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Nira Pereg, “Ishmael” (2014–15), still from 4-channel HD video (all photos courtesy of Braverman Gallery)

In 1994, an American-born Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs, an ancient building in central Hebron that stands over the putative tomb of Abraham, “father of multitudes” and founding prophet of Judaism.

Or, depending on your source, in 1994, during the holy month of Ramadan, an American-born Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshipers in the Ibrahimi Mosque, an ancient building in central Hebron that stands over the putative tomb of Abraham, “father of multitudes” and founding prophet of Islam.

Either way, Goldstein murdered at least 29 people and wounded more than 100.

Since then, the green metal door between the building’s mosque section and its synagogue section has been controlled by the Israeli border patrol, and whenever a muezzin needs to cross the Jewish section to get to the room from which he will issue his call to prayer, he is escorted by a squad of machine gun–toting soldiers and police — a manifestly schizophrenic process that seems to epitomize, theologically as well as politically, the situation of the whole territory in which the building stands, whether you call it “the state of Israel” or “the occupied West Bank.”

Nira Pereg, “Ishmael” (2014–15), still from 4-channel HD video

Israeli artist Nira Pereg has documented this deadly comedy in “Ishmael” (a name traditionally interpreted to mean “God has heard”), an elegantly devastating four-channel video piece presented by Tel Aviv’s Braverman Gallery at On Stellar Rays on New York’s Lower East Side. The film begins at dawn, according to English and Arabic titles on the leftmost screen, with a short young man in a light jacket crossing a room with dirty white walls, a dark blue mihrab, and a floor covered in carpets to bang on a metal door with a large key. While he waits, like Hagar in the wilderness, for his call to be answered, he bites his nail and glances self-consciously at the camera. Once the door creaks open, he crosses into the second screen, where the walls are covered with Hebrew text on books, posters, and wall-hangings, and joins a squad of soldiers in flak jackets, fatigues, and berets. They escort him down a corridor. He unlocks another green metal door and disappears behind it. The soldiers sit patiently on a bench while, behind that locked door, the muezzin proclaims to all the world, “God is greater!”

Nira Pereg, “Ishmael” (2014–15), still from 4-channel HD video

Nira Pereg, “Ishmael” (2014–15), still from 4-channel HD video

Over the course of the day, more crossings occur, and they begin to overlap. At noon, a second muezzin crosses screen 1, which is now full of Muslim tourists sitting close together on the floor, and raps on the door while slipping on his shoes. The soldiers who open the door are now teamed with two policemen in navy uniforms and ball caps. Pereg has edited out most of the sound except the banging of the key and the muezzins’ melodious voices; we see the soldiers using their walkie-talkies and chatting with one another, but we don’t know what they say. In the afternoon, the room in screen 1 is empty again, and the muezzin smiles tentatively at the camera.

Nira Pereg, “Ishmael” (2014–15), still from 4-channel HD video

Nira Pereg, “Ishmael” (2014–15), still from 4-channel HD video

Pereg’s deft overlapping of moments serves both to amplify their absurdity and to demonstrate how quickly we normalize violence. When I first saw the piece, the machine guns moving back and forth made me so nervous that I had to leave the room. But I quickly came to take them for granted — at least enough to make notes and think ahead to this review. I reminded myself to mention Ambrose Bierce’s famous definition of marriage (“a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making, in all, two”) and Stefan Zweig’s novella “Chess Story,” about a captive of the Gestapo who drives himself to the brink of insanity trying to play both sides of a chess game. I made a note about my admiration for Pereg’s light touch with her massively overdetermined material: In both the Jewish and Muslim traditions, Ishmael/Ismail is Abraham’s first son, but in the Torah his mother is a slave and Abraham ultimately drives both mother and son away into the desert, while in the Koran it’s Ismail, not Isaac, whom Abraham is commanded to sacrifice, and Ismail declares himself ready to submit to God’s will.

What kept coming back to me, as the uniforms and rifles slowly lost their impact, was the doors. A rifle, when it’s not shooting, is only potentially or implicitly violent — but a door, every moment it stands, shuts out and divides.

