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The Kitsch of Israel

Not every one of these reasons seems necessarily a source of political kitsch. Countries and cities devoted to promoting tourism, while they generate plenty of kitsch, produce mainly its commercial variety. They mass-produce objects that by their nature should be unique—a multitude of Acropolises in Athens and of Davids in Florence, and a Mozart stamped on every chocolate ball and hotel towel in Salzburg. Art is reproduced on the assembly line with no regard to texture, size, proportion, or its original setting. The purpose of these objects is only to remind one of the original article.3 The “original article” can also be a story, as in the case of Bethlehem, the tourist town that prides itself on the expertise of its artisans in making little olive-wood managers.

On the face of it Jerusalem seems like any other tourist city, only more so: it is important to all Christian sects and denominations, holy to Islam, and of course the center for all Jewish “lovers of Zion.” But Jerusalem is also a city of whose inhabitants a third are under an occupation that is unacceptable to them. Spectacular audiovisual performances have managed, for more than twenty years, to present Jerusalem as a showcase of coexistence, the city of eternal peace—no doubt tourism’s phenomenal success. This façade of religious and human brotherhood crumbled with the Palestinian uprising. No aspect of life in Israel remains unpoliticized, tourism included. And if tourism contributes to kitsch, in Israel—and in Jerusalem in particular—the kitsch comes with a distinctly political flavor.

The best Israeli kitschmen have made a living out of Jerusalem. To take an example, Israel’s former president and the current minister of education, Yitzak Navon, a formidable kitschman, wrote a poem to accompany a short book of photographs of the seven gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, in which each gate implores God to choose it as the gate through which the triumphant Israeli army will march into the city during the Six Day War. Properly enough, God chooses the humblest gate. In general Jerusalem kitsch features the exotic combination of “the old and the new.” Everybody is familiar with the photographs of the New Jew, in the form of a sun-tanned athletic youngster invariably seen in contrast with the proverbial old Jew with his fur cap walking through the narrow alleyways—his eyes shining from his lined face with the “wisdom of the centuries”—while an old Arab sits on a stool sucking on his narghile and a gowned Franciscan monk wearing sunglasses walks between them. The eternal city of three religions.

The main idea is clear. The Jews in Israel have taken literally the Hegelian metaphor of “the return to the world stage”; they have turned the entire country into a stage and its Jewish inhabitants into actors who “face the Diaspora.” Jerusalem and Masada are the most important stage sets; Teddy Kollek is the benign stage manager. Even Israel’s “wars of survival” sometimes take on the aura of a theatrical production. The Six Day War was fortunate to have had one of the world’s best stage sets, the Old City walls, in the foreground. One of the co-producers of scenes from that war was the present president of Israel, an archkitschman, Chaim Herzog. He would probably not have even been considered for the presidency if not for his highly successful performance as a daily commentator on the state radio during the fighting, and as keeper of the national legacy of kitsch.

Tourism and a widely circulated political image are here combined, kitsch being the glue. Kitsch is largely based on a fast and easy identification of the represented object. The emotion supposed to be evoked in the spectator comes merely from a reference to the object. It is thus enough to provide a glimpse of Masada, or the Wall, or the Temple Mount, to move the “Jewish heart.” In genuine art there is always some estrangement of the represented object: it is shown in a new way and under a new light. The idea of kitsch is to arouse, through an easy and familiar stimulus, a strong emotion that comes from the spectator’s relation to the original object—much like the feeling evoked by a perfumed handkerchief in a nineteenth-century Romantic novel. In this respect Israel is ideal as a stage. Everything is so compact. Nightline‘s helicopter takes off from Jerusalem, reaches Masada in minutes for a discussion on mass Jewish suicide, and we are instantly back in Jerusalem to see the Temple Mount, the Golden Dome, and the Wailing Wall—everything is so clear, Jews and Arabs fighting for the same piece of land. Where else can such a concentrated stage setting be found, with such obvious and accessible symbols?

Because of its political and economic dependence on the United States in general and on American Jews in particular, Israel is much preoccupied with marketing its image. The American Jews indeed sometimes play the role of middlemen with regard to this marketing, but the middleman is in a bind. He himself is an addicted consumer of the image produced by Israel, and at the same time he wants to help to improve the marketing of the image for general consumption. Diaspora Jews have to decide which features of the merchandise are saleable, and, more importantly, which of its faults should be glossed over. The Israeli product nowadays makes life difficult for these middlemen. Its standards are in decline, while its price tag rises. Part of the difficulty for the middlemen is that they do not entirely control the information the gentile consumer receives: some information comes from “unwanted sources.”

