Friday, January 19, 2018

Walking on Eggshells

 I had written earlier of an arts and study partnership through which I work with an Israeli artist to commemorate Israel’s seventieth birthday. Our assignment was to agree on a text and each develop an individual artwork on that theme, perhaps sharing other elements if we chose.

Our first task was to successfully connect by video chat which took some doing. My partner soon knew me better than I intended when she heard my frustrated expletive when the communication didn’t appear to be working. Oops, apparently it was, so much for first impressions. We’ve had a number of chats since and gotten to know a bit about each other. We then began to tackle our second task, agreeing on a common theme.

As part of our study we read and discussed several texts, among them the Declaration of the State of Israel which is largely a vision statement. It paints the hopes and dreams of what Israel could be. It speaks of how the Holocaust further demonstrated the need for the State of Israel. Despite outlining the vision, the Declaration is grounded in reality. In the body of the statement it talks of “loving peace, but knowing how to defend. “ It recognized this would not be an easy road and acknowledges that while our eyes must be on peace, they must not neglect defense. This is not surprising given that Israel was built on the bones of the Holocaust.  For Israel to offer a place of refuge to Jews around the world, it must first be able to offer a place of relative safety. We agreed that this would be our common text to explore.

As I read the vision statement, I found myself wondering how we had done at achieving that ambitious vision that promised a nation "based on freedom, justice and peace . . . equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex . . . freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture . . .safeguard [of[ the Holy Places of all religions." It went on to offer to its Arab inhabitants "full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

Arab Israelis make up 21% of the population, 1.6 million.  Arabs who live in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were offered Israeli citizenship, but refused and are considered permanent residents.  They are entitled to become citizens and they receive municipal services and have voting rights in the municipality. 

So what are the facts? Freedom of religion is afforded to all religions. Israeli Arabs have political rights with a consistent history of serving in the Knesset.  Every state-run company is required to have at least one Arab Israeli on its board. Holy places are safeguarded. The one exception for Arabs is an exemption from compulsory military service. A major bone of contention is the Jewish nature of the state and the right of return afforded all Jews, the very core principles that underlie the state. This is a right which feels personally important when I look at the fact that throughout history the Jews had nowhere to flee when their lives were at stake. 

So vision vs reality? It seems to me that the divide is largely created by the need for security. The fact is that Israel has not been able to deliver on the vision of peace as it is not a one-sided choice. The clause on defense in the Declaration speaks to this reality.  So how to represent these concepts?

We find vision in several Biblical texts. In Numbers 13:23,  Moses sends out the scouts to bring back the fruit of the land.  They bring back grapes on a pole born between two men.  In the sky of the painting you will see faint grape-like clusters in the clouds.  In Deuteronomy 30:19  God calls upon us to "choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”  Choosing life is closely allied to loving peace. This is not a culture or belief system that breeds suicide bombers, looking to a reward in the afterlife. To capture the idea of the continuity of life, I took the form of DNA and wove it through the sky. Within it is the quote from Isaiah 2:4 "Lo yi-sa goi, el goi che-rev" which in its entirety means "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. They shall study war no more.” Also in the sky is the form of a bird, actually a flying scroll, an image of an archeological find that can be found on the first stamp with the name of Israel in 1948.  Below the sky is the image of church, synagogue and mosque all co-existing.

All of these passages speak to choosing life and peace, not war, and yet the importance of knowing how to defend is also recognized in the Declaration.   I decided to use a checkpoint as a symbol of security as a line awaits passage. Some checkpoints are wooden guard posts, others are turrets and I opted for the latter. The figures are suggested, not distinct, with the exception of the three by the tower. The checkpoint sits atop a rocky promontory constructed of crushed egg shells as we are frequently walking on eggshells, trying to balance competing objectives. The State of Israel, while a long-time dream, came to fruition out of the Holocaust. Life was shattered, much of our people destroyed and a new life was created in Israel. Many countries turned their backs on the Jews during the war, including the United States. They did not offer a place of refuge in an uncertain world. This is an important role that Israel plays. It will always be a refuge to Jews around the world.  It will always be a place that understands the importance of being able to defend. Eggs of course represent life, but in this case, crushed, they represent the destruction of life. In rebuilding upon the shards of that destruction, we are all too aware of the importance of security.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Readings: Dislocations of Culture and Gender

