The Art of Crime

A Conversation with Meir Gal

Israeli artist Meir Gal has lived in New York for the last 15 of his 43 years. Since 1997 he has held a position as lecturer on art at City College. He has had five individual exhibitions and has taken part in 36.

Facing Gal's work, no one asks what the artist is "trying to say". The message is out front. Yet the force of the work exceeds the power of the words that convey the "same" message.

Gal gained prominence through works protesting racist discrimination by Israel's Ashkenazi establishment against Mizrahim.* [*Ashkenazi Jews derive from Eastern Europe. They made up the vast majority of Jews in Palestine before 1948. Mizrahi Jews – Mizrahim –derive from Arab countries. Most of them were brought to Israel after 1948]. The most famous of these is a large color photograph called "Nine out of Four Hundred: the West and the Rest". (For the works mentioned here, visit , and be not alarmed if you see at first strange fonts.) "The title of the book I am holding …," writes the artist below the picture, "is The History of The Jewish People in Recent Generations. This book was the only official text book which was given to high school students (including myself) in the early 70's. The nine pages I am holding are the only pages in the book that discuss non-European Jewish history. Hence the title… My intention is to put an end to the speculative character of the argument whether or not Mizrahim have been discriminated against in Israel. Today the Ministry of Education continues to erase the history of its non-European Jews despite the fact that they comprise more than half of the Israeli population…"

As often in Gal, this work carries a resonance beyond its frontal meaning. For the Mizrahi artist is seen here holding on to the meager bit of his heritage that the authorities have seen fit to leave him, while countering the weight of the remainder.

In January and February, the Noga Gallery of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv offered two Gal exhibitions. The first took as its title an evasive Israeli phrase, often used to terminate discussions: "y'hiyyeh b'seder," "Everthing'll be just fine, don't worry." The theme of the second was the American art world; its title: "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You."

Dani Ben Simhon and Nir Nader, editors of Challenge's sister publication in Hebrew, Etgar – and artists in their own right – met with Gal on January 24 to discuss the interplay of politics and art in his work.

Meir Gal: A few days ago I gave two lectures on my work at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The first was to students in an M.A. program for designing educational programs. We talked about erasure: how the Ashkenazi establishment had erased the history of Mizrahi Jews. There was wall-to-wall agreement. I went back in the evening to give the second lecture, which was moderated by Dr. Sami Shalom Chetrit and Dr. Shiko Behar. Both are lecturers at the Hebrew University. Both deal with issues of education, social history, political science and the Arab-Israeli conflict. About sixty people were there. I talked about the way the Israeli state exploits and bribes its citizens, and I began to sense unease in the room.

I projected a slide from "Road Sign Project," a show I'd exhibited at the Ami Steinitz Gallery in 1997. Its genesis was a visit I'd made to Pisgat Ze'ev, a neighborhood built in the West Bank as part of "Greater Jerusalem". Its lands were confiscated from the Arab village of Beit Hanina. The exhibit consisted of road signs on small walls arranged in the form of a grave monument. (In Israeli Jewish cemeteries, a rectangular monument of stone is built over each grave. – Ed.) All the streets in Pisgat Ze'ev, without exception, have names derived from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
I discovered these streets by chance. In 1995, during one of my trips, I forgot to pick up my plane ticket during office hours, so the travel agent took it home with her – to Pisgat Ze'ev. I went in the evening to pick it up, and of course got lost. I asked someone for directions. He answered something like this: "Turn right on Patrol Street, take a left on Air Force, and you'll come to the General Bar Lev Junction. Make a right onto Armored Corps till Jerusalem Patrol. From there you want to find Jerusalem Tank Company…" And so it went. On some of the doors, I noticed, people had put the name of the street by the family name: for instance, "The Steinbergs, Golani Patrol, 17A.

I saw these different levels of the army's penetration into the civilian psyche. A name on a street sign is one level, but to combine it with your family's name is another. Imagine the impact of getting mail for ten or fifteen years with the name of an army unit coupled to yours on the envelope.
I decided that the topic deserved a deeper look. For the next two years, I worked on two parallel projects. I presented the first at the Ami Steinitz Gallery in 1997. It's called, Yesh Li Ahuv B'Sayyeret Haruv, "I love a guy in the Carob patrol". This was a popular song from the seventies, but I was playing on the street-sign business, so you could also translate, "The Boy Of My Soul Lives On Carob Patrol". The second I exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1998. It's called Beit Hanina/Pisgat Ze'ev, but I partly erased the name Beit Hanina –erasure again – leaving enough so you could just make it out.

