This article explores the role of the visual field in establishing and expanding the frontier of Jewish settlement in pre-state Palestine. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Zionist funds, including the Jewish National Fund and the Foundation Fund, among others, produced and distributed visual material in an ideologically controlled way that was meant to resonate with American audiences deeply invested in their own frontier mythologies. Through an examination of the work of formative Zionist photographers Abraham Soskin and Zoltan Kluger, as well as visual forms found at the Jewish Palestine Pavilion in the 1939–40 World's Fair in New York, the author identifies three central tenets of frontier building that wove their way through the Zionist visual field: transformation, citizenship, and security.
On April 11, 1909, the Jewish photographer Abraham Soskin captured and immortalized an important event: the first Zionist urban land grab in Palestine (see fig. 1). On that day sixty-six Jewish families of the Ahuzat-Bayit company gathered on a sand dune just outside the city of Jaffa to parcel out the land by lottery using seashells. In the image a cluster of people stand huddled together, surrounded by the empty space of nature. One man stands apart from the group with his hands on his hips. As legend would have it, he opposed the idea of erecting a city on the dunes, telling the others: “Are you mad! There's no water here.”1
Within a year the sand dune was transformed into Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, complete with a water system and sixty-six homes. The iconic image, even more than the event itself, became memorialized as the founding moment of Tel Aviv and formed part of its origin story as a city that miraculously sprouted overnight from wild, desolate sands. The myth of the lone skeptic only served to accentuate this story of triumphant expansion. But even before the founders of Tel Aviv would tame the wild space into a model of modernity, the image served as a promise—a future marking off of territory and a registration of the identity of that territory.
The image is just one of an increasing number that provided shape and form to Jewish settlement by drawing on and perpetuating a frontier discourse. Though the photograph emerged by chance—Soskin recalled that he happened to be “roaming with the camera in one hand and the tripod on [his] other arm”2—many such images were produced under the auspices of Zionist organizations.
This article employs a decolonial methodology to examine the conditions for the production of the “visual frontier” of Jewish settlement, focusing on the aesthetic forms of this frontier myth and the ideological significance of its circulation both within the region and across the world. I consider the work of two formative Zionist photographers, Soskin and Zoltan Kluger, whose efforts were financed and supported by the photography departments of Zionist funds. I also look closely at the Jewish Palestine Pavilion in the 1939–40 New York World's Fair as a site that brought the Zionist frontier to life for American audiences. I argue that such visual representations effectively served as advertisements for the Zionist project of frontier expansion, drumming up both moral and material support—the latter in the form of funding and emigration from abroad. Specifically these images were meant to resonate with frontier mythologies deeply held by American audiences. I identify three central tenets of frontier building that wove their way through the Zionist visual field: transformation, citizenship, and security.
The beginnings of photography in Palestine catered to the fantasies of westerners who longed to experience the birthplace of Christianity vicariously.3 Many European and, later, North American photographers flocked to the region to meet this market demand. Their images carefully erased any trace of modern life to stage an ancient, mythical, and largely empty landscape—a visual transformation that Issam Nassar terms “biblification.”4
At the same time, a local photography scene began to thrive. Armenian patriarch Garabed Krikorian opened a prominent portrait studio on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road in 1885. Across the street was the studio of Palestine's first Arab photographer, Khalil Ra'ad, whose photographs captured political events, daily street life, and archaeological excavations.5 Farther down the road was a commercial hub where members of the American Colony, a utopian society in Jerusalem, marketed their prints to Western audiences variously invested in scholarly research, biblical tourism, or newsworthy social history.6
With the second Aliyah—the Jewish immigration to Palestine that took place between 1904 and 1914—the First Zionist congresses took a page out of the American Colony playbook by setting up their own network of international photo distribution, one dedicated to the visual representation of renewed Zionist settlement in Eretz-Israel via local Jewish photography. Soskin, as well as other active photographers like Ya'acov Ben Dov, Shlomo Narinsky, and Shmuel Yosef Schweig, initiated a new visual discourse—that of the frontier.
