The Israeli Photojournalist Chipping Away at the Occupation, One Shot at a Time

Photographer Miki Kratsman still believes in Israel, even if he's not sure why

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Miki Kratsman.
Miki Kratsman.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

For her 15th birthday, in 1951, Amalia Tolchinsky received a not so exciting present from her father: a certificate affirming that 10 trees had been planted in her honor by the Jewish National Fund in Israel. So disappointed was she that completely forgot about the gift. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, she was very far, physically, from the JNF pine saplings in the young Jewish state, and the truth is they didn’t really interest her very much. In fact, in the 70 years since that donation was made – even after she immigrated to Israel, where she has lived since the 1970s – she never looked for the trees that were planted in her honor. But for her son, photographer Miki Kratsman, the very existence of those trees constitutes something akin to a seminal event. They are the point of departure for a project that is related to a larger theme that has engaged him for most of his professional life: the dispossession, erasure and repression of the Palestinian past and present in Israel and the territories.

So, on a recent Friday morning we set out to look for the trees donated by Kratsman’s grandfather, who died shortly afterward, never having made it to Israel. Kratsman, who is 61, knows that the trees were planted in the San Martin Grove of the JNF’s Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh, southwest of Jerusalem. A few hundred meters north of the city, after the entrance to Moshav Mesilat Zion, stands a relatively new monument dedicated to the memory of José de San Martin, the liberator of Argentina, among other countries, from its Spanish rulers. The monument is surrounded by stones engraved with donors’ names, but we can’t find Kratsman’s grandfather’s name. What is San Martin’s connection to a grove of trees outside Beit Shemesh? Kratsman explains that this was a means for the JNF to raise funds for its forestation project.

“They went to the most basic subjects that could create a feeling of identification,” he says. “So they brought in the liberator of Argentina. But until the monument was erected here, no one even knew where the San Martin Grove was. I called the JNF three years ago, and they couldn’t tell me where it is. So my grandfather’s trees are here. Now all we have to do is find them.”

It should be obvious that there’s no way to find the specific trees that were planted in his mother’s name, nor is Kratsman knowledgeable enough about forestry to know what 70-year-old trees look like. But he keeps searching doggedly amid the dense vegetation, looking for trees that look relatively old and photographing them – although it’s not even the personal family story that interests him.

“It’s much more generic than that,” he admits. “I am not one who deals with the specific. From my point of view, the trees my grandfather donated are exactly the same as the trees that my grandfather didn’t donate, or that someone else donated. This is the conduct of a young country that is drawing on the help of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and recruiting it, without it understanding anything, for an operation that the sovereign views as essential at that time. Two generations after my grandfather, when I was a kid in primary school in Argentina, on Lag Ba’omer, we went around to stores and asked them to donate to the JNF. Not only to Jewish stores – to all stores. I saw nothing wrong with that.

“Today,” he continues, “I have a better understanding of what these forests are. In this area they planted on the ruins of Palestinian villages. In the Bedouin areas where I wander sometimes, trees are planted today after people are evicted, and the purpose of the forests is to prevent those people from returning. The JNF’s Ambassadors Forest extends across several kilometers, it’s huge. It covers the whole region of al-Arakib [an unrecognized Bedouin village and its surroundings, north of Be’er Sheva]. The trees expel the people. Until new communities are built in the place of those that were demolished, the facts on the ground are the trees.”

Maybe trees were planted elsewhere with the money your grandfather donated, or no trees were planted and the money was used to buy property?

Kratsman: “Having doubts is a good thing, but not now, not here.”

I still don’t understand why this specific story makes a difference. After all, there’s no chance you’ll find and photograph the right trees. And you also believe that photography should keep its distance from sentimentality.

“You have to start from somewhere, from something that is grounded in reality. I believe the JNF certificate, so I’m starting from there. I don’t have any sentiment about the work; I am not really searching for my past. I am simply hooking up to it in order to illustrate a certain point.”

You’re using this story like an archival document. You need some sort of original reference.

“Exactly.”

