Yazan Alloujami: Gaza-on-the-Rhine, a history lesson

From lundimatin, #418, 04/03/2024

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.

Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (Thesis VI)

Among the various and varied things that can keep a historian up at night, I would name two: Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, and Gaza.

The first is not so much the context of its writing, in itself sufficiently disturbing – Benjamin wrote it shortly before his suicide in 1940 on the Franco-Spanish border at the approach of the Vichyists –, as the radicality of its postulate: History, says the German Marxist philosopher, does not allow itself to be grasped in linear and positivist narrations of events, but only when an image emerges from the past in a moment of danger to come to the aid of the present, merging with it and revealing its truth. This enigmatic “dialectical image”, as he calls it, had long guided my research on contemporary Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian artists haunted by all kinds of images of the modern past, and many of whom – like me – are exiled in Europe. It was while going to see two of them in Germany during the summer of 2022 that I caught, it is fair to say, a dialectical image in my face.

It was on a train which had just left the Gare de l’Est [Paris] for Frankfurt, then to Kassel, the venue for the 15th edition of Documenta. I had been following for a while the xenophobic hysteria unleashed against this international exhibition which welcomed for the first time a majority of artists from the Global South. The poorly informed accusation of anti-Semitism, launched by a local blogger against an anti-Zionist work, was enough to inaugurate a national witch hunt: censorship, vandalism, cancelled sales, removed artists, media demonization. Any non-white artist, whether linked to Palestine or not, became suspect. The image that came to me on the train was this: Alfred Barr, a young American art historian on a train to Stuttgart in 1933, going to seek out a minority of modern artists, many of them Jews, at exactly the time when Nazi attacks against this art considered “degenerate” became systematic.

Contrariwise, this aesthetically insane identification between modern art of the interwar period and the global art of today seems all the more obvious to me given the role played in the latter by the diasporic trans-European networks, particularly Arab, is sufficiently analogous to that played by the Jews within Western modernism, and that in both cases, the art world would have been the seismograph of the coming catastrophe, pre-announcing the ideological presuppositions which make it possible. One year later, in November 2023, Germany increased its military aid to Israel, already armed to the teeth, in order to accelerate the extermination of Palestinians in Gaza – more than 30,000 dead to date – declaring to the ICJ that accusations of genocide against Israel are “unfounded”. At the same time, its cultural establishments are carrying out an unprecedented purge which affects international figures both Palestinian (Emily Jacir, Adania Shibli) and anti-Zionist Jews (Masha Gessen, Eyal Weizman). All you have to do is sign a petition for Gaza or tweet against racial segregation in the West Bank to have your exhibition cancelled or your research grant withdrawn. The echoes are spreading in Paris with the cancellation of several events co-organized by Tsedek, the decolonial Jewish collective, or in London with the cancellation by the Barbican of a conference by the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra on the Shoah, among others. We are trying to stand up against: the Archive of Silence page lists acts of anti-Palestinian discrimination while the Strike Germany movement, calling for a boycott of German cultural institutions, already has a thousand signatories including Annie Ernaux, and has caused significant withdrawals in particular from the Berlinale and the opening night of the CTM festival at Berghain, two symbols of the capital’s much-vaunted supposed inclusiveness.

At the end of October, I contacted Sami, one of the Syrian artists who participated in Documenta. “The situation in Berlin is very frightening,” he said, “there is a reactivation of behaviours from the 1930s: distributing questionnaires to our children at school asking for their parents’ political opinions; the military squads that roam Sonnenallee”.[1] Neither he nor I were the first to have this kind of déjà vu. Comparing the extermination of the Palestinians to that of the Jews of Europe has become a commonplace populated as much by Instagrammers juxtaposing images of Gaza and Dachau as by academics armed with footnotes and millimetre death counters, wisely deeming the comparison tenable or still not in front of semi-empty conference rooms. However, the question is not whether the identification is historically legitimate but rather why it is felt as such today, and by whom, a question which concerns less the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the very epistemic foundation of (neo)liberal Europe as it took shape after the fall of the wall.

