Unity – Transformation – Unity – Dissolution Metamorphoses in the Country’s Landscape
Y o r a m B a r – G a l
in Ayal, A., (2004) O u r L a n d s c a p e
Notes on Landscape Painting in Israel ,
Art gallery, Haifa University , pp. 29-33
Some one hundred years ago a group of young people, members of the Second Aliya (immigration wave) who left Russia , arrived at a sequestered district of theOttoman Empire – Palestine . In their memoirs they describe what they dubbed “the deserted land,” “the dormant degenerate East,” “a barren rocky mountain.” Had they traversed the same routes today, it is highly doubtful whether they would have found even a single piece of land left as they had seen it then. Neither climate nor geology have changed the country’s appearance, but rather thestorms of war, the waves of immigration, ideological clashes and the changing civilizations – all of these have created a dynamic mosaic which to a current subjective gaze seems to have shifted from landscape unity, through profoundtransformation, to a new unity and its dissolution.
Reviewing the transformations of the country’s landscape since the 1920s in general terms, one may say that until the establishment of the British Mandate, the growing impact of Zionism and the expansion of Arab settlement in the country, a high degree of unity was manifest in the landscape of Eretz-Yisrael/Palestine. It was a unity of the pre-European “Oriental landscape”: clustered rural settlements, crowded villages and towns, Middle Easternagricultural technology, mosques, camels and a clear seasonal rhythm. From the late 19th century, “European islands” were already to be found here and there: the German colonies, early Jewish villages, new urban neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Jaffa . These settlements outlined the signs of the forthcoming landscape transformations: settlement planning, population changes, straight lines in the landscape, new technology, industrialization, cars, roads and commerce. All these, however, were still in their infancy, as isolated patches in an Oriental ocean, in a natural landscape of shrubby vegetation, traces of forest, baremountains and poor drainage in the valleys where General Allenby’s forces marched, heralding the end of the East the country’s landscape and the beginning of the European-Mandatory chapter.
The thirty years that passed between General Allenby’s march through the streets of Jerusalem and Ben Gurion’s dec lara tion of the establishment of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, mark the era of transformation. A new landscape order and central planning pushed the “wilderness” from the coastal plain, the valleys, and the Haifa area into the country’s margins – into the mountains in the north and the desert in the south. The landscape’s coloration began to change: instead of ocher-brown hues of fallow land, low batha and garrigue vegetation, white houses, black roads, green irrigated fields and orchards popped up throughout the plain; forests were planted and the East was pushed “Eastward,” as it were. A “mini Europe ” emerged along the coastal plain. Even major natural disasters that occurred during those years (an earthquake, floods, a locust plague) left no lasting impression on either the landscape or the collective memory. On the other hand, the hammer, pickaxe, stonecutter’s chisel, cement mixer, steam-roller, and the simmering asphalt boiler – those were the protagonists of the transformation that remained etched in the collective memory.
This transition was accompanied by waves of immigrants and refugees flowing into the country from the West, but also from the East. The Jewish immigration waves (“ Aliyot ”), mainly during the 1920s and 1930s, were accompanied by simultaneous immigration, albeit smaller, of Arabs from the “East” who streamed into the cities and work centers of the British Mandate. And the landscape changed: electric and telegraph poles, railways and roads, kibbutzim , laborers’ quarters in the cities, industrial edifices, Bauhaus as the European response to Eastern architecture, cinemas, bathing beaches and cafés.
At the same time, the scenic symbol unique to Israel – the landscapes of danger and security – began to crystallize: the police stations’ Teagart buildings, Tower-and-Stockade ( Homa Umigdal ) settlements, and barbed wire fences. The Arab Uprising, the Fall of Tel Hai, the1930s turmoil ( Sa’ar ) era, the settling of Hanita – all these drew ethnic lines in the landscapes, border-lines between Jews and Arabs that were to define the “scenic watershed” between the “landscapes of Israel ” and the “other” in the Land of Israel for many decades to come.
The new landscape unity was reinforced in the Proclamation of Independence: “In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, immigrants, and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.” This unity was obtained through the storm of war that left scars in the form of sabra (prickly pear) hedges from villages wiped off the map next to agricultural villages ( moshavim ), public housing projects, and new roads. The country’s “natural” terrain was covered by concrete and asphalt. Israeli planning, which draws ideas from European ideologies, furnished them with Zionist adaptation, generating unity: similar rural settlements emerged in the Galilee , the Jerusalem corridor, and the Negev . The urban public housing units became a conspicuous landscape feature in the development towns in the north, the south, and the older cities. A key symbol of Zionist existence, waters changed their natural courses, covering large parts of the country, as far south as the northern Negev , with deep green. Development areas became synonymous with the assault on the periphery: Lakhish, Adulam, the Besor Region, Ta’anakh, Jerusalem corridor. New places starred in the news: Sderot, Be’er Sheva, Netivot, Yeruham, Wadi Salib, Hatikva Quarter.