Nira Pereg, “Ishmael” (2014–15), still from 4-channel HD video

At sunset, instead of the muezzin, a settler stands outside the building and bellows into the distance in a bizarre mirroring of his rival’s practice. Jews have no call to prayer, so what he yells is simply the name of the evening service, Minha. (Normally a muezzin would be chanting at this time, too, but of the five Muslim calls to prayer each day, this one has been forbidden to make room for the settler’s.) After dark, it’s the night muezzin again. One of the cops on duty flirts with a female soldier partially off-camera, while the other shows one of the soldiers his new sunglasses. And then one by one, back through the day, the two muezzins cross from right to left again and the whole thing starts over.

Ishmael continues at On Stellar Rays (1 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 8.

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Will Heinrich

Will Heinrich was born in New York and spent his early childhood in Japan. His novel The King's Evil was published in 2003 and won a PEN/Bingham Fellowship in 2004. Currently he writes about art...

47 replies on “The Deadly Comedy of the Israeli Border Patrol in the Cave of the Patriarchs”

  1. So because a jewish man murdered 29 Muslims there they escort a muslim man with guns. Sounds about right for Israel.

    1. They are escorting him for his own safety as he crossed the divide. They are also there to ensure equal and safe access to the tomb for both religions. Keep your anti Semitism in check.

      1. Its not anti-semitic to point out how badly Israel often treats Muslims/Arabs/Palestinians. They don’t do it because they are jews but because their government is in many ways corrupt.

        1. They do it bc of 70 years of five conventional Arab wars, suicide bombings, missile attacks, stabings, hijackings, encitement aimed at destroying israel as a jewish state. Whatever you think of her as a country israel is forced to be hyper vigilant out of real and pressing security threats. Her neighbors are not Canada or Switzerland a fact often overlooked by those looking to condemn any and all of her actions

          1. Its not being hyper vigilant I am talking about. Its things like destroying an entire apartment complex to kill one militant then claiming that they thought for sure that the building would be otherwise unoccupied in the middle of the night. Dropping cluster bombs in civilian areas.

            Its not the legit defense I am worried about. It is when that defense steps into the realm of war crimes.

          2. Your information is inaccurate. Please cite a specific incident. Even so You cannot extrapolate your statement to a policy. Israel has the most stringent policies vis a vis urban warfare than any country in world. Every western military including nato nations train with israel to learn how best to fight urban warfare while minimizing civilian casualties. Israels technology extends to pinpoint accuracy including taking out one apartment in a building accurately which is why it has the documented lowest ratio of civilian to combatent casualty rate. But if your standard in warfare is that no innocents gets killed then you will have a convenient hammer with which to hit israel. I hardly think you spend your time lambasting other nations in the Mideast and world that will openly level entire cities overnight.

          3. Its not inaccurate. Those things actually happened. Your ignorance of them does not prove they didn’t happen.

            Israel sometimes trying not to kill civilians doesn’t excuse the times they intentionally do. If you cannot fault Israel for the things it actually does that are wrong, horrendous, and/or are actual war crimes that is your problem. Not mine.

            ” I hardly think you spend your time lambasting other nations in the
            Mideast and world that will openly level entire cities overnight.”

            This article was not about them… nor was this discussion.

          4. I read world news regularly, but of course I can’t read everything. Can you point me to a reliable source that documents Israel’s purposeful targeting of civilian populations. It is well known that Israel regularly emails, telephones, leaflets and/or sends a “knock on the roof” to warn civilians to evacuate targeted areas.

            But you are right. That is not what this article is about. It is, it seems to me a fairly balanced report, as these things go.

            Would that we lived in a world where leaders, both religious and governmental, and individuals (‘religious’ or otherwise) could agree to keep ‘holy’ places holy, and free of fear, danger, prejudice, sectarianism, and so forth.

            I would ask you, and anyone else who is critical of the present conditions, as described in the story: What suggestions do you have to improve the situation?

          5. Excuse me, but that’s a pretty inadequate answer to a very serious question — one that so far doesn’t seem to have a very adequate answer.
            And you have not even tried to answer my first question.

