Tamar Berger's new book, which looks at toys to understand society, is razor-sharp in its critique. However the woman with 'X-ray vision' says she's 'crazy' about her homeland.
Tamar Berger was on the way to another shift with the women of Machsom Watch, the Israeli women's organization that monitors activity at army checkpoints in the West Bank, when she accidentally discovered something in a pile of garbage. It was across the road from the Dahiat al-Barid checkpoint near Ramallah: a small toy car made of cardboard, wrapped in glossy, brown packing tape that had been painted in the colors of the Palestinian flag - black on the bottom, green on the sides, and red on top. Its appearance at that location seemed scripted, turning up right before the eyes of a radical leftist cultural researcher who employs X-ray vision to scrutinize the depths of Israeli space. Berger insists it was merely coincidence, but that the story is true. There is no sense in arguing with facts.
A friend who accompanied her on that same journey to the checkpoint, artist Relli De Vries, was the first to notice the toy, Berger recalls. She placed it in a shoe box, "like a silkworm, like something very precious." Berger transformed the car into the star exhibit of her new book, "Birevach bein olam vetza'atzua: Al hamodel bitarbut hayisraelit" (In the Space between World and Toy: The Model in Israeli Culture), just published by Resling. A photograph of the toy car, one of the models "lifted from daily, Israeli life," is displayed on the book's cover in a faithful representation of the book's content: a penetrating discussion of the space that surrounds us. "In the Space between World and Toy" comes out a decade after Berger's first, meandering tome, "Dionysus at Dizengoff Center," a journey into the history of Tel Aviv's first mall. That book's exposure of repressed layers of cultural content in the palace of consumerism produced ripples. The Azrieli Mall, dedicated one year later, was the topic of its own recently published Hebrew novel, "The House of Dajani," by Alon Hilu. Hilu's book was undoubtedly inspired by "Dionysus."
Berger's current book also flows wonderfully from description to narrative, and observation to insight, as it departs the boundaries of its center for the entirety of Israeli space. It employs the same keen vision, while leaving no stone unturned. Only a reading of the book's fine print reveals the glimmer of optimism that occasionally flickers in the edges of a model.
Berger explains that the model is a special form of representation of an object or concept, but that it cannot be identical to either. It was designed to illustrate or exemplify, but, "the gap between world and toy is always preserved, to employ Rilke's terms." Berger wanders in the Israeli space within that gap, armed with a series of models, "which were not chosen with discrimination, but encountered along the way." They serve as the threshold for detailed descriptions, interpretation and free association. Under Berger's gaze, the toy-model-car at the checkpoint "was transformed into something else - not just another toy or representation of generic vehicles, but a symbol of being Palestinian. And in the context of its reality, that of the Israeli occupation, it becomes an expression and a symbol of the yearning for national liberation."
The settlement ethos
Another model in the book, a wall map of Israel from 1951, betrays the fact that "the settlement ethos is already found within it, and in fact has been since the earliest days of Zionism." Or, to paraphrase the right-wing bumper sticker that maintained that all of Israel resembles the political reality in the territories, Yesha really is here.
For Berger, the Petah Tikva Zoo is another model of Israeliness that sanctifies nature "on Arab lands that were occupied and obliterated." The Mini-Israel park [an Israeli version of Madurodam] - which, had it not existed, Berger would have had to invent to support her critique - is a model that "perverts the picture of reality and realigns it according to accepted industrial standards of Israeliness." And so forth.
You say that the models were encountered along the way. In other words, everything was tainted regardless of what you encountered?
"I try to describe what I see, and I see difficult issues that are unresolved. My vision is unaffectionate. I believe one must be critical of everything, but not totally critical in a disingenuous manner that leaves destruction in its path. I am not interested in the Zionist Jewish state. But I am interested in Israeliness, in which I do not deny there is guilt, either as an experience or a culture. It is maddening, violent, outrageous and moving, and despite all my harsh expression, I do not harbor hate. I am crazy about this place. This is my place, and I can only live here."
Berger was born in 1957 to an affluent family, and she conducts her life between Kfar Shmaryahu, the posh suburb in which she was raised, and Tel Aviv, where she now resides. "I was born into comfort," she says, "but not into a mentality of prosperity and joy." Her father, Ezra Berger, came from the family of industrialists ("right-wing, capitalist, and religious") who founded the Teth Beth Food Industries firm. Her mother, Elinoar Berger, is a translator whom the daughter associates with the "intellectual, socialist" wing of the family. "I was not raised in a place with a clear, unequivocal ideology, and that makes me fortunate."