Origins of the forest

“Archive” is exactly the term Kratsman arrived at after years of trying to understand what he was actually doing. Hence the title of his new book, in Hebrew: “The Archivist” (Kibbutz Hameuchad Press). It is a compilation of texts with Kratsman’s personal impressions from photographic expeditions to unrecognized Bedouin villages, encounters with students, the transcript of court testimony he gave, and three riveting conversations Kratsman conducted with cultural researcher Dr. Tamar Berger, architect-curator Dr. Galia Bar Or and psychoanalyst Prof. Yolanda Gampel.

“I work by identifying opportunities,” he says, “and this was an opportunity. My whole career has unfolded like that. There were no long-term goals that I set myself.”

Palestinians throwing stones, during the first intifada, 1987. Credit: Miki Kratsman

Like Kratsman himself, there is something modest and precise about the book, too, but also honest and aware of its self-worth. Kratsman himself is apprehensive about it – he hopes “it won’t make [him] nauseous” – because he says writing is not his medium and he’s fearful of the inauthentic. “It’s like someone who sings without really knowing how to sing. If I knew how to write, I wouldn’t be a photographer,” he says.

But for anyone who wishes to grasp what he’s actually been doing all these years, during which he has pursued an extensive and diversified career as a photojournalist, a teacher of photography in various institutions – including heading the photography department at the Bezalel School of Arts and Design in Jerusalem – an artist and an activist, “Archivist” definitively brings his different occupations together in a way that enables us to see that he’s been traveling along one coherent path.

From 1992 until 2011, Kratsman worked with Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy, doing the photography for Levy’s weekly column “The Twilight Zone.” From the very outset, he relates, a difference of opinion developed between them about the purpose of the column, which acquaints readers with the injustices and horrors of the occupation.

Kratsman: “Gideon was constantly disturbed over the effect the articles would have, about how many people would read them. I argued that the importance of his column lies not in the reactions to it on the day of publication or the next day, but as material that will remain in the archive, to which people will return one day. And I have no doubt that people will return to it. So the division between us was that he works for a newspaper and I was an archivist.”

An even better example of Kratsman’s archival pursuits, from his perspective, is his connection to the anti-occupation organization Breaking the Silence, which he helped to establish in 2004; he has served as its board chairman ever since. In his book he recounts his first encounter with Yehuda Shaul, who had then recently completed service in an Israel Defense Forces combat unit in Hebron and wanted to create a presentation that would showcase his and his comrades-in-arms’ experiences as accomplices of an occupation force. Shaul’s idea morphed into an exhibition of soldiers’ photographs and videos that documented the everyday routine of their service in the territories – and subsequently led to creation of Breaking the Silence, which collects testimonies from soldiers and presnts them to the public in diverse ways.

“The young people there also talk about effectiveness,” Kratsman notes. “And real time is more relevant there. But you need to remember that the archive that is created by all these testimonies, and the tours and activities [the NGO organizes], are also of value. And it’s clear that this organization has acquired expertise about the occupation and as such has become a resource for researchers.”

But even so, the main goal of Breaking the Silence is activism, not creation of a research-oriented body. As such it’s also the target of no little criticism and opposition.

“The organization was established because an opportunity suddenly arose during the meeting with Yehuda Shaul. Today it is as if it had been there all along. The public’s shock at the testimonies lasted for only a short time after the NGO’s founding, when we mounted the first exhibition. Today Israeli society has moved so far rightward that people no longer see the testimony.”

Don’t see or aren’t persuaded? You have Breaking the Silence on the one side and the case of Elor Azaria, the “Hebron shooter” [the soldier who shot to death an incapacitated Palestinian, in 2016] on the other side. It’s clear who won more sympathy.

In the Bedouin areas where I wander, trees are planted today after people are evicted, and the purpose of the forests is to prevent the people from returning. Trees expel people. Until new communities are built instead of those that were demolished, the facts on the ground are the trees.

Kratsman

“I rest my case. When you see the public support Elor Azaria got, you understand that these people will not read the Breaking the Silence testimonies. What one sees and reads is a decision.”