            How about this for an equally simple, yet equally inadequate answer: STOP COMMITTING WAR.

            Both statements are so ‘simple’, in fact, that no one has been able to figure out how, though I don’t know on whose authority you use the term ‘crimes’. If that’s your opinion, fine, but it’s a term that is bandied about all too freely. The jury is not in. Actually, the case hasn’t even been presented in any responsible way (at least so far as I am aware). Is that simple enough for you?

          6. Well, sorry if you find asking Israel (and others) to simply follow international law is not adequate.

            “How about this for an equally simple, yet equally inadequate answer: STOP COMMITTING WAR.”

            The two aren’t comparable… at least not in the overly facile way you are trying to compare them.

            “Both statements are so ‘simple’, in fact, that no one has been able to
            figure out how, though I don’t know on whose authority you use the term
            ‘crimes’.”

            That you are also ignorant of international law is not my problem, either.

          7. Of course the two are not equivalent, but they ARE equally simple. That’s part of making a point. I guess I should have spelled it out for those who might not have gotten it. My bad.

            Are you qualified in international law? If you are, please explain and document your explanation as well your conclusion regarding ‘war crimes’. If not . . . then again, ‘crimes’ is merely your opinion. So far you’ve given no sources either to me or to Al2sultan, as we’ve both requested.;

            p.s. You don’t need to be nasty. What makes you think I am ignorant? And do you think I should give you the same ‘courtesy’ simply because you seem to use words rather cavalierly?

          8. “Are you qualified in international law? If you are, please explain and
            document your explanation as well your conclusion regarding ‘war
            crimes’. If not . . . then again, ‘crimes’ is merely your opinion.”

            Oh, please save this pedantic garbage. It is illegal to drop cluster munitions in civilian areas under international law. I don’t have to be “qualified in international law” to know that or to point it out.

            Also, pointing out that you are ignorant is not being nasty. But I was wrong. You aren’t ignorant.. just a pedant when it comes to criticism of Israel.

            http://www.haaretz.com/news/idf-commander-we-fired-more-than-a-million-cluster-bombs-in-lebanon-1.197099

          9. Ah, finally. A citation. I guess that I am the fool for not letting you off the hook, as Al2sultan seemed to have done.

            I am certainly not a pedant (anything but), and you have not heard my criticisms of Israel.

            I wish you could present yourself as one who thinks, without drawing so many ill-founded conclusions.

            If you had been forthcoming in the first place, you would have saved me what has now become a wasted afternoon.

          10. Well, I am sorry that you waded into a discussion on something you were ignorant about and were unable and unwilling to spend a couple seconds simply googling Israel’s use of cluster bombs.

            I’m also sorry if you think that the idea of just not dropping cluster bombs in civilian areas, even if that means simply not using cluster bombs is just too damned simple.

          11. Again you’ve drawn ill-founded conclusions. Why do you continue to assume so much?

            I.e. “Well, I am sorry that you waded into a discussion on something you were ignorant about and were unable and unwilling to spend a couple seconds simply googling Israel’s use of cluster bombs.”

            Need I parse this statement of yours for you?

            I know the history quite well. You were not giving citations in support of your statements. After all, there are others reading these comments who are not familitar with all the ins and outs. That’s all.

          12. You were ignorant of Israel’s use of cluster bombs.

            “After all, there are others reading these comments who are not familiar with all the ins and outs.”

            And another lapse into pedantry.

          13. It is NOT illegal to attack civilian areas used by terrorists in urban combat. Israel didn’t wake up one day and say we’re bored today lets go drop cluster bombs. And regarding cluster bombs there is debate even in US govt who manufactures them whether yes or no it’s illegal. So it’s disengenuous to make s blanket statement of fact without context. Note to you and all blind israel haters: Islamic terrorists inhabit civilian areas in Lebenon and Gaza and launch missiles into israel indiscriminately to kill Israeli civilians. Israel in return will not only return fire but create a paved over landing strip over any areas used to initiate war crimes against her. Those who put their hands in a lions mouth should not be surprised if it gets bitten off.

