A Jewish State in Weimar for the 21st century : Interview with Ronen Eidelman

In 2008, Ronen Eidelman, an Israeli artist living in Germany, founded the movement for the creation of a Jewish state in Thuringia: Medinat Weimar. The artistic project questions, seduces some and horrifies others, makes people react. More than 15 years later, he tells us, from Jerusalem, where he lives today, what led him to imagine such a project, oscillating between eccentric provocation and incitement to debate. An interview in which he talks about German guilt, Herzl as a plastic artist, and a second Jewish state conceived as a plan B…

 

Medinat Weimar movement’s logo

 

First of all, who are you, Ronen Eidelman?

I am many things. I’m the secretary of the movement for a Jewish state in Thuringia, Germany. But I’m also an artist and a researcher, and the editor of a journal called Erev Rav. I’m a father and I live in Jerusalem. I was born in the U.S. but I grew up in Israel from the age of seven. I moved to Germany in 2007 in order to study in a master’s degree program at the Bauhaus University. The program was called “Art in public space.” I received a doctorate (PhD) on the link between art, the public sphere and politics. 

When you moved from the US to Israel, what did it represent for you and your family?

My parents were Zionist so for them, things were clear. They moved to Israel to fulfill their childhood Zionist dream. They shared this idea. It was the founding of their relationship as a couple as they met in the Zionist Youth movement. They decided to move to Jerusalem specifically. They did it at a later age after they already had four children. I was also an immigrant to Israel, but also a privileged immigrant in a way. And that was also what was transmitted to us as children. They did not have to sacrifice something. It was way more of a present, a blessing that we had the opportunity to come in and live there.

Before going to Germany, what was your relation to this country?

I visited Germany and Berlin specifically, so I already had a kind of connection and I was familiar with a certain part of German culture and ideas. As a Jew and as an Israeli, I perceived Germany as a place of a lot of opportunities: you can get a good education for a good price and meet people from all around the world. It’s multicultural, open and progressive. This was something that was very attractive to me. But of course, we always experience it within this big shadow of history. And this does not go away. It’s still very present. To complete my perspective, I’d say that growing up in New York and then in Jerusalem, I never felt what it was like to be part of a minority. In Germany, it was clear to me that I didn’t belong, I was a foreigner, I was a Jew. Though I felt I was a privileged minority because I wasn’t an immigrant, I had my student visa and therefore had permission to be there, but I felt what it was to be a minority. I also had the idea in a kind of ironic way, that it was a strange privilege, being a Jew in Germany today.

How did the strange idea of a Jewish state in Germany first come to your mind? 

We were at the time of the great successes of the European Union in the 2000s (Euro, Erasmus…). Many interesting voices were asking: “Why do people still need a state? What does it mean to be a nation?” By asking these questions and feeling as a minority, I started to understand this kind of emotional need. In a privileged position, one could say, “Oh, I’m international, I’m a cosmopolitan. I don’t need all these primitive ideas, like nationalism.” When you start to feel like you’re part of a minority, you understand why some people then think differently about the issue of nationalism. Basing my idea on the fact that the idea of a Jewish state is understandable, I asked myself: if a majority of the Jews in the past and maybe even today are of European origin, so why shouldn’t there have a state for them here, in Europe? Yes, it was almost like a provocative question. But if mainstream German culture believes in Jewish nationalism and accepts the idea of a Jewish state, so why would they not recognize it here, this second state? 

But there’s already Israel! 

Yes. But I give you an example: when there’s an only child, you’re very worried about them and then when there’s a second child – I’m not saying that parents love less when there’s two children – that gives you kind of a guarantee. In Israel, when you’re an only child, you can’t go to a combat unit unless your parents sign permission. Because there’s this fear that they’ll lose their only child. So, from there, if we think the Jewish state is a good idea, why not have two? Why not have our Plan B? A rational position for the first Jewish state could lead us to argue for a second Jewish state. And if it should be somewhere, it should be in Germany!

Let’s accept this idea for a moment. But then, why especially in Germany and in East Germany?

I was living then in East Germany, and I was noticing its big issues. East Germany and especially Thuringia was losing its population. The population was becoming older and the young people were moving out. They were having fewer children and there was a need for more people. It started as an art project that raises questions and ideas. I wondered :  “We could also solve a local problem of a state in East Germany in the form of a Republic that brings fresh new people to try to save this place.” Looking back, 10 years later the German state realized this and Merkel let in over a million migrants.

