The Movement of Jewish Shadows
When Yael Bartana called into existence the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, she automatically lost absolute control over it. Everyone who feels called out to the blackboard by her work can, and actually should, put in their two pennyworth about how they imagine the movement’s role, so let me make a few remarks myself.
In Mary Koszmary (Nightmare), a Pole’s appeal for Jews to return to Poland is an appeal for the return of Polishness. A Polishness that keeps confronting itself with its own ‘others’, with the Polish Jews. A Polishness forced to constantly ask itself about what it is and to use the answer to rediscover its own diversity and colourfulness. We are grey and homogeneous, and therefore sad and frightened, the Leader says in Mary Koszmary. Our trespasses against you have been all the heavier a burden since we have repressed them, and are being amplified by your absence, because our fear of Jews is actually a fear of ourselves, of looking boldly into our own unclean conscience. So come here to release the constrained Polishness so that, through your presence, we can look into ourselves. Bring us our joy and colours, bring us the diverse, multicultural Poland — that’s how the Leader’s message could be interpreted.
And so they came. In Wieża i mur (Wall and Tower), they are here, building a kibbutz on the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, where the Holocaust took place, near the Umschlagplatz, from where the Germans sent several hundred thousands of Jews to the ovens. If I understand well, these newly arrived Jews are supposed to replace those murdered by the Germans and those killed, turned in and robbed on the ‘fringes of the Holocaust’, to use a term coined by a Polish historian, by their Polish neighbours.
But paying heed to Israeli experiences that advise caution, and in accordance with a spirit of time that advises minorities to guard themselves against majorities, the kibbutzniks surround the kibbutz with a wall and erect a tall watchtower inside. Seen from outside, the wall and tower are symbols of mistrust and strangeness. But from the perspective of the kibbutz itself, the wall and gate are not only an expression of vigilant uncertainty, but also an invitation: come and see us in our kibbutz normality, even if the normality were to be hard to understand for you. We have come here not to be strangers in a strange land, but to become your strangers who, by disturbing, challenge you to accept the rule that, as the German philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels puts it, ‘human beings will never be completely at home in the world, and … nobody can claim to be the master of his own home’.
This communication claim made by the kibbutzniks and the Leader inviting them has been neither fulfilled nor even acknowledged. Seen from the perspective of the street, the kibbutz gate is a part of the wall blocking from view an unfamiliar, and thus frightening, reality, rather than inviting one to enter. The same gate, seen from inside the kibbutz, becomes increasingly a sign of illusion and disillusionment that accompany a communication failure.
What is missing between the Poles and the kibbutzniks is a liaison, a connecting factor: the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But their shadows, ever more intensely present in Poland and, at the same time, persistently relegated into oblivion by the majority, are there. If the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland is to take root here, it should integrate these Jewish shadows. But what exactly would that be supposed to mean?
Let us accept after numerous philosophers that at the beginning of social life is difference rather than unity. This is a friendlier faith, one that protects from the temptation of singularity and ‘completeness’. It stifles aggression and, in extreme cases, also the genocidal tendencies displayed by ethnic, religious or cultural majorities. Such a readiness to violence is born when minorities remind majorities with their existence of the ‘small gap which lies between their condition as majorities and the horizon of an unsullied national whole, a pure and untainted national ethnos’, as Arjun Appadurai argues.
Frequent in the world and present also in Poland, aggression against minorities, or rather against constructed fictions about them, such as that they will dominate the majority or that under their ‘normal’ surface hides a treacherous nature, stems from the majority’s futile efforts to build its own singularity: the singularity of Poles in Poland, or of men or heterosexuals in society. To snatch and free Poles from their sense of completeness is the Movement’s fundamental task. The Jewish shadows are wandering shadows, lacking any mundane haven in their lifetime. These shadows are our Other. For Waldenfels, at the beginning is not humanity in everyone and not otherness in oneself, but humanity in the Other. ‘The other is the first human being, not I’, he quotes Husserl.
These Jewish shadows are our humanity. But for them to change us, we must avoid familiarising them, avoid reducing them to our own standards and identities. They would then become merely exotic, so they have to remain as they are: strange, and therefore disturbing. Then perhaps we will become able to respond to the challenge that their presence faces us with, and will be given a chance, while talking about ourselves, to notice the cracks in otherness also in us. Because they are present in everyone and only need to be acknowledged. And if we accept that otherness is not a horrifying aspect of the outside world that needs to be co-opted and reduced to familiarity, but is also a part of ourselves, and one worth particular attention, then we will be able to walk confidently through the kibbutz gate, and the wall and tower will become unnecessary. By virtue of the Jewish shadows.
1 B. Waldenfels, The Question of the Other, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2007, p. 4.
2 Arjun Appadurai uses the term in Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
3 Ibid., p. 8.