It may be that they read, but don’t necessarily arrive at the conclusion you and the organization wants them to arrive at. They say, “The Palestinians deserve it, that’s how we need to behave with them.”

“Maybe I’m naïve, but I think that a minority of a minority actually thinks that. I think the majority simply shut their eyes and ears.”

That’s apparently what allows you to go on doing what you do – because you think it’s only a matter of awakening.

“No. I simply can’t do without it. In fact, I think that activism and volunteering and philanthropy are [the reflection of] a type of need. When you hear about an activist, you say: that person is torn [by pain or guilt], but at the same time, he is also giving something to himself.”

In Kratsman’s eyes, pure evil lurks in the testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence, reflecting conduct that cannot be written off as caused by the constraints of a situation of war. These are actions, he is convinced, that would shock anyone. “What goes through the heads of a group of soldiers who decide to enter a house and lock the whole family in one room, so that they [the soldiers] can watch a soccer game? I am not even talking about cases of beating suspects or killing or about ‘confirmation of kill.’ It’s precisely the routine that looks to me far harsher and crueler than the extreme actions.

Netanyahu at Hatikva Market in 1999.Credit: Miki Kratsman

“People who live with no civil rights are those who have the hardest time on a day-to-day basis. When you don’t know when you’ll get to work and get there two hours early in the end, because you were afraid of being stuck at a checkpoint. There are many things we take for granted, but they do not. Even the landscape we see is not natural. The infrastructure that surrounds us, the roads we travel on. What is the significance of the road I drive on in the territories that is called bypass-this-or-that road? These forests – they are an invention. What was the purpose of inventing them?”

‘The shit we live in’

Miki Kratsman was born in 1959 in Buenos Aires. His parents were also born in Argentina, to Jewish families who had emigrated from Belarus and the Odessa region. When he was 12, the family moved to Israel, to Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv. Kratsman says it was a successful move for the family. From his point of view, though, the initial encounter with Israel was a bit of a disappointment. “I saw an Arab with a keffiyeh in Jaffa harbor, and I felt cheated. In Argentina they had convinced us that there were no Arabs [in Israel], because they all fled after we defeated them in the war. In the films they showed us the whole population was young, full of beautiful people in khaki.”

The disappointment over the fact that the splendid descriptions were far from the reality made him doubt everything he had been told until then – and everything he would be told afterward. In fact, Kratsman hasn’t stopped casting doubt since then. “I work from a place of resistance. The moment you start to have doubts, there’s apparently no way back. To me that seems like the correct, or essential, way of comporting oneself in life. Otherwise I would just buy every brand of toothpaste that’s sold on television.”

How did you become a left-winger?

“The same way you become a soccer fan. I had a cousin who fled from Argentina to Israel when he realized the authorities were looking for him. Five cousins from my mother’s family were ‘disappeared’ during the period of the military junta in the 1970s. The cousin who fled was a left-wing activist, and he joined an organization here called Brit Hapoalim (Workers Alliance). I was 16 then, and I joined in his wake. I distributed their newsletter, called the Worker’s Voice. That’s how I received a left-wing education and got stuck in it.”

Kratsman studied in the technical photography track at a Kiryat Ono high school. After completing his army service in a Nahal Brigade combat unit, he started work as a medical photographer at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. In 1983, he joined the staff of the (now-defunct) newspaper Hadashot, published by the Haaretz Group. In his capacity as director of the photography lab, he became acquainted with the work of such photographers as Moshe Shai, Alex Levac and Vardi Kahana. He decided that he, too, wanted to be a professional photographer.

Kratsman’s first photographic exhibition was held in Tel Aviv’s Bograshov Gallery in 1992, and was curated by Ariella Azoulay. That show was the first of many, including a joint exhibition with artist David Reeb at the Israel Museum in 2003, solo shows in Paris and Innsbruck, and participation in such important art events as the Sao Paolo Biennale in 2006. A few years ago he stopped engaging in media photojournalism and no longer holds a press card.

