This is Not a Call to the Dead

By Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, 2012

He speaks loudly, as though he were not delivering his speech to an empty stadium. As we watch him on screen, the echo of his words touches us, bringing back the memory of a language that is foreign and familiar, metallic and warm, inviting and restrictive. A group of some twelve teenagers forms an arc on the grass, acting as his audience (live or in the editing suite?), their gazes held aloft. The tone of his voice and the content of his words elevates his speech to prophecy. This is a moment of exaltation, and exaltation is necessary. To appeal to a people anew — to call upon a whole people who are no longer whole — something in that plea (either in the speaker or in the call) must come from a great distance, a place altogether different, from another time, from the otherness of time. Yet here — in Yael Bartana’s film Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) — the otherness of time and place are constructed through camerawork and editing, as much as by the stage of the empty stadium. We shall therefore think of this as a reversed sublime, for it comes from within rather than from above and beyond; it comes from the desire to make radical change possible once more. There is no threat in this call: the creation of a place for change will require neither violence nor destruction. The call professes a willingness to make space for the returned, whose homecoming will bring about the longed-for change. He is speaking to the Jews. He directly addresses those who escaped Poland during the War, or who were expelled later during the communist regime; whose departure purged the country and made Poland a regimentally engineered nation. Such ethnic engineering is a savage embodiment of an ancient exaltation that also came from within; like the new one, yet unlike it, and because it sought purification, it is thoroughly destructive. By contrast this call for return is a call for mixing. Indeed, the call itself is already mixed, a hybrid of the Polish voice of the speaker with the Jewish one of the director, which is her Israeli voice too.

The emptiness of the stadium disrupts the immediate affinity that defines and is defined by the Polish context and enables the call to extend to Europe, and beyond, to those places worldwide that have been linked to it through the spread of colonialism and its satellites. In Bartana’s second film, Mur i Wie˙za (Wall and Tower), it becomes clear that the appeal made in the stadium is not a simple allegory. Homecoming is practised as a definitive possibility. Indeed, some ritualized gestures taken from the visual archive of the Zionist colonization of Palestine are re-enacted with the same beauty as the old ones, but with one crucial difference — the actors are not solely Jews. Arabs, Poles, Black, Asians, Ultra-Orthodox, all are taking part in the renaissance movement whose slogans, shown in the third film, Zamach(Assassination), affirm its heterogeneity: ‘with one colour we cannot see’ or ‘we accept in our ranks all those who have no place in their motherland.’

The call for return that is played out by Bartana does not turn back history but mixes that which has been separated and cleansed from that history and allows it to exist once more in its blessed mixture. Those who return to Poland will not be pure Polish Jews, but rather Israelis who have mixed with Poles who had not been expelled. Returning to that country appears to be a return to the pioneering Zionist desire to build a home in the motherland, albeit one that does not take place in the homeland and entails no expulsion. Neither is it a colonial movement of migration and settlement. Respectfully and without patronizing their neighbours, these immigrants (who are returning to a place where they have never lived before) ask to learn the local language and to teach theirs to the locals. Looking up, their gazes fixed on the spot in which the speaker — their prophet and leader — once stood, they follow the lorry containing the wooden boards with which they are building their ‘wall and tower’. They arrive at daybreak, not by stealth and in the dead of night as in the often-told stories about how ‘wall and tower’ settlements were built in Palestine, when, uninvited, the ‘pioneers’ who followed the Zionist call seized the land of others and forcefully changed the relationship between Jews and Arabs forever. [1]

Bartana’s uniformed young men and women gaze upward again as they gather around their tower. Having answered the call and returned to Poland — to build and be built within it — they now await a response. For they know that such an act, this return, is neither private adventure nor the fulfilment of personal yearning. Those who are returning remain attached to the calling voice, for their act has created a common world that needs this call as an external vanishing point. The address coming from this external point has a universalizing power; no one can follow the call by treating others — neighbours or strangers — as lesser humans. The prophetic voice in the stadium mediates this universalizing power without claiming to be its source; the leader is also subject to it. Only later, in Zamach, after the leader’s assassination, will the calling voice be exalted and embodied in the form of a huge statue overlooking the memorial service. But at the same time, with the same gesture, a room is made for a new form of being-together where a sovereign figure is conspicuously absent. The huge figure is a way to keep that voice coming from up high, looming above the people who follow the call, to let it transcend the sceptical, nationalist, sentimental or intimate voices of the speakers, who in turn and in their own languages pay tribute to the prophet at his funeral ceremony. Their voices come from the heart of the present; his comes from the future, embodying and granting the right to imagine a different eventuality. In directing the homecoming of Mur i Wie˙za, Bartana could not have conceived of a return without a call. In setting up the funeral ceremony in Zamach, she could not have allowed the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland to endure after the death of its prophet without keeping his voice alive, yet distant, keeping clear from any politics of identity and representation, let alone incarnating the figure of a sovereign. Perhaps more importantly, Bartana could not have imagined the call at all were it not for the urgent demand for return expressed by refugees of all nationalities and faiths the world over, and had this demand not echoed the dreams of homecoming in those who have stayed and long to chase away their nightmares by sharing their land again with their once close and intimate neighbours. The young man and woman who make the final speech in the funeral ceremony could not be more clear: ‘nationalism = terrorism’ and ‘we shall be strong in our weakness.’

