Symbolism Versus Reality and Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations
by Joshua Levitt
Symbolism, rather than reality, is the language of art and those who are unable to speak truth directly, a young Israeli painter named Yoav Brener told a hundred enthusiastic patrons at the Ana Tzarev Gallery, on Fifth Avenue and 57th St., on Thursday evening.
Brought to Manhattan by AOTA, an international organization that brings emerging artists from overlooked corners of the world to institutional collections in major corporations, investment houses and law firms, Yoav explained how art speaks in a language of symbolism, which makes discussion possible even when speaking about reality is an impossibility.
He offered an example: “A very nice man from Holland, a very formal man, measured in every phrase he speaks — kind, generous, a great buyer of my paintings — but reserved, quiet in all of his ways. I have known him for years. He stood beside me at an art exhibit we attended in Tel Aviv, and we both were looking at a painting which was — how else can I say it — of two men in a very romantic position.”
“Now, this man and I have known each other for some time, and we have never spoken of anything of a very personal nature, nothing improper; he is very reserved. But I was astounded by what would happen next. For 25 minutes he and I had the most interesting discussion surrounding the subject of this painting, what it represents, what the artist may have hoped to achieve, about so many things, it was very eye opening for me. Not because of content, but that this discussion could ever happen! In the real world, this conversation would never haven taken place, but in the world of symbols, we could speak freely.”
Symbolism as an alternative way to access real truth was striking for its honesty. But also because the same concepts of symbolism and reality had been used earlier that very day on the world stage by a man conspicuously absent from that same gallery inauguration.
Rather than being interviewed by Alejandro Garcia-Amaya, the young director of AOTA and son of Colombia’s former Ambassador to the UN, Yoav was meant to be sitting next to H.E. Ron Prosor, Israel’s current Ambassador to the United Nations, another purposeful orator and art enthusiast.
Many of the gallery’s esteemed guests of Upper East Side art collectors and members of the international business community had expected to enjoy his scheduled “fireside talk,”along with confirmed attendance of Ambassadors of Canada, Belgium, and Bulgaria, as well as Dudu Zuma, daughter of South Africa’s President Zuma, but Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations had more pressing diplomatic matters to attend to.
Thursday afternoon, the 193-member United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution by a vote of 138-9, with 41 abstentions, to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO, a non-governmental political and paramilitary organization, as its own “non-member observer state.”
The Ambassador couldn’t make it to the reception because he had to work — delivering to the world an eloquent speech about Israel’s role in the reality of history books, legal commitments and peace accords:
“Israel is prepared to live in peace with a Palestinian state, but for peace to endure, Israel’s security must be protected. The Palestinians must recognize the Jewish State and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel once and for all.”
He called out Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah and the PLO, directly for avoiding glaring reality: “In fact, today you asked the world to recognize a Palestinian state, but you still refuse to recognize the Jewish state.”
“This resolution will not change the situation on the ground. It will not change the fact that the Palestinian Authority has no control over Gaza. That is forty percent of the population he claims to represent! President Abbas, you can’t even visit nearly half the territory of the state you claim to represent. That territory is controlled by Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization that rains missiles on Israel’s civilians. This is the same Hamas that fired more than 1,300 rockets into the heart of Israel’s major cities this month.”
“This resolution will not confer statehood on the Palestinian Authority, which clearly fails to meet the criteria for statehood. This resolution will not enable the Palestinians Authority to join international treaties, organizations, or conferences as a state.”
“For as long as President Abbas prefers symbolism over reality, as long as he prefers to travel to New York for UN resolutions, rather than travel to Jerusalem for genuine dialogue, any hope of peace will be out of reach.”
And there it is. President Abbas prefers symbolism over reality. Of course he does.
Symbolism, artists teach us, is how to get a message across when reality is too painful, too impossible, too real to face. Symbolism, like art, has meaning but it is not real. The Palestine green, black and red flag was foisted from the banner of the UN after the vote Thursday, apparently for the first time ever. A flag unfurling in a room of diplomats could be the definition of a symbolic act – it does not change reality “on the ground,” as Israelis like to put it.
That reality is not pretty for Palestinians. On one side of the land is a booming first-world economy and on the other side (or the two other sides) is third-world chaos — a lack of political responsibility, limited municipal and social services, very few jobs, a weak currency — not much happening worth waving a flag about.
There are two lessons here, including the original one I had forgotten, caught up in never ending political debate; that artists should be heard.
For believers in Israel, Thursday’s vote really was just symbolic, for better or worse. For better: that, for many real reasons, it will not change reality on the ground. For worse: because the subsequent celebrations in Ramallah should remind us about the power of narrative.
Palestinians won a symbolic victory. While modern Israel prefers real achievement to symbolic triumph, our Jewish story is based on symbolic struggle. If we want to emerge as victors, let us embrace some of this cunning symbolism that plays so well on the world stage.
Israel fights symbolism with reality. The way to win is to fight symbolism with symbolism.