Thursday, May 05, 2005

a sunny day

I'm at the Jerusalem municipal archive. Reading through protocols of the Street Naming committee, 1945-1946. I have no choice but to hear holocaust stories: the Archive clerk is telling the delivery boy all the stories she saw last night on TV. It's holocaust memorial day. "And then they told them to take their clothes off..." I find it hard to concentrate on the dusty protocls. "And they didn't do any harm to anybody... and they just put them into the chambers..." concentrate. 3rd of January 1946. on the agenda: the reaming of streets in the old city.
Now they moved to discuss their payslips. "Are you getting paid for Indepandence day?"

The archive closed on 1pm. It's sunny and pleasant, so I decide to stroll round the Russian compound area and look for inscriptions on houses. I reached a building I've somehow never visited before. It used to be a guest house for Russian women pilgrims during the late 19th century. After 1918 the British turned it into Jerusalem's Central Prison. Today it's a museum, dedicated to the memory of Resistance Prisoners - that is, Zionists which were imprisoned by the British, and some of them were executed there.
The building is beautiful. And it's surprising how easy it was to turn a guest house into a prison: all they needed was to put doors and metal grills and that's it basically. But I guess the pilgrims also needed to be controlled in a sense - they were peasants and poor people, and the pilgramages were organized by the church and the royal court . I thought about Foucault's notions of architecture designed for discipline and suveirllance: from the prison's/guesthouse wide corridor it's easy to monitor all the seperate rooms.
In one of the museum's displays, under a big title 'The British limit Zionist Immigration' I found myself staring at the child from the Warsaw Ghetto, in life size. I've seen this photograph probably hundreds of times: it shows a small boy, probably six years old, wearing a coat and a beret; all terrified, he is holding his hands up in the air. It was taken when the survivors of Ghetto uprising surrendered themselves; soon after that they were sent to the death camps. The picture is so strong it never fails to affect me. I felt my stomach churn. I felt like somebody is pushing my buttons. Like someone is physically holding my heart and twisting it and would not let go. I felt angry, and powerless.
I'll say something which is perhaps obvious: to link this image of pure horror to the British policy on Jewish immigration to Palestine in the late 1930s is manipulative. There is nothing which links this boy, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, to what was happening in Palestine, in any immidiate way. The dead boy becomes a symbol, an icon. Jewish destiny, distilled and fetishised into one poor dead boy. And all of us, we are him, always: six year old, helpless, and holding our hands up. Always the victim.

To recognize that this is a manipulation does not mean it doesn't work. Of course it works. This is why I got so upset. In the case of my family, I know the facts very well: my grandmother (on my mother's side) was from Warsaw. She arrived here a few months before the war. Had she not received a visa, through fake marriage, she would have perished. Very simple. In her case, being zionist saved her life. But to take images of victims and turn them into illustrations, to the winning argument in a debate over Palestine, a debate most of them had no connection to... to use tragedy as a blank cheque, a justification for everything Israel ever did and will ever do; to perpetuate this feeling of victimhood through endless brainwashing...

Last year, on a late summer Thames beach party outside Royal Festival Hall, I bumped into J near the bonfire. A good looking Jewish boy from Melbourne, or Sydney, I can't remember. He was off his tits, and I could see the pills in his eyes, his pupils going all over the place.
And you... you're from Israel, he started, emotional and dreamy. Israel... you know, a world without Israel would be a totally different place, I would find it much more difficult to live. For me... Israel gives some meaning to this world.
Have you ever visited there? I asked him.
No, he said. One day I'll go.
He suddenly raised his eyes and looked at me: sorry, I don't know how you feel about things.
Listen, I said, I just want to let go.
He didn't get me. He thought I was talking about leaving Israel. "Sure, I understand, but you can do that only because Israel exists... you know, people usually don't think I'm Jewish, and what they say about Jews... it's scary. Antisemitism never disappered, it's there."
What I actually meant was that I want to let go of people like him. I don't want my country to be his insurance policy, his emergency shelter for when things go wrong, the place which helps him sleep better at night. I feel like I'm being used, like my only reason of being here is to provide some existential comfort to some middle-class kids who really lives very well, compared to 98% percent of the people on the planet. He needs a therapist, not a state in the Middle East waiting patiently for him to jump the boat (which will probably never happen).
How is it that a Jewish boy from Australia grows up with such fears and neurosis? I think that the memory of the holocaust, as it was shaped in late 20th century, created this notion of antisemitism as a Jewish destiny, a danger which is always lurking in the dark. From a concrete atrocity it became an existential trait of being Jewish. Of course antisemitism exists, on some level. But compare it - today - e.g. to racism against blacks... who is more likely to get discriminated against.

I continued walking through the corridors of the prison, through the open courtyard. A large group of soldiers in their basic training were sitting there, politely listening to the explanation. (in basic training, you can't affort not to be polite; their officers were standing nearby, leaning on the wall).
I saw a sign pointing to the gallows: I decided to give it a miss.


Post a Comment

<< Home