Sunday, September 23, 2007

Marcel Marceau, 1923-2007

This morning I received word that one of world's great theatrical artists, and a personal hero of mine, Marcel Marceau, had died at the age of 84. In memory I am reposting a blog entry I wrote some three years ago shortly after I saw him for what would be the first and only time outside his film and television appearances. Marceau was a giant in the field of mime, so much so, that anyone working in the form had to define their work in relation to him. The following entry is slightly modified from its previous appearance.

Meeting Marcel Marceau

Friday, September 17th 2004:

Earlier this year I had the time to participate in a mime workshop given at MIT as part of their January session. It was mostly for newbies, but I learned a few new illusions, offered some fruits of my own knowledge and experience, and had some fun. I stayed in touch with a number of the participants and so when the opportunity came to go as a group to see Marcel Marceau and La Nouvelle Compagnie de Mimodrame at the American Repertory Theatre, I joined them again.

I had never seen Marceau live before this. I had seen brief film clips of performances and many photographs-- mostly from Ben Martin's Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime taken from the late 1960s and early 1970s. These had allowed me to study his form very intently-- even the photographs allowed me to closely observe his immobilities, isolations, and use of fixed points.

After what sounded like a heavy wooden staff being banged upon the stage from behind the curtain, the curtain rose to one of Marceau's students in a fanciful costume and a banner announcing the first act: "The Creation of the World." The lights lowered and she disappeared. When the lights rose again, the 81 year old Marceau was in plié, his hands crossed, his mouth held open like a mask from ancient Greek drama, frozen and eternal like the face of God as his hands enacted the seven days of creation as described in chapter one of Genesis. Then he told the tale of Adam, Eve, the Serpent and their expulsion from Eden in the second chapter. I had seen parts of it reinterpreted by Axel Jodorowsky in Alejandro Jodorowsky's film Santa Sangre (both Jodorowskys had worked with Marceau.) Seated in the second row, I could see every subtlety of Marceau's technique. I could also see that his movements, while graceful and controlled were also that of an old man. However, his age gave this piece even more power. I had seen a similar intense focus and power in the movements of an aged body when working with Bill Barnum, only two years Marceau's junior, the seeming contradiction seemed fitting.

Marceau performed nearly an hour's worth of solo material with just short breaks as the members of his company unfurled banners announcing each piece. The Bip pieces were, of course, very influenced by Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character-- but there is a huge different between a mime on film, interacting with props, a set, and other actors and a mime on stage who creates the illusion of all these things.

After an intermission, La Nouvelle Compagnie de Mimodrame took the stage for three ensemble pieces. The first, "The Wandering Monk", is based on a Japanese ghost story, and the story telling conventions were a little obscure to me but the movements were wonderful and evoked both the corporeal work of Étienne Decroux as well as karate kata. "The Masquerade Ball" was pretty straight forward plot-wise and contained some balletic and acrobatic moments, but my favorite was "The Tiger" which was based on a Chinese tale-- it has comic and dramatic elements represented in mime and Chinese martial arts-- perhaps less corporeal in the sense of Decroux-- but wonderful none the less. The evening's show ended with perhaps five curtain calls and the audience emptied out.

Thanks to one of my MIMEtype friends (what else would mime troupe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology call itself?) we had arrangements to meet Marceau after the show. Since there were too many of us to visit his dressing room so we were reseated in the first two rows of the theater as Marceau emerged from behind the curtain, still dressed as Bip. After thanking us, he told us how glad he was that we saw the Compagnie, as he wished people to know that the world of mime is something far more than white face, Marcel Marceau, and Bip. He spoke of his debt to his "Master", Étienne Decroux, as well as to his own gifts. He then outlined the eclectic training of his students at his school in mime, acting, dance, and fencing. After taking another bow, he returned to the dressing room. We slipped to one of the side lobbies to talk about the show we just saw, the technique, etc. After an hour or so, Marceau emerged, dressed in tweed and argyle, his once dark curly hair turned blond with age (I had noticed that he was wearing a stylized wig, meant to affect the locks of his younger years.) Though he asked that we take no photographs he was happy to spend a few minutes with us, shaking hands with us one by one, as he asked us our names and signed our programs or anything else we had with us-- always with a short note-- sometimes asking for the spelling. When he reached me, I pulled out my copy of the Ben Martin book. Marceau smiled and flipped through it, asking if it is still in print. I told him that I didn't know as I had found mine at a used bookstore-- I have built up a small library on mime by scouring the used stores. I mentioned that my teachers had been students of Decroux as well. He smiled again, asked me my name and signed with a little illustration of a flower on the title page:

to Ian
in Heartful

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Seven Days on the Burlington Controversy

