Secular Sublime: Edward Said at the Israel Museum
In 1998, on the occasion of the state of Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem presented a major exhibit on Orientalism in Israeli art. This essay examines this exhibit against the backdrop of the state’s anniversary celebrations to indicate the ways in which categories of East/West, Arab/Jew, Mizrahi/ Ashkenazi, and religious/secular are reified and mapped onto one another. While the fact of these divisions is not noteworthy in itself, the slippage between them tells a story about identity in Israeli society and the symbolic life of museums— a story that challenges both post-Zionist multicultural desires and redemptive readings of museums. I shall argue that Orientalism, thematized explicitly in this instance as the subject of an exhibition, in fact emerges most powerfully in other sorts of museum practices—programming, division of space, and guided tours—in the form of its denial. The exhibit itself, conceived as a showcase for critical voices and visions exemplifying and addressing the topic of Orientalism, forestalls its own radicalism and blunts the edge of its critique.
In more abstract terms, I want to understand how the multiple becomes singular and to consider the fate of this foreclosed multiplicity. I am conceptualizing a type of telescoping, by which the variegated voices of history, artistic expression, and identity enactment are conflated and compressed through the practices of exhibition into one another or into more compact versions of themselves. This phenomenon, which I contend is specific to museum practices, is the process this essay traces. Before charting the telescopic movement from many to one, I will first establish the multiple stands of narrative—of and by the Orientalism exhibit. Some preliminary elements are the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli state and the selected venue of the Israel Museum. Others, such as the critical pronouncements on Israeli Orientalism and the limits of the critique, emerge through closer study of the exhibits themselves. Throughout, I pay attention to the reinscription of lines of difference in an exhibition aimed at their erasure and try to map some of the social and discursive conditions of their (im)possibility.
The Israel Museum is one of the most visited museums in Israel; according to the guidebook The Museums of Israel, “it has become recognized as one of the finest museums in the world” ( Rosovsky and Ungerleider-Mayerson 1989: 26). The Israel Museum opened its doors to the public in May 1965 as a national museum that would combine the existing Bezalel National Art Museum and the archaeological collections that had been housed until 1948 at the John D. Rockefeller Jr.–funded Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem. The combined art and archaeology museums were said to result in a “unified museum” ( Tamir 1990: 9), and the Israel Museum’s collection is seen as an expression of the unity of the Jewish people, “a nation newly come together from all parts of the world” ( Hendy 1968: 9).1 The objects, in this formulation, are metonyms of the people: the museum, like the state, is the gathering place for all “Jewish” objects, whether coming from the “soil of Palestine” ( Hendy 1968)—in other words, the archaeological artifacts—or collected from throughout the Diaspora.
The narrative of the establishment of the Israel Museum is rife with Zionist tropes. This is perhaps not surprising: in her study of Israeli settlement museums, Tamar Katriel (1997) demonstrates how these institutions reiterate (and renegotiate) a Zionist master narrative that chronicles the Jews’ return to the promised land after two thousand years in exile and their eventual success—against all odds—in building a new society and establishing a Jewish state. What I explore here is how this mythologized conception of a twinned birth of the Jewish state and the Jewish museum contextualizes an exhibit that aimed, in some ways, to debunk just such myths—on the anniversary of the state, at that very museum.
Entitled Kadimah: Ha-mizrah. be-omanut Yisra’el h (with the English title, To the East: Orientalism in the Arts of Israel), the exhibit sought to address critically Israeli society’s ambivalent relationship with “the East”—as reflected in the artistic production of the past century. The Kadimah exhibit, though intended to demonstrate the curators’ contention that “there is no East, there is no West,”2 did indeed present an East and a West, and it positioned the Israeli viewer within this bisected landscape—an exhibit that looks “to the East” does so necessarily from the West. How exactly this corresponds to a distinction between the secular self and the religious other will become clearer below, but it is important to note here that the very possibility of such a correspondence disrupts the heroic conception of what a museum enables by restricting the terms of spectatorship. Context, narrative, and the spatial arrangement of the exhibit within the museum and (though I do not discuss it here) of the museum within the city—all these contribute to limiting, albeit contrary to the curators’ intentions, the exhibit’s capacity for multivocality. While the dominant voice that emerges is challenged, and even ignored (both deliberately and inadvertently), its resonance remains.
The possibilities for museums as spaces of contestation and as venues for the (re)presentation of multiple views, voices, and experiences have been explored by scholars over the past few decades. While some scholars have emphasized the museum’s totalizing, even coercive force (e.g., Mitchell 1992; Bennett 1995), museums have increasingly been celebrated as places where dominant ideologies can be challenged, especially as minority groups become more involved with the planning and execution of exhibits devoted to their respective cultures ( Zolberg 1996; Karp and Lavine 1991; Sandell 2002).
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Research for this essay was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Earlier versions were presented at the Israeli Anthropological Association annual meeting in Nazareth in March 1999, at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in San Francisco in November 2000, and at the CASPIC-MacArthur workshop on the Middle East at the University of Chicago in May 2001. Nadia Abu El-Haj, Livia Alexander, Eyal Ben-Ari, John Comaroff, John Kelly, Rashid Khalidi, Zachary Lockman, Brinkley Messick, Margaret Rodman, Lisa Wedeen, and members of the Public Culture Editorial Committee provided helpful comments on various incarnations of this essay. I thank Beth Povinelli for her engagement and guidance and James Rizzo for his insightful editing. I am grateful to the staff of the Israel Museum for their assistance on this project.
- Note, however, that this trope of unification emerges after 1967.
- This statement was made by the cocurator of the Kadimah exhibit during a public tour.