Bad Faith & Concentration Camps

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Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has done important work in calling attention to the political and moral atrocity at the U.S. border. En masse, people are stripped of their legal right of asylum and where children are ripped from their parents and people are left to rot in detention because the American government is being run by racists. All of this while the Trump Administration continues to strip down democratic norms and institutions. But to compare these conditions to concentration camps forces attention to turn around the form of expression, not around the actual crisis at hand. The problem with loaded language is the load it carries, which is complicated by the disproportionate weight carried by some that that others don’t.

None of this is in good faith.

First, you can’t in good faith use a loaded term like “concentration camp” and then, when called on it, claim that, historically, there were other concentration camps prior to the Nazis when you have very obviously tagged the Nazis and the Holocaust with a phrase like “Never Again” or a word like “fascism.” The usage of the term was meant clearly to evoke Hitler, not the British during the Boer War in South Africa, awareness of which has been long submerged in popular memory and ordinary language in the long time since 1945.

More bad faith is the argument that the Holocaust is not the monopoly of Jewish memory, that the trauma is human or universal. This kind of argument was once made in Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War. Today it is made by the very same people who resist other forms of cultural appropriation in contexts closer to their own heart. The Holocaust and things like concentration camps, death camps, and “Never Again” are not unlike words like “slavery” and “rape” that should not be analogized.  These words have come to assume particular meanings and some groups have more at stake in the language than others. For the most part, a swastika will mean something more to Jews than to gentiles, as will the Confederate flag for African Americans.

Still more bad faith. Jews across the political spectrum have been placed in a position by non-Jews where they are arguing this out amongst themselves with the force of not a little confusion and anger. At the same time,  progressive and conservative, gentiles are now arguing with other gentiles about concentration camps, the Holocaust, and Jews. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Liz Cheney come immediately to mind. In this Washington Post story, Jews simply disappear as active subjects. In this media spectacle, Jews are reduced to spectral objects. On the right and the left, there is no little Christian supersessionism here at work, American as apple pie.

There is more than enough Jewish bad faith to go around. Conservative Jews who support Trump support a man who has whipped up the worst anti-Semitism in the country since I’m not old enough to remember when. Nazis and white supremacists are now a regular fixture of the American public sphere, and people are unsafe. About Jewish supporters of Trump, they are hopeless and utterly debased, unable to put two and two together, the concentration of children and babies in camps, screaming and wailing, torn apart from their parents. But what about the Jewish left? Not long ago, Jewish critical thinkers would deconstruct such slogans like “Never Again” and the abuse of Holocaust memory on the Jewish right as reified and reactionary cultural objects and ideological constructs. Now the Jewish Left in the Diaspora eats this up, uncritically.

Not in good faith is when people opposed to the analogy to concentration camps are accused of caring more about language than the actual suffering at the border. They are accused of doing so by the very people who suddenly want to introduce the contentious language in the first place. It’s like throwing a bomb and then complaining when it explodes.

[By way of postscript]: More bad faith is the people who argue that it doesn’t matter what you call these facilities and camps as long as we do something about it, and then, in this case Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and 3 others, vote against a bill to get some 4.6 billion dollars to fix these places. It would seem that the logic of the argument locks people in a position where they oppose doing something about conditions in the camps. But also, the very idea that money can go to improve conditions at a concentration camp boggles the mind. It suggests that the term carries too much analytic and affective weight to actually work in the way people who use the term want it to, namely to motivate action, in this case the bare modicum.

One last piece of bad faith relates to mixed sentiments. On the one hand, people invoke the Holocaust as sign of their profound ethical and political seriousness and commitment to human rights and social justice. On the other hand, there’s not a little Holocaust “camp” at play with the over the top expression. Exciting the moral imagination, the shudder of thrill at the very mention of such a dire thing in human history can be traced back to the “sublime” in English and German aesthetic writing of the eighteenth century. To call something sublime evokes that which the imagination cannot master in order to a stimulate the sense of one’s own capacities for moral reflection. Experts will tell you. In Holocaust Studies, this is called kitsch. We’ve known this for a long time already.

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Culture of Politics at the Jewish Museum in Berlin

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One should be pretty sure it was more than a single tweet and rightwing mendacity that has caused so much trouble. For anyone interested, I’m posting links to articles relating to the forced resignation of Professor Peter Schäfer as director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The immediate pretext was the retweeting by the Museum of a statement signed by some 240 Israeli and Diaspora university scholars protesting a recent decision by the German government (and what seems to be a rather broad consensus view in that country) that BDS is anti-Semitic.

