The Forest for the Trees

On his father's side he's a third-generation Holocaust survivor, on his mother's side the scion of a prominent Palestinian Christian family. In his work, artist Dor Guez explores his roots while refusing to be labeled.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

Dor Guez, 29, gets annoyed when he is described as a young artist: He has quite a few credits that even veterans can't claim. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Department of Photography and Video at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and a master's degree from the Interdisciplinary Program in the Arts at Tel Aviv University, where he also completed the Museology Studies (Curatorship ) Program; he is currently doing his doctorate there. His resume includes nine solo exhibitions, three catalogs, and the Young Artist award from the Ministry of Culture and Sports for 2010.

It is only natural that Guez was not pleased with talk about the immaturity of his career, if only because he combines his work as an interdisciplinary artist with curating exhibitions and teaching in the Bezalel Department of History and Theory. Parallel to his doctorate, which focuses on the Zionist Archives (his mentor is Prof. Hannah Naveh ), he is building an archive of photographs of the Christian Arab community in the Middle East, which will soon be posted on the Internet. The Arab Christian minority preoccupies him and is reflected in his artistic work, since his mother's family is of Christian Arab descent. His father's family are Tunisian Jews.

Dor GuezCredit: Uri Gershuni

"I'm a workaholic," he smiles. The lifestyle he absorbed at home shaped him. His mother, Violet Guez, principal of the Rene Cassin High School in Jerusalem, is like that. From her he learned that activity is the heart of life, and work is the essence of his existence. He has never taken a vacation, and as soon as he has any free time, he panics and immediately finds a new hurdle to overcome. He doesn't have many interests other than his artistic activity. At the moment, even his love life is on hold.

Visual DNA

During the past two years three hardcover catalogs of Guez's works have been published: one is a catalog of the exhibition "Georgiopolis" (in the Petah Tikva Museum of Art, 2009, curated by Drorit Gur Arie ), the second is the "Al-Lydd" catalog of his most comprehensive solo exhibition, which was shown in 2010 at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin (curated by Susanne Pfeffer, published by German publisher Distanz ). The third is a Nathan Gottesdiener Foundation catalog for three solo exhibitions currently on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art: those of artists Jan Tichy and Shahar Yahalom, and Guez's exhibit, "The Nation's Groves" (which will later be traveling to Poland, Germany, Brazil and the United States ). The three are finalists for the Gottesdiener Foundation Israeli Art Prize; the winner will be chosen this month by Suzanne Landau, chief curator of the arts at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. "The Nation's Groves" (curated by Ellen Ginton ) is named after the government corporation Mataei Hauma, which was a government-owned agricultural company that served in the 1950s as a branch of the Zionist enterprise, managing and maintaining the groves, vineyards and lands nationalized following the establishment of the State of Israel. It operated with Jewish and Palestinian laborers, concurrently with the Custodian of Absentee Property, until it was incorporated within the JNF in 1960. The laborers included Guez's Christian Arab grandfather, Jacob Monayer, born in 1920, one of the elders of the Lod Christian community. One display in the exhibition started out as one of Guez's childhood legends. When Dor and his twin brother Elad, who lived in Jerusalem, spent weekends and vacations in the home of their grandmother Samira and their grandfather Jacob in Lod, they were told that the watermelons lying in the cool and spacious area under their grandfather's bed actually grew there. "The Nation's Groves" includes his video installation "Watermelons Under the Bed" (2010 ), as part of a discussion of the history of the many generations of the Monayer family in the city of Lod. But not only watermelons were placed under his grandfather's bed. One day Guez found a forgotten suitcase there, containing black-and-white family photographs. A private history from the days when his grandmother Samira was a child in Jaffa and a student at the Greek Orthodox school for girls, and from her years in Lod, where she fled with her parents in 1948. During the war her family was dispersed to Amman, Cairo and London. "The idea of 'The Nation's Groves' is to examine a document, and how it functions within an array of works now described as contemporary art," says Guez. "I feel that a good exhibition has to be like an article with footnotes, and raise penetrating questions rather than just displaying art. The exhibition examines the Zionist ethos, and blatantly questions the Zionist narrative with which we are all familiar."

What's new? After all, questioning the Zionist ethos is all the rage now.

"The revolution that you're talking about exists mainly in the academic world, and to some extent in cinematic works here and there. From the moment this content is displayed in a venue such as the Tel Aviv Museum or the Petah Tikva Museum, and it's revealed to the visitors visually and not under the umbrella of a specific agenda, it's entirely different. In the past, these materials, which are being displayed in the very heart of the consensus, were not shown in museums. How often are words like 'Nakba' and 'occupation' found in museum galleries? There are many visitors who complain about that. When I serve as a guide at an exhibition, I always find myself standing in front of someone in the audience who attacks me.

