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August 30, 2014 / 4 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Buber’

For Israel, Better the ‘Blessing’ than the ‘Curse’

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Jewish thought has never been subtle about life and death, the “blessing” and the “curse.” For Israel, the individual Jew writ large, there exists a fixed and overriding obligation to stay alive.

Although this injunction may hardly come as any sort of surprise, and may hardly seem to merit any claim of significant insight, it does stand in notably stark contrast to the worldview of some of Israel’s principal enemies in the region. More precisely, in order to deal gainfully with a still steadily nuclearizing Iran, and with a determinedly sovereign Palestine, Israel will quickly have to understand certain alien points of view.

The sources of danger for Israel are unambiguous. In a readily decipherable hierarchy of threats, Israel now confronts death and destruction from two increasingly plausible directions: (1) the already-constituted state of Iran, which may ultimately decide to act against Israel in presumed conformance with the end-times expectations of a Shiite apocalypse, and (2) the aspiring state of “Palestine,” which, if shaped by jihadist visions of Sunni Hamas, could decide to make a common war cause with Tehran.

Singly, for Israel, the attack dangers from Iran or Palestine that could derive from any religiously based inversion of life and death, of “blessing” and “curse,” would be considerable and daunting.

Together, perhaps in various unrecognized or even unimagined synergies, the interactive effects of these two particular adversaries could portend very serious and possibly existential concerns for Israel.

These regional enemy inversions of life and death, of “blessing” and “curse,” are rendered more worrisome by (1) the international community’s ritualized unwillingness to remove Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons infrastructure; (2) President Obama’s continuing support for a two-state solution; and, (3) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grudging but official acceptance of a Palestinian state that has been “demilitarized.”

The Palestinian side (Hamas, Fatah, it makes little real difference) seeks a one-state solution. On all their maps, Israel is drawn as a segment of “Palestine.” As for a demilitarized Palestine, it would never actually happen. This is true, in part, because any post-independence abrogation of earlier pre-state agreements to demilitarize, by a now-sovereign Palestinian state, could be incontestably permissible under authoritative international law.

What shall Israel do in this increasingly confusing regional maelstrom? If Obama’s openly expressed wish for “a world free of nuclear weapons” were ever realized, the survival issue would become moot. Without its nuclear arms, Israel could not endure for very long. Fortunately, this presidential wish is not only foolish but plainly unrealistic. Inevitably, of course, Israel will insist upon retaining the critical deterrence benefits of its essential nuclear forces.

The extent of this particular benefit, however, may vary, inter alia, according to a number of important factors. These include Jerusalem’s observable willingness to take its bomb out of the “basement,” that is, to make certain limited disclosures of the country’s usable and penetration-capable nuclear forces. Also relevant is the extent to which Israel might choose to reveal selected elements of Tel-Aviv’s nuclear targeting doctrine.

From the standpoint of successful deterrence, it will make a major difference if Israel’s nuclear forces are recognizably counter value (targeted on enemy cities), or counterforce (targeted on enemy weapons, and related infrastructures). In turn, Israel’s decisions on targeting policy may be affected, more or less, by ongoing regime transformations still taking place across the Middle East and North Africa.

“For what can be done against force, without force?” inquired the Roman statesman Cicero. The use of force in world politics is not inherently evil. To the contrary, in preventing nuclear and terrorist aggressions, force, though assuredly not a panacea, is almost always indispensable.

All states have a fundamental (“peremptory,” in the language of formal jurisprudence) right of self-defense. This right is explicit in both codified and customary international law. It can be found, in part, at Article 51 of the UN Charter; also, in multiple clarifications of anticipatory self-defense, a doctrine I have discussed often on these pages.

Israel has legal right to forcibly confront the expected and possibly mutually reinforcing harms of Iranian nuclear missile strikes, and Palestinian terror.

Again, Cicero understood. Failure to use force against a murderous evil imprints an indelible stain upon all that is good. A similar point can be found in the Talmud, which asserts that by being merciful to the cruel, one may become cruel to the merciful. Any such “mercy” must be firmly rejected by both individual Jews, and by the Jewish state.