Seven Days, a Burlington, Vermont based alternative weekly, has run the most comprehensive story to date on the controversy surrounding the exhibition of Peter Schumann's Independence Paintings that I have been following on this blog.

Read Ken Picard's article, "Over the Wall: Censorship or anti-semitism [sic]? Inside the furor over an Art Hop exhibit" for more.

I have some issues with the article, but I am saving most of them for a letter to the editor, however, I cannot refrain from immediately taking issue with Picard's description of Schumann as someone whose family fled Nazi Germany when he was ten years old. In a 2006 interview he stated that he had been a refugee because the Allied powers had decided to give all of Silesia, which had been part of the Nazi state, to Poland. His family fled from Soviets and Poles further into Germany. His refugee status was an unintended consequence of aggression that his nation initiated, but never in the interview was there an acknowledgement of the Jewish Silesians who were exterminated or the Polish Silesians who had spent the war years in slave labor camps, only the German Silesians who were humiliated by the collapse of the Third Reich were worth mentioning. We must never blame an adult for the crimes committed by the government of their childhood, but when the history is being misrepresented, questions are in order.

Is Schumann changing his story, or did Picard just get the story wrong?

Nota Bene: My response to Ken Picard's article appears here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont, Part 3

I have been following the dispute over the exhibition of Peter Schumann's Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont, from my desk in Somerville, Massachusetts, so I am often forced to wait for and digest reports as they come in.

For those of you who have just joined me, the reason I am following a dispute over a collage being exhibited so far away from me is that for a number of years, I had performed with Bread and Puppet Theater, of which Schumann is founder and artistic director, in their Boston-area shows. It was when this painting was exhibited in conjunction with a Bread and Puppet show at the Boston Center for the Arts that I determined that I could not in good conscience continue with the troupe. I wrote about that event here.

For the past few days I have been digesting reports of the events on Saturday, September 8. That morning Peter Schumann gave a presentation regarding Independence Paintings which was inspired by his experience working with a group of Palestinian performers during a visit he made to the West Bank last year. WCAX reporter Andy Potter wrote an account entitled "Art Exhibit Draws Fire" describing "a flare-up of emotion."

The cause of this "flare-up" was the structure of the work, which, assuming that it was the same piece I saw at the Boston Center for the Arts, comprises of paintings of pained figures, clearly portrayed as Jews juxtaposed with text describing Israeli Defense Force counter-terrorist operations in the West Bank as described by the Palestinian performers. Schumann, in his talk on February 12th, 2007 described these Jewish figures as inmates of the Warsaw Ghetto. During the question and answer segment of the February presentation, he was called to explain why he felt it necessary to make a juxtaposition between the Warsaw Ghetto, an instrument of the Holocaust, and the West Bank, noting that juxtaposition implied an equivalence between the death by engineered starvation, and overcrowding, of one-fifth of Poland's Jewish population and the high unemployment rates on the West Bank. Schumann denied he was making any such comparison, but offered no other explanation as to why the West Bank and the Warsaw Ghetto appeared in the same piece other than the fact that he had chosen to read John Hersey's 1950 book, The Wall on the trip. Vocal critics saw this as a false accusation of genocide against Israel. Vocal defenders of Schumann at the same event, when they were not trying to shout down the critics, saw it as a true accusation.

I have already noted that there is no evidence supporting such comparisons and like a number of other critics, I viewed the work as "soft-core" Holocaust denial and thus, anti-Semitic propaganda.

