Another Tack: Useful idiots in Tel Aviv

In a country obsessed with castigating incitement, the Beit Berl provocation – where Lieberman, Netanyahu and others are depicted in crude photomontages – goes remarkably unopposed.

Evet Beit Berl 311 (photo credit: Beit Berl/Katav PR)
Evet Beit Berl 311
(photo credit: Beit Berl/Katav PR)
Among my more esoteric possessions is an English-language translation of a forgotten volume, People and Portraits: A Tragic Cycle, published in 1966. It was authored by artist Georges (Yuri) Annenkov, innovator of grand scale settings for gargantuan Soviet parades and street extravaganzas. In 1921 he painted Lenin’s official portrait. Three years later, after Lenin had been dispatched to the great politburo in the sky, Annenkov was put to work illustrating books about the departed communist icon and was given access to his papers at Moscow’s Lenin Institute.
Annenkov claimed he had copied some of Lenin’s handwritten notes, including the following gem: “To speak the truth is a petit-bourgeois habit. To lie, on the contrary, is often justified by the lie’s aim. The whole world’s capitalists and their governments, as they pant to win the Soviet market, will close their eyes to the above-mentioned reality and will thus transform themselves into men who are deaf, dumb and blind... They will toil to prepare their own suicide.”
Essentially Lenin expounded on the theme of the “useful idiot,” ascribed variously both to him and Stalin. Whether or not either of them actually coined the phrase, it entered the political lexicon to describe Soviet sympathizers in the West, who despite being ardent – if naïve – boosters of the communist cause, were in fact held in contempt by the very Bolsheviks who cynically exploited them.
THE USSR is gone, but not the useful idiots. Their latterday duplicates still support malevolent causes via gullible attempts to supposedly be a force for good. The progeny of old-time communists, along with fashionable new-recruit sidekicks, still willingly submit to manipulation by an unseen though powerful world force, characterized by radical political correctness and spouting human-rights slogans. Despite the moral superiority they claim, they’re in fact useful idiots in the service of political movements – from outright anarchists to jihadist terror-mongers.
They possess greater clout than the 20th century’s original useful fools ever achieved. They set the tone in the mass media and academia. They are the trendsetters who determine what’s acceptable and respectable. They mold minds. Anything they like is bon ton. Whatever they disapprove of is verboten.
Israel isn’t sanely immune to useful-idiot shenanigans. It’s in fact one of the most afflicted of democracies.
It only takes a visit to the Beit Berl Art College’s Tel Aviv gallery to come to grips with the skewing of our cultural environment. There, a particularly pugnacious exhibit, named “Evet” (after the nickname given to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman by Tzahi Hanegbi), specializes in unabashed character assassination under the guise of freedom of artistic expression.
It’s more than doubtful that anti-Lieberman animus so animated the 23 student-participants that their churlish masterpieces constitute irrepressible spontaneous outpourings of genuine emotional stirrings. More likely, the outrage against Lieberman (at no immediate instigation) was orchestrated and the works were commissioned from impressionable and pressurable students on condition that they smear the targeted victim. The unanimity of sentiment is too much to take at face value. Not only is there nothing vaguely kind to Lieberman, there’s nothing remotely neutral.
One piece of unexceptional sculpture portrays Lieberman as a pig. Crude photomontages turn him into a demonic skull-nosed ogre with pockmarked features and flame-filled eyes.
Elsewhere cutouts of Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon declare (in German): “Ich bin ein Lieberman.” The invitation itself was printed in Gothic font to impart Nazi associations.
A video features a sadomasochistic sex scene in which the male wields a whip labeled Lieberman, while the flogged female grotesquely regurgitates Lieberman quotes.
Whether one is Lieberman’s fan or his political foe, this is the last venue to seek even a hint of artistic sophistication. Present abundantly is unadulterated hate. It’s all eerily on par with the “organized loathing” in George Orwell’s 1984. Big Brother’s arch antagonist was reviled regularly on the official “telescreen” daily “Two Minutes of Hate” feature, till his very image evoked hisses and reactions of “mingled fear and disgust.”
This is what this exhibit is geared to evoke. The selfsatisfied artists and aspiring-artists (for whom this is likely the apex of their exposure hitherto) doubtlessly exude glee. Yet in a country obsessed with castigating incitement, the Beit Berl provocation goes remarkably unopposed. It’s indeed lauded as a testament to our liberality and a forum for an authentic groundswell of popular protest (even if meticulously choreographed by a cliquey art establishment parading incongruously as nonconformist).
At the other end of our political spectrum, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira’s 2009 book Torat Hamelech (The King’s Torah) spawned an ongoing criminal investigation by the police Serious and International Crimes Squad (no less). Copies of the publication were confiscated. In all, it constitutes a learned religious treatise on rules of engagement in wartime, arguing (heaven forfend) that in the heat of conflict non-Jews may be killed. Influential rabbis who dared endorse the book were summoned for interrogation and their refusal to heed said summons sent our constabulary (which faces no greater challenges) into a tizzy.
Whether one is a fan of the rabbi or his foe, it needs to be asked why his freedom of expression is any less than that of the Evet exhibitors.
But the question is rhetorical. Leftist useful idiots are the darlings of opinion-shapers. Rabbi Shapira is their utter anathema. It’s different strokes for different folks.
That’s why no eyebrows were raised by the confiscation of an obscure booklet and why no artsy celebrities dared mumble something against the useful-idiot uniformity of Beit Berl’s gallery. It doesn’t pay to take the useful idiots on. They can make or break careers. It’s prudent to remain on their good side.
YEARS AGO I was treated to a personal demonstration of why so much local creative zeal meanders leftward to the useful idiot domain. I was a young political reporter, when a then-mighty Labor politician remarked that he had heard I painted. After I confirmed the rumor, he offered me a generous year’s stipend (from the Histadrut, then not yet bankrupt) that would enable me to fill my canvasses without financial worry.
I hastily turned him down, inquiring acidly how he knew my art had any merit. The politician replied that I needn’t concern myself about that, as exhibitions and “friendly publicity” would be arranged for me. Colleagues later told me I was a prime non-useful idiot. I rejected a dream deal which “The Party” offered only to “people in which it was interested.”
In the wake of my artistic hara-kiri, I discovered that this is how one enters Israel’s intellectual inner sanctum. You either go with the flow or are ostracized. The implied bottom line is that if you’re with us, we will stand by you all the way. But if you aren’t, you’re against us. While he remained in Russia, Yuri Annenkov knew the rote.