Posted by: simonsteachingblog | June 26, 2010

Mobile metaphors

The thing about metaphors is that the more someone, or some collective places emphasis upon a particular metaphor, giving it visibility, the more this metaphor is open to appropriation and re-use by others, often in ways that contravene its original articulation. This has clearly been the case with the Holocaust. The Israeli state has instrumentalized the Holocaust as a kind of master-metaphor with which to legitimize its actions and create for itself a kind of latitude with which the persecuted can act as a persecutor without significant rebuke. Yet as Idith Zertal has pointed out, the Israeli state cannot entirely control the meanings of this metaphor (Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, Cambridge, 2005). The international construction of the Holocaust as the traumatic event of the recent history means that there will inevitably be points where its role as a metaphor in the service of the Israeli state project will spin out of control and result in a kind of symbolic ‘blow-back’. This occurred in November 2004 when a member of the Israeli NGO Checkpoint Watch filmed a Palestinian man (Wissam Tayam) playing a violin at the Beit Iba checkpoint. The soldiers at the checkpoint claimed that when asked to open his violin case, the man voluntarily began to play, whereas the violinist himself has stated that he was told by the soldiers to ‘play something sad’. Whatever actually happened, it is clear that this event touched a nerve for many Israelis familiar with imagery of Jewish musicians forced to play in the Nazi camps. Some felt that the actions of the soldiers besmirched the official Israeli memory of the Holocaust and problematized its role as a pillar of legitimacy for Israel. In other instances people have actively re-presented motifs related to the Holocaust as a means of using its metaphoric capital in support of their political projects. Thus Palestinian activists in the West Bank village of Bil’in protested against the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 by dressing up as concentration camp inmates during one of their weekly demonstrations against the West Bank Barrier which has cut them off from part of their land. The people engaging in this dramatic performance not only wore striped clothes, but also yellow stars on which were written the word ‘Gazan’. Potentially distasteful as the analogy between the Holocaust and the Gaza attack might be for some, what it reveals very clearly is the way that the horror of the Holocaust is available for metaphoric appropriation within local and international arenas. In this sense the Holocaust is not a fixed metaphor with meanings delimited in relation to one political entity and one ethnic-national group, but a mobile metaphor open for appropriation. Because of its necessary mobility, this metaphor is struggled over by those who want to control its use and connotations, and by those who want to turn it to their own purposes.

Similar considerations about the mobility of metaphors arise for me from the recent storming of the ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla. Many observers have made the link between the Mavi Marmara and the ship Exodus 1947 that brought Jewish refugees to Palestine from Europe in 1947 and was stormed out at sea by the British Navy. Both ships were engaging in an act of breaking a blockade imposed by the current sovereign power of the area. This is a powerful link to make given the way the Exodus 1947 became a focal point for international criticism of British policy toward Jewish refugees and a symbol of the perceived need to create a Jewish state in Palestine, and then later a symbol of that state once it was formed. The Exodus 1947 was represented as a story of desperate people seeking refuge in a place to which they had a historical relationship and who were stopped by an imperial power, which in this particular case eventually deported the refugees back to the place of their oppression, Germany. The story of the Mavi Marmara is currently hotly debated: the official Israeli version being that it was a ship linked to a broader will to destroy, or at least endanger Israel, while the reading made by many people worldwide, and not necessarily just partisans of the Palestinian cause, is that the ship was a symbolic attempt to break the illegitimate blockade of Gaza. However the storming of the flotilla is understood what is apparent is that the linkage between the Exodus 1947 and the Mavi Marmara involves a kind of metaphoric traffic from the one to the other.

There is an Israeli poster from 1949 that depicts a huge liner speeding towards the coast of Palestine. The ship flies a huge Israeli flag and is emblazoned with the name ‘Exodus’ on its prow. The poster depicts the Exodus 1947 as a historical ship, albeit in a rather glamorized way, and at the same time presents to the ship as symbolic of the Israeli state itself. Here the ship symbolizes the official project of the state to engage in an ‘in-gathering’ of diasporic Jews from around the world and to create a national haven for the Jews as a persecuted people. The Exodus 1947 continues to be a symbol of these aspects of the dominant Zionist narrative. Thus in 2007 three hundred people from different countries, including passengers on the Exodus 1947 travelled on a cruise ship from Cyprus to Haifa to re-enact the original journey and through this affirm its received meaning as a transition from Europe as a place of death to a place of safety.

Exodus commemoration journey, 2007

Other ships that brought Jewish refugees to Palestine have also been turned into symbols. For example, there is the ship in Herzlia that has been turned into a memorial to Jewish refugees.

Immigrants memorial, Herzlia

Yet ships have had far broader metaphoric potential than the meanings linked to this specific historical episode. The metaphor of the Ship of the State continues to recur and as such ships continue to be used as symbolic of collective destiny. There is for example an Israeli Communist Party poster from the 1950s that depicts a Jew and a Palestinian embracing on a small ship that sails over a sea of dangers towards a shore dotted with buildings representing a socialist utopia. If the image of the Exodus represented the exclusive destiny of the Jewish people in the founding of the Israeli state, this poster represented the ship as a context of a non-exclusive destiny shared by Jews and Arabs. What this means is that generic metaphors utilizing ship motifs are also highly mobile and open to re-articulation. Though obviously this applies to the more specific ship-metaphors under discussion here. This can be seen in the way that the Israel/Palestine based photographic collective Activestills reused the Herzlia refugee memorial to highlight the plight of refugees from Darfur within Israel and to bring into visibility the contradiction between the mythologization of Jewish refugees from Europe as a key element of the Israeli national narrative and the way that non-Jewish refugees are currently treated within Israel.

Activestills refugee poster

As one last example of the mobility of ship related metaphors we might consider the creation of a ship on wheels as a prop for the demonstration in Bil’in in the same week that the ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla was stormed.

Ship made for Bil'in demonstration, June 2010

This mock ship was meant to commemorate the killings on the Mavi Marmara and to symbolize solidarity with the international activists on the flotilla, yet it also was meant to mobilize the metaphoric power of the flotilla in the service of the cause of the people of Bil’in, establishing an analogy between the violence of the Israeli state when it choose to solve the political challenge of the flotilla by military means and the violent effects of the West Bank Barrier on the village. I would also like to suggest that entwined with these direct links between the flotilla and the demonstration in Bil’in are more generic articulations of the ship as a metaphor for collective will and fate, thus the Bil’in ship was festooned with the flags of many nations and was meant to represent international opinion against the ongoing Israeli occupation.

Ship made for Bil'in demonstration, June 2010

Let me finish with another obvious ship-metaphor, that of the ‘Ship of Fools’, the vessel filled with people who are oblivious and clueless about the destination and fate of their craft. Maybe it is time to conjoin the metaphor of the Ship of State with that of the Ship of Fools to represent the ongoing folly of Israeli state policies for all the people governed by that state whether they are granted citizenship, or not.

Ship of fools



  1. Thank you for this sharp and inspiring post.
    Gil Hochberg
    Associate professor
    Comparative Literature

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