"The subversive narrative is not found in the cliched terminology of concepts such as occupation and Nakba. It is found within what these concepts represent. In other words, not as a one-time event, when in 1948 so and so many Palestinians were expelled from a certain number of villages. My exhibition discusses the life that continued afterward, and describes an entire process through one family - the family of my grandfather, Jacob Monayer. It's important to me not to limit the subject to a battle over terminology, because that's not the real battle.

"Two days ago there was a group that included Arab students, who didn't say a word. At the end of the tour one young Arab woman from the north of Israel approached me and told me with tears in her eyes that she had never felt that there was an image that represented her in any exhibition. She liked the photograph 'Two Palestinian Riders. Ben Shemen Forest.' Her brothers from the village also rode horses without saddles in the forests, and that touched her the most. We're all born with historical and visual DNA embedded in us, and in my exhibition a certain image excited her."

It's sad that of all things, the pine forests in the exhibition aroused her DNA.

"She identifies the pine forests as part of her childhood landscape because she's already the third or fourth generation of these trees. I also grew up near Ben Shemen Forest; we would have picnics there, and it was part of my cultural landscape long before I realized that it's not a natural forest.

"Before they planted the forests, there were no Christmas trees. When they planted them after the establishment of the state, the Christian Arabs used to steal pine trees before the holiday. My grandmother told me that from the moment they started to fear that the guards would catch them, they began to buy plastic Christmas trees."

The Ben Shemen Forest in which Dor played as a child is the first and most extensive of the Jewish National Fund forests, and most of it was planted during the British Mandate period on lands belonging to Arab villages whose inhabitants were expelled or fled during the war. The "Pines" (Oranim ) series is composed of large photographs of forests as well as playground facilities, which, as curator and researcher Efrat Livni remarks in her article in the catalog, resemble the semi-military buildings of the Wall and Stockade period (when Jewish communities were built overnight ).

"The decision to plant dense evergreen forests as an initiated Zionist activity, stemmed from the need to demonstrate a presence on the lands purchased by the JNF before the establishment of the state, and those that were nationalized after 1948," says Guez. "The pine trees are described as pioneer trees - they grow fast and don't require care, and therefore they were chosen rather than trees that are indigenous to the region, such as olive, almond or fig trees, which require time and nurturing, but last for hundreds of years. The irony is that the pioneer trees are also 'first stage' trees - they will gradually disappear, whether in fires or as a result of diseases. They're like a brief colonial visit.

"It was also a choice with a cultural agenda. The Jews who came from Europe wanted to copy and reproduce their childhood landscape, and that's how evergreens became the familiar and ostensibly 'natural' landscape of Israel. Israel likes to see itself as a Western country. The green organizations claim that the trees caused ecological damage - the pines suffocate the soil and don't enable the natural flora of the region to grow. They came to 'make the desert bloom,' as though a rocky landscape has no significance as a landscape, it's transparent and empty.'"

In the work "Pioneer Tree" (2011 ), Guez's grandfather is seen narrating his history, first as a laborer and afterward as the first Arab foreman in The Nation's Groves corporation. The laborers, including him, were photographed in work clothes, erect and smiling as in the images of pioneers familiar from Zionist archive photos. Guez found this documentation in the album of his grandfather, who lost his property and his status and was forced to adapt to the Jewish state and become part of it in order to survive. Guez displays the photos with captions in Arabic.

But Guez doesn't limit himself to pine trees. In his works he revives the history of the city of Lod, which in previous incarnations was called Ratan, Diospolis, Georgiopolis, Al-Lydd and Lydda. The city's history is the subject of his two main solo exhibitions, and can also be found in "The Nation's Groves." In installations, photographs and video works he tells the complicated story of the Christian Arab minority in Lod, the city that "changed hands often during the thousand years of its existence, shed its skin, stretched, shrank and changed names. Every peeling of one layer revealed another one, scar after scar. Even today, a 15-minute drive from Tel Aviv, it is bleeding its Arab past into total public silence, and its vestiges have remained like abandoned monuments," as he wrote in the catalog "Georgiopolis."

Guez's grandfather, Jacob Moyaner, was the eldest in a family of 10 children. His father, who was the representative of the Christian Arab community in Lod, was shot by Muslim officers during the 1936 Arab uprising, when opinion was divided regarding the nature of opposition to British rule and to the Jews. The Christians rejected bloodshed. After his father's death, 17-year-old Jacob became the head of the family.