Einstein, The First Post-Zionist

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

“How long can a country survive if its intellectuals are working to undermine the very culture the country was built on?”

That was the question asked by Yoram Hazony, founder of the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center, a think tank dedicated to countering the influence of Israel’s “new historians” and post-Zionist academics, in his book The Jewish State (Basic Books, 2000), the first thorough – and critical – examination of post-Zionism available in English and still a must-read for anyone interested in Israeli history and politics.

Response to the book’s publication was overwhelmingly positive and came from all points along the political spectrum.

The late A.M. Rosenthal was quick to label the book a “classic,” while Philadelphia Jewish Exponent editor Jonathan Tobin praised it as “the most comprehensive account yet written about the phenomenon of post-Zionism, its origins and how it conflicts with the ideology of those who created Zionism and brought Israel to life.”

Martin Peretz, then-publisher and editor-in-chief of The New Republic, called Hazony’s book “a daring response to the challenge of the ‘new historians’ and post-Zionists…. a bracing text to read: provocative, unrelenting, surprising and tough-minded…. one does not have to agree with everything in the book to recognize the sheer intelligence exhibited on nearly every page.”

Peretz’s assessment was shared by William Kristol, publisher and editor of The Weekly Standard (and now a weekly New York Times columnist) who lauded the book’s “remarkable combination of intellectual history, political analysis and moral polemic.”

Columnist Gideon Samet, writing in Haaretz, bastion of the very thinking so forcefully opposed by Hazony, acknowledged that “What Mr. Hazony has to say about the internal processes that prompted what, in his view, are catastrophic concessions and weakness of character is worthy of close attention.”

In his book, Hazony went beyond the usual personal, ideological and political clashes that have characterized the history of Zionism – Jabotinsky vs. Ben-Gurion, Haganah vs. Irgun, Labor vs. Likud – to demonstrate how the real “struggle for Israel’s soul” (the book’s subtitle) has long been waged between those, like Ben-Gurion and his like-minded mainstream Zionist heirs, for whom Israel never made sense as anything other than an ethnically and (more or less) religiously Jewish state and those whose enlightened sensitivities cause them to recoil at the triumph of primitive tribalism over their ideal of a non-sectarian, binational state.

The book’s villains (not too strong a word in this context) are the coterie of German-Jewish intellectuals – a group that included Judah Magnes, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, Albert Einstein and Martin Buber – who vociferously opposed the establishment of Israel as a distinctly Jewish state and whose ideas found a welcome home at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, where they flourish to this day.

Einstein, because of his iconic status as the 20th century’s preeminent scientific genius, has largely escaped Jewish criticism for his antipathy to the notion of a Jewish state. But Hazony refused to let the old professor off easy, subjecting Einstein’s socialist/utopian hallucinations to unsparing – and inevitably unflattering – scrutiny.

Einstein was distancing himself from the aspirations of Jewish nationalism at least as early as 1929, stating in a letter to Chaim Weizmann that if the Jews are “unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering, and deserve all that will come to us.”

Nine years later, in a speech in New York, Einstein declared, “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state…. We are no longer the Jews of the Maccabee period.”

In January 1946, Einstein traveled to Washington to tell the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, “The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with many difficulties and a narrow-mindedness. I believe it is bad.”

No wonder Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who offered the presidency of Israel to Einstein purely as a public-relations gesture, said to his personal secretary, “Tell me what to do if he says yes. I had to offer the post to him because it’s impossible not to. But if he accepts, we are in for trouble.”

Hazony’s critique of Martin Buber was an equally overdue scolding of a figure whose philosophical flimflam – existentialism made easy by a sugarcoating of religious phraseology – attracted those drawn to the writings of the French Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre but unprepared to accept the implications of Sartre’s godless, ultimately meaningless universe.