Based on the reports I have received concerning the event on September 8th, a similar emotional dynamic appears to have been at work, however a key difference is that some in Burlington had read reports of the event in Boston, while the Boston audience had known only that the work was inspired by Schumann's work with Palestinian artists.

As noted before, WCAX reported a "flare-up." A personal email sent to me on September 8th at 11:55pm by Marc Awodey (who was not in attendance) related events as described by people he met that day: "a well orchestrated cadre of about 40 [...] protesters [...] waving [I]sraeli flags, yelling, plugging their ears when [S]chumann tried to speak." Note that Ken Picard's article dated September 12th in Seven Days estimated that the number of disruptive protesters amounted to "about a dozen of the 100 or so people in attendance." One of Awodey's sources reported that at least one of the protesters loudly made racist statements regarding Palestinians.

An email sent by Rabbi Joshua Chasan to local Christian clergy on September 9th (and published here at his request) gave this account:

Unfortunately, some of those hurt [by comparisons between the West Bank Wall and the Warsaw Ghetto] were as rude and hostile as supporters of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel at the Saturday morning talk by Peter and the fellow he invited, Joe Koval. This issue pushes a lot of buttons.

Awodey forwarded me a piece by Marc Estrin, author with Richard T. Simon of Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater entitled "Concerning the Hubbub at the Schumann Exhibit, and Why the Sponsorship and Speaker were Appropriate" which described the following:

[A] contingent [...] leafleting the audience, posting flyers [...] and generally trying to disrupt Kovel’s talk with aggressive muttering, badgering, shouting and flag-waving throughout, and starting a political campaign to get individuals and businesses to withdraw sponsorship from the Art Hop.

Without a transcript of what was said, it is hard to determine whether the "badgering" of Kovel's talk was disruptive heckling and how much was simply a reasonable inquiry from someone who questioned either Koval's or Schumann's positions. There is little doubt from the given reports that some element of the dissent voiced at the presentation was intended to disrupt and silence, however, it is also likely that at least part of the group of dissenters were there to engage in a civil manner.

Clearly, there has been a break down in civil debate in Burlington around the exhibition of Independence Paintings but before I offer an interpretation of what this break down represents and examine its causes, I would like to attend to the rest of Estrin's essay for the light it sheds:

[P]olitical art is political by definition, that is, it addresses the polis about urgent issues affecting the life of people, and Israel/Palestine is an urgent issue. The back room of 696 [Pine Street] is devoted for the month to a show of political art. That it should be accompanied by related speakers, films and community discussion – and even controversy -- sharing its universe of discourse is a legitimate dimension to such work.

Art and artists certainly do have a role in the political life of a democracy, just as journalism and journalists, and history and historians. The most outspoken critics of the exhibition of Independence Paintings: Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour, and myself do not deny the value of art in political sphere, and this is a point missed by Marc Estrin when the only critique he permits Schumann's critics is "This is politics [...] It doesn’t belong here."

The point is also missed by Ken Picard when he wrote "political art [...] creates controversy only when it’s done right."

The point on which Chasan, Kadour, and I all agree is that Independence Paintings is not done right, and sadly, very little of the reportage in the Burlington press has either described the content of the work.

What Estrin and Picard miss in discussing political art is the relationship between art and truth. I do not write of "truth" as a transcendent absolute found in speculative metaphysics, or the articles of faith of a given theological tradition, or even the truth understood the ideology of a given state or political movement. I make far more modest claims for truth: an interpretation of events or phenomena supported by a preponderance of evidence.

History is never just whatever somebody declares to have happened in the past, journalism is never just what somebody declares to have happened recently or currently happening. Were either so, we would have no means of distinguishing between history, pseudo history and myth; we would have no means of distinguishing between good journalism, sloppy journalism, and propaganda. Historians assemble a great many pieces of evidence to determine what happened in the past, and its significance. Journalists must rely on multiple sources to assemble a description of what is happening. What does this have to do with political art? Do we not expect artists to take liberties, to use hyperbole, satire, allegory, analogy, and symbolism?

A society becomes dysfunctional when journalists no longer make the attempt to be truthful, when history texts no longer have any relationship to the evidence that the past has left for us. Art is not held to the same rules of evidence of journalism or history, nor should it. However, political art ceases to have a value to the polis when it is no longer truthful, when it lies. At that point the aesthetic life of a society becomes sick and dysfunctional. If we do not acknowledge that art can lie, then we lose the ability to distinguish between the post World War I work of Otto Dix and the propaganda posters approved by the regime that banned so much of his work.

As mentioned before, Schumann juxtaposed images of the Holocaust with a narrative of Palestinian views of the West Bank Wall and IDF counter-terrorist activities in the same piece. The message was taken by both Schumann critic and Schumann defender alike that either a.) Israel is committing genocide in the construction of the West Bank Wall, just as Germany committed genocide in the construction, administration, and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, or b.) that the Warsaw Ghetto was only as bad as the high unemployment rates and humiliation of going through an IDF security checkpoint. The evidence supports neither claim. The first interpretation is a false charge of genocide against the people and government of Israel and is antisemitism and "soft-core" Holocaust denial. The latter interpretation is very close to "hard-core" Holocaust denial and is unquestionably anti-Semitic. The act of juxtaposition has made a lie.

If we go back to Picard's aphorism "political art [...] creates controversy only when it’s done right" we see that this line of thought does not apply here. Good political art (such as that of Otto Dix) does create controversy, insight, or gives voice to thoughts that the audience simply has not found the means to articulate. But the controversy here has nothing to do with the quality of the art. The intensity of this controversy over how to interpret this piece, whether the piece should be exhibited or in what context it should be exhibited is a product of two factors: the degree to which Independence Paintings is untruthful and the degree to which the artist is a celebrity.

To further underline the untruthfulness of the work, let us examine Schumann's own statements:

Andy Potter reports that on September 8th,

Schumann explicitly disavowed any connection between his work and the Holocaust. "It wasn't the case, and if you think of it logically it simply doesn't hold up,"

Except that Schumann uses imagery that he admitted on February 12 in Boston was derived from his view of the events of the Warsaw Ghetto. Why would an artist knowingly create and exhibit something that does not logically hold up to the most basic scrutiny?

Schumann also stated at the September 8 talk that "I asked [the Palestinian artists] for the sake of creating this piece to tell me recent and local stories and then wrote these down." The methodology is sound but when compared with this statement from the September 4 article by Jack Thurston, "Schumann says his work is not anti-Semitic, it merely reflects a viewpoint many Palestinians really hold" several questions pose themselves. Can the work be free of antisemitism solely because it reflects viewpoints of "many Palestinians"? Why are the images of Independence Paintings not of life on the West Bank? Did the Palestinian artists suggest the use of the Warsaw Ghetto imagery?

The answer to the last question, appears to be "no." During the February 12 talk, Schumann was explicit that the inspiration to use images of the Holocaust came not from the Palestinians he met, but from the book he brought along with him on his trip, John Hersey's The Wall. The decision to juxtapose the West Bank with Warsaw was Schumann's and may have had little to do with anything said by the Palestinians he met. Indeed, if we consider that he stated that he had brought the book with him, the decision to juxtapose the two walls may have been made before he ever arrived in Palestine.

The break down of civil discourse in the wake of Independence Paintings is precisely because civil discourse must be rooted in truthfulness, and the work entered the political realm without ever having been truthful.

This is particularly disappointing when I consider Schumann's other works, some of which I have performed in, such as Oratorio of the Possibilitarians or World on Fire, which contained rich imagery, wit, sophisticated staging, and most importantly, truth.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rabbi Joshua Chasan on Peter Schumann's "Independence Paintings"

Recent readers of my blog will note that I have been paying close attention to the events revolving around the exhibition in Burlington, Vermont of Independence Paintings, a collage of painting and text by Bread and Puppet Theater founder and artistic director, Peter Schumann. It was the content of this painting that caused me, someone who for a number of years had performed in Bread and Puppet's Boston area shows, to terminate my relationship with the group when it showed at the Boston Center for the Arts in February of this year. Rabbi Joshua Chasan, of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, as reported earlier, has been a public critic of the exhibition. Due to the on going nature of the dispute, and his lack of familiarity with blogging, Rabbi Chasan asked me to share the letters he has written to the community as the situation has been developing.

