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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Monday, December 22, 2003

Bollettino

"The IMAGINATION, then, I consider as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human PERCEPTION, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of CREATION in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its cogency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates,in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all event, it struggles to idealize and to unify." -- Coleridge

A week ago, my best bud and alter ego, D., sent me a news item from the NYT. The item was about Sharon’s speech. The speech didn’t surprise me. Sharon proposed that the Wall would be the basis for a line between Israel and Palestine. There was nothing unexpected in this, if you know Sharon’s history. D. was indignant, to the extent he ever gets indignant.

This, too, wasn’t unexpected. All my lefty friends at one time or another get indignant about Israel. When Israel bombs a refugee camp and kills Palestinian kids, they get red thinking about what a criminal state it is. When Palestinian kids blow up Israeli kids, they get suddenly rational: it is only a matter of the just struggle for the liberation of Palestine, blah blah blah.

I have experienced the other side too, from people who seem to think that the Palestinians should conveniently vanish, like the Cherokees or the Tasmanians. A couple of years ago, in L.A. I was having lunch with two friends, and one of them began a long rant about what a pissy character Yassar Arafat is, and how he bungled the chance for peace in 2000. Etc. The guy’s gripe was the idea of Return – that Arafat supported the right to return of Palestinians who were evicted from their land. This would make more sense if Israel didn’t also have an extensive policy giving French or Russian or Greenland Jews a right to Return – and dumping them in settlements on Palestinian land.

Now, Israel doesn’t excite my passions in quite this way. I see, on the left, the displacement of the Palestinians provoking tears and fellow travelers, martyrs that put themselves in the path of bulldozers, etc. etc. Where is the indignation about, say, the Arabization of Kirkuk, or the slave raids on Southern Sudanese Christian tribes? To mention only two examples. These, apparently, are indignations best left to specialists. On the right, of course, there has been this odd conjunction between the traditional anti-semitic Christians and the neo-cons. To criticize Israel, or not even Israel, but Sharon’s Israel, is to commit the blood crime of anti-semitism.

We can all get indignant, one way or another, about Israel.

I’ve written about Israel before. My position is well known. It is crystal, ahem, clear. It is, uh (where’d I put those notes?) the position of conscience (hey, did you hear the one about the rabbi, the rabbit and the priest? Oh, another time…) of an independent intellectual proud … did I say proud? Conscience, yeah I said conscience. Okay, drum roll please…

Okay, I don’t have a position about Israel. I have several, and some contradict each other.

That Israel unjustly drove out the Palestinians, or many Palestinians, seems beyond a doubt. That this founding act of violence was succeeded by the creation of a viable state seems beyond a doubt. There are many things to like about Israel. Other states have engulfed aid in amounts as huge as Israel’s, and the aid has basically swollen bank accounts in Switzerland. Israel, perhaps because the original founders preserved the old Socialist ethics, never went that route. All things being equal, Tel Aviv should be, to the Middle East, what Beirut was to it in the fifties – the financial center of the world. This is due, in part, to Israel bombing the shit out of Beirut in the eighties. And so it goes, ethical/dialectical tic tac toe.

I don’t think a treaty will bring peace to Israel or Palestine, although it will be a start. Rather, a more essential change has to happen.

That Israel, unlike other states in the post-colonial world, was expressly the product of the same European romantic nationalism that produced Germany and Italy (and failed to produce Scotland and Corsica) is the heart of the fascination of the place, and its current dilemma.

Bracket the violence. Bracket the struggle between Israel and Palestine. Even if you have a strong Marxist belief that the essence of the state emerges from struggle, it is still distinct from that struggle. What I think has been lost, in the talk of peace treaties and suicide bombers, is the question: what is Israel?

In 1949, Israel was pretty clearly the homeland of the Jews. But is that true in 2003? Is Israel forever identical to the homeland of the Jews?

There’s a story in the NYT today that presents this question under the guise of comedy. There is a small tribe in India that apparently embraced Judaism in the twentieth century. Their own story is that they are descendents of a lost tribe. So there is an organization, Amishav, who sponsor them. The Indians are dumped in Palestinian territories and given lessons in Hebrew. Between bouts of incomprehensible teaching, there is always kosher curry.

This is funny. It is also cruelly sad.

The reality of Israel is that its success as a state has distanced it from its status as a symbolic object. As a state, Israel is populated by Israelis, not Jews. But that state is still dependent on its symbolism – dependent on a world wide Jewish community’s feeling for Israel as a homeland of the Jews. A homeland that that world wide community, in the U.S., France, Canada, Italy, etc., has no intention, by and large, of moving to.

In other words, Israel, the state, wears a mask. The mask is that Israel is the homeland of the Jews. The mask is suffocating the state.

Masks and Powers, a well known essay by Africanist Elizabeth Tonkin, fleshes out this metaphor in a fruitful way.

Tonkin goes to the quote from Coleridge I’ve given at the head of this post to distinguish two levels of the imagination. Corresponding to those levels, there are two kinds of analyses of masks. Her analysis of masks is connected to her field work in Africa, where the mask connects up to ancestral spirits. The mask event, as she calls it, requires that there be a sense of the dead captured by the mask; that there be a position open in the semantic field for the non-masked; and that the dead have power:

Here is a fascinating passage. Note -- Tonkin capitalizes Mask to mean something like a mask with a spirit:

"Every Mask is part of an event, which can only be intelligible when understood as a performance with complex interactions between Masks and non-maskers. Indigenous explanations show that these are seen either as the actions of power or as the actions needed for its production. Power, all reporters agree, resides in the Mask (and often also in the mask on its own). The Mask is the exponent of power, which is manifested in all its actions – not just those which may be deemed instrumental exerting ‘social control’ to express power is to make power."

Masks events collect around rites of passage. As Tonkin puts it, they are metaphors-in-action, “transform[ing] events themselves of mediat[ing] between structures.” Mauss, the thinker with whom Tonkin is in dialogue in this piece, claimed that the mask was the genealogical precursor of the soul concept. Mauss was impressed by the connection between masking and the dead – that the spirits of the dead are re-produced, reborn, in the mask. Tonkin questions the generalizability of Mauss’ insight, but she, too, affirms the connection between the mask and the dead.

These remarks point to the violent energy contained in the mask of the Jewish homeland. The dead, here, are the dead of the holocaust. There’s no getting around that. But there is also no getting around the fact that the mask, perpetuating a rite de passage, an intermediate structure by which the dead are escaped, has taken over the face of the living. This, in our opinion, is the real loss to Israel of being led -- held captive, entranced -- by one of the great spirits of the Mask: Sharon.

We have other things to say about this topic, but we’ve maundered on, typically, too long.

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