She is the oldest child in her family. "The eldest daughter is a model in and of itself," she says. "A bit damaged, because the eldest daughter is subject to the sons. The book is also a declaration that I liberated myself from this model and its inescapable role."
Berger is married to filmmaker Avi Mugrabi, whose documentary films represent ongoing guerilla warfare against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Without a doubt, they constitute the exemplary radical leftist family. Mugrabi's only film that does not deal with the Palestinians is "August," the story of a director who makes a film about his most hated month of the year. Their oldest child, Shaul, refused to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, "and I am proud of that," says his mother. She explains that open refusal has been replaced by concealed "gray" refusal, "which I prefer because it is more radical." Shaul and his peers were the subjects of Mugrabi's chilling film "Avenge But One of My Eyes."
The mother is an activist who regularly participates in demonstrations against the occupation and the separation fence, and protests house demolitions in the rundown Tel Aviv community of Kfar Shalem, as well as among the Arab community of Jaffa. Her great political love is the anarchist movement, which distances itself from the political or social Zionist Israeli left. "I am associated with the Yonatan Pollack group, which operates beyond any system," she says. "Not like the leaders of Peace Now, who are connected to cabinet ministers. Anarchists have a different democratic approach. It is a complete ideology. They may be just sons and daughters from 'good homes' who are playing around, but they may truly have a different proposal. They also inspire thought in me."
Berger is among the pioneers who moved to Tel Aviv's mythological, ultra-hip Sheinkin Street in the 1980s. Her bookstore, The 20th Century, was ahead of its time in its presentation of commercially unpromising merchandise in the form of art, film, archaeology, design and theory and critique books. "No one talked about gentrification then," she explains. "But looking back, it is true that we drove the price of housing in Tel Aviv up with our own hands." Today, her neighborhood is the heart of bourgeois Tel Aviv. From the veranda of the cafe in which we spoke, she pointed to the luxury Akirov Towers, in North Tel Aviv, while castigating the "socioeconomic gaps" that the upscale, residential high-rises represent.
Doesn't an apartment like your own in a three-story building in the heart of Tel Aviv represent a socioeconomic gap?
"What can you do if you live in the center of the city? What can you do if you love this place, Israel? I'm guilty, I sinned, but I am also not guilty and I'm free of sin. At least I try to engage in sociopolitical activity. I don't come from a place of implementation and I didn't stand up to the test of action on the ground. I am not an architect, but I would like to believe that my activism will produce something."
Does your criticism contain some nostalgia for a bygone place?
"I am free of nostalgia. I have no interest in preservation, and my heart doesn't break when they demolish old buildings. The world was never free of injustice. Everything was always complicated. So I don't long for the past but, perhaps, for the future."
The thesis for Berger's recently granted doctorate focused on Ben-Gurion Airport, written in a format that recalls her critique of Dizengoff Center. "My proposal was to investigate a place that is also a non-place, a transitional site that represents 'here' and 'there,' which is in fact an axis around which the Zionist project rotates and around which Israeli life now also rotates," she explains.
After studying literature and philosophy, "My expertise developed in the direction of Israeli space, and it is my luxury to be able to adopt a multidisciplinary approach that permits me to examine space in a philosophical, cultural, and architectural fashion."
Even Berger's treatment of Ackerstein Industries tiles transforms them from simple, innocently plain surfacing material to "the embodiment of the Zionist ethos, a thriving assembly lime of columns and pillboxes that exalts the apartheid wall, the perfection of derivative ability and a display window of all the unrestrained and undifferentiated filth, artificial Israeliness, flat, violent, and coarse," as she once wrote in an article for a book about Israeli cities.
A place that remembers its past
What, in your opinion, is an Israeli place?
"A place that remembers its past, which must remember its past. And not just its Palestinian past, but our Jewish past, each of us according to his ethnicity. But, once again, not nostalgic. Not a return to what was once, but a processed memory, the ability to contain the past within the present, as in good psychological therapy. Otherwise, you'll always rediscover the deceit that underlies repression and denial. Like Ackerstein paving stones that imitate authentic stone floors, but their entire existence relies on a pressed-together framework, and the minute the framework falls apart, so does the entire sidewalk."