Tomer Peretz is an Israeli-American artist whose paintings have an unconventional take on military campaigns: They express the humanity of war.
Drawing on memories from his time with the IDF, his work is emotive rather than action-packed. His paintings include scenes of funerals, Jewish religious imagery and intense rescue missions.
Serving as an officer in the Golani Brigade (2000-2004), Peretz lived through much of the second intifada. He hasn’t forgotten those battles or his comrades. Bitter criticism the IDF receives from much of the rest of the world doesn’t square with Peretz’ experience, though. “We saw the whole story,” he insists. Unjust descriptions of Israeli soldiers motivate him to do much of his work.
Born in Jerusalem, Peretz has lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade, and is well received with critics here, although artists in general tend to be his toughest audience. It’s not his technique they have issues with, but his message.
In 2014, Peretz won the inaugural prize for the quirkily named “Arthur Szyk Prize of Disruptive Thought and Zionist Art,” named after a renowned WWII illustrator. Described as an effort to promote “positive expressions of Jewish self-determination,” sponsors contend Zionism is not merely a political policy, but a deeply felt passion over thousands of years.
Spokesman Daniel Fink said they hoped to offer an alternative to the solid hostility of the academy and the art world over Zionism. Peretz’ work, which he began six years before this event, fit their quest. Certainly it was “innovative, activist, and disruptive.”
His winning entry was physically and emotionally imposing: a series of 20 massive paintings, each four by five meters across. Calling it “Unbreakable,” they relate to Peretz’ view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an emotional standpoint. He exhibited the entire collection in Los Angeles in 2012 and 2015.
“Funeral” was the piece that started it all. It’s a rending recollection of the loss of three of his friends, who perished in army service in 2003: David Solomonov, killed by Hezbollah, and Igal Lifshitz and Offer Sharabi, killed in a terror attack. The painter symbolically uses the mourners as points of remembrance. While five men weep and collapse against each in sorrow, one to the right purses his lips and soldiers on, refusing to grieve.
Veteran Israeli soldiers have wept in real life when confronted with “Funeral,” and PSTD is pervasive in the IDF. Israeli mental health chief Col. Eyal Fruchter claims that PTSD relating to the Yom Kippur war (1973) was around 35 to 40 percent, which is extraordinarily high.
Peretz identifies with the central figure, covering his face: an officer, a little older the rest. “We are humans, and I’m trying to show our humanity,” Peretz said. “I am not able to explain this complicated situation with words, but I can paint about it so easily.”
A repetitive theme in “Unbreakable” is the high ethical standard of the IDF, which is deliberately hidden from the rest of the world. “That’s what I wanted to show in the paintings – an ethical and moral IDF,” Peretz said in a Jerusalem Post interview. He hopes his art will “be seen by every race, nationality, and religion … every person who still [has] faith in peace.”
In an accompanying video, Peretz describes the reality of being in the IDF as juxtaposed to common beliefs. “When I joined Golani (brigade) I was sure that I would fight every day, but you don’t. You serve the citizens. You bring food in your trucks to the Palestinian people, but you are cursed and spit on, and you must prove you are human.”
Peretz offers a prologue to some of his other paintings. Describing endless guard duty “at a checkpoint with [Palestinian] kids coming up to bother you the whole time,” he was endlessly provoked. “The media cannot always show every picture,” he told the Daily Dot in a phone interview. “So what you get out of that is skewed. … I want to show what the media doesn’t show.”
Another painting depicts a single IDF soldier looking over a mass of shouting protestors, near a security wall. Peretz describes those baiting him as “European women and all kinds of people with cameras just waiting for you to lose your cool, and maybe to let off a round.” A woman holds a sign reading “I have no idea what I am doing here.”
A duo of Goliath-sized heads face-off in one canvas: an IFD soldier and an Arab, wrapped with the distinctive Palestinian Keffiyeh. His headband implies he is a fighter – against Israel. “There’s a specific reason for every military operation” Peretz explained to Chase Hoffberger. “There’s no, ‘Okay, let’s go and kill some Arabs.’ It’s not that.”
In Israel, everyone is affected by the endless war against them. One eerie portrait recalls Peretz’ childhood, where he and his brother played with colored locks in a bomb shelter. Gas masks were common for everyone, even infants.
Tribulations of the IDF aren’t the only themes of Peretz’ art. His first love was pop-art, but interests have driven him closer to realism. Currently he is working on a piece related to the American Civil war. Abraham Lincoln’s face fills a canvas. Scenes from the war, and what appears to be John Wilkes Booth, covers part of the president’s face. More war.
Peretz isn’t done with this yet, but he knows his direction. “Terror organizations are empowered by criticizing the people who fight them.” He encourages all Israeli vets to be proud of their service, and never apologize for what they’ve done and accomplished.
Asked if his paintings were an “anti-war “statement, Peretz hesitated and said, “No.” “There is war, it is something we have to accept. I don’t like it, but it exists, and looks as if it will not go away any time soon.”