LAND LORD, an image from Shimon Attie’s 2014 series “Facts on the Ground,” shows the Israeli settlement Har Homa rising in the background from the Palestinian village Umm Tuba, annexed by Israel in 1967. Two light boxes in the foreground read “Land” and “Lord.” By splitting the word “landlord” in two, the light boxes call attention to the conjunction of religious and proprietary investments in the land of Israel/Palestine. The image suggests that incorporating a divine narrative within a claim to state authority and ownership has played a central role in fragmenting the region’s geography between the settlement that rises out of focus on the hill and the unseen Palestinian village behind the camera.
The tensions in the photograph—between the two light boxes and between the photographed location and the site of the camera—establish an ambivalence, a continual push-and-pull mired in conflicting ideologies and colonial politics. The ambivalence of Attie’s image sets the stage for a reckoning with the narratives inscribed on the photographed landscape.
Ambivalence also plays a crucial role in reparation, as theorized by British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in her 1937 essay “Love, Guilt, and Reparation.” Klein’s psychoanalytic reparation, a concept adjacent to reparations as economic and political compensation for past violence, describes an individual’s ability to reconcile ambivalent feelings, particularly love and hate, within oneself for the purpose of moving through a fractured world.
Uses of reparation—and of the cognates repair and reparative—in both critical theory and the language of social justice in liberal American Judaisms favor an idea of repair that allows speakers to assert a position of moral superiority; however, these remain vulnerable to being exploited in the service of colonial politics when desires for feel-good resolutions take precedence over desires to alter the dominant social and political order. In an essay on the limits of reparation, David Eng identifies this moral superiority within Klein’s reparation as well. He parses how reparation entails the same sort of self-reflection, moral reconciliation, and mitigating of shame characteristic of liberal white guilt, and the impulse to substitute the remorse of the colonizer for the suffering of the colonized.1 Examining Klein’s theory of reparation, paying particular attention to its ambivalence and connections to colonialism, can help identify when ideas of repair facilitate colonial violence. It can also point to how artworks like Attie’s offer models of repair that confront the processes of colonization.
As reparation has gained both academic and popular currency, there has been an impulse to emphasize the generative and sustaining elements of artistic and cultural projects over the importance of conflict within reparation. In much of recent queer and feminist theory, reparative reading describes a way of reading that seeks to approach objects of analysis with love, situate analysis locally, and remain open to surprise. The “reparative turn,” taken up by authors such as Heather Love, José Esteban Muñoz, Elizabeth Freeman, and Ann Cvetkovich, stems from Eve Kosofksy Sedgewick’s influential essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” which has motivated dialogue investigating the roles of critique, theory, and interpretation in the humanities.2 Sedgwick herself draws the term “reparation” from Klein’s earlier accounts of psychic development. In Klein’s work, the terms “paranoid” and “reparative” describe psychic “positions” among which individuals shift. These positions are shaped by how an individual relates emotionally to external and internal objects. Klein posited that people experience aggression and anxiety from the very beginning of life, and how an individual responds to these founding emotions determines that individual’s psychic position. The paranoid position describes a defensive position in which the individual splits an object perceived as threatening into a good or loved object and a bad or hated object. The individual imagines destroying the hated portion, which gives rise to fears that the loved object has also been destroyed. A depressive position emerges as a response to feelings of guilt that the individual has the capacity to destroy a loved object. Finally, the reparative position comes from an individual’s ability to negotiate this guilt. The individual must come to grips with how relations with objects include both love and hate. The psyche repairs both the self and other objects into provisional wholes that can provide sustenance. At the basis of reparation, then, lies ambivalence and prior violence.
As reparation has gained both academic and popular currency, there has been an impulse to emphasize the generative and sustaining elements of artistic and cultural projects over the importance of conflict within reparation.
