Christopher Pinney, UCL
[Please note: this post was written before the intensification of the current Israeli offensive on Gaza]
I decided to transgress the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) injunction and attend a conference on ‘The Photographic Imagination’ in Tel Aviv in June 2014 for several reasons. The two central ones concerned, firstly, the Apartheid analogy. Having taught a short course at the University of Cape Town in 2000 it was quite apparent that there were many courageous dissident academic intellectuals that had been a key element of the resistance during the 1980s and earlier. Collaboration with them would have been quite different from buying South African produce. The second reason has an element of illogicality, which is repeatedly pointed out to me: Syria. At a time when a nearby regime is murdering so many of its opponents (albeit opponents increasingly gripped by a fanatical politics), it seemed disproportionate to single out Israel for one’s disapproval.
So I went, in the spirit of openness, empathy and wanting to be challenged, not knowing what might unfold. In the previous three weeks I taught in Krakow and spent much time in Kazimierz and the ghetto, and read Tadieusw Pankiewicz’s Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy and Wladyislaw Spzliman’s The Pianist. I felt I was in no doubt about the profound historical shadow that would inform much of what I would encounter in Israel/Palestine.
We flew El Al (a condition of the conference organisers) and (I was subsequently informed), because I was half of a married couple, did well in the psychological profiling at London’s Heathrow Airport (it seems single females have the hardest time). Getting on the El Al flight was considerably more straightforward and hassle-free than boarding any flight to the US or India. There were no preliminary checked baggage x-rays, pat downs or random extraction for additional lengthy screening — all of which have become frequent features on those other routes. Similarly on arrival — a few hours after the Pope’s visit had closed Ben Gurion (other conference participants complained of circling over the airport until it re-opened) — security and immigration was courteous and rapid, nothing like the totalitarian protocol of which the guide books warned.
Our first experience of what a Palestinian cab driver we would subsequently spend a lot of time with called ‘the situation’ came after we left a visit with other members of the conference group to the Israel Museum (in West Jerusalem) and attempted to take a taxi to East Jerusalem (where we were booked into a Palestinian hotel). