February 22, 2004

Winter Birds Transmigration

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Thousands of small black migrating birds (with orange beaks; starlings?) invaded our peaceful green pocket of Phoenix this rare rainy morning. For hours they circled and perched and grazed, circled and perched and grazed, occasionally scared into a startle of black scarves heading for nearby bare branches. Here we see some of them resting in the rain in the (almost) bare ruined choir of our neighbor's pecan tree, where still those sweet birds sang. Some of those little clumps of black are leftover pecan clusters, and some are birds. That reminded me of an old anecdote from the Kabbalah, which I can't find right now, so I'll paraphrase:

When Rebbe Abba saw the fruit of a tree turn into a bird, he wept. "If we only realized the depth of the knowledge we have lost, we would rend our garments down to the navel in sadness at that revelation."

These days, though, thanks to incessant observation and science, we know how fruit can turn into a bird, and how a bird can seed a tree, and the many braids between migration and transmigration. As knowledge deepens, the sadness and ignorance recede.

Spring comes early here. The green fuse burns.

[Update June 18, 2004]: For those interested in Kabbalah and its distortions, you might want to read my recent piece Frontier Kabbalah: What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted.

Posted by Jerome at 06:29 PM | TrackBack

February 21, 2004

Zvi Mazel Performs a Mitzvah: Part Two

by Jerome du Bois

Welcome to Part Two, and thank you for your patience. As a reward, I have a surprise: this post will be a lot shorter than I implied.

Everybody who has followed this story knows what happened The Night of January Sixteenth, 2004, when Zvi Mazel performed a mitzvah for all who love life. Jonathan Edelstein of the Head Heeb has the best roundup of the early news reports, and several bloggers' reactions; Bjorn Staerk has more; and Stefan Geens provides three posts, including a long visit to the piece. (Significantly and typically, very few art bloggers bothered covering the story.) Everyone has long discussion threads, which would take forever to summarize or answer point-by-point. But you might not have to read much of it once you consider a little thought experiment.

Because what if it happened differently?

That night the sky was clear. Zvi Mazel and his wife entered the already-crowded courtyard on time, and were met by the museum's directors and other dignitaries. A Bach cantata, somewhat distorted, looped around them. After introductions and greetings, the group parted as the Mazels moved toward Snow White's red pool.

They stood silently for a couple of minutes, looking around, listening to the music, watching the boat float. The three floodlights shone as they had to on that tiny red slash of a smile. The couple whispered together, then Mazel pointed to the other part of the installation, the wall text illuminated by a floodlight against a red-painted background. They walked over and read it, all of it, then whispered together again.

Then Mazel broke away from his wife and strolled over to Dror Feiler, who was just finishing some music. The two men spoke.

Mazel (in Hebrew): " Very impressive, very moving . . . I want to understand clearly, though. First, that music sounds like Bach, but my German's rusty. What is she singing?"

Feiler (in Hebrew): "She is singing that . . . there are various interpretations . . . that her heart flies and drowns in blood, and that, because of her sins, she is a monster in G-d's holy eyes . . . It's about how weak, lonely people are capable of desperate, horrible acts."

Mazel (nodding, head bowed): " . . . I see. I think I see. Thank you."

Mazel extends his hand; Feiler takes it. Mazel returns to his wife, and they enter the exhibition proper, leaving Feiler standing there holding his saxophone.

I think that covers everybody's objections -- I mean, those who objected to what actually happened. Mazel behaved. Mazel was a good, polite Jewish Israeli Ambassador, a true diplomat, a respecter of the new artistic dictates, submitting to the demands of this complex, multi-media installation, seeking understanding, keeping whatever criticism he had to himself (so he could later submit it in writing to Roger Kimball, probably).

Now a lot of people are happy. Look around: In my alternative scenario, nobody -- that is, not one person in Stockholm, Sweden, Europe, the US, or Israel -- made waves, nobody objected, so the little boat will probably float in obscurity for the rest of its tenure. No outcry; no degradation of the diplomatic mission; no armchair pontificators, thousands of miles -- or even two miles -- from exploding bodies; no death threats to museum directors; no inventive saboteurs putting Anna Linde's killer in his own little boat; no protestors with flyers or photos of the Maxim's victims; no ten-thousand-plus email protests. And, above all, no attention drawn to the slick, pervasive antisemitism now crawling all over Europe like a new plague. It's from the oldest joke in the world: When you're in the river of shit, you always whisper to the newcomers, Don't make waves, don't make waves, don't make waves.