One of Klein’s key essays explaining these psychic positions uses colonial conquest of land as an example of when the drive to reparation is expressed. Klein’s 1937 essay “Love, Guilt and Reparation” offers explanations of psychic positions at multiple scales, expanding out from the infant and the mother to the family, school settings, and, eventually, to the exploration and colonial conquest of land. She writes about how explorers of new lands expressed aggression in “former times” in their “ruthless cruelty against native populations” as they conquer and colonize, but then demonstrate the drive to reparation as they “[repopulated] the country with people of their own nationality.”3 Klein uses colonialism figuratively and relegates it to the past, but her assumption that readers will understand her point without evocative details such as location indicates the significance of colonization as a cultural reference point. Klein theorizes reparation here as a response to colonialist and nationalist expansion that privileges the position of the colonizer rather than that of the colonized. Reparation here entails recognizing and attempting to rectify inflicted suffering, but only by centering one’s compatriots. The fundamental ambivalence of Klein’s reparation is evident here in the combination of aggression and redress, although the latter remains limited by nationalism.
Recalling the connection between reparation and colonialism in Klein’s writing is useful because while this connection is not always acknowledged in critical theory, it can be detected in more popular notions of repair and, specifically, in the recent use of the concept of tikkun olam to advocate for the legalization of Israeli settlements.
Repair has constituted a core concept in Jewish thinking and history, expressed most prominently in the capacious concept tikkun olam, which connotes a reckoning with a shattered world and working toward its improvement. As Levi Cooper points out in an issue of the journal Jewish Political Studies Review devoted to tikkun olam, an original meaning eludes scholars of Jewish liturgy and law, two contexts in which the phrase appears without a precise function or definition.4
Beyond a superficial linguistic connection between tikkun/repair and reparation (or reparative in critical theory), tikkun olam implies an outlook based on love and enables its speakers to position themselves politically and ethically. Those who invoke tikkun olam do so for reasons spanning political orientations and practical applications, but the term is often used by liberal and Reform Jews in North America to declare a commitment to social justice. On the website for the Union for Reform Judaism, for example, Rabbi Marla Feldman goes so far as to equate being a Reform Jew with tikkun olam: “To be a Reform Jew is to hear the voice of the prophets in our head; to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam.”5 Because applications of tikkun olam can vary so widely, from a reason to recycle, to arguments for the retroactive legalization of Israeli settlements, it hardly offers a stable point of reference. The instability takes on a heightened significance when declarations of tikkun olam imply moral superiority with regard to issues on which Jews hold radically different viewpoints. When, for instance, tikkun olam is used to argue for the legality of Israeli settlements, considered illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention adopted in 1949, the prior affixation of Reform Jewish identity to tikkun olam collapses a type of Jewish identification with the enforcement of occupation.
This example is not hypothetical. In a 2017 article published in The Forward and The Jewish Press, Ari Zivotosfky invokes tikkun olam to argue for the retroactive legalization of Israeli settlement housing built without the knowledge that the land belonged to someone else.6 Zivotofsky appeals to an “original” meaning of tikkun olam, describing a Talmudic law that states that a thief who stole property and incorporated this property into his belongings may rectify his wrongdoing by paying the original owner money rather than returning the property. He applies this principle to the Regulation Law, passed by the Knesset in February 2017, which authorizes State expropriation of Palestinian-owned land where settlements have already been built in return for monetary compensation. He concludes the article by arguing that American and Reform Jews who have cherished tikkun olam, but distanced the concept from its foundations, should relish the opportunity to reach the heart of tikkun olam and readily support the legality of Israeli settlements.
Zivotofsky’s assertion that the Regulation Law adheres to a “fundamental incarnation” of tikkun olam belies the fact that, even in the Talmud, tikkun olam arises in cases including divorce, economic legislation, and issues of personal status. The expansive meanings of tikkun olam, both in the Talmud and contemporary political discourse, make it available for Zivotofsky to profess a return to its original meaning, while advancing a particular argument regarding Israeli property rights. Zivotofsky’s use of tikkun olam, which echoes Klein’s identification of reparation in colonial conquest as the attempt to rectify past violences to Indigenous populations through nationalist expansion, demonstrates how notions of politics often identified with social justice can aid in colonial projects.
