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Snow White and the Trouble of Interpretation

Whether or not the application of a single meaning can ever be integrated into the whole of anything is, perhaps, the main question at the heart of modernity.

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A Swedish/Israeli incident occurred at the anti-genocide conference “Making Differences,” when the Israeli ambassador to Sweden began to dismantle Dror and Gunilla Sköld Feiler’s installation “Snow White and the Madness of Truth.” After the ambassador Zvi Mazel was removed from the Museum of National Antiquities, he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “[I] couldn’t have reacted in any other way.” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, according to BBC News, commented, “It would have been forbidden not to have acted on the spot.” But was the meaning of the installation so easily read?

In “Snow White”, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “My Heart is Swimming in Blood” plays over a pool of red water, on which a toy boat, with a picture of former law student and suicide bomber Hanadi Jaradat, floats. The installation can be interpreted as follows:

* Reading 1) Jaradat sails valiantly on a sea of Jewish blood. Her attack was a victory, the way to paradise.
* Reading 2) Jaradat, like Elizabeth Bathory, is beautiful, but deadly, bathing in the blood of her victims.
* Reading 3) Jaradat, and many other desperate people, do horrible things in support of their political beliefs.

None of these readings of the Feilers’ “Snow White and the Madness of Truth” can be absolutely true. Whether or not the application of a single meaning can ever be integrated into the whole of anything is, perhaps, the main question at the heart of modernity.

The “Snow White” controversy is not about a simple statement; it is about the interpretation of a work of art. The Israeli government suggests that discussion, whether or not in Israel, about Palestinian suicide bombing, or anything which can be negatively interpreted about Israel, should be forbidden. This sentiment recalls the Iranian response to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, but limits the demand to silence, not death. The Israeli state’s response implies dialogue is unacceptable outside of their terms.

The application of meaning, though essential in the attempt to understand the universe, is always subjective. When Zvi Mazel toppled the spotlight and caused the commotion at the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm, he attempted to force his own reading of the piece, as “a call to genocide,” on everyone. This rigid position, supported by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, serves to limit discourse not only on a work of art, but on the continuing Israeli/Palestinian conflict as well. However, dialogue and peace cannot be pursued in honesty by eliminating the avenues of discourse. The current state of misunderstanding and violence will continue to cycle.

“[Mazel] said he was ashamed that I was a Jew,” the BBC News reported Feiler as saying, after the ambassador assaulted his installation. Interestingly, Dror Feiler has been villainized because he is not only an Israeli Jew, but also acts as the president of Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. He attempts to engage in artistic as well as political conversation in his work. Furthermore, Feiler offered the following interpretation of the installation to BBC News: “The work had a message of openness and conciliation,” and Hanadi Jaradat, the suicide bomber, was “weak, lonely…capable of horrible things.” These readings are quite different from “the call to genocide” that Zvi Mazel saw.

No one, not even the artist, has an authoritative reading of a piece of work — Israel has no right to ask Sweden to censor speech or anything that hints at an anti-Israeli interpretation. The logic is similar to that of President George W. Bush’s abstinence-only sex education programs. The analogy is that if a teenager knows how to use a condom, he will have sex; if someone presents suicide bombing as anything short of genocide, he will cease to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

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