As opposed to a border, which is generally represented as a fixed line, the frontier is expansive, elastic, and open to conquest. While the term has its roots in fifteenth-century France, its modern usage was popularized in a North American context with Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 “frontier thesis,” which claimed that the American frontier is a “a moving place that swept from east to west as settlers pushed further and further towards the Pacific.”7 For scholars of settler colonialism, notably Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini, this movement necessitates a “logic of elimination”— the dissolution of native societies coupled with the expansion of a new colonial society on seized territory.8
While Rana Barakat and Lila Abu-Lughod have cautioned against an overdetermined adoption of the American settler-colonial framework when it comes to analyses of the Zionist project, others, including Mahmoud Mamdani, have observed that the founders of Israel “[drew] inspiration from how Americans cleansed the land of Indians.”9 Both the US and Zionist frontier projects were driven by a sense of divine right and imbued with notions of civilizational struggle.10
After Soskin the romanticism and beckoning of the Zionist frontier gained further momentum with the work of photographers associated with a fifth wave of emigration from Europe, including Lazar Dünner, Jakob Rosner, and Zoltan Kluger (1896–1977), the latter known as the “chief photographer” of the pre-state settlement.11 Their work was funded primarily by two Zionist funds: the Jewish National Fund (in Hebrew, Keren Kayamet L'Israel) and the Foundation Fund (in Hebrew, Keren Hayesod). The first of these engaged in the purchase of land, the second in construction and development.12
The photographs were distributed in an ideologically and institutionally controlled way and played a role in forging the Zionist myth of the pioneer firmly rooted in the land and devoted to labor and agricultural settlement.13 As Rebekka Grossmann argues, the construction of the emerging nation through imagery was both a national and international project, with photographs crafted and circulated for and by foreign audiences through an emerging “transnational network of images.”14 While her research illuminates how the reception of images of Palestine in Weimar Germany exposed the increasingly ambivalent status of Jews in German society, the following examination elucidates how the circulation of these images spoke to American audiences invested in the project of frontier expansion.
Tel Aviv Sights: Space in Transformation
After he captured the land lottery, Soskin spent the next two decades photographing the construction of the new city—the tarring of roads, planting of trees, inauguration of streets, building of synagogues, banks, and kiosks, and installation of overhead power lines and streetlights. In 1926, when he published his photographic album Tel Aviv Sights, 1909–1926, Mayor Meir Dizengoff wrote to him: “You and I participate in the construction of Tel Aviv: I build, and you immortalize.”15
The book is presented in a series of “before and after” vignettes, with one page depicting empty scenes of desolate rubble and settlers leveling sand dunes and the reverse page depicting what the same spaces looked like ten or fifteen years later. Grazing one's eyes across the pages metamorphoses dunes and sagebrush into paved roads, municipal police buildings, sanatoriums, factories, and hospitals. The smooth angles of Bauhaus architecture mythologically rise from the sea.
In their work on forensic imagery, Eyal and Ines Weizman theorize the “before-and-after photograph” as a unique visual genre that sets forth a “direct line of causality between a singular action and a unique effect.”16 The jump between before and after implies a radical change, yet the transformational event itself remains invisible. Similarly Laura Wexler uncovers the violence of “before and after” images taken by American photographers in the 1880s that were meant to demonstrate the “domestication” of young Native American girls who had experienced Indian boarding school—the trauma of forced assimilation cloaked in civilizing discourse.17
Soskin's photographic productions—often described through a framework of then and now18—are replete with such erasure and violence. Historian Mark LeVine points out that the celebrations depicted in the lottery image were disrupted by a group of local Bedouin who went to court in an attempt to stop the construction of the new housing estate, claiming that they had long used the sandy plot of land to plant vegetables and graze animals.19 Furthermore, in propping up the myth that the city was formed ex nihilo in the middle of the desert, the photo effectively severs Tel Aviv from its historical connection to Jaffa, the Palestinian port city from which it grew.20
Soskin's before images, replete with imperial imaginaries of blank landscapes ripe for annexation, mirror the visual archive of US settler colonialism, which similarly arranged a positive/negative dialectic—praising frontier expansion while erasing Indigenous claims.21 Consider, for example, an iconic photograph taken by A. J. Russell on May 10, 1869. Titled East Shakes Hands with West, the image records the celebration marking the completion of the first transcontinental railroad lines at Promontory Summit, Utah (fig. 2). Alongside a celebration of successful westward expansion, the event captured by Russell's shutter marked the displacement and devastation of the Native American Plains tribes, who are notably absent in the iconic photo, as are the thousands of Chinese immigrants who built the railway by hard labor (though they had graded the site two hours before the photo was taken). Both iconic photos—by Soskin and Russell—participated in the act of nation building, capturing a space of (future) reinvention for the dominant white population. In both, the violence of exclusion and elimination haunt the gaps in between the before and the after.
The similarities in US and Zionist frontier imagery are not coincidental. In many cases the latter aimed to directly engage an American audience by making the parallel explicit. In a letter written on November 30, 1930, Leo Herrmann, filmmaker and head of the propaganda department of Keren Hayesod, argued that the local specificity of Palestine should be downplayed in Zionist visual material in favor of representing landscapes that “might as easily be [scenes] on the foothills of the American Rockies.”22
He claimed that the American general press was uninterested in “oriental features,” which he defined as camels, swamps, and minarets. Despite the attractiveness of such features for a local Jewish press, he wrote, “if we are to bring topical pictures of Palestine and more especially of Jewish upbuilding work . . . our pictures are bound to resemble in important respects those of other countries so situated.”23 Alongside laying the foundation for a local origin story for the city, these images were made to circulate within the diaspora to garner enthusiasm for the beauty of the new life being built on the land.