One of the features of this marketing—which is also an important element in the phenomenon of kitsch in general—is the elevation of the trivial, sometimes to the point of making it appear sublime. Practically every Israeli woman soldier is an officer; virtually every desk officer was once an Entebbe hero, the kitschy son of Ari Ben Canaan of Exodus. The earnest promotion of the trivial contributes to kitsch because by its nature it drives away the main enemy of kitsch, which is not good taste but humor—not only jokes but ironic distance of any kind.

In the kitsch culture of the Israeli occupation, perhaps most striking to the eye is the architecture of the new settlements in the territories. Cheap land as well as heavy government subsidies were provided to the settlers. People dwelling in tiny flats in Tel Aviv’s depressing satellite towns suddenly were able to build their “dream villas,” and the settlements, consequently, are laid out like an army encampment but with red-tile roofed houses in the style of a Swiss chalet. This is what the Jerusalem poet Dennis Silk sees “On the Way to The Territories”:

We’re passing a suburb of redemption on the left, the saved like these barrack affairs. They have broody rectangular dreams above which they hang the flag of their disposition.

The more romantic plant Swiss Chalets guarded by a bemused militia. Here they yodel a psalm, there they mensurate it in a barrack.

Switzerland, with its snow-capped Alps, cows in the meadows, and cozy villages with their little churches, has long provided the kitsch image of pastoral innocence; and it is this image of peace that the settlers seek to transplant onto the barren hills of Judea and Samaria: Switzerland in the Holy Land.

Lack of tradition in the new state, on the one hand, and on the other a long tradition of its founders—a tradition also rebelled against—provide fertile ground for kitsch. This kitsch was really the product of the “instant tradition” created in the newly founded state. In this spirit, dances of “biblical” shepherds, in colorfully embroidered “authentic” peasant costumes, were invented in the Israel of the 1950s, and performed with smiling optimism. At the same time the 1950s in Israel saw a lot of socialist kitsch, the kitsch of the “great march” toward tomorrow’s better society. In fact the May Day parades of the Labor movement in the first decade of the state are fixed in my memory as far more impressive than any of the state holidays, Independence Day parades included.

The new immigrants largely from North Africa did not always understand this propaganda. I remember as a child a parade with a huge portrait of Lenin, which the crowds cheered, shouting “Weizmann! Weizmann!” True, Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, had a goatee, as well as a shining, balding forehead, but he had bulging pockets under his eyes, which were quite unlike Lenin’s Mongol eyes; but the crowd may have been confused by the kitsch technique of retouching, which erases lines and blurs individual features. Indeed, the new immigrants who at the time mistook Lenin for Weizmann eventually brought about the complete collapse in Israel not only of Weizmann’s values but of the socialist “world of tomorrow.”

What remains from that period and has become part of the current nostalgia in Israel is the Russian songs sung by the sabra socialist youth movements during the 1950s and the early 1960s. Many of these songs tell of the Cossacks of the Dnieper and the Don, who often took part in pogroms and in more than a few cases raped East European Jews. Evening entertainments featuring such songs and devoted to “beautiful Israel” are often organized around the country these days. Among the most enthusiastic participants are the sons and daughters of the new immigrants of the Fifties. Each week hundreds of young people sing through the night at Tel-Baruch, near Tel Aviv’s famous prostitutes’ beach, itself bustling with action.

The Zionist movement that founded the state of Israel was an outgrowth, among other things, of romantic nationalism in Europe. Hermann Broch was right in observing4 that the vulgar expressions of romanticism are an important source of kitsch; and the national mass movements born out of the Romantic movement—Zionism included—owe much of their kitsch to this source. But we owe the political kitsch of present-day Israel also to its having a state ideology. In countries with such an ideology, and especially in totalitarian ones like communist Russia, Nazi Germany, or fascist Italy, the state has a monopoly on state popular culture, while in countries with openly competing ideologies there can be found varieties of kitsch—Catholic kitsch, socialist kitsch, American-Dream kitsch. In countries with a state ideology government itself appeals to the masses by producing, with the help of its clerks, the state’s mass culture; it is not the case that rulers prefer kitsch art only because it is useful in manipulating people, and that for them anything that works on the masses is equally good. Khrushchev disliked modern art, and the Nazi leaders had a genuine predilection for heroic kitsch. The episodes of modernism in postrevolutionary Russia and of futurism in fascist Italy were brief because the rulers disliked them: no one has ever claimed that Stalin preferred Picasso to socialist realism.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kundera’s heroine Sabina maintains that her hatred of communism is based on aesthetics, that it is really a hatred of its “smiling brotherhood” kitsch. But it is wrong in my view to take kitsch to be solely a concept of aesthetic criticism: it has moral connotations too. Nor is the moral criticism underlying the use of this concept exhausted by the manipulative nature of kitsch. It has much to do with its sentimentality. Sentimentality in my view is a necessary condition for kitsch, and it is what distinguishes kitsch from mere bad taste. Sentimentality in certain situations is more than just vulgar silliness; it can also be evil. Mark Jefferson described the phenomenon well in an article called “What is Wrong with Sentimentality?” (Mind, 1983). One group of emotions, among which are nostalgia, self-righteousness, melodrama, and of course sentimentality, has in common a peculiar kind of distortion of reality that facilitates uninhibited indulgence in a strong feeling. The differences among the emotions in the group have to do more with the way they distort reality than with the quality of the feeling involved in each of them. Nostalgia distorts the past through idealization, in order to indulge in tenderness. Self-righteousness distorts the moral character of others in order to indulge in “holy wrath” against them and in self-pity for having to tolerate such people in the world.