As for the shots of the trees he’s taking – the reason we’re traipsing through the thickets of the Eshtaol Forest – for the time being he’s not categorizing them, whether as documentation, photojournalism or art. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re all situated in a very similar place. It simply depends on the platform you give it.”

But to document an event that’s happening now, or the demolition of a village, isn’t like talking about a historical or political process through the medium of trees.

“What I’ve been doing for a long time is really to talk with myself about the same thing. And the platform I use to do that is of no significance. I change strategy and return to the same place. One time it’s with drone photography, another time through a newspaper, and then via an exhibition. But I’m talking about the same thing: the shit we live in.”

We continue to wander in the forest, searching for the place where it ceases to look like an orderly JNF grove and starts to resemble a European forest which the sun’s rays barely penetrate. Kratsman wants to continue along with the fantasy of those who planted this forest, while they dreamed of other places. “All they did was chalk up failures along the way. But I am ready to go along with these efforts for a moment, to give them that credit. And I can also take pleasure in the beauty of the photographs themselves. I’m not an ascetic or something.”

In “Archivist,” you mention your [1991] photograph of Yitzhak Rabin hailing a taxi. But besides that very well-known shot, you aren’t associated with many iconic photographs. In the book, too, the images don’t stand on their own. Without noting the context of the place and the circumstances in which they were taken, the pictures look very technical, almost banal.

Yitzhak Rabin hailing a cab, 1991. "He doesn't look like a hero there."Credit: Miki Kratsman

“I have no iconic photographs at all. I think that few have been fortunate enough to create a truly iconic photograph, and I doubt that it’s even possible to create an iconic image today. Every photographer would wish, for example, for there to be a public personage who would be remembered through the image he produced, through his own visual interpretation. If we want to enter big shoes – like Alberto Korda’s portrait of Che Guevara, which is perhaps the best-known image in the world. My Rabin photo is not like that. Nor could it be. He doesn’t look like a hero there. It’s not a photo that his family would have adopted.”

Maybe “iconic” isn’t the word – let’s say images that have been engraved in the public consciousness. What do you have of that sort, apart from Rabin?

“I don’t have any. I think that if anything brought about recognition of my work, it’s more persistence than achievements. I also tell my students that I am not a great believer in talent. I believe in something that is more connected to character. I am a marathon runner. If I gain recognition, it’s thanks to the marathon. It’s not some particular photograph that I published or was credited with, but because I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time.”

That’s perhaps the activist element [of your work], which has an educational effect in the good sense of the word.

“I’m fine with the word ‘educational.’ I’m happy it can be seen in that way. And I truly think that if I didn’t have something activist in my personality, it’s possible that I would not have worked in photography as I have done. Because, who goes into photojournalism? People who are hooked on adrenaline. And I am a de-adrenaline-ated type. I’ve roamed the territories for 30 years. Over the past year, I’ve taken more blows and [faced more] bullets from soldiers than in any previous year. It was tough. And at no stage did I feel anything that I could interpret as adrenaline. I went into photojournalism from a completely different place. Journalism seemed to me like an ideology. I will even say that it didn’t seem like a livelihood to me. And the truth is that in the first years, we didn’t make a living, the photographers. Nevertheless, in a pretty dumb way, we insisted on sticking with the job.”

Over the past year, I’ve taken more blows and [faced more] bullets from soldiers than in any previous year. And at no stage did I feel anything that I could interpret as adrenaline. I went into photojournalism from a completely different place.

Kratsman

With all the frustration from the political situation and the never-ending occupation, have you ever thought of picking up and living elsewhere?

“I did. But I realized that it simply would not work. Because it’s like voiding me of what I am. I need to alter my identity in order live somewhere else. And in an irrational way, I believe in this place, and that doesn’t pass. I don’t know why. There isn’t much logic to it.”

Leading left-wing activists with whom you have collaborated, such as Ariella Azoulay, made a different choice and left. Were they despairing?

“Possibly. Or they stored up anger they could not longer cope with. I can understand that. But I don’t feel like giving up, either. I am in principle an optimistic type, and I have a feeling that things will work out. That is, they need to be organized properly so they will work out.”