The foreign nature of the call exposes the extent to which we have become reconciled to the lack of hope and solution to the cycle of governmental catastrophes in which we, Israelis, are caught as direct victims, collaborators or perpetrators. As viewers, we are horrified by the force with which the call simultaneously makes evident this renunciation of hope, and the real desire to begin anew. To understand the external place from which the call comes, one must first consider the nature of the collaboration between the Israeli artist Yael Bartana and the Polish politician Sławomir Sierakowski. They come from very different places and have taken historical paths that were once intertwined. This common past is a fact. It is not sanctified or even mourned, it is not remembered nostalgically nor are its horrors made softer. The present is haunted by night terrors. As for a common future, it exists in the realm of imagination, yet this future — and it is something that Bartana’s trilogy insists upon — is not beyond reach.

Christian faith is injected into this Jewish insistence: ‘we shall be strong in our weakness.’ Although surprising, there is nothing extraordinary about this mixture either, for although Jewish in origin, the movement of return does not allow for difference between Jew and Christian (or indeed Arab), man and woman, secular and religious, black and white; the faith in the possibility of a different future transcends identity politics. Taken separately, neither past nor present can provide the quasi-transcendent basis for the call, nor can they turn this basis into a place in which the two figures, the Israeli artist and film director and the Polish intellectual and prophet, can stand together with little difference between them. What allows them to remake this exteriority, to unsettle and activate us as viewers, is their insistence not to return to the past but rather to repeat and relive it — differently, to open up a space for the project of joint reparation.

The quasi-transcendent point of origin for the call stems from a shared yearning to break a closed circuit within which life is rife with violence and despair. Yet a Polish dead end is not equivalent to an Israeli one. The misery of a life from which the other is missing, haunted by the excluded other, differs from the misery of a life haunted by the ceaseless effort to separate from the other and to repress the traces of this exclusion. The Poles expelled millions of Germans (in an extensive operation of displacement and transfer at the end of the Second World War), and they too were expelled from other places as Europe was reshaped and cleansed shortly after the War. The Jewish population in Palestine absorbed Jewish refugees, gained military power and participated in this European project of reshaping political bodies through the forced transfer of peoples. Their political sovereignty was established through the ruination of Palestinian society. Ethnic cleansing was integral to the constitution of their new regime, while forced separation and the refusal for any possible Palestinian return was the reason and form of a constituent violence that has not ceased since 1948. Ultimately, those who had demanded to receive the refugees of Europe’s camps ended up creating ghettos and camps for Palestinian refugees within Palestine and beyond, in Syria, Lebanon or Jordan. Today, a dead end has been reached in both Poland and Israel, and this is where the Pole and the Jew may meet: exiting the dead end = exiting the cleansing regime = exiting the privatized, corporatized world; reviving a collective project and returning — to Poland, to Palestine, to anywhere from which people have been expelled. A return to Poland enables the reversal of the cleansing machine and paradoxically creates a mixed life-world with no exteriority, in which everyone is included. The stadium call cannot, therefore, be answered partially or locally, for in a world created by the desire for cleansing, mixing is never ending. Carrying the same hope, people everywhere can say to the expelled and displaced: ‘you will be healed when you have healed us.’

The return to Poland is not simply a rewinding of the course of history, but rather a journey back in time to realize a potential that has been stifled. The Jews return but they are ‘different’, in one sense at least: they return as victims who have learned that they too can be perpetrators and collaborators. The Poles are also different: they no longer take part in persecution, eradication or expulsion — they long for the return of the other. Were the mixing on offer limited only to the Pole and their other, or the Jew and their other, the same past of cleansing would be repeated, which obstructs all other homecomings. But the call in the empty stadium represents a willingness to be weakened — to risk all that will follow once the experience of cleansing is relived in reverse. We will be willing to stand exposed in the light of day, like the criminals we did not recognize in ourselves when we evaded the gaze of the expelled whom we did not allow to enter into our field of vision, let alone return. This is a utopian moment: we can see it in our mind’s eye, but we know little of what will follow. Most of all, it is an external moment calling on us to act, here and now. Bartana shows us the act of calling and those heeding the call. They gather together and take action. She shows how the call persists despite scepticism, contempt, violence and death. The young women and men are already there, determined to continue. It does not matter any longer to which nationality they belong for they have already been mixed. Carrying her battered suitcase, Rifke, the Jewish woman who was deported and murdered in the camps, approaches the stage, where an Israeli patriot, Yaron London, who represents the classic Zionist position, criticizes the idea of a revival of a Jewish diasporic existence. She says: ‘I’m the ghost of return.’ She does not say the return of whom. Her presence guarantees the persistence of return as a call and demand, not only of Jews but of refugees all over the world. This call is no longer abstract and utopian. We, the viewers, are being called upon. We have been called and are responding. Seriously. Bartana’s trilogy is not an allegory.