In a letter to the members of the office of Eretz Israel Worker's Association (Kapai), socialist leader David Bloch (later the mayor of Tel Aviv) explained the importance of hiring Soskin for a large fundraising campaign in the US beginning in January 1924: “Needless to say, we cannot approach our [American] friends with a simple request to donate money for [setting up a new agricultural group]. We must show them what Kapai has already been able to achieve and the situation of those groups Kapai has helped set up in the Upper Galilee.”24 In subsequent years, under the auspices of Kapai, Soskin went on tours in the north to photograph settlements. He was also hired by Keren Hayesod to produce images intended to “attract [immigrants] to the country to ‘build and be built’ and, in the meantime, to raise donations.”25 Many of his images were also distributed as popular postcards through the Eliahu Brothers printing company.
Soskin's photos, as well as those by photographer Leo Kann and Joseph Schweig, provided views of outdoor scenes from early colonies and the newborn Tel Aviv to show how funds used the capital they raised to renew and transform the land. Schweig signed a contract with the publicity departments of the Jewish National Fund and the Foundation Fund and, in 1928, produced Eretz-Israel, an album that became the “most important photographic publication of that period in creating the visual imagery of the Jewish settlement in Palestine.”26
The images in that collection, which detailed soil improvement, swamp drainage, and agricultural production, are reminiscent of postcards and photographs of the American West that circulated a century earlier. With the California Gold Rush (1848–55), photography captured the modernizing impact of railroads and agricultural production, paving the way for travelers and settlers to chase the dream of wild freedom. By aligning the frontier of a future Jewish state with that of the US West, the Foundation Fund propaganda department granted the Zionist project the same innocence and acceptance granted to the American settler project, the latter largely perceived by the mainstream as complete, inevitable, and unexceptional. As Wolfe argues, once the dust has settled in settler colonial processes, the irregular, violent acts that took place “behind the screen of the frontier” become normalized, and “officials express regret at the lawlessness of this process while resigning themselves to its inevitability.” 27
The Zionist frontier project was brought to American audiences most dramatically through the Jewish Palestine Pavilion in the 1939–40 New York World's Fair (fig. 3).28 Alongside staging a strong show of American Jewish solidarity, Meyer Weisgal, the director of the pavilion, cited the role of the fair in raising funds for the Zionist frontier-building project and amplifying the voice of protest against Adolf Hitler. Above all, Weisgal believed in the potential of awe-inspiring spectacle to “perform the state into being.”29
Through the pavilion Weisgal wanted to show that in 1938 “Jewish Palestine was a reality; its towns, villages, schools, hospitals and cultural institutions had risen in a land that until our coming had been derelict and waste.”30 The World's Fair was an international showroom where this project could be categorized as a Western triumph.
Much like the photographs taken by Soskin, the Pavilion's Hall of Transformation, as well as the exhibition as a whole, was meant to show the “transformation that a few decades of Jewish colonization have wrought in the Holy Land,” as one brochure put it.31 The experience of wandering through the ten exhibition halls of the pavilion aimed to give visitors a unified view of “how the present has evolved out of the past” and to project the shape of things to come—a nod to the futuristic theme of the fair: “World of Tomorrow.”32
Unlike Soskin's images, which presented a purely visual experience, the pavilion was set up as a walking tour in which the visitor's body was in motion. Through state-of-the-art lighting, music, and stagecraft, visitors could experience the magic of landscape transformation. In one dioramic exhibition, “The Holy Land of Yesterday and Today,” halls of mirrors created complex optical illusions in which the old city of Jerusalem faded into the new, the modern metropolis of Tel Aviv sprang from the sandy beach, and the “malaria-infested” Emek Jezreel (Plain of Esdraelon) rippled into a lush landscape.33
Like the biblification of early nineteenth-century Holy Land photography, the dioramas excised human figures, mutating a real place with real people into an allegorical representation that would speak to Western audiences. Yet rather than construct a static, biblical stage set, the diorama's hall of mirrors conjured a biblification in reverse, in which empty, barren land was wondrously resuscitated into a thriving, habitable place.
The accompanying souvenir book explains that audiences were meant to associate the neglected landscapes of the “Holy Land of Yesterday” with “a primitive population [that] lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle,” while the “Holy Land of Today” was to be attributed to Jewish settlers who brought Palestine “into the march of western progress.”34 For the pavilion organizers, the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the land were outside the boundaries of the state-building project. At the same time, fundraising requests—peppered throughout booklets and pamphlets that accompanied the exhibition—invited American audiences to be key players in that “upbuilding program.”35 Theatrical representations of a landscape in transformation ultimately served as advertisements that staged the cultivation of frontier as an inevitable march of history into the World of Tomorrow.