Warhol’s Jews

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered Jewish Museum


1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128; (212) 423 3200


www.thejewishmuseum.org


Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; 11 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8p.m.;


Admission free on Saturday; $12 adults; $10 senior citizens, $7.50 students and seniors, children under 12 free; until August 3, 2008

 

 

When an artist creates, intention – elementary to the creative process – is paradoxically secondary to the finished work. Once the artwork is on view in the larger world, it must stand on its own, engaging the audience on its aesthetic merits and creating a meaningful dialogue by means of its content and subject matter. The artist’s intention becomes a historical footnote, a peripheral fact that may or may not relate to how and what the artwork has to say. The artist’s job is over now and the artwork takes on a life of its own.


Therefore, it is quite beside the point that when Andy Warhol created Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, (1980) now at the Jewish Museum, his primary goal was to make as much money as possible on this project. Initially, he made an edition of 200 silkscreen prints, quickly followed by five sets of 10 acrylic paintings, all using the exact same images and line drawings for each of his “Jewish Geniuses,” only varying the colors.

 

Equally immaterial is the fact that the original idea for this project came not from the artist, but from his dealer Ronald Feldman. Additionally, the actual choice of the individual Jews was directed by Feldman with help from Israeli art dealer Alexander Harari and Susan Morgenstein (director of JCC of Greater Washington), who provided the relevant biographical details about each individual. Warhol was shown hundreds of vintage photos and copious background information on each to finally choose ten famous Jews to depict. He chose Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, and Gertrude Stein. When asked exactly why he chose these particular ten, Warhol responded, “Because I liked the faces.” Evidently not because of the role they played as Jews in the 20th century, just nice images.

 

 



Martin Buber (1980) acrylic and ink on canvas by Andy Warhol – “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” – Jewish Museum, New York.


 

 

At first glance, the images are big (40″ x 40″ paintings), brash, commercial and superficial. They all begin with a black and white photograph enlarged into a transparency. Warhol did a line drawing over the image and then a collage of transparent colored paper was assembled over the image. Finally silkscreen prints were made. The same image and drawing was silk-screened over an arbitrarily textured canvas as the foundation of the acrylic painting. The technique and style flows directly from Andy Warhol’s early years as a commercial artist with more than a hint of Matisse’s colorful late cutouts.

 

Warhol had gained notoriety as one of the founders of Pop Art in the early 1960′s with a series of paintings of “Campbell’s Soup Cans” and paintings of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, developing a style that depicted mass-produced products in a technique of mass production, i.e. silkscreen.

 

 



Franz Kafka (1980) acrylic and ink on canvas byAndy Warhol – “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” – Jewish Museum, New York.


 

 

His celebration of popular culture, fame and commercialism scandalized much of the art world by attacking modernist icons of originality and self-expression. Many years later, his work would be characterized as an early expression of Postmodernism, an approach to art and culture that delights in deconstructing the normative, reveling in the ironic and, seemingly whimsical, finally refusing to take a principled stand on almost anything.


Warhol quickly became wildly popular, featured at the Whitney Museum and in countless major collections. Between 1972 and his death at age 58 in 1987, he produced hundreds of commissioned portraits of the rich and famous, the glitterati, socialites and celebrities in the same technique he used for the “Ten Jews.” Additionally, much of his work feted the underground, low-life culture rampant on the fringes of 1970′s culture. What distinguished this series of “Ten Jews” was the nature of the subjects and reaction it engendered.

 

Warhol’s Jews were all no longer alive but had been serious cultural figures and, in what is the series most surprising aspect, overwhelmingly at the heart of profound social change. At the exact moment Warhol was engrossed in debunking the sacred cows of Modernism by celebrating the superficial, he made icons of the profound Jewish influence in 20th century culture and thought. The Jews responded enthusiastically while the critical elite excoriated the entire endeavor as crass, “Jewploitation” of the worst kind and an affront to Jewish values. They were both right.

 

 



Gertrude Stein (1980) acrylic and ink on canvas by Andy Warhol – “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” – Jewish Museum, New York.


