This was on Sunday, my regular weekly journey to one of Berlin’s hundreds of museums and art galleries. Alas, my webhost decided to trash one of their servers, and between recovering from that and all the rest of the week, it’s now Friday and my memory is crystallised; the immediate thoughts and emotions running over the same paths until ruts form and possibilities for other considerations become faint.
This is a troubling museum. I was angry at someone, and wanted to take that anger out on them. Anyone, preferably German, though Jewish would also suffice. Someone responsible for this; responsible also for forgetting and repeating.
My first visit to it when I was newly arrived in Berlin was an act of encompassing: I didn’t go in because of the queue. When I was a student, I’d bought a large monograph on Daniel Libeskind and the architecture of this Jüdisches Museum, so I found wandering outside was a thing in itself. Having now been inside, it seems two different things. In places the exterior breaks forth into the interior, but never as stark or clear. Often it feels too busy and demanding: there are arrows on the floor determining the correct path to take, as usual, I missed them and saw everything counter-clockwise.
People are very solemn at first. The stairs lead down to underground. The way forward is both uphill and tilted, or warped. The architecture is banal here, it reminds me of Hanna Arendt writing on Eichmann and how utterly mediocre his thinking was, his acts were, the blandness of an office from where murder was issued. I’m not sure this is intentional here, and despite what Libeskind says about his work being open to interpretation, there is much that is very deliberate yet also in other places unfulfilled.
This is a Jewish museum, a German Jewish museum. It is not a history of Jews or Jewishness in its entirety, it is centered on land that became Germany as well as neighbouring countries, and as time passes the focus narrows onto Germany and Berlin.
I was reading a letter that had been smuggled out of Auschwitz when a school group broke into laughter as one of them said something. I only caught, “… transvestites … ” and the laughter. Here is one I wanted to take my anger out on. The idiocy of not understanding; of not caring to understand. It is precisely and only because we begin by laughing at those who are different that we can later murder them. This the museum does not teach the visitor, perhaps because the stating the conceptual leap is too troubling for a country (Germany) that regards certain members in the same language (Turkish, Roma), or for another country (Israel) that treats people in the same way (Palestinian, Bedouin).
I went to the Holocaust place. The dead end. After the confined, low-ceiling blandness of the paths before, the cold, dark void I found peaceful. Once I was alone in there and my eyes adjusted, I could see the play of weak light from high above shape the space. Standing beneath it and looking back, small holes in the facing wall looked out to the garden, too high for eyes to see through. The sound was sharp and precise. I clapped my hands and like a gun firing the strike echoed for half a minute. A sound to meditate by.
Again, a simple reading is possible, yet I am not so grim a nihilist to think that there is not some peace intended to be experienced here, also in the garden outside. The bleakness suits winter.
Out and up the stairs. The architecture of this progression is also exclusive. For those without legs to walk the stairs, it is not possible to follow the axis of continuation, nor to experience the museum as it expects.
Arriving at the top it is a relief. There are spices, colours, smells. I find a reproduction of a 14th century illumination, teaching children the alphabet by baking each letter into a biscuit, because knowledge is sweet and beyond all else important. This is something I can feel an affinity for. Later there is an etching of darling, dear Spinoza, not a minor philosopher at all. Also a Torah for children, as drawn by a renaissance xkcd. There are messages on the wall though, creeping into vision. Kant says, “They are nowaday vampires of society” …
The language again. It is language I hear now from people I would assume understand words and what they are saying. Of course, because they utter them against immigrants, asylum seekers, Roma, Turkish, Muslims, it is ok. The police standing on guard at every Jewish building in Berlin remind us that Berlin, Germany, Europe does not understand what it will never forget.
The 20th century, then. Almost a return trip to the Deutsches Technikmuseum, and what was perhaps not clearly mentioned there is certainly here: that Jews were at the front of industrialisation, modernisation, innovation, art, culture. And I am angry again. That they let this happen. They, Germans, Jews, Europeans. Sometimes I want to punch the city of Berlin itself, but I have also seen photographs of Berlin from above in 1945 to know the city did that task to itself. And I am angry at that too.
China. Shanghai. When I said this is a German Jewish museum, it is what is absent that frames what is here. The persecution for hundreds of years pushed them into travelling. There are Jews in China, converted hundreds of years ago who follow a memory of Jewishness. There were tens of thousands of refugees in Shanghai and Chongqing. I photographed some of the illustrations of this, an entire story in itself. There is also land in northern China that for a small moment in time could have become Israel.
The word ambivalent is perhaps the closest I can find to this pull of contradictions, to also the presentation of a single narrative of Jewishness. What is missing? Where are the wealthy Jews who signed away the lives of the poorer, who were absolutely complicit in murder? Where are the heterosexual Jews who persecuted the gay, lesbian, transgender ones? Certainly the latter have “their own” museum, as if there were no cock-sucking, pussy-licking, cross-dressing Jews. Them and us.