Crafting Aspirational Citizenship
By the end of the 1920s, the Zionist funds, including the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod Foundation, began expressing dissatisfaction with the photographs provided for their propagandistic needs. Landscape imagery was no longer enough to capture the imagination of American and European audiences who were immersed in the kind of experimental media put to use in the Palestine Pavilion. Israel Goldberg, the Jewish executive publicity manager in New York, expressed the new aesthetic demands in his letter to the Keren Hayesod propaganda department director in Jerusalem, arguing that Zionist photos needed to be “exceedingly interesting” if they were to have a place in the American general press. “And interesting means primarily one thing,” he argued—“the human element.”36
The fifth wave of immigration brought many photographers from Europe who were eager to rise to this occasion, including Zoltan Kluger, Tim Gidal, Alfred Bernheim, Helmar Lerski, Dr. Yacob Rosner, and Lazar Dunner. Kluger stood out among them and became known as the chief photographer of the pre-state settlement era, precisely because he was able to capture the sought-after human element through his photojournalistic style.
His subjects, taken from “lower angles which magnified the individual,”37 were primarily the “New Jews”: settlers who sought to eliminate the diasporic past and craft a new individual in its wake. While landscapes were still prevalent, the human subject was always at the center of it, looking not at the camera but rather at “a distant horizon—the place of visions and dreams.”38 Kluger's photos worked to initiate a mythology of admiration surrounding the Jewish settlers, reflecting a sense of ownership, community, and workmanship within the project of frontier expansion. Through their global circulatableness, these images interpolated diaspora audiences into a vicarious extension of such communal belonging, which they could fully realize through their financial support or direct immigration.
Alongside journalist Nachman Shifrin, Kluger worked for the Orient Press Photo Company to distribute his photos to various Zionist organizations in order to disseminate the “Zionist ideal to the whole world through a visual medium.”39 As Shifrin excitedly wrote: “Has the world press ever seen a cross-section (profile) of life in a collective settlement? Has there ever been a depiction of a Jewish farmer working from morning to night? Who in the world is familiar with the pioneering heroes, (men and women?)”40 Kluger captured these scenes through his lens, and his photos were printed across various advertisements for the Zionist funds, including on the sides of Jewish National Fund “Blue Box” fundraising devices, and distributed at Zionist conventions, parties, and gatherings in support of the fund. His work also circulated as postcards in a series called “We Built Up Palestine” and was featured at the Levant Fair and the Palestine Pavilion in Paris and New York.41
An Eretz Israel Museum catalog of Kluger's work features men and women lying side by side on the beach, smiling playfully. Others are depicted gardening, dancing, tilling the land in small groups, sewing by the light of a lantern, and sculpting in an art studio.42 While Kluger privately complained of having to omit the truly harsh conditions of life under which many settlers lived and worked, he nevertheless understood the need to curb his artistic expression to meet the visual demands of the Zionist funds. His happy portraits served to circulate fantasies of aspiration, transforming frontier into place and, with it, subjects into citizens (figs. 4–7).43
Such seductive narratives of belonging were by nature exclusionary. Consider the case of Mizrahim, Jews from Arab countries who served as cheap replacements for Arab laborers. Written off as second-class citizens in Israeli political discourse,44 Arab Jews nevertheless played a vital role in the frontier project through their confinement in peripheral development towns in depopulated Palestinian villages.45 Nevertheless the Mizrahi newcomers were largely excluded from the celebratory transformations that defined dominant frontier photography. They were neither productive workers nor brave pioneers like Kluger's Ashkenazi subjects but were rather represented as stagnant refugees.
Kluger's photos capture a number of these Mizrahi families in northern border towns. In one image a father walks down the dirt road with his children, surrounded by what looks like the crumbling ruins of a former Palestinian village. The caption reads: “Family of new immigrants from Morocco at the Arab village of Ein-Hawd, 1949.” In another, young Jews from Kurdistan dance in a circle, the caption noting the “abandoned Arab village of Deir Alkasi” in the background.46 The photos visually manifest the dialectic of settler colonialism, with the emptied Palestinian homes containing a visual imprint of native presence and counterclaim.