I have made minor editorial glosses for purposes of aiding readability on the web, mostly in terms of providing links to relevant web pages and clarifying the identify of the speakers. I have made one note in bracketed italics that references a report by Ric Kasani Kadour.

Ian Thal

Three Emails from a Rabbi in Vermont to Christian Colleagues Including an Email Exchange Between the Executive Director of the South End Art and Business Association and the Rabbi

By Rabbi Joshua Chasan

On Saturday morning, September 8, 2007, the South End Art & Business Association of Burlington, Vermont featured a presentation of a mural by Peter Schumann, founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater. The mural was created after a nine day visit by the artist to Palestine, a journey from Vermont on which he took along John Hersey's The Wall, a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto. The exhibit and talk by both the artist and his guest, Joseph Koval, author of Overcoming Zion, was sponsored by a local organization that broke away from the tri-partite sister-city program of Bethlehem, Arad, and Burlington, in order to be able to advocate exclusively on behalf of Palestinians. The program on that Saturday morning was attended by Vermonters with a variety of viewpoints, and it was not a civil exchange.

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, August 31st, 2007:

Shalom Chavayrim,

Chavayrim--remember President Clinton saying "shalom chavair" it at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral--chavayrim (the plural) has the sense of being members of each other's shared spiritual vision. I write to you about a deep concern amongst members of our Jewish community about an exhibit of paintings with accompanying talk by Peter Schumann.

A review of these paintings appeared in the Boston Phoenix (see link below).

Whatever your opinion of the fence/wall (it disrupts Palestinian lives; it saves Israeli lives; both), I would urge you to go see the paintings and listen to the talk by Peter Schumann, whose work many of us have respected for decades. I plan to look at the paintings and will go to hear Peter if he is talking at any time other than Shabbat morning when I plan to be in synagogue. I believe the talk will be on Saturday, September 8. You can contact the Art Hop for more information. I will place at the end of this email some links you may want to look at.

I urge you to experience the exhibit and consider why many of us Jews (not all by any means, but certainly many of us, including me and board member of Vermont Interfaith Action, Jeff Potash) are deeply troubled by what Deborah E. Lipstadt has called "'soft-core denial" of the Holocaust "which, rather than deny the Holocaust, equate[s] Israel's policies with those of the Third Reich, labeling Israelis as Nazis." (Lipstadt, History on Trial, p. 25)

I and many others in the Jewish community are ardent civil libertarians. Ideas artistically expressed need to be challenged in the public square. So I write to ask you to consider the possible consequences of this exhibit being seen by people of all ages. Perhaps you will feel moved to speak out about what this exhibit evidences of our community's acceptance of ideas which are essentially anti-Semitic.

I readily accept that not every criticism of the polices of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism. But attempts to de-legitimate the existence of a Jewish State within living memory of the Holocaust send shivers down the spine of many of us Jews who know that, for all the problems that we have with specific Israeli policies, we know in the sinews of our souls that we still live in the lifeboat that the State of Israel provided for the Jewish people in 1948. Clearly, with pronouncements such as those of the President of Iran and the anti-Semitism in the textbooks and media of many Arab countries, the waters about us still are not safe.

I ask for your support at this time.

With hope for just peace,


P.S. I suggest also going to the following web sites:

Vermonters for a Just Peace (VTJP)'s affiliation with Al-Awda:

Frank Levine's Letter to the Boston Phoenix about Schumann's Exhibit
(scroll down to "Imitating life?")

The original Boston Phoenix article:

I don't know if it is still up after complaints [weeks later it was], but the following cartoon comparing the Israelis' building the
fence/wall and an iconic image of Auschwitz was on the web site of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Israel/Palestine earlier this week:, with the caption, "This political cartoon by Moroccan artist Abdullah Dourkawi won first prize in the Holocaust cartoon contest at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts," sponsored by the State of Iran.