In Subcontractors of Guilt. Holocaust Memory and Muslim Belonging in Postwar Germany, recently published by Stanford University, anthropologist Esra Özyürek examines the paradoxes of a German social contract based, since reunification, on the sharing of guilt for the Holocaust as “an essential guarantor of the stability of the liberal-democratic German order”, according to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. This is a contract which de facto excludes migrants who arrived after the founding crime but thanks to whom – the irony is there – the economic stability of the country was possible. The solution since the years 2000: to construct the German of Arab/Muslim origin as the new anti-Semite and develop re-education programmes intended to teach them their own anti-Semitism (through obscure episodes from the Ottoman past, for example), so that they can then unlearn it and complete the redemption ritual necessary to become German. However, Özyürek reminds us, 90% of anti-Semitic crimes in Germany today are committed by the white extreme-right.

Blinding oneself in the face of the evidence, repeatedly raised,[2] of a structural continuity between this Islamophobic scapegoat and the anti-Semitic one of the past is only part of the tragedy of European cultural establishments, particularly German ones, which by stifling pro-Palestinian voices perpetuates an old European tradition; the other part is that they do it sincerely believing they are absolving themselves of it in the face of the memorial spectres that they had created for themselves. And if this circular comedy of self-congratulation holds up, it is because “Jew” and “Arab” always appear in the third person, as trans-historical ethnic essences, transmissible by blood and hierarchical a priori, giving rise, for example, to the pathetic declaration of the German Minister of Culture that by applauding the Israeli-Palestinian co-production No Other Land at the Berlinale, she was only applauding the Israeli director and not his Palestinian colleague (it was one and the same film!). This essentialisation is the foundation of both Zionism, and therefore of Israel, as well as the concept of Semitism in its two practical aspects: anti-Semitism and philo-semitism, upon which Europe is negatively founded. However, the great lesson of Marxism and, after it, of postcolonial and queer feminist thought, is that “bourgeois”, “black” or “woman” are above all functions in a given social construction capable of moving or even being dialectically reversed (if the Germans must be taught Hegel), hence the hostility of many Marxist European Jews towards the idea of Israel: Rosa Luxemburg, Eric Hobsbawm, Arno Mayer, and Benjamin himself, who refused to immigrate to Palestine, denouncing the “racial ideology” of Zionism.[3]

To be indignant therefore that “the descendants of one genocide can perpetrate another” (Edgar Morin stated recently, for example) is very sympathetic, but the presupposition which underlies such remarks, namely, that a historical consciousness is supposed to be inherited by descent – a very bourgeois idea – is precisely the problem. This is where Benjamin’s radical anti-essentialism is useful in re-establishing the terms of the debate. There is a “tradition of the oppressed,” he says, which is opposed to bourgeois historiography and according to which past oppression only reveals its meaning when the oppressed of today tear its image away from any genealogical causality to embody it themselves. “I am the last Jewish intellectual,” said the exiled Palestinian thinker Edward Said.[4] The Israeli state, the last ersatz of European settler colonialism, may well claim the heritage of the Jews of Europe biologically, but historically, in a Benjaminian conception, only those who in the current global configuration occupy their former position have access to their historical truth, whether they know it or not (but that’s yet another tragedy). Only Gaza bears the legacy of the Warsaw ghetto. Europe’s failure to account for this, by materially and culturally enabling the genocide of the Palestinians initiated in 1948, is its renewed failure to understand the true historical meaning of its own anti-Semitism.

[1] The Arab neighbourhood of Berlin

[2] Enzo Traverso gives a masterfully contextualized summary in La fin de la Modernité Juive. Histoire d’un tournant conservateur, Paris, La Découverte, 2016 [2013], p. 122-125.

[3] Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: histoire d’une amitié, Paris, Les Belles-Lettres, 2022.

[4] Edward Said, “My Right of Return” [2000], republished in Gauri Viswanathan (ed.), Powers, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, New York, Vintage Books, 2001, 443-458.

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