Israel Museum has gone beyond itself with two spectacular and politically significant exhibitions, wisely positioned in adjoining halls.One is the work of the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, titled Maybe, Maybe Not. The other is by the Israeli with Russian roots, Zoya Cherkassky, titled Pravda (truth). It's possible to see items from both exhibits here.Neither fits the classical museum norms of fine art. There are no paintings in Ai Weiwei's exhibition. The work displayed includes massive wood structures, delicate porcelain, expansive wallpaper, and a centrally located large carpet that visitors can pass over only by covering or removing the shoes. Every item has a meaning explained in several languages. Not all are comprehensible, but all seem to be sharp criticism of the Chinese regime's forceful penetration of personal freedom, some of which had been endured by the artist and his family.Cherkassky's work does consist of paintings, but they amount to caricatures of the Russian experience in Israel, with nothing that can be described as delicate or exquisite. They force a viewer to see the downside of the encounter with Israel by more than one million Russian speaking migrants who arrived in a modest wave in the early 1970s and then a massive wave from the late 1980s. Her paintings show Israeli efforts to engender a new patriotism among the arrivals, Russians struggling with Hebrew lessons and kashrut, rough neighborhoods not all that different from what they left behind, the bloody experience of a mature Russian accepting circumcision, and Russian women who made their way in the new country as prostitutes.The exhibitions only begin the process of judgment.Against the work of Ai Weiwei, we should remember that the harsh regimentation of China has been associated with enormous progress. Chinese are no longer dying in large numbers from starvation, but have become world powers in industry, technology, and finance. Individual Russians suffered in the process of migration to Israel, as have individuals in virtually all other waves of movement to Israel, America, and elsewhere, Even moving as a tenured professor from Wisconsin to the Hebrew University produced some problems with a strange culture and language.In the case of the Russians, Israel has, without doubt, been improved by their skills, and many of the migrants and their descendants seem well adjusted and sharing in a society that is better for them than what they left behind. Complexities in judgment also appear in other issues that we face. It isn't easy to judge the policy accomplishments of the Prime Minister -- despite relative peace and considerable economic progress during his tenure -- against considerable indications of personal and family corruption.We're also puzzled by Palestinian insistence that we recognize the lines of 1967 as somehow important in making a deal with them, and judging their demand for a capital in Jerusalem against their rejection of any Judaic claim to a substantial piece of the city's history.Assertions by them and their friends about "apartheid" ring strange against what we know about South African history, the integration of Arabs and Jews in Israel, and the justification of walls and other barriers against the record of Palestinian violence directed at Israeli civilians.Currently we're bothered by the government's intention to pressure thousands of illegal African migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, to accept transfer to Uganda or Rwanda. Corresponding to the international Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israelis with a Holocaust connection joined others in protesting what they claim is awesome punishment for individuals who arrived here more than a decade ago, many of whom have learned Hebrew, produced children, and have jobs in menial sectors where they'd be hard to replace. Among the points made by the protesters is that the country has several times the number of African illegals, but whose origins in Eastern Europe, South America, or Asia have kept them away from the government's concern.Supporters of the government program assert that Israel -- the lone developed country bordering on Africa -- cannot be responsible for the problems of that continent. They also report that substantial numbers of non-African illegals have been sent away in recent years.A decision of the Polish parliament to deny any involvement in the Holocaust has gone viral, and came close to a diplomatic crisis.
While sources in Israel's Foreign Ministry are noting that the Holocaust was not Polish, a range of officials from the President on down are castigating Poles for trying to remake history, and joining Holocaust survivors insisting that much of the German's dirty work was done by Polish collaborators.
Israelis are also recalling Poles who rescued Jews, as well as those among Germans, Ukrainians, Dutch and others who either saved Jews or turned them over to killers.
We're also wondering about Iranian investments in military and munitions-production in Lebanon. Ranking politicians and military personnel may be preparing us for another of Israel's pre-emptive strikes, and what may come as a result.
Americans are not behind Israelis in what their context demands by way of political judgment. Donald Trump has been at the historic low point of presidential esteem since pollsters began measuring such things. While many of the well-to-do applaud his moves to reduce their taxes, cut into various kinds of regulation, trying to undo elements of Obama's innovations in health care, and see quality in several of his judicial and administrative appointments, many others go beyond polite reservations or disagreement, and see disaster in virtually all that he says, Tweets, and does.
Democracy thrives on uncertainty and dispute. It's capacity to handle them at loud volume but with a minimum of violence marks the boundary between open and authoritarian regimes. Both Israel and the US are on the desirable side of those boundaries, but it's not always easy to tolerate the dissonance and the shouts.
Comments welcome --
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)Department of Political ScienceHebrew University of Jerusalem