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, September 7, 2007:

You may recall my email of August 31st (see below) Here is correspondence from and to the director of the South End Art and
Business Association. Some have called for SEABA to pull the one offending painting and to cancel the connected talk and film. I have been careful not to. My position I think speaks for itself below. We in the Jewish community are hopeful that our Christian sisters and brothers will see this for what it is-a hijacking of the Art Hop by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel who are one-sided in their support for Palestinians and hatred for Israel. See the cartoon below at the end of my first email. It is still on their web site as of five minutes ago. As you know, I am not afraid to criticize Israeli policies and have been side by side with Palestinians during a home destruction by the Israelis and protecting olive farmers near Nablus.

This is not about Israeli policies. This is about hatred for Israel the State which bleeds directly into hatred for Israel the people. The standard of public discourse in Burlington is being lowered. Please speak out publicly and to your members. This kind of hatred spreads easily.

Carlos Haase, Executive Director of the South End Art & Business Association to rabbi and representative of the Israel Center of Vermont with permission of the Executive Director, September 5, 2007:

I want to start off by thanking you for the very constructive phone conversations we've been able to have. Although the conversations have taken place at two different times in this process, both conversations have been very productive.

Below my signature, I am sharing with you our organization's immediate response to the controversy surrounding the Art Hop. I am also attaching it as a PDF.

From our conversations I conclude we have a lot of points in common. That in turn, provides us with the strength and common ground to pursue dialogue, discussion and understanding of this situation.

On that note, on behalf of SEABA, I want to be the first to let you know that we look forward to public response (your opinions of course, included), in order to assess how we can create a dialogue and safe space for discussion to take place in the near future, in whatever shape or that could be. For that, I look forward to directly working with you.

We have a great community here in Burlington. I wholeheartedly hope this whole experience and the dialogue to come from it will only strengthen us as a community.

Respectfully yours,

Carlos Haase,
Executive Director
South End Art & Business Association

The South End Arts and Business Association (SEABA), and by extension, the South End Art Hop, are strongly committed to Artistic Freedom of Expression. We don't pass judgment on any artwork, that is, we neither condone nor condemn any work. We encourage everyone to see the artwork on display and come to their own conclusions about the material. If any questions arise, we also encourage viewers to ask questions of the artist(s) who created the work. The Art Hop is a unique opportunity for creators and viewers to come together and create further dialogue, which furthers understanding. We at SEABA hope that you share our desires for intellectual inquiry and Artistic Freedom of Expression. We hope to see you at the Hop!

Rabbi to Executive Director of Arts and Business Association, September 5, 2007:


I tried to reach you by phone as you suggested.

I have to say that the statement that SEABA issued leaves me bewildered. In our previous conversation, I had assumed that the leadership of SEABA understood the dimensions of the mistake made in allowing Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel to use your organization for blatant political purposes. I had thought that you would be grappling with this problem. Instead, I heard you now using what happened to SEABA to define a policy of moral neutrality about expressions of hatred. If it were African-Americans or homosexuals who were victims of such abuse, I do not think you would be issuing statements of neutrality. I hear no soul-searching at SEABA about the risk created by allowing an expression of hatred. And recently I learned that the showing of Occupation 101 is also on your program. Carlos, it appears to me that SEABA has opened the door of mainstream Burlington culture to the expression of hatred. I fear for my community.


Rabbi Joshua Chasan

[Editor's note: Ric Kasini Kadour has noted that Art Hop organizers, while unwilling to withdraw any work due to content, had agreed to present Independence Paintings in a context that addressed the anti-Semitic nature of the work, but later "reneged" on this agreement.]

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, September 9, 2007:

Shalom again. You must be wondering how I have time to write these emails when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are approaching. The answer is that you are part of my soul searching at this time of year. I value your opinions, treasure our years of working together and, I suppose, I am triumphalist enough (God forbid!) to hope you join me in the soul searching of the first ten days of the Jewish year, beginning this Wednesday evening.

I realize I am missing some names, and have neglected to send these emails to all of our colleagues. I missed Gary Kowalski. I'm sorry. If you see a name missing, please pass this along. A deep hurt remains for many of us in the Jewish community and others about this expression of hatred.