          14. “It is NOT illegal to attack civilian areas used by terrorists in urban combat.”

            Wait.. are you “qualified in international law”? If not…

            “And regarding cluster bombs there is debate even in US govt who manufactures them whether yes or no it’s illegal.”

            Oh, there is a debate among the manufacturers.. who do not alone set international law that it is “not illegal”, though you don’t specify if that is generally illegal or illegal when used in civilian areas.

            ” Note to you and all blind israel haters: Islamic terrorists inhabit
            civilian areas in Lebenon and Gaza and launch missiles into israel
            indiscriminately to kill Israeli civilians.”

            And it is still a war crime to drop bombs into those civilian areas. The only one blind here is you. You can’t even admit that Israel has done anything wrong.

          15. Never mind that an Islamic terror organization amasses missiles aimed at Israeli civilians on purpose. You can care less. All you care about is your gotcha moment to smear israel. Bottom line next war civilians in southern Lebenon will not have to worry about cluster bombs. The entire area will become a no go zone if hezbolla shoots its arsenal at israel.

          16. I never said I don’t care. But you clearly don’t care about the civilians in lebanon.

          17. Shelter a terrorist in your village and stockpile weapons in your homes mosques and schools suffer the consequences of your choices. Elect a terror organization to lead you suffer the consequences.

          18. I’m still waiting for YOU to admit that Islamic terror organizations commit war crimes by initiating warfare on israel. Or will you contort yourself to justify it. Can you say openly that israel has a right to exist and defend itself? Start with that.

          19. You never asked me to. By initiating warfare on Israel? That depends greatly on exactly what you are talking about there. You’d have to be quite a bit more specific.

            Have terrorist organizations done things that would qualify as war crimes? OF FUCKING COURSE. Thats part of why they are terrorist organizations.

            Doesn’t justify Israel’s war crimes, though.

            “Can you say openly that israel has a right to exist and defend itself? Start with that.”

            That is utterly irrelevant to the discussion. But by all means, keep working yourself up into a lather by assigning every little trope and stereotype you can think of to me and bringing up every canard you can think of to keep the discussion away from Israeli war crimes.

          20. I’ve been very specific. Hezbollah and Hamas Islamic terrorist organizations initiating war against a sovereign nation by launching indiscriminate missiles at civilian targets. Is that specific enough for you? As for the last part You can’t even even admit that israel has a right to exist and defend itself. I rest my case. Antisemitic israel hater.

          21. How funny. YOU assert your opinion on international law and that’s ok and you dismiss my assertion bc you think I’m not qualified to have an opinion? You didn’t actually respond to the assertions which was a fact. Civilian areas used to initiate war crimes against israel are fair game under rules of law. Whether the specifics of cluster bombs are acceptable is a debated thing with no definitive specific law banning cluster bombs specifically in all cases. Facts are inconvenient to your smear campaign of israel. Breath deeply. You’ll survive.

          22. “How funny. YOU assert your opinion on international law and that’s ok
            and you dismiss my assertion bc you think I’m not qualified to have an
            opinion?”

            Just using your logic.

            “Civilian areas used to initiate war crimes against israel are fair game
            under rules of law. Whether the specifics of cluster bombs are
            acceptable is a debated thing with no definitive specific law banning
            cluster bombs specifically in all cases. Facts are inconvenient to your
            smear campaign of israel.”

            Citation still needed.

          23. Perhaps you did not read the article you yourself provided:

            IDF: No violation of international law

            In response, the IDF Spokesman’s Office stated that “International law does not include a sweeping prohibition of the use of cluster bombs. The convention on conventional weaponry does not declare a prohibition on [phosphorous weapons], rather, on principles regulating the use of such weapons.

            “For understandable operational reasons, the IDF does not respond to [accounts of] details of weaponry in its possession.

            “The IDF makes use only of methods and weaponry which are permissible under international law. Artillery fire in general, including MLRS fire, were used in response solely to firing on the state of Israel.”

