A Jewish state in Weimar?

Ronen Eidelman: "Not all Germans like what I'm saying." (Ronen Eidelman)

Ronen Eidelman: “Not all Germans like what I’m saying.” (Ronen Eidelman)

BERLIN (JTA) – An Israeli artist is challenging boundaries – national, political and artistic – with his project to create a Jewish state in the former East Germany.

Ronen Eidelman wants to raise questions about national identity, anti-Semitism and the complex relationship involving Germany, Jews and Israel.

Eidelman, who has been living in Germany the past year and a half, says his project reflects “the power of art to ask questions and put a mirror to society.”

“I want to blur the line between life and art,” he says, “and I don’t want to stay in the ghettos of galleries and museums” but go out into the streets.

While some Germans never tire of debating such topics, Eidelman’s proposal for “Medinat Weimar” apparently has touched raw nerves. One Jewish leader says he would never set foot in the new “state.” Eidelman’s university, for which the project was conceived, has distanced itself from the idea.

Others simply distrust the blending of art and politics.

With banners, flags and a mini-constitution, Eidelman is “looking for provocation as a tool to talk about truths and taboos that otherwise would not be touched: anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel,” says Daniel Gaede, the director of educational programs at the Buchenwald memorial.

“I am not opposing art,” Gaede says. “But I am opposing artwork that sometimes looks like political action, and then when it becomes politically difficult, you insist, ‘No, no, it is just art.’ “

There are some historical and artistic precedents.

In 1934, Joseph Stalin established a Jewish region in the Soviet republic of Birobidjan. In 1940, Gestapo head Adolf Eichmann approved resettling Jews in Madagascar, but he never acted on it. In 2007, author Michael Chabon created a virtual Jewish homeland in Alaska in his novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”

And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad has suggested cynically that Germany and Austria host a Jewish state.

Now Eidelman has taken up the baton. On June 22, with a rally and a conference, he will launch Medinat Weimar, a Jewish state in the German state of Thuringia, with its capital in Weimar.

The event, coincidently slated to take place on his 37th birthday, is Eidelman’s final project for a master’s degree in public art and new artistic strategies at the Bauhaus University.

It is not yet clear whether Medinat Weimar will attract disaffected Israelis, rabid anti-Semites or confused Germans – or perhaps none of the above.

Boundaries and definitions exist to be challenged; that’s a message of the Bauhaus University, which is one of a few institutions worldwide that offers a degree in public art. The university’s Web site says its students engage in “temporary intervention in public space.”

But even the university is uncomfortable with this one. It has refused to let Eidelman display his project at the university museum, releasing a statement saying it fears being “perceived as supporters of a political movement for the formation of a Jewish State in Thuringia in Weimar. This is not possible.”

Weimar is the home of writers Goethe and Schiller, the seat of Germany’s short-lived, prewar democracy – and a few miles from Buchenwald, the Nazi death camp.

Eidelman swings between studied pessimism and carefully staged delusions of grandeur.

“I am hoping that decisions will be made at the conference” next week, he says, adding that fans already have sent in a few possible anthems via the project’s Web site.

“I’d like to see it as the Basel of Weimar, like the first Zionist conference” in 1897, adds the artist, whose family immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1978.

He calls himself “a proud Israeli but completely non-Zionist,” and describes his project as a “political movement as a work of art,” replete with banners, songs and buttons.

It confronts three main issues through its “Thirteen Principles,” inspired by Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Jewish Faith”: German guilt and philo-Semitism (“Germans are very good with dead Jews, but what about the Jews who are alive?”); what Eidelman calls “the failure of Zionism: so many Israelis are looking for their second passport”; and “the failure of the state of Thuringia.”

Some may wonder what could be more ridiculous than suggesting that Jews move en masse to Germany, let alone to a state that is grappling with high unemployment, a brain drain and xenophobia?

Eidelman insists the project is not about the Jews punishing Germany but rather, as they did in Israel, Jewish pioneers turning Thuringia into “a thriving state.”

His ultimate stimulus – or last straw – came from Ahmadinedjad, who in 2005 remarked that if Germany and Austria feel guilty about the Holocaust, they should set up a Jewish state on their territory, thus resolving the Middle East conflict.

Clearly, the Iranian president “is an anti-Semitic provocateur,” Eidelman says. “If you put it in his mouth, it is very upsetting.”

But, he wonders, “Could we ask these questions in a more honest way? Why can’t there be another Jewish state?”

Wolfgang Nossen, the head of Thuringia’s Jewish community estimated at some 800 members, tells JTA he won’t even consider such questions.

“It corresponds to the statement by the Iranian idiots, and people here could start thinking that the Jews are starting already,” Nossen says.

“We should be happy that we have a real state and not make a game out of it,” Nossen says, adding that he didn’t advise Eidelman for or against it. “I just said I won’t be there.”

Eidelman is not the first to test art’s boundaries in Germany. In 2006, for example, the Spanish-born artist Santiago Sierra withdrew his installation that involved pumping auto-exhaust fumes into a former synagogue near Cologne. Sierra said he only wanted to criticize the “banalization of Holocaust remembrance.”

The previous year, Austrian artists Julius Deutschbauer and Gerhard Spring had mounted their “anti-fascist amusement park” in Berlin, including an enlarged photograph of dead bodies with holes cut out so one could put in one’s face and “identify” with Holocaust victims.

More akin to Eidelman is Israeli video artist Yael Bartana, whose short film “Mary Koszmary” (“Nightmare”) suggests inviting 3 million Jews to move to Poland. She recently told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that audiences “didn’t know whether to take it seriously or not.”

Eidelman says of his project, “this whole thing is a fantasy, clearly.” But he also speculates that the consequences could be mind-blowingly positive: Jews could move here from Israel, and “when ‘the Empire’ finally collapses, will people come from America? Probably.”

Just imagine if a few million Jews mix with 2 million Germans, he says.

“Something will come out of it, ” he says, “including a mixed Hebrew-German-English, with other languages added in.”.

With this definition, perhaps Medinat Weimar already exists – in Israel. Surrounded by more or less hostile populations, making the desert bloom, blending cultures and languages and fates. Is Medinat Weimar us?

Eidelman has a different take.

Israel, he says, “that’s Zionism 1.0, Medinat Weimar is 2.0 – or maybe Zionism, the return of the Jedi.”

 

 

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