‘What Do You Want To Be If You Grow Up?’

A Collage of Visual Artifacts from Israel’s ‘Situation’ Evokes Terror’s Tawdry Truths

By Melvin Jules Bukiet

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
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State of Siege [Users Manual]

By Doron Goldenberg

Gefen Publishing, 224 pages, $24.95.

* * *

Several weeks ago, I gave a reading at a cafe in Jerusalem. One woman there — a friend of a friend — had dark, curly hair and wore a blue sweater. At least, I think it was blue, though sometimes I recall it as green or even orange. On the other hand, it was a warm evening, so maybe she wasn’t wearing a sweater. Though I desperately want to get that detail right, I can’t be sure. Nor can I call her. I don’t even know her name. All I know is that a few days ago, she took the wrong bus.

How does one convey the nausea and bitterness at the thought of that bus and the ugly human relief that one wasn’t on that bus together with the woman who might or might not have been wearing a blue sweater to anyone who hasn’t experienced the reality of daily Israeli life? Certainly journalism “covers” these events, as do nonfiction books, like David Grossman’s recent “Death as a Way of Life,” but most Israeli novels shy away from what is usually referred to as “the situation.” Is this a modest moral antipathy to rendering genuine death and atrocity as art?

Note that my previous statement is qualified by the national adjective “Israeli.” Most American novels set in Israel, from Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” and Robert Stone’s “Damascus Gate,” to my own “Strange Fire,” can’t tear themselves away from the horror. From a 5,000-plus-mile remove, we see only the big print on the front page, and only one story is ever written there. But in Israel, the newspapers have many pages, which include business reports and advertisements for apartments and used cars and wedding announcements. That’s what life is supposed to consist of. When Israeli writers deal with romance or domestic relationships, it’s simultaneously a refuge from politics and an assertion of everyday life. It’s as if they’re saying, “We do more than die. Believe it or not, sometimes we live, and that’s what makes us human.”

For some reason that I don’t understand, Israeli visual art is an exception to this. Galleries in Tel Aviv are filled with explicit references to “the situation,” as well as to global politics. When I was there, I saw an exhibit of beautifully mounted, poster-size Cibachrome photographs of roadblocks that rubbed a viewer’s nose in the occupation, while another tres au courant show appeared to connect the Holocaust to the American government’s policies by superimposing tattooed numbers on American flags.

Unlike those exhibits, “State of Siege” by Doron Goldenberg aims for a truth that is simultaneously deeper and more mundane. His book — or, more accurately, book-shaped object — is a compendium of the visual artifacts of terror. Some of the images appear to have been created by Goldenberg and some come from other sources. They range from aerial photographs of Israeli cities to close-up shots of the scenes of attacks and the TV screens that announce them, to clinical charts and diagrams, to pages filled with thought-provoking quotes like “What do you want to be if you grow up?” to what I found the most gruesome and compelling image in the volume, a presumably post-mortem X-ray of a human skull with a nail clearly embedded in its center.

To what purpose is all of this material collected? After puzzling it over, I’m not sure. If there’s a political agenda, it’s only for initiates. Similarly, the aesthetics of the book’s production and organization are more of design than art. But rather than impede comprehension, the idiosyncratic multi-layering of “State of Siege” is precisely what gives it credibility.

Not that one reads “State of Siege” in any traditional way. One simply flips randomly through the pages, absorbing how “the situation” has infiltrated the visual vocabulary of the nation. And, like a novel, the volume ratchets up a ladder of powerful emotional effects: visceral disgust and raw fear and abject incomprehension, thereby evoking the tawdry verisimilitude of terror better than any book I can think of.

One of the worst truths about terror is that it is profoundly boring. At least, our responses to it are. Nothing can be said about serial killing that isn’t a cliché, yet clichés become clichés because of their truth — and that’s why we repeat them again and again. Thus, Goldenberg places an image of an anonymous victim on one page, and multiplies it with the faces of real victims on the next page, and multiplies again on the next, until the faces blur into a double page full of tiny dead people.

By making viewers squint, he begs us to take these faces out of the realm of statistics in which the number of people in any given bus, 16, in any given cafe, four, on any given street corner, two, on any given day, one, one measly human being, are forgotten as swiftly as the numbers describing yesterday’s temperature or yesterday’s stock market report. Ultimately one hopes to put the resourcefulness of talented, sensitive, numbed and bereaved, and, at least for today, living people like Goldenberg to better use.

Melvin Jules Bukiet spent the last four months as the first Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, but he usually lives in Manhattan, where nothing bad ever happens.

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