 

 

Warhol correctly calculated that the Jewish upper middle class and their cultural institutions would buy up many of the silkscreen editions, effectively buying their way into the chic avant-garde. The series premiered in March 1980 at the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland quickly followed in September 1980 by premiers in Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida and in the Jewish Museum, New York. The wall texts gave short biographies of these individual Jews thereby providing a crucial educational aspect to what was primarily billed as a hip cultural experience. The series toured synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and regional museums to great acclaim that was undoubtedly due to a sense of pride that one of America’s most famous artists had chosen famous Jews as his controversial subject.

 

Warhol’s effacement of the faces of these famous Jews successfully rendered them into icons, pure ideas of what the individuals represented. The face of Sigmund Freud stares out, an off register double image echoing his then revolutionary notion that the human mind is composed of multiple parts; a conscious and unconscious, seething with scars from a childhood that cannot be successfully suppressed. Warhol highlights his forehead and eye, sharply cutting off the remainder of his face into a bluish nightmare.

 

 



Sigmund Freud (1980) acrylic and ink on canvas by Andy Warhol – “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” – Jewish Museum, New York.


 

 

While all of the Warhol images have the effect of deconstructing the photographic likeness of the famous, only some of the individuals represent a kind of postmodernism. Surely the radical writer Gertrude Stein represents a reassessment of language and non-narrative form that takes stream of consciousness and word play into a realm quite beyond modernism; “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Her stern frontal face is the most disorienting off register double image in the series. Likewise Franz Kafka’s novels and short stories, such as “The Metamorphosis,” explore the horrors of modern life in inextricable and surreal narratives. Warhol’s image of Kafka is predominately blue with a simple red ochre outline drawing pierced by a triangular sliver of yellow that slices his lips and cheek. The implicit violence is as unnerving as Kafka’s visions.

 

What emerges is that this series is far from superficial; rather it simply refuses to romanticize or personalize these individuals. They are made into “famous Jewish people,” a distinction well deserved and the closer examined, the more radical the claim that these Jews deserve to be “famous” in the wider world culture. Warhol’s Jews were thrust into the consciousness of the Jewish community in the 1980′s by his own obsession with fame and fortune. Paradoxically, his insightful treatment of these individuals was taken more seriously by a wider audience than almost any of his substantial artistic output.

 

Each Jew depicted challenged societal norms of their time: Louis Brandeis – the first Jew on the Supreme Court in 1916; Golda Meir – the first woman Israeli Prime Minister in 1969; Martin Buber who synthesized philosophy and Hasidic thought; Albert Einstein who reinvented physics with his Theory of Relativity in 1905; George Gershwin who fused symphonic music with jazz and popular music in 1924; the Marx Brothers who attacked, in comedy, the rich and pretentious and Sarah Bernhardt who adamantly defended Alfred Dreyfus throughout his anti-Semitic trial in 1894.

 

These ten Jews were not just famous; they are ideals of Jewish activism and thought in the modern world. Andy Warhol, according to his own words, had no intention to depict any of this. According to him, this project was a good way to make some art to sell. Just goes to show you how unimportant the artist’s intention can be when making some very important art about Ten Jews.

 

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Israel’s Wrongful Search To ‘Fit In’ Among The Nations

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

The Memorial Wall at Yad Vashem – the Wall of Holocaust and Heroism – has four sections, ranging from the Shoah to Rebirth. Magnificently designed by Naftali Bezem, it takes us movingly from an inferno in which the Holy is utterly profaned to the divine sanctuary of new Jewish generations. But these generations, symbolized by the countenance of a lion, must still shed endless tears.

For all of the lion’s greatness and strength, he can never be permitted to forget. Always, always…he must weep for the past. Implicit in this seemingly paradoxical imagery is the indelible imprint of Jewish uniqueness. Indeed, without this incontestable uniqueness, there can be no redemption; not for the Jews and, therefore, not for the wider world. In going up to The Land, Bezem’s new Jew acknowledges that Israel can never be regarded as merely one among the nations, but rather as a singularly special nation for all time.

Jewish uniqueness is both an individual and collective obligation. The latter is not possible without the former. Facing the world without a deeply felt sense of uniqueness, the Jewish state – the individual Jew in macrocosm – can never muster the spiritual and reverential strength it will need to survive.