Lod was captured in 1948 by the Palmach, the pre-state elite commandos, in Operation Danny, under the command of Yigal Allon. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion authorized Allon to expel the city's population, and Yitzhak Rabin, who was Allon's operations officer, executed the order. On July 12-13 about 50,000 residents of the cities of Ramle and Lod, and the surrounding villages were expelled. The soldiers looted money and jewelry. The refugees made their way east and to this day there is no precise estimate of the number of children, women and old people who died of thirst.

During the capture of Lod, the Monayer family and several of the veteran Christian families in the city found a hiding place in the heart of the old city, in a cave beneath the Saint George Greek Orthodox church.

"A few days later the Israeli army discovered them," says Guez, "and it was decided that they wouldn't return to their homes but would be concentrated in the area of the church and the mosque, which the army blocked with barbed wire fences and called the 'Lod Ghetto,' its name to this day. My grandfather says that he was among the first to realize that anyone who left the city would be unable to return, and therefore he decided to stay.

"My grandfather was an engineer who worked for the telegraph company during the British Mandate. After the capture of Lod there was no work, and one day they came from The Nation's Groves and asked who wanted to work with a hoe. My grandfather began to work as a laborer, and thanks to his experience and his ability to read maps, within a short time he was appointed a foreman. He adapted himself well to the rulers, whether British or Israeli."

His grandfather and his grandmother Samira, says Guez, married in the 'Lod Ghetto' in 1949, in the first wedding held in the city after the war.

The third language

Dor Guez lives in a rented apartment above a noisy carpentry shop in south Tel Aviv. Its walls are covered with images from his exhibitions, including the photograph of his grandmother Samira on her wedding day. In another photo (a scan of the original ) his grandfather Jacob is dressed as a cowboy on a horse in a photo taken in a Tel Aviv studio in 1942. On another wall hangs a 1971 oil painting by Dor's father, Daniel Guez, which is called "Vestiges of the Old City in Lod."

Daniel Guez is the youngest in a family of four brothers; the family was originally from the island of Djerba in Tunisia. During World War II, Tunisia, which was under French rule, was taken over by the Nazis after their occupation of France, and the members of the Guez family were imprisoned in concentration camps in Tunisia until 1943. Dor Guez describes himself as a third-generation Holocaust survivor.

The family immigrated to Israel in 1951 and settled in Lod. Daniel Guez, who during his childhood studied Torah in a heder (a Jewish school for young children ), graduated from the Ramle-Lod High School. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem he studied Bible and history, and there he met Violet Monayer, three years his junior, who was studying in the department of literature and Hebrew language. Their love was stronger than any obstacle and they married in 1979. Photographs from their wedding hang in Dor's room.

"My father grew up in a national religious home, but he doesn't hold those views," says Guez. This week he recalled that every morning on his sandwich bag his father used to write the sentence "Dor dor vedorshav" (the name of a work by the Austrian Talmudist Isaac Hirsch Weiss about the development of the Oral Law - and a play on Dor's name ).

Dor's father worked in the textile business and his mother was a teacher until she was appointed principal of the Rene Cassin High School in Jerusalem. "My parents are a genuine and loving couple," says Guez. "We grew up on the slogan that our strength will lie in education and knowledge. My mother is a restrained and serene person. Still waters. Her gaze can make you want to die. She never raises her voice."

Guez and his twin brother were born in Jerusalem. He attended Rene Cassin from seventh grade. "I had a very good childhood," he says. "I was popular in school and there's nothing special that I would like to add to that, not the name of the elementary school where we studied or if I had a bar mitzvah. Nor do I think that there was a specific age when I became aware of my family history - it's something I grew up with.

"We grew up with Mom's family in Lod and my experiential baggage is from there. Hiking in the forests and going to the beach and gathering fruits in the vineyards. In Grandfather Monayer's home they spoke Hebrew. Recently I told my brother Elad that although we spent less time in Lod, my dreams are from there. He feels the same way.

"Grandma Samira was 47 years old when my brother and I were born, and she was like a mother to us because we were her first grandchildren. My mother's brothers were in their teens and were like our big brothers. We also visited dad's family a lot, but they already had lots of grandchildren."

In 1971 there was an exhibition in the Hebrew Ramle-Lod High School that described the course of Operation Danny, the conquest of Lod in 1948. The exhibition included photographs and paintings of what was left of the city after the destruction, and later the construction of housing projects for the new immigrants, in which the Guez family eventually lived. The show was organized by a 17-year-old student who "endeavored to gather, piece together and unite texts and images in order to recount the incomprehensible. ... The exhibition 'Georgiopolis' (the Christian name of Lod ) revisits and continues a family heritage handed down by that high school student, my mother," wrote Guez in the text of the catalog.