Despite the dormant colonial politics in various forms of repair, Klein’s reparation can still offer a useful way for reading artistic projects while reckoning with violence. Shimon Attie’s LAND LORD encourages a rereading of the landscape of Israel/Palestine attuned to ideological forces that have produced the political condition of occupation. Over the course of his career, Attie has explored how memory, loss, and identity are inscribed in place through photography, video, and site-specific installations. To create his “Facts on the Ground” photo series, exhibited at Jack Shainman Gallery and published as a book by Nazraeli Press in 2016, Attie set light boxes with texts in various locations throughout Israel/Palestine. The photographs are accompanied by captions that detail the specific sites of the photographs, including the names of Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages—some still standing and others that have remained in ruins since the Nakba in 1948. The title of the series, “Facts on the Ground,” calls upon viewers to consider the specificities of development and destruction that characterize the landscape. “Facts on the ground,” a term frequently used in discussions of Israeli settlement-building, generally refers to a state’s efforts to establish concrete realities that can strengthen a political claim and make sovereignty over a territory seem inevitable. In the case of settlement-building in Israel/Palestine, it describes the establishment of homes and infrastructure as footholds to gain permanent control over more Palestinian territory. Using this title, Attie calls attention to the political management of land and how land is inhabited, countering transcendent or ahistorical links between people and place.
It does not simply look from one place to another but looks across the spatial binaries that organize social and political differences.
Reading LAND LORD reparatively entails unpacking the conflicted object relations within the image. These relations occur both within the photograph, between the words and spaces photographed, and beyond the photograph, in terms of the external investments in the spaces photographed. The composition of the photograph is divided between the palpable materiality of the foreground, a hazy out-of-focus background, and the sky above. Har Homa’s elevation and glow raises it to a quasi-spiritual realm. By contrast, the debris in the foreground indicates the degrading effects of ascribing both the language of property and religious ideals to this land. The caption accompanying the photograph details the direction of the camera’s perspective, from an annexed Palestinian village to an Israeli settlement. Specifying the camera’s direction denaturalizes the forcibly imposed (and steadily undermined) divisions between Israeli and Palestinian space. Attie’s camera can cross spaces fractured by walls and checkpoints. It does not simply look from one place to another but looks across the spatial binaries that organize social and political differences.
In addition to the physical gap between the Israeli settlement and the Palestinian village, LAND LORD opens up a linguistic gap to consider the complex intertwining of property and religion in the space of Israel/Palestine. Attie splits the word “landlord” to reveal the spatial and holy dimensions of the power relation defined by property ownership. The State of Israel, the photo seems to say, is playing the combined role of God and proprietor. The continual push and-pull between “land” and “lord” encapsulates Zionism’s religious and political threads, an intertwining at play in Zionism’s simultaneously messianic and right-wing manifestations. The image achieves a Kleinian ambivalence in the relationship between languages of religion and propriety. This ambivalence, as well as the perspective of the photograph, helps chart the practices of domination that divide spaces using borders, ideology, and social difference. Repair, however, remains deferred in Attie’s photograph. The ease of reading “land” and “lord” as “landlord” only throws into relief the difficulty of repair here, which would entail restoring the foreground of the photograph with the background. The camera nevertheless asks viewers to reckon with the violent splitting of these spaces. Reading Attie’s image reparatively—not as life-affirming, but rather for ambivalence and colonialism—counters the disavowal of colonial politics that lie dormant in notions of repair. Where Zivotofsky appropriates tikkun olam to impose halakhic notions of property on the land, Attie’s photograph shows how repair, or its imaginary invocation through the lens of a camera and the magnetism of language, can help confront the violent reality of spatial domination.
- David L. Eng, “Colonial Object Relations,” Social Text 34, no. 1 (2016): 14
- The essay was published in three versions, in 1996, 1997, and 2003. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–151
- Melanie Klein, “Love, Guilt and Reparation” (1937), in The Writings of Melanie Klein, Volume I: Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other works, 1921–1945 (New York: The Free Press, 1975), 334
- Levi Cooper, “The Assimilation of Tikkun Olam*,” Jewish Political Studies Review 25, no. 3–4 (2013): 10–42
- “Social Justice,” Union for Reform Judaism, accessed February 8, 2018, https://urj.org/what-we-do/social-justice
- Ari Zivotofsky, “Is The Retroactive Legalization of Israeli Settlements Just?” The Forward, August 29, 2017, http://forward.com/scribe/381327/is-the-retroactive-legalization-of-israeli-settlements-just/ and Ari Zivotofsky, “Retroactive Legalization of Israeli Settlements is Tikkun Olam,” The Jewish Press, September 12, 2017, http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/is-the-retroactive-legalization-of-israeli-settlements-just/2017/09/12/