Good deal all around. I, for example, way out here in Phoenix Arizona, will probably never hear the mad truth about this new Snow White, because Zvi Mazel will not unplug and topple floodlights. And, according to many bloggers and literally dozens of commenters, this is a good thing. After all, it was crappy art and simplistic politics; what more do you need to ignore it? so why call attention to it? Okay, fine -- consider it undone.

Hours later, the opening is closed, everyone gone, the floodlights are dark and cold. As a thin mist slowly rises from the pool, twenty-one names* come down off the far wall and gather around that dark crimson tarn. And, with endlessness above and horror below, though no one can hear, they chant Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, which does not contain the word for death. In Israel, and in the diaspora perhaps, those Maxim's victims with living relatives echo the prayer, or something similar, wherever they are. But not too many others (since we are ignorant of this nonexistent art scandal) need incur this obligation, or anything similar, even vicariously; so the victims, like many others before them, decide to raise their own voices for themselves.

These people:

Irena Sofrin, Kiryat Bialik
Nir Regev, 25, Netanya
Bruria Zer-Aviv, 49, Kibbutz Yagur
Bezalel Zer-Aviv, 30, , Kibbutz Yagur
Keren, Zer-Aviv 29, Kibbutz Yagur
Liran Zer-Aviv, 4, Kibbutz Yagur
Noya Zer-Aviv, 14 months, Kibbutz Yagur
Mark Biano, 30, Haifa
Naomi Biano; 30, Haifa
Osama Najar, 28, Haifa
Matan Askarkabi, Haifa
Sherbel Matar, 23, Fassouta
Hana Francis, 39, Fassouta
Ze’ev Almog, 71, Haifa
Ruth Almog, 70, Haifa
Moshe Almog, 43, Haifa
Tomer Almog, 9, Haifa
Asaf Staier, 11, Haifa
Zvi Bahat, Haifa

They chant the prayer twenty-one times, and as they enter the last few lines the pool begins to vibrate, the little boat rocks back and forth, and then topples, and crimson stains Snow White's pale face as she sinks completely out of sight.

[*I was only able to find nineteen names, since two people died later in hospital. If any reader knows these names, please forward them to me, and I will include them on the list. Thank you.]

[Update 2/23: Franklin Einspruch at artblog.net points to another excellent example of bad artistic judgment. He has some choice words for the offender. Ow!]

Posted by Jerome at 04:00 PM | TrackBack

February 18, 2004

Zvi Mazel Performs A Mitzvah: Part One

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by Jerome du Bois

This post follows up Zvi Mazel Is A Mensch, but is much more comprehensive -- so comprehensive that it comes in two parts. This post is part one, which is all background. Part two will cover the incident itself, and reactions in the news media and the blogosphere.

Flash background: On The Night of January 16th, 2004 -- just over one month ago -- Israeli Ambassador to Sweden Zvi Mazel unhurriedly, silently, and deliberately unplugged the lighting and toppled one of the unplugged light fixtures of a Stockholm museum art installation into its blood-red pool of water. (I describe the event this clumsy way because of the spin towards violence this story took from the very beginning.) After a short shouting match between he and artist Dror Feiler -- begun by Feiler, in Hebrew -- he was escorted from the premises, the installation was restored, and the murderess-emblazoned little white ship, which remained unmolested and had nowhere to get to, sailed calmly on.

If you want my conclusion now, it's this: This event was two moves in a long chess game between two sensibilities, and most commentators I've read have missed Mazel's subtlety in performing a meritorious deed, a mitzvah, for all who cherish their lives, in the face of what seemed like a humiliating forced move.

Let's begin on the night of January 15, 2004. Imagine Zvi Mazel gazing out the window of the embassy apartment at the sparkling Stockholm evening. His wife has gone to bed, and he's reviewing their hours of conversation about that damned "artwork," and the options they discussed -- what to do when he confronts it tomorrow. He still hasn't decided on his move.

Could he stand before that bloody thing in perfunctory acknowledgement, shake his head, and just walk around it? Big deal -- shrug his shoulders, turn to his wife, "Come on, darling, don't bother looking, let's go inside."