This retweet turned out to have been the tip of the iceberg. [1] There had been controversy about an exhibition on Jerusalem at the Museum that critics argued downplayed the historical attachment of Jews and Judaism to Jerusalem and that represented Israeli rule there in a negative light, [2] A perceived openness to providing BDS a public platform at the Museum starting before Schäfer’s tenure as director, [3] A visit hosted by Schäfer of an Iranian cultural attache that included incendiary remarks comparing Israel to the Islamic State; since then Schäfer has admitted that he was naive and called the invitation a “stupidity.” [4] All of this is in the anxious context of rising anti-Semitism in Germany, the slippery slope between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and the grinding conflict in Israel.

The cascade of events leading up to Schäfer’s forced resignation is described in this piece by Toby Axelrod in this detailed piece at the Times of Israel, which you can read here. Axelrod also makes mention of the unique demands and questions about mission that confront the contemporary museum, as well as questions about the thick or thin of the Jewish identity at the Jewish Museum, problems that, again, predated Schäfer’s directorship there. As described, at issue was not the non-Jewishness of its director or staff, but the Jewishness of the Museum itself.

Mentioned by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett on a FB post and also tagged by Axelrod are still bigger frame-arguments in the larger museum world about the mission of the museum. As per, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett:

It would also be worth considering this incident in relation to ICOM’s recent initiative to change the definition of museum to better reflect what museums have become and what ICOM would like to see them be (http://bit.ly/2Rjmigi). This will be a key theme of the ICOM conference in Kyoto, 1–7 September, 2019 (http://bit.ly/2RfHHae). So, what is the current ICOM definition of museum, dating from 2007, why is it considered outdated, what should the new definition be, and how does this bear on the Jewish Museum Berlin? Is this museum to be forced to follow the old definition of a museum? Or, supported in being what the new definition calls for?

Here is ICOM’s 2007 definition: “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

What then is a new definition of museum intended to achieve? “It should be a definition which recognises the dissimilar conditions and practices of museums in diverse and rapidly changing societies, and supports museums in developing and adopting new scientific paradigms and addressing more adequately the complexities of the 21st century.”

In the process of exploring the question of “the most important contributions museums could make to society, the responses by museum professionals, while containing the purposes and functions of the current museum definition, went way beyond those into a strong and impassioned commitment to the broader and deeper, social and humanitarian potential of museums. These included bringing people together in purposeful convening, to exchange ideas, to create a sense of belonging and identity, to build empathy, understanding and sensitivity towards differences, to promote reflection and critical thinking, and to create spaces for reconciliation. To improve quality of life. Improve health. It seems essential that a museum definition should contain this commitment as an overarching frame of values and purpose.”

What are the broad issues identified in the call for a new museum definition? Climate change, human rights, gender, inequality, lack of economic opportunities, discrimination, large scale conflicts and wars, migration, government transparency and accountability. “While new museums, specialist museums, and museum-like initiatives are created specifically to address some of the contentious issues … there remains a gap between these core concerns and the themes dominating the research, the collecting, the exhibitions and events in traditional, mainstream museums.”

Left open are following questions to which there are probably no easy answers. Are museums democratic institutions and if so do they reflect only one part of the demos in question? A major site on the liberal public sphere, are museums (like universities) by definition conservative in form? How much tension can any cultural institution sustain internal to the institution itself, in relation to the larger community that it is meant to serve and which supports it, and in relation to the larger society in which the institution is embedded? What are the particular limits that mark the special case of Jewish cultural spaces in the Diaspora? Is the museum equipped to function as a site of debate and dissent? Is it possible or not possible to decide if some some discussions are not worth having? Are some discussions not worth having in particular places and at particular times? Can a contemporary museum serve as a neutral public sphere for the practice of communicative reason around points of view that enjoy zero consensus in society, or around attempts to question broad points of social consensus?

Regarding Israel as an institutional consensus point in Jewish cultural politics, you can find at the end of this interview with Schäfer, which you can read here, a statement by him about unconditional solidarity, not with the politics or government, but with the State of Israel itself, as a moral and political responsibility peculiar to Germany, given its history. This particular episode indicates how culture and scholarship have been scaled up and put in the place between civil society, state institutional authority, and international relations at the intersection of multiple, competing, contested and contesting historical memories; in such a place of rough push and pull, good or bad intentions are as irrelevant as they are soft. Reflecting in this interview (in a comment included in translation  here) on the demands placed on the contemporary museum, Schäfer explained, “The Jewish Museum Berlin sees itself as a forum for discussions and conversations about socially relevant questions. We want to offer ourselves, we want to moderate.” He added, “Our task is not to spread our own political opinions on these questions. … And in this case, it has gone very badly wrong.”