There is a photograph of Heinz Joachim and Marianne Prager, Jewish Communist resistance fighters. They are in a clearing in a forest, he is kneeling on a blanket, she standing. His arms are around her waist, she has one on her shoulder. He looks up into her eyes, they are smiling, laughing. He is wearing a short-sleeved gingham dress, and she a man’s dark suit, jacket and trousers. They were murdered in 1942, both 23 years old, two years after this photo. There is no remark made on their clothing or why they were wearing it, their identities are both present and erased.
The museum winds back on itself. After the dead-end of the holocaust, it becomes a green room, dressed in artificial grass, warm golden light. The people after. There are cubes lit from within on poles, like saplings, each has a photograph of a person and a short biography. One says, “ … and when my father in Palestinian exile, witnessed how the expelled began doing the expelling, he wrote: ‘The swastika is twining around the Star of David …’”
I can’t say anymore. Like the museum going back on itself – to exit I have to go back down the stairs, through the basement, glance at the path to the holocaust once more – my thoughts go back on themselves, worrying and pulling at themselves. I want to say this is pathetic, hundreds of years of culture and all that is shown is religion and death. One exhibit is the Brit milah, circumcising the baby boy. Ritual genital mutilation is another way of putting it. There is no commentary on how some secular and religious Jews find this act disturbing. There is scant room for discussion of this in Germany because any criticism becomes itself criticised for anti-semiticism. It’s possible what I write now, what I think now would be defined as anti-semetic.
At last there is a separate exhibition of a photographer. The first image is that of a woman. I haven’t written of how frequently and how clearly conscious and matter-of-fact the place of the women who appear in this exhibition, from the ceramic artists who are the first exhibits encountered, to the long biography of a Jewish merchant woman, to this last image, Hannah Arendt.
This letter of attorneys and academics appeared in the Times of London on Sunday. I suggest that all bloggers who agree with it just reprint it so that it is everywhere in the blogosphere. It is a succinct and cogent refutation of the reigning right-Zionist talking points that have dominated American media reporting on this atrocity.
January 11, 2009
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is not self-defence – it’s a war crime
ISRAEL has sought to justify its military attacks on Gaza by stating that it amounts to an act of “self-defence” as recognised by Article 51, United Nations Charter. We categorically reject this contention.
The rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas deplorable as they are, do not, in terms of scale and effect amount to an armed attack entitling Israel to rely on self-defence. Under international law self-defence is an act of last resort and is subject to the customary rules of proportionality and necessity.
The killing of almost 800 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and more than 3,000 injuries, accompanied by the destruction of schools, mosques, houses, UN compounds and government buildings, which Israel has a responsibility to protect under the Fourth Geneva Convention, is not commensurate to the deaths caused by Hamas rocket fire.
For 18 months Israel had imposed an unlawful blockade on the coastal strip that brought Gazan society to the brink of collapse. In the three years after Israel’s redeployment from Gaza, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire. And yet in 2005-8, according to the UN, the Israeli army killed about 1,250 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children. Throughout this time the Gaza Strip remained occupied territory under international law because Israel maintained effective control over it.
Israel’s actions amount to aggression, not self-defence, not least because its assault on Gaza was unnecessary. Israel could have agreed to renew the truce with Hamas. Instead it killed 225 Palestinians on the first day of its attack. As things stand, its invasion and bombardment of Gaza amounts to collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5m inhabitants contrary to international humanitarian and human rights law. In addition, the blockade of humanitarian relief, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and preventing access to basic necessities such as food and fuel, are prima facie war crimes.
We condemn the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel and suicide bombings which are also contrary to international humanitarian law and are war crimes. Israel has a right to take reasonable and proportionate means to protect its civilian population from such attacks. However, the manner and scale of its operations in Gaza amount to an act of aggression and is contrary to international law, notwithstanding the rocket attacks by Hamas.
Ian Brownlie QC, Blackstone Chambers
Mark Muller QC, Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales
Michael Mansfield QC and Joel Bennathan QC, Tooks Chambers
Sir Geoffrey Bindman, University College, London
Professor Richard Falk, Princeton University
Professor M Cherif Bassiouni, DePaul University, Chicago
Professor Christine Chinkin, LSE
Professor John B Quigley, Ohio State University
Professor Iain Scobbie and Victor Kattan, School of Oriental and African Studies
Professor Vera Gowlland-Debbas, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva
Professor Said Mahmoudi, Stockholm University
Professor Max du Plessis, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
Professor Bill Bowring, Birkbeck College
Professor Joshua Castellino, Middlesex University
Professor Thomas Skouteris and Professor Michael Kagan, American University of Cairo
Professor Javaid Rehman, Brunel University
Daniel Machover, Chairman, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights
Dr Phoebe Okawa, Queen Mary University
John Strawson, University of East London
Dr Nisrine Abiad, British Institute of International and Comparative Law
Dr Michael Kearney, University of York
Dr Shane Darcy, National University of Ireland, Galway
Dr Michelle Burgis, University of St Andrews
Dr Niaz Shah, University of Hull
Liz Davies, Chair, Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyer
Prof Michael Lynk, The University of Western Ontario
Steve Kamlish QC and Michael Topolski QC, Tooks Chambers