Palestinian Arabs, meanwhile, were mostly omitted from the camera frame—but there were some exceptions. In Kluger's photos Palestinians are represented as elderly, traditional, and existing in a foregone time. Most contain a singular farmer who is seemingly unaware of the presence of the camera. By setting up a binary between the youthful productivity of Jewish settlers, on the one hand, and the romanticism of Arab pastoralism, on the other, Kluger's oeuvre replicates an earlier aesthetic of biblification while reducing Palestinians to pastoral archetypes devoid of political or national identity. It also fed directly into Foundation Fund demands to “show the civilized world that the Jews are developing the country, and not the Arabs.”47
Although the crafting of such photographic typologies policed lines between Jew and Arab, members of the Zionist Yishuv—the Hebrew term for the Jewish society in Palestine from the 1880s until the founding of the Israeli state in 1948—often blurred those lines by absorbing orientalist and colonial fantasies into their own self-representations. In another one of his before-and-after collections, Soskin provided his studio subjects with orientalist Arab costumes, allowing them to try on a sense of ancient indigenousness.
The result was a diptych: the first, a portrait of a Jewish settler in European clothing, denoting the time prior to her assimilation in the Orient, and the after photo pointing to an aspect of their new, post-immigration identity (fig. 8).48 This identity reflects the cultural phenomenon of “Hebrew-Bedouins,” a dual identity claimed by some Jewish settlers who donned the kafiya (Arab headdress) and abbaya (Arab garment) in an attempt to pass as native to the local landscape. However, just as the hyphen between Hebrew and Bedouin prevented the two identities from collapsing into one another, Soskin made sure that his Orientalist portrait photos were backdropped by a European landscape to maintain an element of pretense.49 A tension emerged between the desire to emulate the Indigenous Arab as a model to be appropriated, on the one hand, and the simultaneous branding of the Arab as backward, childlike, and even dangerous, on the other.
While Yael Zerubavel argues that this type of “dress-up” was designed primarily for “internal consumption,” a symbolic currency meant to flaunt one's successful adoption of “native” status,50 such photos traveled beyond the confines of the studio. Both photographer and photographed understood that they were participating in a project larger than themselves, creating fantasies meant for the eyes of American politicians and financiers as well as diasporic Jews who could vicariously experience a new way of being Jewish. In this project Arab Indigenous culture was reduced to a prop, both to render New Jews as natural and legitimate extensions of the land and to transform the Arab population into an aesthetic rather than a reliable political force.
Selling Security Narratives
The ambivalent place of the Arab in Zionist frontier imagery caused a stir among the organizers of the Palestine Pavilion, many of whom disliked the idea of representing any rival claimants to the Jewish national home. Yet while they eventually agreed that “Arab representation should not be overdone,”51 the very design of the Pavilion evoked the so-called Arab Question. One of its main attractions was a life-size model of the Homa u'Migdal, or “Tower and Stockade” structure—a highly celebrated symbol in the Zionist visual field that implied the need to wall off a savage enemy who was ironically nowhere to be seen (see fig. 9).
The term tower and stockade refers to settlements built between 1936 and 1939, coinciding with the Great Arab Revolt, in those frontier areas where the Yishuv sought to establish and maintain a presence. Architecturally the structure involved a watchtower and shacks surrounded by prefabricated walls and a barbed-wire fence.52 The objective of this communal fortified settlement, first erected by the members of the kibbutz Tel Amal, was to seize control of land that had been purchased by the Keren Kayamet and was perceived to be both “uninhabited and problematic” and under threat by “Arab gangs.”53
The tower and stockade became a potent symbol, not only within internal Zionist discourse as a metaphor for sacrifice, dedication, and heroism, but also as a visual narrative that could garner interest and admiration from audiences abroad. Kofer Hayishuv, a fund established to raise money to build the structures and train defense units, used the tower and stockade as a central visual motif on its stamps and posters. Some of these images stressed their significance in building and protecting Eretz Israel as a whole. As one poster proclaims: “When the Settlements are Secure—We are all Secure!” Another, published by the JNF, depicts several watchtowers on the horizon with a list of tower and stockade settlements, proclaiming: “We will stand strongly.”
Most of these promotional posters link towers and stockades to other institutions, namely labor and land cultivation, as in a Keren Kayamet poster that shows a coin descending into a farm with the iconic structure perched on top. Beyond a symbol of institutional state building, the tower and stockade motif served as a stand-in for civilization in a wild land—a quickly assembled node on the forefront of frontier expansion.
From the very beginning, Weisgal understood the potential of the structures to connect with American audiences, for whom tales of armed Yishuv pioneers evoked legends of American cowboys on the Western frontier. During a planning session for the pavilion, he dreamed up the following scenario:
A group of youngsters, boys and girls, enter hurriedly to take in the Palestine Pavilion while “doing” the Fair. Gradually their swinging steps slow down, and finally they pause before an expressive photomural showing Chalutzim [pioneers] prepared to defend a new-built colony. One boy, whose face the distorted vocabulary of the present day would call typically Nordic, turns to this friends and whispers: “That's just like American history. Those pioneers defending their stockades against Arab terrorists are no different from our ancestors fighting off the howling Indians.”54
The point of view crafted in this narrative is what Tom Engelhardt calls “an imagery of encirclement,”55 a popular motif in American westerns, whereby Native Americans are always seen attacking wagon trains and setters' cabins. The “Indian raid” on the fort became a “staple topos,” even though, in reality, Native Americans generally avoided direct confrontation with the white military.56 In these tales the audience's point of view and sympathy are aligned with the besieged settler.