The question is whether optimism is the preserve of the privileged. For us, things have so far, somehow, worked out. But the people you photograph, the father and son who remained after the mother and the baby were killed in the field by an IDF shell – for them things have not worked out.

“True, for them, no. But if they will be the last, things will work out. It’s clear that they won’t be the last. Besides that, I am privileged in every sense of the word. I do feel that we are in an insane state of emergency, and that a disaster is occurring that has many dimensions. The occupation has ceased to be a subject of discussion. When we grasp how pathetic the people who decide about us are – that to me is a time of emergency. But the fact that such a time exists doesn’t mean you can’t think ahead. It can’t be allowed to neutralize your thoughts or your wishes or your activities. That is why I live here and not somewhere else. I see no special reason to leave at the moment. And I also have a partner who is very committed to this place – her slogan is ‘Designed in Tel Aviv,’ so I can’t even move to Jerusalem. [Kratsman is the partner of fashion designer Dorin Frankfurt.] It’s true that as residents of the state, we are associated with something very immoral, even if we oppose it. I don’t think my activity absolves me of guilt. But sometimes the everyday is stronger than the ideologies.”

‘I am not persecuted’

Five years ago, Kratsman was set to mount an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in conjunction with the world-famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Ai’s intention was to present projects having to do with refugee camps around the globe, and Kratsman planned to display 3,000 portraits of Palestinians he had met by chance and whose subsequent fate he wondered about. After the general concept of the exhibition was decided and a curator appointed, the museum started to behave oddly, repeatedly postponing the opening, until finally Ai was no longer available and the opportunity was lost.

Kratsman and his dealer, Nira Itzhaki, who directs the Chelouche Gallery, were convinced that the cancellation stemmed from political censorship, that the museum recoiled from showing Kratsman’s photographs for fear it would come under attack, and they let it be known. Now, in retrospect – and shortly before a solo show of his is about to open in the same museum, in March – Kratsman thinks he overdid the drama. “You wrote about it shortly after it happened, but possibly if you had waited another half a year, I would have told you to drop it. At that moment I was angry, but it’s not important. It’s not important to anyone.”

Censorship of art isn’t important?

“I don’t think we are living in a place that silences people. There is intimidation, there are libel suits, but we aren’t being silenced yet, in any case. And as one who lives in a place like this, I don’t feel that I am paying a price. If the price I need to pay is giving up an exhibition in the Tel Aviv Museum, then let’s keep things in proportion. I am not about to become a ‘Prisoner of Zion.’ I am not persecuted. Maybe that means I’m doing something wrong. Im Tirtzu [a far-right organization] hasn’t yet complained about me. I guess I’m pretty much pareve.”

Kratsman will mount a project titled “Anti-Mapping” at the Tel Aviv Museum, which he created together with Shabtai Pinchevsky, a former student in Bezalel’s photography department. The two used a drone to photograph eradicated Palestinian villages, Bedouin villages that were or are about to be depopulated, and abandoned IDF bases.

A family whose home was hit by an Israeli shell, 2000.Credit: Miki Kratsman

“The places that interest me are both those in which only faint hints remain of what was there, and those in which nothing remains,” Kratsman writes in his book about the project. As one who is constantly aware of the different layers of the landscape – what is there now, and what is not – he notes that in the Eshtaol Forest, we are very close to the Green Line, but we don’t know where it passes exactly.

“It was ‘disappeared,’ it is erased from our history, at least in the physical sense. The principle of this mapping project is the right to see. I am using the drone to achieve a tool which until now I lacked – namely the aerial view. That’s the place from which you see the things. Suddenly I’ve got a bulimic’s appetite to photograph more and more places. From the ground you simply see nothing. You send up a drone and you get a perspective like satellite photography, with incredible resolution. The results are gorgeous.”

So you’ve made your peace with the Tel Aviv Museum?