Self-righteousness is accompanied by total blindness to one’s own moral defects. Sentimentality distorts reality by way of turning the object (or event) represented into an object of complete innocence, in order to indulge in feelings of sympathy—easy to do with crying children, smiling beggars, gloomy clowns, sleeping babies, and sad-eyed dogs. Heroic kitsch turns the fighting soldierboy into an object of complete innocence. The sentimental distortion of reality, however, can have cruel results for it implies that the objects of innocence are constantly being menaced. The enemy of total innocence is total evil; the innocent and pure with whom we sympathize have to be relentlessly protected from those plotting their destruction.

State kitsch in Israel is inextricably tied to the image of the Israeli soldier or settler as an emblem of total innocence; those menacing him are therefore all the more deserving of severe punishment. The leaders seem to have convinced themselves of this. “We shall never forgive the Arabs for having forced our children to kill them,” Golda Meir said. The violation of our children’s innocence and purity is held to be unforgivable. Israel’s shrine of kitsch is not, as may have been expected, the Wailing Wall, but a place that should have been furthest away from any trace of kitsch: Yad Vashem, the memorial for the Holocaust. A “children’s room” has been dedicated there recently, a pitch-dark room with tape-recorded voices of children crying out in Yiddish, “Mama, Tate.” This kind of kitsch even a kitschman of genius like Elie Wiesel would find hard to surpass.

The real significance of this room is not its commemoration of the single most horrible event in the history of mankind—the systematic murder of two million children, Jewish and Gypsies, for being what they were and not for anything they had done. The children’s room, rather, is meant to deliver a message to the visiting foreign statesman, who is rushed to Yad Vashem even before he has had time to leave off his luggage at his hotel, that all of us here in Israel are these children and that Hitler-Arafat is after us. This is the message for internal consumption as well. Talking of the PLO in the same tone as one talks of Auschwitz is an important element in turning the Holocaust into kitsch.

At the time of the outbreak of the intifada, when official Israel felt the pressure of criticism both from within Israel and from abroad, it pulled out its secret weapon, the Holocaust. In Israel this year we had longer, and more vulgar, memorial services for the Holocaust than any I can remember previously. But the climax was an event that, even in a kitsch-haunted country like this one, many people felt went too far. It was a Holocaust Quiz, shot “on location” in Poland. The quizmaster was Yitzhak Navon, and participating in it were Jewish boys and girls who were asked questions about what took place in the camps, and they were awarded two points for each correct answer. Applause was not allowed because it was judged to be in bad taste and to “desecrate the memory of the victims.”

Against the weapon of the Holocaust, the Palestinians are amateurs. True, some of them have adopted their own version of Holocaust kitsch, based on the revolting equation of the Israelis with Nazis and of themselves with Nazis’ victims; but as soon as operation “Holocaust Memory” is put into high gear by the Israeli authorities, with full-fledged sound-and-color production, the Palestinians cannot compete. The absence of the main actor and the stage queen, Begin and Golda, is certainly a loss for political kitsch, but a new star has risen, Benjamin Netanyahu (“Arafat is worse than Hitler”), and prospects are now bright—nothing will make us cut the kitsch.


The Kitsch of Israel’ March 30, 1989

  1. 3

    I learned much on this from the doctoral dissertation (Hebrew, unpublished) by Tomas Kulka, entitled “Aesthetic Judgment and Border-Line Cases of Art” (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1984).

  2. 4

    See his “Notes on the Problem of Kitsch,” in G. Dorfles, ed., Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste (Universe Books, 1967), pp. 49–76.

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