Letter From Jerusalem
Yoav Weiss is an Israeli artist with a moneymaking idea. That is, his idea will make money when the time comes, if the time should ever come. Weiss has gone around Jerusalem with a couple of cans of spray paint and a few stencils, marking off some sections of the monolithic separation wall that the Israelis have constructed around and through the city. But Weiss is not like some people, who've painted such slogans as FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO TO THE ABU DIS GHETTO or THIS WALL WILL SOON FALL. His work is not predictive or sentimental or strident.
Instead, Weiss has outlined curving sections of the wall, gentle organic shapes that have nothing to do with its gigantic, harsh geometry. He's numbered them and has created a website on which he's selling off the pieces to an international market. So far he's sold about fifteen sections, at about $5 per square meter. "It's pretty cheap for what they are getting," Weiss says. "For example, your piece could be used as furniture. If you attach legs to your section, you can make a very impressive coffee table. Or, if you reserve a few sections, you can build a wall for yourself in your garden, say, as a conversation piece, or if you have a disagreement with your neighbor."
I ask him if he's speaking ironically. He says no.
"You can say the wall is repugnant, if you look at it from a moral point of view," Weiss says. "But if you look at it as an artwork, it's impressive. Like Richard Serra or Christo, or the Great Wall of China. As a piece of sculpture, it has quite an impact, beyond the moral, human and environmental impact. I'm not trying to make a political statement. I'm just trying to make a buck." Yoav's work is charming and whimsical, yet he would be the first to agree: Across the barrier, on the other side, whimsy is not an element in people's approach to the wall.
The city has been dark this winter. During the past four years, as people like Weiss have abandoned Jerusalem for less besieged parts, the city's religious quarters have expanded in all directions. Streimels, the holiday hats worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews, bob like flying saucers down the avenues. Tire-burning demonstrations of angry settlers close important arteries; the town's circulation is blocked. Downtown, outside a mall and office complex on King George Street, the public clock is six hours ahead of the correct time, or, as an Israeli friend of mine says, you could see it as six hours behind.
Female yeshiva students walk purposefully through the streets in their long skirts and severe shoes, the boys in their too-short pants, playing with their sidecurls. Stores run by women stay open late into the evening, fluorescent lights beckoning. The city's back is up, even though the second intifada is over, and even though in Ramallah, twenty minutes away, the body of Yasir Arafat lies under scores of brightly colored wreaths sent by the international community.
Yes, he's dead, finally, but Jerusalem--pardon me, "Jerusalem, the eternal and undivided capital of Israel"--is prepared and still preparing for the worst. The worst is something it is familiar with. Peace, it is not familiar with.
In Jerusalem these days, grand political statements are left to the writers, while the politicians squabble over strategy and minutiae, both political and military. The Jerusalem International Book Fair opened this winter with a speech by David Grossman, one of the half-dozen or so Israeli writers, intellectuals and political figures who worked with Palestinian counterparts on the Geneva Accord of 2003; one of those who courageously, stubbornly advocated peace in the midst of the most bitter violence.
"You still remember, dimly, distantly," Grossman said to his audience, "that you aren't living the life you would have liked to live.... You still remember it, but there are many moments when, out of despair and fear, you start to believe that this madness is the real life.... In this situation, so many Israelis and Palestinians persuade themselves that the people standing before them are evil by nature and evil in essence, a sort of existential, almost cosmic evil, which turns against them out of a pure malice which has no rational justification.... We are so mired in the distortion that we almost do not really register the actual price we are paying for living through four generations now, in a life parallel to the life we could have lived, the life we deserve."