Purim Hebron
Purim in Hebron. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
Text size

It's not easy to look into the face of this clown, with his over-the-top, manic jubilation against a background of lowering skies and a watchtower above. In this effective photograph by Olivier Fitoussi, the annual Purimspiel of the settlers in Kiryat Arba and Hebron, held on March 29 last year, acquires a dimension of horror. It is not just the angle from which the clown is photographed - from below - but the isolation in which he performs his juggling stunts. Three of the four soldiers are not even looking at him. The one who is has his rifle pressed up against his body and is not especially interested or alert, and the others are too far away for us to see what they are looking at.

It is a brown-green winter's day in Hebron. The clown's costume glistens colorfully against the background of a disputed building in the Al-Ras neighborhood, known in settler doublespeak as "Peace House." In a few days, these settlers will again celebrate Purim by parading along a road on which Palestinian Hebronites are forbidden to travel, past windows that have been shuttered by order of the GOC Central Command, onto a street whose residents have vanished as though into thin air - because they are forbidden to travel on it, walk on it, open stores on it or pass along it. Then the settlers will head to the very symbol of their zeal, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and maybe more clowns in yellow, blue and red will make them laugh yet again.

This clown, then, signifies a meta-reality. He is an anomaly on top of an anomaly. He is not a hollow signifier or an anecdote. He carries meaning within the meta-reality that he himself endeavors to create in Hebron through the sheer fact of taking part in this performance, and amid knowledge of what happened on Purim 1994, when Baruch Goldstein entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs, costumed as a soldier in his own uniform. He killed and killed, and since then the holiday has been celebrated in Hebron with hyper-intentionality, unbridled joy and defiant provocation, as the victory of the strong, as a sign and token of the ability to erase everything, to subordinate all will. Fitoussi's photograph grasps this. Anyone who views it without any prior knowledge, and afterward learns about what is being wrought in Hebron, will find that he has already sensed the power of the meta-reality. He has already understood the relationship between one who dresses himself up as a clown and the soldiers who permit his performance, and those who are not seen in the photograph, whose presence is attested to only by their abandoned home.

Still, what makes this photograph truly frightening, what makes it stand out even among the multitude of images of settlers' Purimspiels, is the way it allows a glimpse into the clown himself, who is exposed here seemingly inadvertently, leaving himself wide open to Fitoussi's lens. Like Heath Ledger, who played the Joker in makeup that constantly ran - to emphasize the distortion beneath the cover - this clown's gaping hole of a mouth and the fleshy tongue between his too-white teeth (false teeth, maybe? ) directs our gaze beneath the makeup, inside his body, to his inner recesses. Ecce homo.