Quite ironic to think of Jews to solve Germany’s demographic problems… What were the first steps on this state’s project and with whom did you start it? 

The idea was not so far-fetched. Philip Roth’s book, Operation Shylock, is about the fantasy of a Jewish return to Europe. Contemporary artist Yael Bartana worked on the same idea of a Jewish revival in Poland.

Flyer calling for a rally and conference in support of the Medinat Weimar movement on 22 June 2008 at the Theater Square in Weimar

I started writing this kind of manifest, the 13 principles and sent it to friends or people that I knew would react. I was declaring: “We will start this idea and it will solve all the problems of the world” or better: “We make this claim in order to make a little change.” I then started to meet people. For example, this israeli-palestinian couple. They’re both from the Jerusalem area and they were living at the time in Berlin because they couldn’t live where each other was from. The irony of history made that they moved to Germany but still didn’t feel at home there. And when I told them about this idea, they were: ”You will create a place that could be our homeland. You create a place for people like us who have nowhere else to go.” This kind of first supporters allowed me to start defining the project of a new Jewish state. Martin Buber, which I often quote, says that a nation is not only built on a shared history, but also on a shared fate. Then, if Osama feels that he wants to be part of the Jewish state because his fate is influenced by the Jewish history, he already becomes part of the state. So in a way, our Palestinian neighbors are now sharing a fate, our fate is intertwined, whether we want it or not.

What was the reception of the idea and what happened when you started claiming it?

It was welcomed by many different reactions. First, by people who understood that it was a platform to raise questions. They were interested in discussing the ideas. But it was also attacked by pretty much anybody you could think of from any side of the political spectrum. It was attacked at the same time, both as a Zionist project and as an anti-Zionist project. The Jewish community in Germany was very against it because they assumed that this could be received as against the State of Israel – they tend to understand any criticism of the State of Israel as antisemitism. At the same time, I was targeted by the neo-Nazi movement or white supremacists. It appeared on the first page of a newspaper, the most right wing you can be in Germany (Deutsche Stimme). They were saying: “this is a Zionist project! Don’t let an art project fool you! They wrote it in a very smart way and subtle way but this is for real!” I’d say that in a way, they were right. It’s always the artists that start ideas. Hertzl was also an artist, a playwriter. He started an idea and look what it became! I was also accused of being a Mossad agent installing these ideas into the thought of Germany. 

Front page of the newspaper Deutsche Stimme, August 2008

The university itself was very concerned and didn’t want me to make the project.  Each time raising a different problem in order to prevent me from receiving the grants I could have had: they were scared of being accused of anti-Semitism by the Jewish community or that the project would be considered an insult to the Arab community… By pushing me out of the university, they also threw me to the street, which in a way also made me do the project more publicly and more open. I organized an event on the main square of Weimar. 

Your manifesto contains 13 principles? Why?

Thirteen is in Jewish culture, it’s a very good number. It’s the Bar mitzvah number, it’s a number of luck. For a great sage of Judaism like Rambam, there are the 13 principles of faith. In the morning prayer also, you read the 13 principles of faith. And one of them is: “I believe in the Messiah, and I believe that he will come.” I took it as an inspiration. I then wrote my own 13 principles. Conversely, in European Christian culture, 13 is a number of bad luck. This was also a way for me to show that we are different. Today, people say that Jewish are white and I’m saying: no, there are differences, different cultures.

Why the name Medinat Weimar? And why Weimar?

Every state in the world is called the State of something, the Republic of, the Kingdom of. The exception to this rule is Canada. They just called it Canada. The official name of Israel is the State of Israel or Medinat Israel. It was never called the Republic of Israel or the Kingdom of Israel, or the Holy Jewish State of Israel, because when they established it, there wasn’t an agreement on what kind of state to call it. Until today, Israel doesn’t have a constitution. Regarding the word Medinat, it means state in Hebrew but means city in Arabic. And this is also this idea that once states were cities. And  for Weimar, it is a reference to the Weimar Republic which started almost as a utopian idea. Until today, the constitution of the Weimar Republic is one of the most progressive constitutions that ever existed. Back in 1918 or 1919, it offered full citizenship and  rights to all people and to minorities including women. But it was also its weakness. It was so open that it didn’t know how to protect itself. Its Constitution couldn’t protect itself from the Nazis. It was a very good idea and there were many Jews who were involved in writing and creating the Weimar Republic.

