A Palestinian boy in Gaza. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Gaza: As Israel’s assault intensifies, it is not anti-Semitic to say: not in my name

In the end, it is about blood.

On a morgue slab in Shejaiya in the Gaza Strip a few days ago lay two anonymous children, a boy and a girl. Their bodies could not be identified because their parents, according to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a journalist for the Nation magazine, were already dead. Israel’s continuing assault on Gaza has claimed hundreds of Palestinian lives and has created 81,000 refugees. I should support it, according to many Zionist opinionators, because I am half Jewish. They tell me that those children had to die so that my future children can be safe. In the end, they say, it’s about blood.

Does it matter what Jews, and people from Jewish backgrounds, say about Gaza? It does when children are being murdered in our names, and in the names of family members for whom we have recently said Kaddish. Jews are better placed than anyone else to articulate a powerful call for ceasefire that does not fall back on the sort of lazy anti-Semitism that seems to the Israeli military to prove its point.

People of Jewish descent have every reason to be hyper-vigilant about anti-Semitic language and it is stupid to pretend that there’s none of it in the global movement for Palestinian freedom. It’s stupid to pretend that nobody ever conflates Jews with Zionists, or labels the Jewish people bloodthirsty and barbarous. And it hurts like hell to hear hoary old words of hate trickling through a movement that is about justice, about freedom, about protecting some of the world’s most persecuted people. It hurts just as much, however, to hear right-wing Israelis tell Jews around the world that the violence is for us, for our ancestors, for our children.

It is not anti-Semitic to suggest that Israel doesn’t get a free pass to kill whoever it likes in order to feel “safe”. It is not anti-Semitic to point out that if what Israel needs to feel “safe” is to pen the Palestinian people in an open prison under military occupation, the state’s definition of safety might warrant some unpacking. And it is not anti-Semitic to say that this so-called war is one in which only one side actually has an army.

It is not hate speech to reiterate the wild disparity in casualties. More than 600 Palestinians have been killed this past week, most of them civilians. Fewer than 30 Israelis have died, and most of them were soldiers. To speak of proportionality is not to call, as at least one silverback columnist has claimed, for “more dead Jews”.

One can mourn loss of life on both sides without condoning further bloodshed. The families of the young Israeli soldiers killed on the front lines of a conflict they didn’t create are grieving, too. That doesn’t change the fact that the casualties are disproportionate. This is a conflict in which no one wants to edge towards saying the word “genocide”, because in this context that is a term so loaded that what’s left of reasoned debate staggers and falls to its knees.

Comparisons to the Holocaust are crass – except when it is Israeli politicians who make them, as the economy minister Naftali Bennett did on CNN, accusing Hamas of “conducting mass self-genocide”. Then the comparisons become obscene. Binyamin Netanyahu’s ministers tell the world that families in Gaza that remain in their homes have nobody but themselves to blame when they are massacred. Ayelet Shaked, of the far-right Jewish Home Party, went further, posting on her Facebook page that the mothers of Palestinian men should “follow their sons [to hell] . . . Nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

This sort of hate speech is not just disturbing – it is disturbed. We must have a compassionate reading of Jewish and Israeli history to understand where that disturbance comes from. Over 20 centuries of faith and survival, the Jewish people have been persecuted, forced into exile, tortured, traumatised, ridiculed, harassed and finally murdered in their millions, and that matters – it still matters, to the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who survived, including me.

But the abused sometimes go on to abuse others. Countries formed in response to genocide expand their borders with murderous intolerance. People whose communities are bombed and bulldozed fire rockets back. Cycles of violence are comprehensible. That doesn’t mean they are acceptable. That doesn’t mean they can never stop.

Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children around the world marched to express their disgust at Israel’s air and ground assault on the Gaza Strip, and among them were swathes of Jews and Israelis. This is one of the few situations in which it makes a difference to stand up and say: not in our name. Not now, not ever again. Being Jewish, or having Jewish roots, doesn’t make you responsible for what is happening in Gaza, but it does mean that your dissent carries that much more weight. Not more weight than the grieving relatives of the families butchered in Shejaiya, but the kind of weight that hangs heavy on the heart, and that comes with the small but palpable risk of upsetting your family.

So here it is. I think my ancestors who were persecuted, tormented and exiled down the centuries for being Jews would be horrified to see what is being done in their name today. Maybe it’s crass to put words in the mouths of your dead relatives, but right-wing hawks have been putting their opinions in the mouths of my dead relatives for weeks, so I think I’m entitled to a say, too.

Because in the end, it is about blood. Not blood as metonym or metaphor, but the actual stuff, wet on the faces of screaming children in Gaza. It’s about blood, and how much more of it will have to be shed before Israel finally feels “safe”, and how long the international community will stand by. The moral basis for Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people is eroding fast. It is not anti-Semitic to say “not in my name”. 

Laurie Penny’s “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution” is newly published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.