beautiful and better world” looks like Hebrew, and Hebrew looks like Zionism.
Then it’s someone else’s turn. Replace one four letter word with another four letter word. “Free” turns into “Fuck.” “Fuck Palestine.” Like skin, the mural now no longer absorbs the impact’s first shock, the assault intended by the vandal. Now the mural, defaced and disgraced in public, projects out into the world a new and competing message of hatred and vengeance, a message in direct violation of the original meaning intended by the mural, its creator, and institutional sponsors. The defender of the community has disgraced it a second time, this time with its’ own more rhetorical violence. What does it communicate to the world? That “Jews” and “Judaism” want to “fuck Palestine.” “Free Palestine” or “Fuck Palestine,” what’s the difference?
Both vandalisms are unsurprising outcomes. In this round, it begins, I’m going to venture, with the hate-filled rhetoric of so much anti-Israel discourse. Go to Mondoweiss. Go to Electronic Intifadah. Dig around in the talkbacks there, or at Juan Cole’s blog, Informed Comment, or at the Guardian. You may not pardon me, but, yes, I’m going to pin it, first, on BDS and the “Zionism is racism is settler colonialism” crowd. In the name of Palestine or “Palestinian civil society,” this first act of vandalism is the logical outcome of a position that seeks a single justice and crude outrage, rejecting peace based on mutual recognition and territorial compromise. And this is what the soul of Greater Israel Zionism comes down to. Just as oppositional, reactive, self-righteous, full of crude hatred and violent antipathies. The difference of “Free” and “Fuck” has been lost in the fight of a parallax form. Read one way or the other, the message remains identical. On public display, this is what it looks like when people let “discourse” get out of hand. What really did one expect?
You can read about it in the LA Jewish Journal.
Zak, this is an extraordinarily powerful post–thank you, and hope you will develop it for publication
any thoughts on Monuments Men?
An interesting analysis. Particularly when it comes to reactionary tendencies, youth movements, and the need, sometimes, for silence. Someone recently published an article in Tablet magazine on ‘how to know when to stop talking’, and I think we as a community have reached a point where we need to sit back in silence, digest what is happening to us, and re-appraise the transnational (not just English) semantics of anti-Zionism which manifests itself in culturally genocidal forms in the Diapora.
I live in a little place called Europe, where the local ‘BDS’ movement regularly decorates the shul in red paint, in order to send a very succinct message to the community. Not purely ‘you are non-indigenous guests in our manufactured nation-state and we can kick you out at a moment’s notice with any constructed excuse’, but ‘we are identifying ourselves as your imaginary victims to legitimise the perpetuation of your persecution in a post-fascist state.’
The difference here is that the shul is a sacred space, not a secular space as this mural inhabited, and that we are too frightened to even think about pointing fingers. When the venn diagram which separates Left from Right conflates, and everyone pours into the middle space in collective hatred, that’s when we need to stop talking/reacting, and start thinking.
By the way, I’m enjoying your words.