The vision imagined in the first film, Mary Koszmary is realized in the second, Mur i Wie˙za, while in the third, Zamach — despite the assassination of the movement’s initiator who dared to oppose the law of the nation-state — the civil community finds new ways to keep the future open. The vision staged in this trilogy is addressed to us, the viewers. As Israeli Jews we recognize the meticulous use of images from our collective visual memory: from Hertzl in Basel to Rabin’s assassination and commemoration, from ‘Wall and Tower’ settlements to the declaration of the State in the museum hall. But as we watch them unfold from one frame to the next, from one film to another, we understand that this visual repertoire (which Bartana is so adept at deploying) is not invoked in order to be dismissed or deconstructed, but in order to be altered. This revision rescues the images from being ironic — caricaturing a legacy that has become unbearable, a legacy we have inherited and refuse to transmit. It also enables Bartana to resuscitate collective endeavours, which we thought we had had to renounce due to the crimes with which they became historically implicated. The trilogy — critically — makes the claim that these crimes are not inevitable. Gestures of communal life, of building and shaping a society together are made possible. Once again they can be part of a vision that addresses us as a call for action. We have heard it. We wish to act upon it. Hence, here we are, asking to return. In fact, we have been demanding to return ever since we were called upon.

Who are we? Jews, but not only. We are also Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, residents of Israel-Palestine, including those who were expelled from Palestine in 1948 to make way for the Israeli regime, citizens whose common fate was determined by the joint Zionist and British colonial adventure, in which Europeans have collaborated in various ways.

Where would we like to return to? To Poland, but not only. Why return to Poland only? Why not to Germany, and Hungary, and France? To anywhere in Europe? But who knows where Europe is today? Where does Europe end? Its presence is everywhere. When it comes to Jews, Poland is a metonym for Europe which is a metonym for colonized Africa, South and North America, Asia, any place that has been touched by Europe’s military, economic or cultural colonialism.

At whom is our demand directed? At you, Europeans of all nations, the new people of Europe.

We, the residents of Israel-Palestine, call upon you citizens of Europe to let us return to the places from which we or our parents came, from which and to which we were expelled. We ask that you allow us to resettle in any place from which Jews — and then others, in different ways — were expelled.

We call on you, first and foremost, to remember and assume responsibility. Remember Europe’s responsibility for annihilating the Jews of Europe in the Second World War, but also for distorting the collective consciousness of the surviving Jews, and for the civil catastrophe, begun in 1947, that first and foremost brutalized the Palestinians and led to the decimation of North African or Arab Jewry, and in many ways continues still. Europe has never been held accountable for this direct and indirect responsibility. It has not dealt with its contribution to the rise of the Jewish national movement and the development of the Palestinian national movement. Nor has it recognized its part in creating the conditions for nearly a hundred years of violence in our region. It has not been held accountable for Britain’s sponsoring of Zionist colonialism and integration of the Jewish national movement into the British colonial project. It has denied Europe’s part in the Palestinians’ expulsion of 1948 and the prevention of their return thereafter. And when, largely after the failure of the Oslo Accords, Israel brought apartheid practices to the occupied Palestinian Territories, Europe stood by. We ask for an acknowledgement of responsibility, not for compensation, apology or regret. On the basis of this responsibility we seek one thing only: the opening of gates and borders. We ask to return to Poland, but also to Germany, France, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, England, Spain, Egypt and Syria, so that we may cease to be Israelis who maintain the planet’s largest Jewish ghetto, whose existence is supposedly dependent on a matching — Palestinian — ghetto.

We ask to return to any space in which the civil majority is shamed by expressions of antisemitism — towards Jews and Arabs alike — including Palestine itself. We do not ask (once again) to be citizens of Poland, Germany or France; we seek the right of residency in greater Europe and in any place that Europe has claimed as its own. We are offering Europe a new model of citizenry and citizenship. Given that we will not be naturalized in the countries in which we will settle, we could become citizens of Europe. In fact, we will be the only citizens of Europe. We, members of the three Abrahamic religions, will maintain a partnership beyond religious and national divisions: a partnership that will be based on a shared past and the promise of a future. Through us, Europe could, for the first time, come to terms with the terrible repercussions of its past that are still present today, without any form of denial. Through us, Europe could present a new model of relationships between Muslims, Christians and Jews, a new openness towards Islam and the fact that there is no longer a border — geographic, cultural or religious — separating Islam from the rest of the world. Through us Europe could not only be stunned; it could be transformed.

Each of you, the reader or the viewer, can rewrite the call that echoes in the stadium according to your own nightmares. It is not a call to the dead. It is a call by the living to the living. Return, come, join. We are called from above, from afar, not by god or prophet, but by the return of the ghosts of the past and a shared longing to break through the dead end that is the current shape of our common world.


1. ‘Wall and tower’ is a type of Jewish settlement that was prevalent in 1930s Palestine. It is an aggressive statement of fact whereby a prefabricated circular wall and elevated central structure are erected swiftly, often overnight.