Alongside landscapes of creation, regeneration and hope, the signs of insecurity gradually took hold in the landscape: army bases, fences, signs reading “Border Ahead” and “Beware of Land Mines”, border outposts; scenes of terrorist attacks, retaliatory acts, bomb shelters on the streets, reinforced security rooms; the “Green Line,” “the Entire Nation is the Army,” the “absent-present,” refugees in their camps and jet planes leaving contrails in the sky. The contours of the landscape between the urban and the rural gradually sharpened, and the country’s center became dominant: the outburst of urbanization of the Dan conglomerate (the Tel Aviv Metropolitan area) symbolized the prospective future in the country, whereas far from the center – in the Galilee and the Negev, in the periphery, on the outskirts – the transformations were slow, minor, but likewise represented the future gap. These realms, muddy in the winter and dusty in the summer, continued to pose a challenge for the governmental planners and implementers to turn them into “real landscape” as proof of the triumph of Israeliness.
The landscape was dotted with Hebrew signs: names of settlements (accompanied by English and Arab translation), shop names, street signs, names of Biblical sites and streets named after the fathers of Zionism, wall maps and “The Atlas of Israel”. First giant billboards appeared on roadsides and bus stops, and the water level of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) became a gauge for the national mood.
Television penetrated the Israeli world, and television aerials became a unifying feature on the roofs of public housing blocks alongside solar water-heaters and plastic shutters – manufactured by the local industry in the service of the people and the nation.
The landscape unity as a product of socio-cultural unity, was interrupted, changing direction between the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a period that formed yet another “watershed” in the local history. Now we are at the height of this process. Instead of unity – disintegration and polarity: Israel
vs. Territories, rich vs. poor, high-risers vs. privately built villas, fields vs. real estate, Sheinkin (Tel Aviv’s Village/Soho-like hang-out) vs. a country B&B getaway, hi-tech vs. textile. “Zionist” landscapes penetrate the country’s central mountain backbone that has maintained its Eastern unity. Palestinian laborers and foreign workers become a part of the Israeli landscape.
The country shrinks: the open spaces and wilderness areas are further pushed, becoming “nature reserves” or “national parks”. The periphery is ostensibly drawing nearer to the center: new “ Israel thruways” are extended the length and breadth of the country. Who will draw nearer to whom – the “center’s” 4WD adventurers to the periphery, or the periphery’s youth to Tel Aviv’s Azrieli mall and business towers? The country is overflowing: build-your-dream-home plan villas, represented by tile roofs and stone facades, pop up near every urban and rural settlement. Neighborhoods and “pueblos” trample the center’s orchards. Arab villages have become towns and cities whose style displays their “Israeliness” with a multiplicity of red-roofs and multi-storey homes. Bridges, highways and a new railroad transform the coastal plain into urban and transport slums. The traffic jam becomes a key concept of the people’s lifestyle and a routine landscape phenomenon: “Sakharov Gardens,” “Somekh Junction,” “Avihayil,” and “Kfar Shmaryahu” become concepts denoting traffic chaos.
Following the European colonialism, the country’s landscape is being conquered by American colonialism. The former landscapes of agriculture and industry have become “real-estated,” spawning malls, shopping centers, hyper-markets and power-centers – an Americanized landscape. From Nahariya to Gedera, the country is all malls, parking lots, rows of stores. Titanic colorful signs in English letters, featuring smiling faces that convey happiness and sexuality, fill the roads, shop entrances and mall corridors. Alongside these synthetic “birthday” landscapes, the “others” are further polarized: slums, unrecognized villages, villages forgotten along the roadsides, housing projects painted in a short-sighted renewal program, the foreign workers’ shack dwellings, and “those” villages in the central mountain chain – ours as well as theirs.
Security seems to unify the landscape: APSs (Apartment Protected Spaces against missiles and air raids), Zaka (Disaster Victims Identification) ambulances, monuments and memorial plaques, skeletons of charred buses – as though the entire country is a front line. But this is a momentary unification of a single fate that only underscores the disintegration and socio-economic polarization that leaves its impression on the current landscape: “Azrieli,” “Sheinkin”, and “Ayalon” versus “Bnei Brak,” ”Ariel,” “Meskha,”“ Hebron ,” “Kiryat Shmona” and “Sderot.”
In conclusion, if we were to return for a split second to those members of the Second Aliya and take them back to the places where they dreamt, fought against malaria, argued till the crack of dawn over “Hebrew Work,” “cooperativeness,” “pioneering,” “personal sacrifice” and the “new Hebrew person” – what would they have said now? Would they have been overwhelmed by the ideological change, society’s bourgeoisation and the privatization of the landscape? Would they have been alarmed by the dissolution of the kibbutz and the collective, and by Tel Aviv’s transformation into a little New York on the shore of the Mediterranean ? Would they have been offended by the creation of a Russian cultural colony in the country? Would they have been elated to find their language alive and kicking in the press, on road signs and in advertising? Would they have been discouraged by the barbed wire, the walls, the Arab villages-cum-cities? Or would they have been impressed by the color, the vitality and dynamism that they had initiated, thus changing forever the rocky hills and sandy dunes into a forest of cellular antennas in bustling cities?