But then . . . Did you see the insensitivity of the Israeli Ambassador last night?! He just waltzed by "Snow White and the Madness of Truth" with a contemptuous shrug! Where's his compassion? Didn't even read the wall texts! Typical of the insensitive Zionist et cetera . . . "

Or he could stand silently and bow his head slightly as if in . . . contemplation? As that little smiling face floats and bobs in symbolic blood. No:I don't need to reflect on an abomination I know only too well, as I know all the others. Besides, standing quietly, giving the . . . thing, the "artwork," the floor, so to speak, would look too much like affirmation -- or worse, a seeking of forgiveness.

Maybe one or both of the directors will listen to reason if he protests. Leaning against the windowsill, as a light snow begins to fall, he reviews some of what he knows about Sweden, about Jews in Sweden, about art (is Snovit even art?) and about their intersection here.

He already knows he can't win. Weeks from now, after the mitzvah he doesn't yet realize he's going to perform is over, Amiram Barkat will report in Ha'aretz, quoting Dr. Henrik Bachner of Lund University, who has researched anti-Semitism in Sweden for the past 20 years:

"There is now a large group of academics in Sweden who argue that the mere discussion of anti-Semitism is solely intended to serve the political interests of Israel." Bachner claims that the contentions of this group have in recent weeks been reinforced by Ambassador Mazel, who was quoted in interviews with the Swedish media held after the incident, as claiming that anti-Semitism is rampant in Sweden. "Many people who argue that the discussion of anti-Semitism is part of the Israeli strategy were very happy about Mazel's claims," says Bachner.

Barkat also quotes Daniel Schechner, 21, whose grandfather came to Sweden at the turn of the 20th Century. He says that

until three years ago, he was deeply rooted in Swedish society, but is not so sure anymore that Jews have a future in the country. "I have a hard time with the idea that there is anti-Semitism here," he says. "But I have an even harder time with the unwillingness that I feel from the Swedish establishment to deal with the roots of the hatred that is directed at the Jews living here." In just three years this has happened.

Outside his window, down across the street, Mazel can see the back of a bus stop with its bench and shelter. Although obscured from sight, he knows the inside of the shelter supports three posters, and the one in the middle -- making differences -- is a close-up of Hanadi Jaradat, murderer of 21, suicide of one, bearing her little red smile. She made differences all right; she obliterated generations forever; she killed entire lines of humanity. It's the same photo that's on the sail in that little boat floating on the red pool, only blown up bigger than life. There are more than two dozen of them all over town, in subways and bus kiosks.

To Mazel, this is both a thumb in the eye and a not-so-subtly thrown gauntlet. The Swedish government had previously promised that the Israeli-Palestinian war [that's my word: war] would not be part of a conference on genocide. Yet here it is, right in the middle -- again. He remembers the UN World Conference on Racism in 2001, in which Arab states and some of their allies tried to tar Israel with the racism/apartheid brush. So Israel and the US decided to boycott the conference.

Perhaps the museum directors will listen to reason when they arrive for the opening tomorrow evening. Except . . . Apparently, only a week or so ago, Thomas Nordanstad, the museum's creative director, with the approval of Kristian Berg, the museum director himself, chose Dror Feiler and his wife Gunnila Skoeld Feiler -- whom Mazel knows as longtime Palestinian activists and loud opponents of the current Israeli administration -- to create the first artwork one sees, in the courtyard, before one enters the exhibition Making Differences itself.

Mazel has been invited; he and his wife must attend. The art exhibition is attached to the genocide conference next week, so to shun the opening would be to mar Israel's profile at the conference. What to do?

Mazel knows there are 18,000 Jewish Swedish citizens in the country, and 400,000 Muslim immigrants.

Mazel knows that Stockholm Jews use code words for synagogue and kashruth. He knows they wouldn't dream of wearing yarmulkes, Stars of David, or T-shirts bearing anything in Hebrew. And when they vacation in Israel, they tell their friends and colleagues they visited someplace else. He knows teachers endure harassment from Arab Muslim students if they attempt to cover the Holocaust.

[Note well, dear readers: code words in public. In 2004. In the civilized world. Please email me if you live in a country, region, or city where you must use code words when describing your religious activities.]

Mazel knows that in early October of 2003 a European poll revealed that 59 percent of Europeans thought Israel was the greatest threat to world peace -- ahead of Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and (barely) the United States.

Mazel knows that less than three months ago the European Union released, then attempted to suppress, a report on the rising anti-Semitism on the continent.

In between those two events Hanadi Tayseer Abdul Malek Jaradat, 29, who was nine days shy of becoming a lawyer in Palestine, blew herself up in Maxim's, a restaurant owned by Arab Israelis and patronized by Arabs and Jews for over thirty years. Now, here she is again -- so soon, so soon.

Mazel knows -- the dispatches are in his briefcase -- that just yesterday morning Ro'i Arbel, a father of five, who was the same age as Hanadi Jaradat, became the first resident of Talmon in Samaria to be murdered by Palestinian gunmen. He was driving home from work at the Motorola plant. Al Aqsa Brigade.

Mazel knows that mere hours later Reem al-Reyasha, 21, a mother of two from Gaza, blew herself and four Israelis to death at the Erez Crossing, thus shutting down the last gateway for Palestinians to cross into Israel for work. Fatah.

Ha'aretz noted shortly after the attack that the Erez Crossing was one of the "last remaining expressions of official cooperation" between Israel and the Palestinians, suggesting its status prompted the terrorists to target it.

"The Erez Crossing allows Palestinians to cross over into Israel for the purpose of work. Here we see how Palestinian terrorism not only strikes at Israelis, but also is a clear detriment to improving the Palestinian economy," an official in the Prime Minister's Office was quoted as saying.

A senior Fatah official told Israel Radio the bombing was meant to cause the IDF to seal off Gaza, thus cutting thousands of Palestinians off from their jobs in Israel. This would in turn boost grass-roots support for the terror groups, he said.

This was all just yesterday. And tomorrow I'm supposed to . . .

And Mazel knows a lot more. Sweden is his third assignment, after Romania and Egypt. Egypt, who was first across the border in 1948, murder in its eyes, as the ink was still drying on the documents of statehood. Egypt, inexhaustibly tunnelling into Gaza. Egypt, probably the most persistently virulent antisemitic state in the world. Egypt, whose diplomats believed that he often drank baby's blood. Egypt, whose most famous actor took fourteen parts, and led a cast of 400, in a multi-part television maxiseries in 2001 dramatizing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- and repeats the broadcast yearly. Compared to Egypt, Sweden seems a lot more civilized: here they don't scream at you, they just try to box you in. And who's looking into the box? Dror Feiler and Hanadi Jaradat, wearing the same smile.

He's tired, but he can't go to bed with those names on his mind. Only now it gets worse. His eyes drift to the bus shelter again -- that face, so smooth and clean -- stenciled eyebrows -- and suddenly he remembers a horrible fragment of a news report from right after the bombing:

To the rear of the restaurant, beside railway tracks between it and the white ribbon of the beach, the emergency teams placed the bloodied head of the suicide bomber on a wooden table, her thick hair tied in a ponytail. Reporters accustomed to the bombings said that this, too, was routine, since the explosives-laden body belts commonly used in the attacks — and, the police said, used again this time — often leave little trace of the attacker's torso. Eventually, the head, too, was taken away, not long before the sun slipped in a crimson flame into the sea. (John F. Burns, NYT.)

The bodiless head of fright . . . Mazel stands at the window, watching the light snow fall, and thinks about the red pool -- too big to . . . what? drain it?; the little boat -- wade out into the pool (slip-on shoes?), grab it (slip and fall?), crumple the sail, and that face: sure, that's great video (there's always video) -- and vandalism, not to mention the prime minister roaring in his ear . . . What else is there? The floodlights . . . the floodlights . . .

Across town, in the courtyard of the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities, Dror Feiler, self-described eye-bleeding ultimate composer of intifadic and eruptive lung-outs, looks up at the falling flakes, and then down at the floodlit red pool with its chunks of ice. Needs more de-icer, but that will have to wait until after the opening. Maybe it'll be warmer tomorrow. Gunilla Skoeld Feiler, his wife, is checking to make sure they have all the electrical connections, floodlights, outlets for the sound system. The boat itself, with its fragile paper sail, is in a box, sheltered from the elements. (Of course, they have spares. You never know.) He looks around. Her art, his music. Everything is set. Finally, they get to make a significant statement. The Bach (which he tweaked and looped) will help . . . My heart is swimming in blood, since in God's Holy Eyes, the multitude of my sins has made me into a monster . . . What will Mazel do? What can he do, except take it?