          24. Oh, the IDF said that the IDF didn’t violate international law. Well, why didn’t you say so!

            “In response, the IDF Spokesman’s Office stated that
            “International law does not include a sweeping prohibition of the use of
            cluster bombs.”

            Yes.. only in civilian areas.

          25. Civilian areas used by an Islamic terror organization to launch attacks on a sovereign nation is fair game for retaliation under international law.

          26. I’ll let you show me a citation for it.

            Also, we weren’t talking about retaliation in civilian areas. We were talking about the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas.. which IS a war crime… despite what those producing and selling them might want to believe to be the case for their own benefit.

          27. The IDF is also made up of international law experts that are part of the military. I’m quite sure they can and would investigate or defend each incident as needed to the highest standards. You hate israel and seek to demonize her. YOUR interpretation of law is just that YOUR interpretation not fact.

          28. I didn’t say anything about “occupation”. You keep bringing up all these things I didn’t say.

            Also, the idea that they have law experts, thus they can’t possibly have done anything illegal is just downright stupid.

          29. The idea that they have law experts is to show you that your blood libel that israel intentionally targets civilians in war is wrong and stupid. And that they are willing to fight in court with evidence of how and when and why and under what circumstances they take action to defend themselves. I’m tiring of your lack of reading comprehension.

          30. Hrag I will lay off the condescending sarcasm I apologize. I will however continue to respond to statements that I feel are incitement or blood libelous to israel/Jews. I.e. Accusing israel as a policy of murdering civilians. Statements like this need to be refuted vigorously.

          31. Dear Hrag Vartanian,

            Did you read Den Hickey’s comments about me, calling me “ignorant”, a “pedant”, and suggesting that I am merely being “facile” (rather harsh, don’t you think, when I am trying to address a serious issue in a serious way).

            Unless Al2sultan has a record of actually “bullying and [being] condscending to commenters” (something of which I would not be aware), it appears to me he was only responding in kind.

          32. Simple. Stop shooting missiles and sending suicide bombers to murder Jews and israel will have no need to respond. Let’s put it another way: America has no need to attack Canada bc Canadian militias don’t preach death to Americans. Or do you not recognize indiscriminate missile fire and suicide bombers as war crimes? Let’s hear your take on this

          33. Your ability to reason, bias and cognitive dissonance is on display. Numbers don’t lie. And it is a fact that israels ratio to civilian combatant deaths is the LOWEST in the world despite media and Arab propoganda spanning 100 years. You are sticking to your story that israel intentionally targets civilians for death as a policy. This is despicable slander and a blood libel NOT substantiated by facts. I can show you facts and figures and quotes from NATO generals confirming my view of Israels methods and figures visa vi other western nations. But I have a hunch you would not let the facts get in the way of your Israel demonization and emotion based stance on the conflict. If you want to support palestinian independence by all means do so. What will not lead to resolution is encouraging them to demonize israel as gleeful murderers. You can start by urging them to address their own failure to condemn insightment against Jews in general, terrorism, and failure to acknowledged and accept the jewish people’s historic right to settle in the land as well.

          34. Aaand there you go again.
            “You are sticking to your story that israel intentionally targets civilians for death as a policy.”

            I never used the world policy.

            ” I can show you facts and figures and quotes from NATO generals
            confirming my view of Israels methods and figures visa vi other western
            nations.”

            Which does not in any way make the actual incidents I mentioned go away.

            ” If you want to support palestinian independence by all means do so.”

            I didn’t mention a single word about palestinian independence. I think it is pretty clear who is disregarding facts and making an emotion based argument here.

            “What will not lead to resolution is encouraging them to demonize israel as gleeful murderers.”

            Didn’t say a word about that, either.

            https://www.google.com/search?q=israel+cluster+bombs&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8
            Truth and reality is not a “blood libel”. Israel dropped cluster bombs in a civilian area. That is a war crime.

          35. You’re obviously ignorant of reading comprehension. You accuse israel of intentionally murdering civilians. If that is your assertion then by definition you are accusing her of doing that as a policy. You sir are an inciter and blood libler

          36. Well, it was done.. so by your logic, it was policy. Like I said… reality isn’t a blood libel.

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