We must never forget that Israel has a very special place in the world, and that denying this special place does unpardonable violence to the sacred. Here, the wisdom of Martin Buber is instructive: “There is no re-establishing of Israel, there is no security for it save one: it must assume the burden of its uniqueness….” Yet, today, Israel is obsessed with a very contrary and dangerous ethos. Today, virtually all of Israel wants only to be like everyone else. Above all, it wants to “fit in” the world. If Israel is “successful” in this wrongful ambition, the resultant triumph of secular uniformity, of utterly inappropriate goals and values, will only hasten Israel’s demise.

Israel, of course, faces many threats, some of them authentically existential. These threats, primarily the growing risks of unconventional terrorism and unconventional war, understandably preoccupy the concerns of Israel’s political leaders and military planners. But there are also less obvious and less palpable threats that, in certain respects, are every bit as ominous and are actually interrelated. None is more serious than the accelerating national retreat from Israeli Jewish uniqueness, a retreat animated by steadfast imitation of popular culture in the United States. For far too many Israelis, the currently optimal Jewish state is looking like Los Angeles.

For many states on this imperiled planet, imitation is not a conscious choice. For a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with unyielding economic and systemic constraints, these states are simply consigned to mimicry by dire circumstances far beyond their control. Here there is little for us to comment upon or to criticize.

Israel, however, is another matter entirely. What distinguishes Israel from these other imitative states is that it has purposely chosen mediocrity, all too often actually preferring an incremental pattern of social and political imitation to even a hint of leadership by Jewish example. As for originality, in political arrangements, in non-technical academic investigations (we all know how wonderful Israelis are as innovators in high-tech industries) and in virtue, Israel has become something of an embarrassment.

The consequences of a shamelessly imitative Jewish state are already plain to see. For Israel, imitation has led directly to the Oslo and Road Map process of national suicide, including the recent and unforgivable “disengagement” from Gaza. And, reciprocally, the Oslo/Road Map Process has led directly to a loss of Jewish meaning and loss of Jewish national will. Now accepting a “post-Zionist” discourse that would have been incomprehensible to earlier generations of Israelis (e.g., as early as January 14, 1999, Shimon Peres congratulated the PLO on its “long struggle for national liberation”), today’s Israeli citizens are largely unaware that they inhabit the most endangered state in the Middle East and that they represent the most endangered Jewish community on the face of the Earth.

To a significant extent, the prior governments’ “New Middle East” is the apt metaphor for Israel’s self-inflicted ordinariness. Celebrating an Israel that now refuses to remove itself from the vast sea of materialism and imitativeness, this fashionably au courant image displays sharp discontinuity with millennia of meaningful Jewish history, a history overstocked not only with martyrs, but with those Jews who were able to recognize Jewish national conformance and assimilation as a slow form of Jewish death. For Israel, the “New Middle East” now offers not only intolerable risks of war and terrorism, but also the even more insidious risks of death by intentional religious underachievement and willful cultural mediocrity.

On a planet where evil often remains “banal,” the effective origins of terrorism, war and genocide lie not in monstrous individuals, but in societies that positively despise the individual. In such societies, the mob is everything and a dreary secular sameness is the hallmark of national “progress.” Surrounded by exactly such societies, all of which “fit in” by keeping Israel “out,” the State of Israel – prodded by Washington – has now decided not to reject this terrible and terrifying mob, but to join it, to honor it, even to take an absolute delight in its conscious suppression of individual human promise in favor of a presumed belonging and public acceptance. For Israel, however, it is not only good to be “a light unto the nations,” but it is an altogether timeless and sacred duty.

In Naftali Bezem’s art, a ladder is the apt representation of aliyah, of the Jew going up to The Land. Of course it also arouses associations with Jacob’s dream and with Kabbalist degrees of ascension. By these associations, the meaning of aliyah is extended meaningfully to illustrate Jewish fullness and perfection, conditions that can never be separated from an unhindered awareness of Jewish uniqueness.

LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and publishes widely on Israeli security matters. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/louis-bene-beres/israels-wrongful-search-to-fit-in-among-the-nations/2005/12/21/

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