Tombstone Blues

This is a photograph as intelligent as it is modest, dealing with the abolition of hierarchy and itself seemingly taken without hierarchy.

In this photograph, taken by Nir Kafri in Joseph’s Tomb, Nablus, on May 3, no one is looking at the camera. On the contrary: Everyone is devoutly immersed in prayer. But the experience the photograph depicts is not private, and even though each of the worshippers is isolated in a separate space, and the distances between them are also a function of social affiliation, prayer is a quilt of thorns that covers them all.

This is a photograph as intelligent as it is modest, dealing with the abolition of hierarchy and itself seemingly taken without hierarchy − the appearance of the women hunched over the stones of the tomb deep within the structure is of no greater priority or importance than what is visible on the two flanks. Indeed, the center here is, in large measure, background: The immediate subject is the masked soldiers on the left, who are praying from a thin booklet. And because the photograph possesses a panoramic aspect, its center of gravity also shifts toward its meta-subject: The Hasid who is praying fervently next to an extension cord.

Joseph’s Tomb May 2011
Nir Kafri

The eye lingers on the cord, which emerges from an outlet at the height of the man’s head and continues along the floor across a missing tile and then out of the frame to an instrument of some sort that needs electricity. There is no splendor here. This prayer is in memory of Ben-Yosef Livnat, a member of the Shuvu Banim community from the Braslav sect, who a week earlier had snuck into the tomb with his friends − contrary to the army’s advice, and even though organized prayers are held there once a month − and was shot to death by Palestinians.

Infiltrating the tomb, which in the eyes of these Hasidim ‏(who obey Rabbi Eliezer Berland‏) has become a crucible of masculinity akin to the “Red Rock” − Petra, in Jordan, which young Israelis tried to reach illegally in the 1950s − is an act performed under social pressure and bears a cult logic. Seven hundred families give obeisance to Berland, who is known for his fits of ecstasy and is considered by his followers to be as great as Rabbi Nachman of Braslav. This is the person whose son and grandson imprisoned him, he relates, until he recorded them talking about women’s affairs and reclaimed control of the community, its funds and its way of life.

This prayer, too − which was coordinated with the army and with the Palestinians − erupted into a clash between Berland’s followers, who refused to leave, and soldiers.

After all, they know no justice other than the justice their rabbi talks about. It goes without saying that they harbor no justice toward the “Amalekites,” who possess no rights, nor are the soldiers sufficiently good in their eyes.

This is a surpassingly quiet photograph, which succeeds in telling a story and creates gaps to be filled in by the viewer. It is a surpassingly quiet photograph in a noisy, dangerous place, whose sanctity is one more element of social psychosis. Alas for Ben-Yosef Livnat, who was murdered at the age of 24, and for his four children and his widow and his parents and his siblings, and for the rest of his now-truncated life. Alas for Madhat Yusuf, who bled to death in Joseph’s Tomb in October 2000 and whose memory and its implications have haunted his family, his friends and his commanders for more than a decade. Alas for those whose loved ones died for a grave.