Dror Feiler, 51, is an Israeli-born Jew who renounced his citizenship twenty years ago, when he settled in Sweden; former paratrooper, avant-garde jazz musician, and one of the last of the red diaper babies. That is, his parents were non-Soviet, voluntary Marxist Communists. He was born and raised on Kibbutz Yad Hannah, now the last Marxist kibbutz in Israel, where his fiercely proud mother, Pnina Feiler, 82, still lives. His father, who hung out with the PLO before the PLO was legal -- and afterward -- died in 1992.

In 1982 Dror Feiler founded JIPF, Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, an organization

with the purpose to provide an opportunity for Jews in Sweden to work actively for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and to try to influence the Jewish community in Sweden and the Swedish public opinion at large towards a peaceful solution of the Middle Eastern conflict.

[His mother tells an interesting story about how he married Gunilla Skoeld. From the kibbutz's register, he copied the names and contact addresses of many of the female visitors/workers (in his age group) to the kibbutz during his time there, and then travelled around Europe reacquainting himself with those he could find. Gunilla was on the list. When love and ideology are one, it's magic, I guess . . .]

Gunilla came up with the red, white, and black -- classically revolutionary -- and the Snow White part ("as soon as I saw her face in the paper") -- beautiful: an innocent monster! -- the flipside, really, of beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, since the little white wedge created such a great red sea -- but still revolutionary.

He climbs the short platform at the head of the pool, and looks around. Gunilla joins him. About forty meters to their right they can see the red rectangular display holding the texts that list the victims of Hanadi's martrydom, and the collage-poem he and Gunilla composed. With the names, his own heartfelt wailings and blastings, the Bach (have made me into a monster), their reputations . . . They're covered, how can they be faulted?

And just yesterday Reem al-Reyasha became the seventh female martyr since the 2000 intifada -- well, it just makes "Snow White" that much more timely, doesn't it? In two days he will say that the piece is about how "weak, lonely people can be driven to do desperate things," but he won't elaborate. What makes them weak? Why are they lonely? He knows very well why Jaradat and Reyasha (and Walid Idris, the first one, who "showed the way") blew themselves and others up. He takes Gunilla's hand and they head home.

But let's linger a moment.

"Snow White and the Madness of Truth."

Every word is ironic, since the mad truth is that Hanadi Jaradat was no Snow White. Nor was Reem al-Reyasha. Nor was Wala Idris. In their world -- not ours, and, one would hope, not Sweden's -- they were all dishonored women, social dead ends, unredeemable violators of the Palestinian Arab (and Muslim) codes of behavior: they had sex outside of marriage, were divorced, or were sterile. Their lives were over. Do you think that might have influenced their decisions? But as far as I have read -- and I've read far; I've been reading this story for a month, from dozens of news sources and blogs -- nobody who has covered this story has mentioned these facts about these women, except Davids Medienkritik, who mentions Jaradat's youthful affair. I wonder why?

[Part Two: What happened, who said what about it, and how much of what some people said was wrong, wrong, wrong.]

Posted by Jerome at 06:34 AM | TrackBack

February 07, 2004

Understanding Evolution: A New Website

The talented and tireless Carl Zimmer points us to a new resource in self-guided science education (it's designed for teachers). It's a website called Understanding Evolution. It was created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology, with support provided by the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Mr. Zimmer wrote "The History of Evolutionary Thought" Section. It's full of his typically lucid prose, but I just want to call attention to this gorgeous chart on his index page -- isn't it beautifully concise? -- because it reflects the accessible professionalism of the whole site. (On the chart, note the subtle color shading within the labels to indicate the mutual influences of strands of thought.)

According to the latest polls I've been able to find, which reflect rough figures, less than a quarter of the American people believe that evolution by natural selection provides the best explanation for the origin of human life on Earth.

Here's hoping Understanding Evolution gets a lot of hits -- from Georgia, especially.


Posted by Jerome at 11:11 AM | TrackBack

February 01, 2004

Columbia Sails the Sea of Stars

David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. McCool, Ilan Ramon.

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I saw a newspaper ad not long ago, a double-spread of solid black across the bottom third of both pages. On the left, two white dots, fairly close together, marked Earth and Moon. One line of copy on the opposite page read: Mars is eighty yards to your right. With a helpful little arrow.

If you have to ask why we go, you've already been left behind.

By the way, as Charles Johnson reminded us not long ago, there are only two flags on Mars so far:

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With a heart of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander;
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.

By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end --
Methinks it is no journey.

-- Tom O'Bedlam


Posted by Jerome at 05:39 AM | TrackBack