I was trying to grasp this phenomenon: here's a neighborhood built on occupied ground, and it constructs its entire identity in terms of the army that conquered its piece of land, destroyed the former houses, and dispossessed the inhabitants. Some of these earlier inhabitants still live nearby – under Occupation. While preparing the exhibit, I visited four or five families in this neighborhood. It soon became clear that they had even interiorized the military hierarchy! Someone who lived on Air Force Street or Commandos Street (elite units – Ed.) was thought better than someone on Armored Corps Street!

Well, that's the story of the exhibitions, but let's go back to my lecture. There I am, projecting a slide from Pisgat Ze'ev on the wall. The auditorium is totally dark, when suddenly someone is standing beside me, and just inches from my face he says, "People were killed here so you could stand here and speak!" He picks up the slide projector and hurls it to the floor. Glass and slides fly everywhere. Then he stalks out.

Someone picked up the pieces and the slides. A discussion took place about what had happened. Four women and two men in the audience were very vocal in support of what the guy had done. Others condemned him, but some said that while they didn't agree with what he had done, they could understand it. What amazed me was this: not a single person protested that this thug had violated their right to hear a lecture. The message that went with the violence was this: "You get your right to speak, Mr. Gal, from the soldiers who were killed here." There is no other right or source of right. In other words, the fact that Israeli soldiers were killed is sufficient to end discussion. What's more, their deaths sanctify the places they died in, so it would be a sin to withdraw from them. On the contrary, we must insist on holding onto these places because our soldiers "were killed here." If the insistence leads to further deaths, these deaths bring more rights. In order to justify the deaths of soldiers and civilians in the past, you have to go on killing and getting killed in the future. My lecture was meant to help people see how the state sacrifices its citizens. Instead, it was heard as a call to treason and as blasphemy against the dead.
What does this say about Israeli society, do you think?

Nir Nader: You told your audience, "The state took an Arab village and put a Jewish neighborhood there in its place." But you didn't stop there. You showed the results with slides. Some of your listeners couldn't bear to have you question the eternal sanctity of their Jerusalem, which their soldiers hadn't "conquered" but "liberated".

Then someone got up and used the usual method here for settling disputes: violence. I imagine the guy came thinking he'd hear more about the evils the Ashkenazim did to the Mizrahim, but there you were, daring to talk about the Occupation.

When he broke the projector, it was in revenge for your breaking the basic assumption that the Mizrahim, and you among them, do belong to the state after all, and the Palestinians are your common enemy. This assumption is the basis for Mizrahi identification with Israel, despite all the racism.

Meir Gal: Yes, as long as I talked about the ethnic struggle between Jews in Israel, this was OK. But as soon as I trespassed and began to talk about the Palestinian as victim, everything changed. The Palestinian is thought of as a victimizer, not a victim. Almost all the Israelis I know think of themselves as the victims. At the start of the evening, Sami Shalom Chetrit said he hoped such gatherings would help bring about the Mizrahi revolution, which for some reason was slow in arriving. The busting of the slide projector shows why it's slow in arriving.

Dani Ben Simhon: What is meant by "Mizrahi revolution"?

Meir Gal: My interpretation of this has sharpened since the incident with the projector. First, I think that Mizrahi thought is fixated still on what the government did to them. There is no soul-searching about the racism we ourselves interiorized. I've absorbed a lot of racism from the side of the establishment, but the worst was the way it got played out at home. Our mother would tell us we ought to go around with Ashkenazis in order to become like them. She said our appearance might change and we'd resemble them. She forbade my sister to marry a Moroccan, although her own parents had come from Morocco at the start of the century. There were outrageous racist processes going on in this country, which led to self-hatred, and then the self-hatred got projected onto other people from the same ethnic group or even other groups.
I believe that as long as the Mizrahim do not understand the imposed identity that they adopted, and as long as they don't manage to decipher the nature of their relations with the state, no Mizrahi revolution is going to happen. When we speak about a revolution of any kind, we need to clarify how it's to be built and what are to be its purposes and outcomes. The question is, Will the Mizrahi revolution bring about equality between the classes? Will it bring about equal distribution of wealth and lands not just among the Jews but also between them and the Palestinian people? Will Israel change the notion it has of its place in the Middle East? If all that happens, then such a revolution is a positive thing. But if the Mizrahim merely repeat against others what's been done to them, then I see no advantage in a Mizrahi revolution.

Dani Ben Simhon: Isn't it somewhat anachronistic to speak of a Mizrahi revolution at a time of globalization? It's a little like "socialism" in the kibbutz, as if to say, Come, let's talk about equality at home – never mind what happens outside. The oppressed Mizrahi in Israel needs to find common ground with the oppressed Palestinian or the imported worker from Thailand. In your exhibit, "Everything'll be fine, don't worry," you come to grips with this question. You present a new work called "Arms Pit", this photograph where the hair of your underarm looks like a map of the country.

Meir Gal: The work involves a play on words. In British English, an arms pit is a weapons cache. But the work relates to Israel not only as a place with enough of an arsenal to bring down much of the planet. I also want to get at the way the state insinuates and implants itself, with its doctored history, in the consciousness and body of its citizens. The use of my body, with the map in my armpit, is meant to express how the people of Israel are branded in their flesh like cattle, with the result that they surrender their personal freedom and their right to build a different identity from the one imposed by the state.

For instance, people often say to me, "Hey, you live in New York, so what gives you the right to criticize us?" This accusation contains a hidden demand: that my memory, thought-processes and biography must not travel with me to another place. Those parts of the person are owned by the state. If you want to live elsewhere, you have to deposit them here. You're allowed to make use of them only in Israel. This is a kind of psychological border-marking. The map in the underarm, then, shows not just political borders, but also the absolute confines of one's private existence. You're going elsewhere? Leave your memory, your experiences, your criticism – and go. Go empty.

One reason why I decided to relocate to another country has to do with the ownership of the body. In the late seventies I realized that the state of Israel appropriated (symbolically and physically) the human right to own one's body. To fulfill its ideological and imperialistic goals, the state enlists and sacrifices the lives of its citizens. Zionism has always done this through indoctrination, bribery, and false promises and hopes. This is also why the show is called "Everything'll be fine, don't worry": the title expresses the deceptive and treacherous illusion that this is only a rough phase, after which the state will prosper. Once I had deciphered this perverse relationship, I realized that one of the ways in which I can reclaim my body, as my own property, was to relocate to another state.

The dream is the bribe and the body is the sacrifice. To realize the dream, individuals must kill and get killed. The state promises martyrdom to those who die. They remain forever young and their death sanctifies the lives of those who remain. Thus death becomes part of the bribe. The state of Israel puts out the notion that it provides life for its Jewish citizens, that everything it does is for their safety, that here at last is a place on the earth where they can be safe. The contrary is true: no one is safe, people die in great numbers, and a future saturated with death and destruction is perpetually manufactured. The thug who broke the slide projector probably knew someone who died, and he saw my lecture as sacrilegious. Reacting the way he did, he was imitating the state's behavior and at the same time behaving as its agent.

There is no essential difference between his action and that of a soldier beating with a club or a cop shooting at a demonstration. He's an outcome of the branding.

The kind of social struggles that you and I are engaged in must recognize no egotistical boundary separating an "us" from a "them", whether the issue is one of Mizrahim and Ashkenazim or Israelis and Palestinians. Our struggles should aim toward the good of the whole. The fight for personal freedom leads through the fight for the freedom of others. Otherwise, no one is free.

Nir Nader: That was exactly the problem with the Israeli left and Oslo. They were willing to compromise about the freedom of the Palestinians for the sake of keeping their own.

Meir Gal: I remember the day the Oslo agreement was signed. Israelis were weeping with joy, but very few bothered to read the content. I see Oslo as a crime. It was manufactured deliberately to perpetuate poverty, division and domination by Israel, which would inevitably lead to resistance and more loss of life. Instead of being put on trial, the Oslo architects got cash and prizes, including the Nobel. The issues that matter most to Palestinians, things like self-determination, Jerusalem, the settlements, the right of the refugees to return, reparations, all got put off indefinitely, while Israel got what it wanted immediately: Arab recognition and the breaking of the boycott. The IDF withdrew, it's true, from the city centers, but it still controls the movement of Palestinians between their localities. As for Arafat, he became an officer in the service of the IDF, whose function is to maintain Israel's security.

Now it's nine years and thousands of casualties later, but things are getting worse. No one will have the excuse of saying they didn't know. No one will be able to say they weren't warned.