Your second state project feels like an assumption that Zionism failed itself.

The first Jewish state, Medinat Israel, I want it to succeed, I want it to last. I’m very scared that the Medinat Israel won’t last, and this, not because of the threat from the outside but because of threats from the inside, but from our own inner conflicts. Medinat Weimar is like a plan B. When you make a Plan B, it’s not because you want Plan A to fail. You want plan A to succeed, you want it to thrive. You still make Plan B in case tragedy happens.

If we follow your analogy, one might ask whether Weimar would not end up divided, also claimed by the non-Jewish inhabitants of Weimar, as natives.

I would say no because we learned from our mistakes. We’re putting out our hand to all the original inhabitants of Weimar and Thuringia, and we tell them we’re going to make the place thrive and that we’re here to work together. I also wrote it in the 13 principles that we wrote, quoting the Israeli Declaration of Independence. I do understand your point. But I would say that this idea of a land without people for a people without land which we know historically was very problematic. Let’s say that some places in East Germany are very much empty of people. [he laughs] We tell them: “We’re here to help, you need us!” Yes, there were people that were very much afraid. But there were reactions from German people or from people living there, a youth club that was very excited by this project. Some people came and took it very seriously. A German guy tried to start a kibbutz!

 

 

Your manifesto is written in a really serious way. And only by the end, you say it’s an arts project, so let me take it seriously for a few questions. Point 2 of the manifesto: “Medinat Weimar is a solution to overcome the present crises and heal Jewish trauma, German guilt, East Mediterranean conflicts, East German troubles and many other problems in the world.” How would the State heal these issues?

First, Jewish trauma. One of the ways to deal with trauma is to go back to where the tragedy happened. If you go back, you try to make a Tikkun, fixing it. German guilt is kind of acting in the same way. The support of the State of Israel by Germany is in a lot of ways directed by German guilt, their philosemitism too. The Germans deal with dead Jews and they’re very good at it. They love Hannah Arendt, Einstein, Buber and Mendelssohn… They do exhibitions about famous dead Jews. They protect the cemeteries and restore the synagogues but nobody’s there anymore. Dealing with Jews who are alive is another thing. When people are alive, you have to treat them as real people, you can’t treat them as symbols. Through my project, I was trying to say: “Let’s talk about Jews today.” Jews of today are not the Jews of whom German memory talks. This is the question you ask  : what will happen if this really happens? If suddenly thousands of Jews and their Arab cousins join and suddenly come and live in Germany. How will they deal with that? Will the guilt really work? Difficult to say. But let’s have a look at how Germans deal with that today, the huge immigration that happened from Syria, in a way – they’re almost the cousins of the Jews. And I’m not sure that it’s that bad, by the way. 

And solving the world’s problems?

It’s an ironic perspective. If we manage to lower the flames of the first Jewish state conflict by the creation of a second Jewish state, maybe, it could help deal with the first Jewish state with its conflicts. The proportions that the conflict of Israel gets in the world media or in the world, the idea that it is bigger than many other conflicts. Maybe if we can balance it out with a second Jewish state, people won’t be so nervous about it and it would make things more balanced. 

Maybe you’ll create a second obsession…

The video on YouTube received a lot of attacks from neo-Nazis all over Europe. From Hungary to Denmark, Finland! I received hate mail from Brazil! Not to talk about cyber attacks at a level that I didn’t expect. The violent attacks were at a level that I innocently didn’t know existed and it scared me. Some of them, proud neo-Nazis were saying: “We didn’t finish the job” or “we’ll do it again” and “you don’t belong here, Jews don’t belong in Europe and we’re going to destroy you.” I didn’t expect this awakening of a lot of really deep anti-Semitic voices in Europe. Therefore, the project played another role that I didn’t plan. I thought it was clear that it was a project to provoke ideas. And as I said before, a number of people took it very seriously, attacked it and wrote articles against it, warning against it… I didn’t feel personally threatened. Maybe I should have, I don’t know. At one point I had to move back to Israel. What the project did was exposing this language.