What went wrong might relate to meta questions regarding museums in general, Jewish museums as a museum and Jewish institution, and Jewish museums in Germany as a special case. Or it might be that what went wrong in Berlin relates to something smaller still, the micro question about the tensions between scholarship and community and questions relating to academic scholars who take up leadership positions in sensitive community positions. On the need in a position like this to maintain open lines of communication outside the ivory tower, there is something mentioned by Sigmount Koenigsberg, the commissioner on anti-Semitism for Berlin’s Jewish community that’s worth noting. Cited by Axelrod, Koenigsberg, who had offered in the past to consult with the Museum, observed, “Somehow, they are in their own bubble.”

Here’s  an article from the Forward, which has relevant links

A German-language article critical of the Jerusalem exhibition. I am unable to assess the actual claim made by the critic having not seen the exhibition. But it speaks to the antipathies that flared up in relation to questions concerning the directorship of the Museum as an institution.

Another German-language article about same and with an identical caveat as above.

A better German-language article that appeared in Zeit Online by Green Party politician Volker Beck makes critical mention of historical omissions in the narrative arc of the Jerusalem exhibition as they relate to the the events of 1948 and 1967.

This article, also at Zeit Online, by Josef Joffee, a veteran columnist at that paper, gives some background re: unhappiness re: the directorship at the Museum previous to Schäfer. I include it here because that segment of the article was interesting, whereas his own critique of Schäfer and Schäfer’s scholarship did not come anywhere close to meeting the bar of fairness.

Conservative Jewish cultural critics complain about this a lot. (I have written here about an exhibition about medieval Jerusalem held at the Met two years ago that provoked identical complaints.) Most of what you’ll find online about the exhibition in Berlin is the argument that the Islamic visual presence dominates the exhibition and that much of the narrative is critical of Israel. None of this should be surprising, given the history of Muslim dominance of the City since the 7th c. and the dominance of Israel since 1967. About the Berlin exhibition, one might prefer instead this review at the Forward of the Jerusalem exhibition, which suggests, without obfuscating the conflict, that the actual problem of the exhibition was the reification of conflict in relation to everyday life.

On rightwing Israeli governmental interference in the goings-on at the Museum is this article in the NYT.

A website from the Museum about the “Welcome to Jerusalem” exhibit

German-language material transcribing the Iranian diplomats remarks and Schäfer’s response

A protest petition signed on by mostly 240+ Jewish Studies scholars in solidarity with Schäfer, the focus being on the stature and importance of the man and his scholarship and scholarly ties with academics in Israel

A German-language article on why BDS is a particularly sensitive topic in Germany

A German-language interview with Professor Schäfer in Der Spiegel

 

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(Hertz Pentateuch) Bourgeois Social Order (Sotah)

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Having committed to keep track of the Hertz Pentateuch commentary (1936), I would have been remiss not to include a note on the commentary to the Sotah passage in Numbers, chapter 5. As it turns out and on closer inspection, the commentary is a little more interesting than one might have thought. This infamous biblical text details the humiliating test of bitter waters forced upon a wife suspected of adultery by a jealous husband in a case where there are no witnesses. Of interest to me here is only the mixed intentions in this classical early twentieth century commentary to the Hebrew Bible, once a prominent feature in the life of the liberal Anglophone synagogue. Committed to the sanctity of Judaism and the bourgeois tradition, here are the tensions that the text provokes.

On the one hand:

Like the rabbis, the Hertz tries to mitigate the full force of this “torah” (described as such in the lower case, as it were, in Num. 5:30). The Hertz says actually nothing about the curse that this rite is intended to effect in the case of the woman’s “guilt.” Clearly, the Hertz wants to look away from the gory parts, unlike the rabbis in the Mishnah who show no such circumspection. More important is a common attempt to put the onus on the husband (comments to v.12, 14, 31) and the presumption of her innocence (comment to v.19, 31.).

On the other hand:

The Hertz is also moved by the “grievous nature of the occasion” (comment to v.21), expressing concern in the opening statement to this passage about the “foundations of social order.” This according to the Hertz. Providing protection to “the innocent wife,” it was, all the same, “necessary to arrive at certainty in cases of doubt” (comment to v.11-31). Not justice and not kindness, social order was the primary good for the Hertz in its analysis of this “an awe-inspiring ritual” (comment v.24).

In sum:

As a period piece, the Hertz illustrates in a very fine way something about the morality of the bourgeois form of Domestic Judaism. It is one which pivots around rock hard social order and the life of the group, not around the porous values that matter to most of us today such as individual autonomy, equal dignity, and right or just relations between persons.