Guez says that today, an exhibition of that kind would not go over easily. "She mounted the exhibit out of naivete and from what she knew about Lod and about Deir Yassin, which was a source of pride among the Jews at the time, while among Palestinians it was a disaster and a source of despair. [Deir Yassin was an Arab village attacked by Jewish militias during the 1948 war.] She portrayed a set of events that differed from the terminology of her school.

"I didn't grow up on that exhibit. While I was involved in my work she told me about it, and it turned into another part of what I know about my mother and about the viewpoint with which they taught her to observe the reality around her. It's mainly symbolic."

His mother is the only person "with whom I'm in close consultation about every step. She reads every article and text of mine and is involved in my choices. I also sometimes contradict her judgment. She wouldn't recommend that I be interviewed for the newspaper."

His father, says Guez, calls his wife's parents Mom and Dad. "I'm considered the firstborn son of the Monayer family. Our history as a family is the history of my parents together. My parents are outside the story, and I don't elaborate about them."

The members of the Monayer family, the grandparents Jacob and Samira, and their sons Sami, Samih, Salim and Silver and Guez's female cousin Samira, appear in his videos, and say that they grew up more Israeli than Israelis and were well educated to believe in "the glory of the State of Israel," as Samih Monayer says, as he bursts out laughing.

Guez interviews them, and their testimonies combine historical facts and their personal stories. In the interview with his grandfather Jacob he says that his children are "more Israeli" now, and the voice of his wife corrects him outside the frame: "They're Arabs who live in Israel." The oldest uncle, Prof. Salim Monayer, says concerning his Hebrew: "They claim that between Hebrew and Arabic and English I've developed a third language - I count money in Arabic. When I think about theological subjects, in certain areas it's in English, and in Hebrew - depending on the subject."

His uncle Sami Monayer testifies that he thinks in Hebrew, and describes himself as "Western with a leakage of Eastern culture," and as an Israeli who has traveled all over the country and knows it better than many so-called Israelis. But that doesn't prevent him from being labeled an Israeli and a traitor in the eyes of West Bank Palestinians, a Palestinian in the opinion of the Jews, and a Palestinian Arab when a political problem arises.

And who are you, Dor Guez?

"I have full confidence in my identity. All the definitions such as I'm a Jew, I'm an Israeli, I'm a Palestinian, I'm a Christian Arab, are something that I don't want to use or contain. The definition that I used in the past, that I'm an Arab Jew, was in order to examine what the term means. It's sometimes used as a euphemism for a Mizrahi, in other words, for a Jew of Arab origin. I don't want to participate in this labeling and I won't define myself even as 'Mediterranean,' because I refuse to participate in the Israeli regime of identities.

"The Christian community in Israel subverts all the dichotomous definitions between East and West. It suits neither the quasi European-Western definition nor the Arab Palestinian definitions, which are Muslim for the most part. So they are treated as a hybrid, as though they're a mixture from here and from there. It's complete in itself. And I define myself as someone complete in himself who has a culture, and dynamic and deeply rooted identities. My history is defined just as much by my personal-family-communal history as by the reality in which I live and work. I refuse to be a victim and I don't want to use my biography as an excuse for victimization, because I don't feel that way."

Acquired vagueness

Army service is mandatory in Israel, and Guez served in the Israel Defense Forces in the education unit of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, in which he also did reserve duty up until two years ago. "I have no idea what it means to be an Israeli. Service in the IDF is no longer a prominent characteristic. If we say that one of the circles of my identity is Israeliness, what is Israeliness? Is it defined by my passport or by the fact that I like Bamba? [a popular snack]. My definition is private and changeable. I suppose that I wander around it, in my exhibits as well; in them it begins with choosing the ethos, the landscape, the aesthetic, the Hebrew language, the symbols of Israeli culture such as a watermelon and a sabra [prickly pear cactus] that were appropriated from the Palestinians, but have become part of Israeli culture and life.

"At the moment I see my Israeliness as it is - part of the occupation, and I have a genuine civic obligation in relation to it - I don't understand Israeli artists whose work is based on pride in some European-Western tradition, as though they want to divorce themselves from this place. I see that as the continuation of colonial activity. I don't think that artists should create works that can be sold in IKEA. Artists are supposed to shake the foundations. In a place like Israel - where democracy is in danger, to put it mildly, and some people say it's nonexistent - that's an agenda that's independent of leftist or rightist views. As I see it, exhibitions such as 'The Nation's Groves' or 'Georgiopolis' are an achievement because they were displayed in public museums in Israel."

The murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis last month in Jenin shocked Guez. "Grandpa Jacob and Grandma Samira called me after the murder and said: 'Do you see what's happening? Don't get involved in politics.' For them, politics means that I shouldn't identify with a particular party or question the Muslim or Jewish narrative. I can be involved in their narrative, but not get into debates and confrontations. The fact that they appear in my video installations and talk about it - that's because it's unavoidable.

"But I'm different from Juliano. I'm a very private person and I have an image that I'm partly responsible for creating, and that's why I haven't given an interview until now. That's why when I'm asked who I am, my answer is vague. Somehow I'll always feel that I'm a virus in the system. And as we know, there's no cure for a virus, as opposed to a microbe. It's hard. But there are more difficult things."

And at the same time, you've become a favorite of the mainstream.

"The difference is that you have to know when you're imitating something and when you're using the tools of the other, in other words, of the white man. It's not surprising that art students know who [Gerhard] Richter and [Anselm] Kiefer are, but haven't heard of Akram Zaatari, a great Lebanese artist. It doesn't surprise me to see exhibitions in Israel that one could think were the work of Swiss artists. On the other hand, there are excellent artists here, such as Michael Heiman, Eli Petel and Yigal Nizri."

Your life situation isn't simple. On the one hand you're a third-generation Holocaust survivor, and on the other you're the scion of a Palestinian Christian family with deep roots.

"I feel that I've come from [a background of] cultural wealth and have been blessed with a rich cultural system. When someone discovers that I'm not an 'Ashkenazi' [European Jew] he looks again and I wonder if he's looking for horns. My only problem is in dealing with the labeling and the stereotypes involved in every label. I don't feel that I have to choose, and it's amazing how much people demand that you do so. As though I should touch the wound. Why can't I have coexisting multiple identities? There's something hypocritical about taking one definition and sticking to it. "I avoid using the terminology of the various identity roll calls - Mizrahi, Jewish, Arab - because I'm not sure what these concepts mean, or to be more precise, how they are understood and what they imply. It depends on context. I understand that it's hard to deal with someone who refuses to label himself, certainly in the situation of the Israeli identity regime that is accustomed to classifying and organizing everything hierarchically. That's why the most accurate answer is that I don't contain all those definitions, I'm only their sum total."

In Europe you're called a Palestinian artist, and in Israel the audience is angry at the mirror that you have placed before it, and in a museum yet.

"Zionism created an impossible hybrid of Jewish democracy as part of a mechanism of civic exclusion and segregation, but Israel has no choice but to include Arabism as part of it. It's the responsibility of the majority to take care of the minority within it, in this case the minority that it created. It's a known fact that a minority always knows more about the majority that the majority knows about the minority. The Israeli Arab speaks Hebrew, knows about the Jewish holidays and the history of European Jewry. The real question is not why the museum allowed a text in Arabic, but why artists don't demand that their catalog include a translation into Arabic, as they demand an English translation.

"The expectation has to be of us artists. For years artists agreed to have their works removed from the wall. The museum is supposed to preserve cultural assets. This year I canceled an exhibition in London because they asked me to remove 'only' one work."

Do you feel like the spokesman of the Christian Arab minority?

"Israeli Arabs have to wake up and demand an active part in the battle over the civic character of the state, and that means widespread representation on every possible platform, certainly a cultural platform. The museum is supposed to represent the entire population, even if part of it is deliberately excluded. We're in a state of constant reaction to the scare mechanisms being maneuvered by Israeli politics, and we've created an atmosphere here of violence toward certain sectors. The result is racial and religious separation and the creation of a hierarchy of civic status, which was weak in any case.

"I expect us as artists to play an active role in the struggle for human rights and human dignity - after all, the real war is not over territory. I don't understand how it's even possible to limit the discussion in art to formalistic questions, when the basic conditions for citizenship are nonexistent here.

"What is art, if they're trying to castrate it of the only condition that justifies it - the test of criticism. I have no interest in abstraction or in imitating the traditional Western artistic narrative, but I have a desire to use the tools of that language. These are two different activities. Time will tell if my exhibition within the walls of Israeli museums is an activity that makes me a part of the quasi-Western Israeli canon or establishes the presence of another narrative. It's a real dilemma: Is an exhibition like 'The Nation's Groves' a Trojan horse or a fig leaf?"

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