Online threats of pogroms on a fictional Jewish state…

This is also internet culture. If you look at comments on YouTube, there’s a culture of language that doesn’t exist in the mainstream media. It wasn’t an objective to expose this. But I understood the reactions as a warning: “We’ll accept the Jews only if they behave like a good minority.”

In the manifesto, you define Zionism as a failure. Did the project change your position on Zionism?

This could be a personal question, but also a question for the chairman of the movement of Medinat Weimar. During the time when I was working on showing the project, we had an exhibition and I called it a temporary bureau of the movement. I wore a suit, I was also playing a role. I don’t define myself as Zionist. I don’t define myself as a post-Zionist. I define myself as an a-Zionist. I’m not anti-Zionist. Depends also how you define Zionism. If I believe in the idea of a Jewish state? Part of being a Jew is also as a nationalist element, and therefore they deserve a state if you believe that any other nation believes it deserves a state. Then, yes, I’m a Zionist. Do I believe in the right of the State of Israel to exist? Yes. But the way it exists for me today, then, that’s very problematic. I’m more in a position that would follow the one of Martin Buber who defined himself as a Zionist, but believed in a binational state. I’m a Buberist. [he laughs] I think you could have a binational state or one state with the Palestinians together and still have a Jewish autonomy in the way Martin Buber dreamed it. But we also have to remember that also Martin Buber wrote his texts before the Holocaust. I’m aware of that. I’m not innocent.

I notice that you are contrasted on this question and that you manage almost at the same time to define yourself as non-Zionist and Zionist… But let’s go back to the plan B state: Was it supposed to have a language, a flag, an anthem? A migration policy?

The flags that I raised were white flags, which, of course, has a meaning of giving up or surrender. But I gave it a different meaning: that is empty, it’s something that you have to work on. It’s something like a white canvas. This presence of the white color allows me to answer your other questions about the anthem, language…: I think this is exactly something that the people who choose to join the state, who join the project, the movement and then the state has to decide. This is something that I really do believe in: democracy. Same with the immigration laws, the kind of republic and even, will it be a republic? If you ask my opinion, I think it should be a republic and not a kingdom but those who join could choose to have a king, for example.

And the local Jewish community? What do they think about it?

There is no Jewish community in Weimar. Historically, there was never a Jewish community in Weimar.

Temporary office of the Medinat Weimar movement in the Jewish Museum in Berlin
Did you believe that at some point someone could take the project really seriously or even yourself and try to declare independence?

There are people who took the project seriously! Some young people from Thuringia led by some charismatic young men wanted to start a kibbutz in an old farm.  They wanted to use the road plan of the original Zionists. When they told me about their project, I said: “OK, you have my blessing if you want to do it. But you have to know that, for me, that wasn’t the idea, I don’t think it is really feasible.” This could not have been feasible from a gathering of individual voluntarism, this state would it would only come out of a tragedy: the end of Plan A. An example, which, of course, is very different talking about what happened in Syria. When the state collapsed, there was a huge civil war and so millions escaped and they came to Germany. One of the places where contemporary Arab culture is most thriving today is in Berlin today. Tragedy can lead to cultural rebirths.

I do not understand the link between those two situations. Do you think that the Syrian refugees would be into creating a second Syrian state or is it a Jewish issue to project themselves into a state?

Of course, the roots of it is the history of Jews living in Europe, with the connection to the place, with the history. With Syrians, it’s a whole different history and a different culture. And then there will have to be different solutions. 

And now, what’s left of the project in Weimar?

The idea is it’s still out there and there are still people like yourself asking to discuss it. There’s the material, the video, the website and the manifesto. But there is nothing else left, nothing physical at the moment.

What did you do when you came back to Israel?

When I came back to Israel a couple of years after creating the project Medinat Weimar, I tried to start a new project: re-establishing Brit Shalom, which was one of the important ideas of Martin Buber. In the 30s, it was led by different intellectuals like Martin Buber, Gerhsom Sholem, Judah Leon Magnes, in favor of a binational state, a Jewish and Arab state which, in their concept, is part of Zionism. 