Displaying a replica of tower and stockade served two purposes. First, as Weisgal's fantasy makes clear, the organizers hoped to “suture” the Zionist settler experience into that of the American pioneers, thus garnering the same sympathy and admiration for both figures and frontier myths. The protagonist of the tower and stockade project was the Zionist settler “with rifle in one hand and plough in the other,” a heroic archetype meant to evoke the American cowboy (fig. 10). This analogy was bolstered through the merging of the goals of defense and land cultivation, a prevalent image in the Zionist visual field, reflected in Kluger's photos of farmers using armored tractors to plow their fields and youngsters overlooking farmland from security watchtowers.
Second, the structure presented a tried and tested model of security—a unique relic of the Zionist frontier experience that was nevertheless meant to resonate in other settler colonial settings. This security prototype was intertwined with racism, reflected in the binary between the “typically Nordic” boy who collapses “Arab terrorists” and “howling Indians.”
While oral testimonies of tower and stockade settlers often mention Arab attacks on settlements and the thrill of confronting “Arab gangs,” the Zionist visual field often erased or downplayed such threats. Producers of Zionist frontier imagery often staged a civil handshake between the Jewish pioneer and neighboring Arab as an integral part of tower and stockade construction, as if such an exclusive barricade was a welcomed and celebrated addition to the lives of the local Palestinian population (fig. 11). For example, Lazare Bianco's 1946 silent film A Colony Is Born depicts the construction of a settlement, during which Arabs approach the laboring pioneers to shake their hands. A subtitle explains: “Arabs desire peace with their new Jewish neighbors and conduct a courtesy visit.”57 Arabs are also present at the opening ceremony of the settlement shown at the end of the film. Throughout Kluger's collections are “friendly chats” or civil handshakes between Jewish settlers and their Arab “neighbors.”
According to Rona Sela, such depictions of “enlightened neighborly relations with the Palestinians” was a common motif in Jewish photography at the time. Yet rather than an attempt to humanize the Indigenous subject, this tendency intended to brand the Yishuv as moral in the treatment of the other.58 The visual “civility” that runs through the frequent depictions of such handshakes elides the violent political circumstances in which tower and stockade settlements were erected, namely the outbreak of the Arab Rebellion in April 1936. Once again the space between before and after is erased from the frame.
Images and accompanying pioneer testimonials of towers and stockades are productive of the frontier, not only by suppressing Palestinian counterclaims but also by holding a number of paradoxical dualities that proved fruitful in the shaping of Yishuv mythology, both on a local and international level. Tower and stockade imagery projected a dual desire for secure borders as well as the exciting military action that soldiers craved. It also reflected a dual fantasy for a safe and empty terra nullius alongside pioneering heroism and adventure that could only come with the existence of dangerous threats lurking around every corner.
The tower and stockade model thus proved to be a potent, exportable symbol of Yishuv frontierism, precisely because it was able to transmit competing promises: a promise of safety due to a lack of politically viable enemy and a promise of security via weaponry and walls to repel dangerous enemies. These contradictory claims were productive of yet another paradox: the desire for political borders as a message of territorial integrity and sovereignty, on the one hand, and for an elastic frontier in which borders can be breached, blurred, and ever expanded, on the other. By encompassing both narratives of border integrity and frontier expansionism, towers and stockades could encourage flows of both immigration and tourism by sustaining a promise of security, while at the same time crafting a sense of military necessity that required reaching beyond borders and stockpiling weaponry.
Conclusion: Frontier Expansion in the “Now”
In Utah, as American industrialist Leland Stanford drove the golden spike into the final tie of the railroad with a silver hammer in 1869, A. J. Russell stood atop a locomotive to capture the moment, and a telegraph signal was simultaneously sent around the nation with a single message: “DONE!”59
From its earliest days, the Zionist project of frontier expansion has pursued this same sense of triumphant completion. As I've demonstrated here, the visual realm was central to establishing this alignment. Through the circulation of landscape photographs, portraits, and multimedia experiences, the Zionist funds aimed to excite the admiration and financial support of diaspora audiences while naturalizing native exclusion.