Unfortunately, some of those hurt were as rude and hostile as supporters of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel at the Saturday morning talk by Peter and the fellow he invited, Joe Koval. This issue pushes a lot of buttons.

I write now to ask those of you who attended the Saturday morning program and/or saw the mural about the Warsaw Ghetto/Palestine, to send me your thoughts. Not everyone sees hatred, animus, in this work. Perhaps you didn't. Or you did. Either way, I want to create a conversation about this issue. Many of us in the Jewish community, with perspectives on Israel/Palestine which range across the spectrum, feel a little less safe in this community than we did before we got word of what we continue to believe was a hijacking of the Art Hop by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel which has associated itself on its web site with the State of Iran's Holocaust Cartoon Contest.

I hope together we can up the ante for a movement for peace which recognizes the threats to democracy from both within and without the United States; and sees the struggle of Israelis and Palestinians in the context of international relations over the past two hundred years. The world is in chaos now and we must examine carefully rhetoric about a just peace to see if its practitioners really want peace, or they are driving a hard bargain for one side or the other.

As clergy, we know that God knows no sides; God is beyond sides. Yet we also know that the level of violence in our world today--State-sponsored violence and violence sponsored by the ideologues of triumphalism, whether it be religious or national--the level of violence in our world today must be an affront to our conscience that calls us into action.

I ask you to join in conversations, public and private, that begin with honest, calm talk about issues of justice and peace in the Middle East. Once again, just as with Vietnam (at least in my opinion), the peace movement as constituted, has some but limited effect. Just as on other social issues--for example, abortion--our moral influence is limited by our differences of opinion, so too this can become a problem about differing takes about Israel and Palestine.

For the sake of helping to create an effective movement to end the violence, as well as for the sake of those of us Jews who feel threatened by a weakening of moral resolve in the world to protect the independent sovereignty of the State of Israel, can we talk to each other about these issues? Will those of you who resonate to our vulnerability as Jews speak out the public about this issue?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont, Part 2

As reported previously, some controversy arose when it was announced that the Burlington Art Hop would include an exhibition of Peter Schumann's Independence Paintings, the work that contributed to my decision to part ways with Bread and Puppet Theater.

I learned more when Marc Awodey, a poet, painter, art critic, and conspiracy theory-debunker based in Burlington, posted a lengthy comment to the initial entry regarding how the controversy was developing within Burlington's art community.

Awodey pointed me towards an article by Ric Kasini Kadour entitled "Art Hop Exhibition Takes on Palestinian/Israeli Conflict: Wades into Anti-Semitism & Holocaust Denial" in Art Map Burlington. Kadour's article was written before Independence Paintings was shown the general public in Vermont and relied greatly on reportage from the Boston showing such as Frank Levine's letter in The Boston Phoenix and this blog. Kadour and I are in basic agreement that the act of equating the West Bank wall with the Warsaw Ghetto constituted what Deborah Lipstadt calls "soft-core Holocaust denial", an attempt to trivialize or minimize the Holocaust, often with the aim of hurting or maligning the Jewish community. He and I are also in agreement as to Schumann's deserved stature as an artist.

Kadour, however provides far greater background as to how Independence Paintings has come to be shown at Art Hop, why it is being shown, and who is responsible for the exhibition than one would get from the article by Jack Thurston (which being the transcript of a television broadcast, simply cannot go into as much detail.) The exhibition of Independence Paintings is not sponsored by an arts organization, but by an activist organization, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel.

Though the webmaster does point out a disclaimer "The views expressed in the material posted on this site are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the webmaster or Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel" it leaves one to question just what are VTJP's views, given the inclusion of anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial material, notably Abdullah Dourkawi's winning entry in International Holocaust Cartoon Competition sponsored by the Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri, which appears to be comparing the West Bank wall to the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and repeating the canard that Israel intends to destroy the Al-Asqa Mosque. As I always ask this brand of soft-core Holocaust deniers: if Israel is repeating the crimes of the Nazis as you claim, where are the death camps? In all those years I have yet to get an answer.