 

Zionism talks about a Jewish homeland. It doesn’t have to be a Jewish state. And they very much encourage this idea of a binational state, which, of course, we know wasn’t accepted in the 30s. Then came World War II and the Holocaust and then came the 1948 war. But I think this idea is still very relevant today. We hold conferences and discussions. We used art to recreate it. But this didn’t really take off. Some people, whether they were talking about the Federation or about Jewish and Arab Federation in Israel and Palestine today, tend to the solution that some people call the one-state solution. But you’d have both a Jewish homeland and you have a Palestinian homeland living side by side, as one federation.

If the form of the state does not convince you, why then did you decide to live in Plan A aka Israel?

It was in 2008, for personal reasons. I actually missed home at the end… Plan A… Israel was my home, and I missed it. And at the time, it was an exciting and good place to live. The life of an artist is a lot living out of your suitcase, going from show to show from biennale to biennale, from residency to residency. You can have a very successful career, but it means a big sacrifice. I wanted to go home and start a family.

Have you returned to Weimar since then?

I returned a few times to give talks there. But each time I returned, I think I felt there was less of a physical place, it was Weimar as an idea. The show was present at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. We set up what we called the temporary offices of the movement. For the movement, it was more important to have the bureau in Berlin and to discuss it and to bring it there to publicize the idea. At the same time, I also had an office in a gallery in Stockholm when Sweden was the president of the EU.

Temporary office of the Medinat Weimar movement in Stockholm

I was also invited to present an office in Banja Luka in the Republika Srpska, a Serbian enclave in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They have very much the same questions of what it means to be a minority. What does it mean to be a national state? What does it mean to be a national state inside another national state, inside Europe? It was very interesting to look at this look at the project through the eyes of the ex-Yugoslavia conflict. More broadly, I think one of the main ideas here is the crucial need for political imagination. When things are stuck in a way, people are talking about the same ideas over and over again. They’re proposing the same solution over and over again and they wonder about having the same bad results. It’s kind of stupid to continue doing the same thing. This is exactly what’s happening here:  both the left and the right are always proposing the same thing and we’re stuck in the same place over and over. We could just see in Gaza every three years, the same war! With art, we can create projects of imagination for the future in order to think about new ideas, to change the discourse. Even if some of them don’t make sense or are crazy or are against the political reality, that’s the place to have this imagination. If someone says “Oh, this is not realistic,” we answer: “This is exactly why we should do it!” If we look back again, at the history of Zionism, that’s exactly what was told to Herzl and to all the Zionists. That they were crazy and completely unrealistic. My objective through art and culture is to create more political imagination and propose different new ideas for our old problems.

Going to a conclusion: Would you push the idea until saying that Israel, as you mention the artistic part of Herzl, is an art and political installation?

That’s exactly the idea :  where does it separate? Could you make this separation, between politics and art? Tel Aviv is a city that is named after a book, its name is the translation of AltneuLand. I don’t know if there’s another city in the world that’s named after a book. Usually cities are named after rivers, mounts, leaders… And I think that it’s very symbolic that Tel Aviv, unlike Jerusalem, is very proud of not having a history. Its history is in literature, in a utopian novel, almost a science fiction novel. But Tel Aviv is also a reality, with its bricks, its cement and its roads. Throughout art history, when an art movement finds its place, then it becomes a political movement. 

And could it be, in your eyes, even considered as a performance?

No, no. It’s not a performance. It’s not artistic. It’s real, fighting for real. But, artists, writers help articulate. I don’t think it’s something that is only in the hands of the artist, but the artists have the tools to bring many thoughts that are going on in the air to bring them into more concrete ideas and to present them and also to play with them in a way that we could also discuss them and understand them. And then some of these ideas become reality and people take them forward. But then it’s not art anymore. Then it’s activism. After Herzl, they were all these young men and women who started founding kibbutz and fought. Amos Elon wrote a biography of Herzl where he tells a scene of the First Zionist Congress. Herzl warns that they do not have a flag. And Wolfson says: “I have an idea, I’ll do it!” They went to the print shop and had the flag we know today. When it happens, it’s real. A lot of good political movements are performance pieces. But a State is not a performance. A war is definitely not a performance piece. The futurists wanted to believe that war was art. No, it’s not. It’s a terrible thing.


Interview conducted by Élie Petit

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Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.