Intellectual Cousins
By A.D. Freudenheim

17 March 2002

The opening of the new exhibition "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," at The Jewish Museum in New York, and the ongoing-but-escalating violence in the Middle East, struck a chord of intellectual connectivity with me - and a recent statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon helped stitch it all together.

The Jewish Museum's exhibition uses contemporary art as a vehicle for a careful examination of our pop-cultural fetishization of Nazism, fascism, and the holocaust. Say what you will about the works in the show - and I liked some, and found others unappealing - the exhibition succeeds in its fundamental mission: to show viewers the degree to which contemporary society has incorporated, accepted, and sometimes even idolized, symbols of fascism.

The first work in the exhibition is Piotr Uklánski's "The Nazis," a running frieze of more than 100 photographs of famous actors glamorously portraying "famous" Nazis. Looking at Uklánski's installation, at the crisp pictures of photogenic actors-cum-fascists, I thought of a recent statement made by Prime Minister Sharon: "The Palestinians have to be hit hard. We are at war with a bloodthirsty enemy. It's us or them."[1]  How easy it is to imagine that statement coming from the mouths of these men, but with the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto as the target. Sharon's statement suddenly seemed connected to the reality that this exhibition was trying to show its audiences. Perhaps Sharon is jealous. Maybe the Israeli Prime Minister is trying to emulate the heroic aspects of these "evil" men, men who were viewed as heroes by many Germans, just as Sharon himself hopes to be seen by Israelis. Possibly, he is trying to avenge the Jewish deaths of the holocaust on the backs of the Palestinians, to make up for the perceived weaknesses of European Jews some 60 years ago.

The exhibition also called to mind other events as well. In October 2000, several thousand people, presumably Arabs or Arab-Americans, gathered in New York's Times Square to rally in support of the Palestinian Intifada that had begun weeks earlier. I attended that rally as an observer, and as I wrote at the time, I was saddened and appalled to see people holding Israeli flags painted with swastikas. Seeing Israel viewed this way - imagining Jews as perpetrators of such brutality against the Palestinians - was deeply troubling, and all the more so for my sense that it might be true. But at the time, I ultimately rejected this sentimental connection of the Israeli flag and the swastika as overly manipulative, even as I acknowledged the many levels of brutality; the situation in the Middle East was not and is not genocidal.

I missed the point; it was Uklánski's work (along with the rest of the exhibition) that brought me around. The swastika on the Israeli flag was awful, but the association I made with the holocaust is not the only line that can be drawn between the power of that symbol and current events in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are now living under an illegal, fascist regime, one that apparently seeks nothing less than their total humiliation and dehumanization (see Sharon's quote, above). While I reject the notion that the state of Israel is inherently racist or fascist, or that Zionism as a movement is akin to formalized racism, the state of Israel, its leaders, and its military need not be racist in order to be fascists - and that is what they seem to have become.

Another exhibition at The Jewish Museum comes to mind, 1998's "After Rabin: New Art from Israel," which included several works that showed Israeli soldiers and generals in a manner that speaks directly to the point made by "Mirroring Evil." Three works in particular are worth noting here: Nir Hod's photograph titled "Israeli Soldier" showed a strong young man, shirtless, looking masculine-yet-pretty, with glossy lips and military beret; "Embroideries of Generals," by the Limbus Group, was comprised of fading photographs of fifteen famous Israeli war heroes applied to canvas, creating an aged feel that only enhanced their mythical status; and an untitled photograph by Adi Nes showed a group of rugged-looking, handsome young men in fatigues, lounging under a tree - though it takes a few seconds for the eye to focus on the man in a white T-shirt with a missing arm. Clearly, the military has its attractions, and its dangers. But the allure is palpable in these depictions of Israelis, just as there is a an allure to some of the militaristic images of Germans in the "Mirroring Evil" exhibition.

"Mirroring Evil" reminds audiences that the contemporary fascination with (images of) death and destruction is ghastly, and we should be appalled. It is also an important step for the next generation of American Jews, perhaps helping us rethink a fixation that now spans more than two generations; while the holocaust should never be forgotten, the memory of it should not be allowed to control us either. But what must also be avoided - for the Israeli Jews participating in their nation's military activities, and for Jews and others supporting Israel from beyond its borders - is the possibility that a deep-seated desire to prevail will cause people to lose further sight of someone else's humanity. Israel was founded in the aftermath of a massive war against fascism, a war that saw the dehumanization of millions of Jews (among millions of others), and that history should not be forgotten. If the price of Israel's victory over the Palestinians is the completion of Sharon's transformation into a fascist hero, or the further evolution of Israel as a nation reliant upon and subservient to its military, then that is no price to pay.

[1] "A Rising Tide of Blood," by Joshua Hammer,
Newsweek, 18 March 2002
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