Also revealing is at the very top of the VTJP website's homepage is the very first link one sees is "What if Israel invaded Vermont?" which leaving aside the absurdity of the scenario, does tell us something of VTJP's agenda. The accompanying text has too many historical omissions, and inaccuracies for me to get into here, but to address the analogy: If Israel were to invade Vermont, from where would they invade? Western Massachusetts? Upstate New York? New Hampshire? Quebec? No: The map portrays Israel's hypothetical invasion of Vermont to be from within Vermont itself. Can one invade a land where one is already present? The paradox reveals the very clear message: that a "just peace" means "no Israel"; Jews have no right to live anywhere in that land. The justification? The British Mandate's borders as the Ottaman Empire gave up the territory to Britain after WW I. This is all very disconcerting to those of us who are concerned with understanding the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and who believe that a just peace involves two democratic states with a secure border.

[Still, imagine the topsy-turvy alternate reality VTJP proposes where in 1948 Israeli-Vermont would have had to have fought off invasions from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Quebec, with additional support from Pennsylvania and New Brunswick, with the Grand Mufti of Montpelier declaring "we will drive the Jews into Upstate New York's wine country!"]

In a personal email from Awodey sent late in the evening of September 7th, after returning from the anxiously anticipated exhibition of Independence Paintings, he described the work to me as "just ragged cardboard lining the walls of a badly lit garage. [T]he scrawled text was virtually unreadable. [I]t seems to have gotten tattered and damaged in [its] travels - and just looked shabby." The work I had seen had been recently painted one and displayed in the beautifully lit Boston Center for the Arts' Cyclorama in Boston in February. I suspect that VTJP, like many political organizations I have observed, having a natural disdain for the arts, can never be bothered to present artwork in an appropriate setting when they do work with artists. Tattered and damaged, it loses much of its propaganda power and Awodey expressed doubts that there would be further press coverage of controversy with the work displayed under such conditions, but again, as something of a living legend, Schumann can get more attention exhibiting something shabby than most artists can garner exhibiting their best works. Either way, Schumann is making, and VTJP is sponsoring, a message of Holocaust denial.

Is this the end of this story?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont

Last week, I noticed that my blog was receiving an unusual amount of traffic from various cities and towns in Vermont. I was able to quickly discern that most of this new traffic was to my account of parting company with Bread and Puppet Theater over what I regarded as a distortion of the historical record of the Warsaw Ghetto, and misrepresentation of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Peter Schumann's Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories and in the show which he was having us rehearse, The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists.

I was aware that Independence Paintings was being exhibited, having read it on someone else's blog, but I was more than surprised to read Jack Thurston's article, "Art Display Draws Criticism" on the WCAX website. Rabbi Joshua Chasan of the Ohavi Zedek congregation in Burlington was taking a public stance regarding the exhibition of the painting. To quote Jack Thurston's article:

The rabbi hasn't seen the art. Neither has Channel 3. In fact, only a handful of people in Vermont have because it won't be installed on Pine Street until the end of the week. But based on reviews of when it showed in Boston, [...Chasan stated that] "Peter is a very gifted artist. I have delighted in his art over the decades. I have marched behind his puppets. I think when you make the comparison between the Holocaust and what the Israelis are doing, you've gone across the edge."

Chasan has much more to say in the article, and it is well worth reading.

I did contact Rabbi Chasan by email to thank him for making a stand. He noted that he had read my blog and had found it very helpful, though suggested I might have gone too far by psychoanalyzing Schumann. Perhaps this is a valid criticism, and I will be rereading that particular entry with that in mind. At the time, however, it seemed important for me to discern why certain facts were presented accurately, others were wildly distorted, and why yet other facts were omitted.

Schumann is quoted as making a number of statements in the article but none to which I have not analyzed and responded to previously, although I am compelled to point out one line because of its disturbing implications:

[T]he self-described pacifist sees both nations as guilty of violence, he calls Israel an occupier, even instigator.

I should point out that in neither "Independence Paintings" nor in Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists does he ever portray Palestinian violence (except for throwing stones at the West Bank wall) and when terrorism is even mentioned, it is to make light of the deaths it causes. If he sees both nations as guilty, should not his art represent that view?