As I survey the list of my favorite readings in the prior year, I note that there are quite a few set in Asia, not an unusual topic in my reading. I grew up reading books by Pearl S. Buck and have often wondered at my affinity for Asian-related literature. Perhaps our early reading leaves its fingerprints. My last post discussed books that explored the experiences of immigrants to the United States. Both of the following books touch on dislocation in a different way, through the intersection between different Asian cultures, particularly when one enters the other’s culture. 

This year I went back to an author who I have written about in the past, Tan Twan Eng.  A few years I read his book The Gift of Rain and was awed by the sheer beauty of his writing. Eng writes of Malaysia where he grew up, and what little I know of Malaysian history came from his prior book. I find that reading historical fiction often fills in the gaps in my knowledge of history. In The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), Eng introduces the reader to the many layers that make up Malaysian history; British rule, Japanese occupation and Communist insurgents. He explores the relationship between a Japanese garden designer and a female judge of Chinese descent who was held captive during the war. As the story unfolds, so does the wartime experience, raising more questions than it answers. There is a puzzle at the heart of this, but it is not a story where all the loose ends are wrapped up. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions. Along the way we are also introduced to Japanese garden design and the tattoo art of horimono.

Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee is an epic novel that traces four generations of a Korean family over a span of eighty years. Beginning in 1910 when Japan ruled Korea, it follows the family as they move to Japan.  In Japan, Koreans are considered outsiders and their choices are often limited. Even if born in Japan, they are required to register as an alien every three years.  As they are closed out of many occupations, pachinko parlors become one of the paths to employment. This is a book composed of many individual stories set within this broader history and the constraints placed upon ethnic Koreans.

There is another theme that recurs in my reading, that is the presence of women in unexpected capacities. Women are often in the role of “the other” even within their own culture. We need not go to another country to experience a sense of dislocation.

We returned from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier this year and I was especially struck by the beauty and unusual visual sites of Yellowstone. I was a receptive reader when I stumbled across the book Letters from Yellowstone (2000) by Diane Smith. This book is set in 1898 and is the story of a young woman who joins a field study in Yellowstone. The study leader assumes she is a man and goes through a bit of an adjustment when he learns that his expectations are incorrect. I found it fascinating to step back to an earlier time in Yellowstone, especially because fresh from our visit I could picture many of the places they described. The story is told solely through the letters of the team to colleagues and family. I was a bit skeptical about that approach initially, but felt that ultimately it worked well, especially in expressing the voice of Miss Bartram as she carefully weaves herself into the team and proves her value.

In The Weight of Ink (2017) by Rachel Kadish, another young woman pursues an unexpected path when she relocates to London from Amsterdam to serve as a scribe to a blind rabbi. This gives her the opportunity to study and develop her intellectual gifts while she navigates a world that would easily squelch those abilities. This story is told in two periods, the London of the 1660s and the early twenty-first century.  It involves the discovery of a cache of documents from the earlier period that led the present-day historians on a search for the story of the scribe.  While the search of the scholars was necessary to create what proves to be a fascinating exploration, I was most intrigued with the early story.  The author does wrap up the loose ends in a way that is both clever and believable.

There are a few other books that I especially enjoyed noted below:

Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard 2016- an excellent story of Churchill's formative years during the Boer War, reads like a novel.

We are Called to Rise by Laura McBride 2014 – four stories come together in one event, and yes there is an immigration story within this as well.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger 2013- based in 1960s Minnesota with the hindsight of forty years, a coming of age story with life-altering events.

Stolen Beauty by Laura Lico Albanese 2017 – the story of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of Klimt’s well-known portrait and her niece Maria Altmann, who successfully reclaims her painting from the Austrian government.