A decolonial methodology of photography forcefully illuminates native presence, centering photographic practices that validate those Indigenous realities and modes of resistance that have been pushed to the margins by the dominant visual field. While a survey of Indigenous Palestinian photography as a mode of resistance is beyond the scope of this essay, an examination of the Zionist visual field is nevertheless central to unmasking how knowledge is produced and naturalized in the hands of the powerful. It is a decolonial process that Stephen Sheehi describes as a “fleshing out, remembering, conjuring, and an accounting of the ways in which [colonial] extraction took place, but also continues to unfold.”60
Today Israel's visual field continues to produce various concepts of frontierism while upholding oppressive material realities. Consider the Separation Wall, variously referred to as the security fence, separation barrier, or apartheid wall. While the state has presented the wall as a temporary security measure, many point to its role in establishing a de facto frontier between Israel and Palestine. The elasticity of its route has served to annex settlements and appropriate land for future occupation. In this way the wall has furthered the project of frontier expansion while simultaneously serving as a cover-up for it.61
Yet while the wall serves as a dramatic symbol of a fractured landscape defined by exclusionary citizenship, we must also look toward the less visible manifestations of territorial conquest—namely Israeli border security mechanisms that are increasingly composed of unseen, “smart” infrastructure: radar, drones, detection systems, and sensor towers.
The companies that sell such technologies to the American Department of Homeland Security largely avoid any national or political specifications in their advertising material. For them it is considered a success when Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild says: “If you go to Israel and you come to Southern Arizona and close your eyes and spin yourself a few times you might not be able to tell the difference.”62 Here we see the same collapse of local specificity advocated by Herrmann in 1930, as he urged Keren Hayesod photographers to omit symbols of a distinctly Middle Eastern landscape as a means of representing something closer to a familiar American terrain.
Much has changed in the century since Soskin snapped his iconic photo in 1909, bringing the Israeli frontier to American audiences. Today that production continues full steam ahead with US political and financial support, transforming physical landscapes and defining notions of citizenship and security across the globe.
A framework of indigeneity can serve as a lens through which to deconstruct the pervasive myth of such frontier projects as successful—or complete.63 This means remembering that in both the US and Palestine, the “triumph” of frontier expansion was always accompanied by Indigenous resistance, even if such struggles took place outside the dominant frame. It also means an awareness that the violence of settler colonialism is ongoing, as are Indigenous calls for collective liberation that demand the return of land and resources.
The beginnings of photography in the Holy Land coincided with the invention of the medium in 1839. This period mainly saw an influx of European research expeditions and religious pilgrimages to Palestine. The French Bonfils studio, for example, operated throughout the Middle East between 1867 and 1894 and was interested in using photography to reconstruct biblical scenes, creating the impression that Palestinian society had not evolved since the time of Christ. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an entire business of “Holy Land” fantasies, such as the biblical playground Palestine Park in upstate New York, sprung up across the US to cater to these infatuations. See Moors and Machlin, “Postcards of Palestine”; Long, Imagining the Holy Land.
Noteworthy American Colony photographers included Palestine-born American photographer John Whiting, Swedish photographer Eric Matson, and local Palestinian photographers Hanna Safieh and brothers Najib and Jamil Albina. See Nassar, “Palestinian Photographers before 1948.”
Mamdani, “Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities,” 15. See also Barakat, “Writing/Righting Palestine Studies”; and Abu-Lughod, “Imagining Palestine's Alter-natives”; Salaita, Holy Land in Transit, also offers an insightful model for a comparative investigation of settler colonialism in the US and Israel, without conflating or homogenizing the struggles of Native Americans and Palestinians. While this article focuses on visual productions, Salaita's book deals primarily with literary production.
As Amy Kaplan notes, both the US and Israel were founded by colonists from Europe, driven by the Old Testament concept of “a chosen people destined by God to take possession of the Promised Land and blessed with a special mission to the world” (Our American Israel, 4).
As photo historian Ruth Oren writes, the Jewish National Fund and the Foundation Fund hired these photographers to “show the local landscape in terms of ‘building a land,’ by depicting the positive effects of human activity on the countryside” (“Zionist Photography,” 201).
As Mark LeVine explains, despite Ahuzat-Bayit's new designation of the space as sedentary and belonging to a future state, the Bedouin “seem to have continued experiencing the space of Tel Aviv as open-ended and boundaryless” (“Overthrowing Geography,” 4–5).
The construction of Tel Aviv transformed Jaffa into an impoverished suburb before it was rebuilt as a tourist district in the 1960s, resulting in the emptying of much of its Palestinian population. See Rotbard, White City, Black City. The spatial politics of Soskin's iconic photo play into the severing of Tel Aviv from Jaffa as well as other prior settlements in the area. As critic Barbara E. Mann writes of the image: “The angle and perspective of the photo set the horizon on the dunes. There is no sign of the city of Jaffa to the immediate south, nor of the Jewish neighborhoods of Neve Tsedek and Neve Shalom (founded in the 1880s), nor of the Templar settlement Sharona or the extensive Arab agriculture in the form of orchards to the east” (Place in History, 74).
