How will the acts of October 7, 2023, be remembered years from now? The question means to ask not only what will people know of the 1,200 people killed, 5,400 injured, or the 240 hostages taken by Islamist terrorists in southern Israel. These are statistics, quantifying bodies.
But the question of how to remember, or more precisely, to memorialize the acts perpetrated and not just the statistics, we—architects and artists—must decide: is this to be a dry documentation? Or is it to be an honoring and acknowledgement of all the modes, manners, and intentions, and the resulting victims—dead or alive—of mass murder? And of whom? Of Jewish people—the Jewish People—who are defined not like any mere geographically bordered state or monolithic set of beliefs, but by our collective experience as acceptors to an ancient covenant. Such a defining feature that transcends all the ones that we’re erroneously blamed for—as a race of usurers, blood drinkers, and (European!) “colonizers” inter alia.
To the tortures, the murders, the kidnappings, and the defilements of bodies on that Sabbath morning that we memorialize, we would do well, too, to add the experiences of Jews that transpired beginning the very next day and have continued in all the weeks that followed until now. By this I refer to the rallies and “protests” that were seen in capital cities across Europe and North America.
Were they crowds protesting the rape and slaughter by ununiformed terrorists crossing furtively in the night across their border to lay waste to families in their beds, in their homes, in their kindergarten classrooms? No, these were crowds—hundreds of thousands—rallying in solidarity with “the resistance” to “free Palestine” from the “occupiers” of their “open air prison.” (Never mind that Israel hasn’t governed over Gaza since 2005 and built fences at their own border only to keep out the resulting infiltration of suicide bombers and other terrorists whose now self-governance was purchased by “land for peace.”)
They were mobs calling for “Global Intifada” posing the massacre of Israelis as a deserved “retaliation” against enforcers of “apartheid” and “genocide” (with tragic irony considering it’s Gaza, not Israel, that is forcibly devoid of any ethnic diversity and therefore closer to anything like “apartheid”; and that the killing of babies, toddlers, and unarmed, non-military adults purely because of who they are and not because of anything they’ve done is exactly what is meant by “genocide.”)
This is the what Jews in the rest of the world outside of Israel—and what the rest of the world, not just Jews or Israelis—have woken up to since October 8th.
But have we woken up? Do Jews or non-Jews—from Australia to London to Toronto—see what the object of the Global Intifada is? When the clerics and leaders of Iran—the paterfamilias of modern Jihad—call for death and the end of Israel, it is always in tandem with the call for the same for America. To be deaf to those calls, and to the proximity of the liberties and freedom-derived successes of America with those of Israel—the only free, multicultural, and progressive democracy in the Middle East—is to be asleep to the threat to all of Western civilization. This is what the massacres of October 7, 2023, laid bare, or should have.
It will no doubt fall to the success or failure of any memorial to these events to say whether we have awakened from our slumber or not. Such must be the “what” we refer to in any effective memorial being created in response to the as yet still live threat to ourselves, not merely as Jews, but—as these increasingly frightening mob demonstrations prove—to all of humanity.
Along with and as part of the questions of what?, we must also ask, by what means is this memorial? With what kind of structure will the answers be framed? Is such a construction an archive? Or is it a device for archiving, like a microscope or a card catalogue? Is it a graveyard for the antiquated and obsolete beliefs of civility? Is it a diorama with mannequins simulating a living if lost world? Is it a bronze warrior on a horse on a pedestal evoking a platonic ideal or the faux-heroism of Social Realist statuary to exalt and archtypify our personal victimhood? Or is it a reliquary full of abandoned artifacts—the swords and helmets removed from their fields of battle to reside, without context, in velvet-swagged limestone niches?
Is it lifted upon a plinth that requires effort and humility to access by climbing steps like the Lincoln Memorial? Or does it force our descent by being partially buried by bermed earth to wag a finger at our complicity like the Vietnam Memorial? Or is it an anti-monument that commends our commonality as a built-in mnemonic for our remembering lives like the folk anthems of Pete Seeger? Is it an app—downloadable for Apple or Android—like Google Calendar or Outlook—to remind us, “Tuesday: ‘Make Peace Not War’”? Will we be invited to share our feedback to improve our user experience? Such are the questions now incumbent on anyone imagining a memorial to October 7 to address.
In the written word we have the easiest job of telling the story. Immediately after the massacres of October 7, our best agreed way to characterize in words its historical significance was to say it’s “the worst thing to happen since the Holocaust.” And by the proportion of civilians to the general Israeli population killed on a single day it was called “Israel’s 9/11.” And to express both the intentionality of the perpetrators in destroying whole communities, as well to convey the coloration of its historical repetition against Jews, it’s been usefully referred to using the Yiddish-derived “pogrom.”
As we learn more about what happened by uncovering facts and writing histories, the texts can be easily (if not necessarily always reliably) updated to reflect the statistics counted and the statements issued. But in addition to the written word, and much because of its inherent inadequacy in conveying the emotional-spiritual-psychological-visceral experience of the living survivors or to prepare for future apprehension of those aspects, there is a need for a non-verbal form of accounting of the experience. And of such a non-verbal document there is perhaps a greater demand for creativity.
In a tragic irony of the Jewish People’s history, we both have much experience in the creation of similar models to look to—in story, in song, or in stone—and at the same time we lack any suitable emblem to rely upon. By virtue of each new catastrophe’s effect of compounding our reception and memory of the previous ones, no existing model seems up to the task of conveying the breadth, the effects, or the meaning of the most recent calamitous loss of life by the hands of those who seek to destroy us en masse.
In the case of terror, an attack that has as its goal not only the ending of life, but also the spreading of fear among the living, as well as the aim of eventual eradication of a whole people from their land, the event to be remembered includes the declaration of an organization’s unscrupulous will to power. How can we add this to the equation without overloading the mandate of our testimonial?
These questions are posed as a preface not to any single answer, but to suggest something of the scope of the problem at hand: when infants, the handicapped, and the elderly are murdered, how to fathom the incomprehensible? If the taking of a single life is to destroy a whole world, how to concretize what is immeasurable? When nihilism draws power to itself in order to destroy, what positive form can be given to the resulting vacuum?
To such a dilemma and instead of resolutions, I cite below only a few illustrations of attempted propositions—previously designed or implemented under different circumstances on the one hand or offered as original designs here on the other—to evoke the magnitude of the problem: The problem of how to remember and one’s susceptibility to reducing calamity to kitsch in the process.
The builders of memorials—or of any architectural solution to a programmatic brief—has no choice but to (re)define the brief, the problem that is attempted to be solved. The client may think he knows the reason for his building project. But until a constructed solution is designed and then completed, the questions it sets out to answer will not be known. Memory and how to remember are two different things. Their mutual and combined formulation are yet another. If by “client” we mean the inheritors of the legacy of this history, the challenge we face in memorializing it is formidable. Akira Kurosawa said, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” May these examples serve as a mere foothold to be transcended, without looking away.