“The people who were there then aren’t there today, there are new people, who actually are already gone too,” Kratsman says. He’s referring to the director and chief curator of the museum during the period of the planned Ai Weiwei exhibition, Susan Landau, who retired four years ago, and to her successor as chief curator, Doron Ravina, who also recently announced that he was leaving. “Doron Ravina wanted this project. He pushed [for it].”

Kratsman acknowledges candidly that senior positions in the art world are “very political, in the widest sense of the word.” He even suggests that, “There’s not a prize that I have won or an exhibition that I’ve done that didn’t have a personal element to it [being bestowed on me]. There’s a type of chemistry that is established. That’s how the world operates. That’s why, in such jobs, it’s good to keep the tenures short.”

Kratsman himself took a lot of flak when he served in an administrative capacity, as head of Bezalel’s photography department, from 2006 to 2014, without having previously taught there. “I got a nasty reception.”

Why?

“I was parachuted in from the outside. I understand that that can be infuriating, because in a way it’s an expression of no-confidence in the department’s teachers. And a photojournalist on top of it. I came to a department that was in very bad shape socially. Rifts, people who didn’t talk to each other. But things gradually worked themselves out. I succeeded in introducing quite a few changes. When I came in, for example, there was one Arab student in the department, and by the time I left, almost 12 percent of the students were Arabs. I came to a department where was no digital at all, and I transformed it into digital of a high quality. I brought in nearly 10 new lecturers.”

Kratsman says he also worked to refresh the procedures at Bezalel for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment. “I understood that in cases of that kind you have go by the book. When you teach art, the subject of boundaries is very problematic. On the other hand, I think that the era of political correctness hasn’t contributed in this realm. We all became less generous in our teaching, in the sense that many times you hesitate about whether to challenge the dialogue. Should I endanger my status so that the students will see something more clearly or think about something in particular?”

The issue of boundaries at art schools surfaced in connection with Boaz Arad, Kratsman’s good friend and associate in several artistic collaborations, who committed suicide in 2018 after the Mako website published a report about an intimate relationship he had had with a student from the Thelma Yellin High School for Arts, where he taught between 1983 and 2006. Kratsman had offered Arad a teaching position at Bezalel after becoming head of the photography department.

“When I hired him to work at Bezalel, I checked to see if there were complaints against him, and there were none. In such cases, we are nourished by all kinds of stories that aren’t fully checked, or by very subjective remarks. In Boaz’s case, damage was done without there being clear information. Regrettably, he did not live long enough to clarify this matter. I am angry at what was done to him, but also for his decision to leave [that is, to end his life].”

Kratsman was in Vienna when the item about Arad was published. “I wrote the eulogy on the plane,” he recalls. “I tried to think about the moment when a person understands that his life is done for. What you have to feel inside to come to that decision. That you can’t breathe, you don’t have air. Think of being in a car that’s sinking and not being able to get out. A lot of anger welled up in me, in part because there are all kinds of people who are swarming around all the time, and you grasp how a case is built. And suddenly you say, it’s a guillotine in the town square. An execution. Totally. If things had been clarified one way or the other, possibly there would have been insane relief or insane anger, but there would have been something. This way there’s nothing. The man disappeared because of a text, and to this day we don’t know how relevant it actually was.”

As Kratsman keeps trying to find his grandfather’s trees, he recalls Arad in the context of a joint art project in which they tried to find the site of a massacre of prisoners from a Palestinian village. They had a running debate over art and activism, he says: “Boaz didn’t accept that connection, between the artistic and the activist. He was apprehensive about being unequivocal in stating the political. He always thought that it has to be more complex. I try not to fall into the poster-image trap, but I don’t always succeed.

“I thought that you had to see it less complexly, because otherwise, say something is ‘complicated’ absolves you of responsibility. If you’re being careful all the time so as not to fall, you will always end up drawing close to some sort of mainstream. I prefer to stay on the margins and to risk falling when it comes to things I won’t be proud of on the artistic level. It’s hard to say of someone who has been awarded prizes and was a department head that he’s on the margins. And at the age of 61, it’s also a bit pathetic. But I don’t want my work to reflect something that’s in the mainstream. And now let’s press on, I see a lovely light on the trees.”

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