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Fake Ramat Trump (Architectural Folly)

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An initiative that initiates nothing? This photograph announcing Ramat Trump recalls an “architectural folly,” defined by Wikipedia as “a building constructed primarily for decoration, but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose, or of such extravagant appearance that it transcends the range of garden ornaments usually associated with the class of buildings to which it belongs.” Or maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. More simple than anything as elaborate as an architectural folly, it’s more “ancient,” like a stele or stela, defined by Wikepedia as “an upright stone slab or column typically bearing a commemorative inscription or relief design, often serving as a gravestone.”

Apparently, the town that Netanyahu announced that he plans to build and name after President Trump in the Golan Heights might very well turn out to be “Fake News.” No plans, no budget: ‘Trump Heights’ inauguration slammed as a PR stunt” is the headline to this article in the Times of Israel, which you can read here.  The TOI informs us that “the cabinet decision calls for an ‘initiative to establish’ a new Golan Heights community, but does not actually declare the establishment of one. The only thing that’s not fake is the large sign surrounded by synthetic grass.

The entire stunt was shoddy from the start, and remains a callow mirror to the empty, destructive nothing that will follow in its wake. Even the font is ugly. One day, if and when this community is never built, I hope someone has the wisdom to preserve the sign in place out there in the middle of the nowhere of the beautiful countryside. Sitting out there an alone, it would memorialize the folly that is everything Trump and the tight embrace of him by the Jewish right in Israel and the United States. Hoping for better days in the future for those of us who have lived this experience, it would make for a lovely day trip.

 

 

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(Latex, Textile, & Mother of Pearl) Architectural Skins (Heidi Bucher)

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(Heidi Bucher, Elfenbornhaut, 1982)

 

 

[clockwise from top left: Borg, 1976; Fenster mit Läden und Schindeln, Bellevue, 1988; Elfenbornhaut, 1982; Bett (Bed), 1975; Untitled (Door to the Herrenzimmer), 1978

The Site of Memory, an exhibition of works by Heidi Bucher (1926-1993) caught my attention this past week. Active in the 1970s and 1980s, Bucher created weird architectural skins. The press release from Lehman Maupin where I saw these works refers to them as sculptures, but they also look like paintings, particularly given their flat shape. The works are an index to physical sites and objects; they carry their impression.(Other works by Bucher meant to hang in the air have a more clearly sculptural sensibility. Alas, none of these were on view at Lehman Maupin)

An artist who fell into obscurity after her death, Bucher is today mostly known for work in which she covered architectural surfaces such as walls, windows, doors, and entire buildings with latex which she then peeled off and treated with mother of pearl pigment. The press release tells us that she called them “skinnings” or “moultings,” and that they hold elements of paint, rust, and dirt. There is maybe something animal about them. The press release leaves unexplained the mother of pearl, which I would suggest adds a special sheen to the skin. The textile adds a quality of softness. Original architectural details are preserved, a memory trace of the architectural objects from they were removed and which no longer “are” in view.

As I am reading these works (reading in the wake of Aristotle and Irigaray), Bucher’s work sustains notions of “place” by drawing attention to the sense of the place that is separate from but which contains or holds an architectural structure in space. The object once nestled in that place no longer “is” given to hand. The skins thereby encourage the notion that the sense of a place has the potential to peel off from its original physical site and to transfer to another physical site. This includes the capacity by which the sense of place might transfer from an actual physical site to a mental or psychic form of attentive dwelling. Imbued with possibility, the sense of place is not necessarily site specific. The idea is that the skin of the original site might continue to maintain a hold in the world in abstentia, in the absence of the original structure.

One might want to maintain a more neat division between architecture and sculpture. No longer “architectural,” these works are sculptural and enjoy a more compelling freedom as such, divorced from origin and use-function.

As grist for a particular form of Jewish philosophical speculation, it might be the case that something like this happens to the site of the Jerusalem Temple, the skin of which  has been removed from its physical site. A sense of that once actual place in which the objects and ideas that it once contained in situ transfers from an actual physical into the mind of the Mishnah and Bavli; there it begins to operate virtually, as does Jewishness. It’s here that Bucher’s use of mother of pearl comes into play by providing special, animating luster to the “object” once removed and removed again. In terms of their look, a lot also depends upon the light in which these objects are set.

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New York Cityscape (Abstract w/ Organic Elements)

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View from a window, New York cityscapes are abstract with organic elements. New York is more typically associated with the vertical, in particular with the skyscraper. But the most interesting part of the urban geometry might be the horizontal lines of the rooftops, balconies, and plant life.

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Green Light (Riverside Park)

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In Riverside Park on the walk-path under the Olmstead Wall, which framed the intense green light shooting down the length of a single tree branch on a bright spring day

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