Alan Trachtenberg refers to these images as the “American album” (Reading American Photographs).
The 1939–40 New York World's Fair was not the first time that Zionist leaders staged their national ambitions through international exhibition. A few years earlier, in 1932, the Levant Fair in Tel Aviv attempted to showcase the agricultural, industrial, and commercial developments of the Zionist mission in Palestine. Nisa Ari traces the history of such trade fairs in Palestine, describing them as “[spaces] for garnering international support to enact local political change” (“Competition in the Cultural Sector,” 216).
The press praised the Emek Jezreel exhibit as an experience that transformed the “Valley of Death” into a “Vale of Plenty.”
One pamphlet, published by the United Palestine Appeal, was a request to send in a check for the “furtherance of the upbuilding program in Palestine.”
Goldberg went on to elaborate: “Houses and trees and mountains are all good enough—for the sociologist or geographer or dyed-in-the-wool Zionists—but they don't interest the editors of non-Jewish papers. . . . Therefore, I must offer them something that has a dramatic human interest with, preferably, women and children.” Cited in Oren, “Zionist Photography,” 205.
Quoted in Oren and Raz, foreword, 19.
Kluger's iconic style was ripe for distribution in a world of emerging modern mass media. The same themes of land transformation and redemption were brought to life for American and European audiences in films such as Built in a Day (1938), Establishment of Ein Gev (1935), and Springtime in the Galilee (1940).
As Kluger complained: “I'm suffocating, it's killing me. I'm not making any progress. I'm lagging behind photographers around the world. The pioneers here are dying from malaria, they live in poverty, are tired and morose, and I'm supposed to photograph them smiling. I'm sick of taking pictures of pioneers laughing.” Quoted in Oren and Raz, foreword, 45.
I borrow the term aspiration from curator Eva Respini, who applies it to portraits taken of American miners and frontiersmen in the United States nearly a hundred years earlier. Portrait studios in Sacramento, San Francisco, and nearby towns did a brisk business with the influx of immigrants after the discovery of gold in 1848. These subjects were often posed with their occupational tools—the frontiersman holding a gun is forging a new life, as are the loggers who were often photographed lying down in the trunk of a majestic tree that they had just chopped. Respini writes that these images worked to “forge an image of the West's people that omits the hardship, violence, and economic distress that was the reality for many frontier-era migrants” (Into the Sunset, 22).
See Segev, 1949, 150–65.
The Israeli government has advocated for what has been termed the “population exchange thesis”—the linkage of Palestinian property loss and displacement to that sustained by more than 250,000 Jews from Arab countries who had immigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1950. The political thesis was designed to underscore the rights of the Jews to the land of Israel and to delegitimize the rights of Palestinians to repatriation and return. For a critique of the population exchange rhetoric, see Shohat, “Sephardim in Israel”; Shohat, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements. On the discussion of property, see Shiblak, Iraqi Jews; Fischbach, Jewish Property Claims.
Captions cited in Oren and Raz, 161–62. The original captions can be found in the Government Press Office (D824-086) and the Central Zionist Archives (1285927), respectively.
This request was expressed in a letter from the British secretary for trade and industry to the Jewish Executive on July 11, 1922. Cited in Oren, “Zionist Photography,” 208.
As Hagai Ulrich points out, while Jewish pioneers liked to pose wearing Palestinian outfits, including galabieh, keffieh, and abbayeh, they were always posed in a way that emphasized the pretense of the scene. For example, women held jugs over their heads “in a way that cannot possibly support the storage of water” (“Obvious Artifice”). For more on the “Hebrew-Bedouin,” see Zerubavel, “Memory, the Rebirth of the Native, and the ‘Hebrew Bedouin’ Identity.”
James Gelvin points to an initial conflict between Yishuv Zionists and their American counterparts. Whereas the Jewish Agency disliked the idea of representing any rival claimants to the Jewish national home, Louis Brandeis, perhaps the most influential proponent of the American brand of Zionism, advocated using the pavilion to present “Zionism as a ‘mission in the wilderness’ and Zionists as fulfilling the lofty responsibilities incumbent on citizens of the ‘civilized’ world” (“Zionism and the Representation of ‘Jewish Palestine,’” 56–57).
This is how the areas were described in a leaflet printed for a special session held by the Israeli Parliament on June 16, 1987, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Tower and Stockade settlements. See Katriel and Shenhar, “Tower and Stockade,” 361–62.
Cited in Gelvin, “Zionism and the Representation of ‘Jewish Palestine,’” 48.
For the full story behind Russell's photo, see Solnit, River of Shadows, 58.
Barakat argues for “a framework of indigeneity” when analyzing settler societies in the US and Palestine (“Writing/Righting Palestine Studies,” 353).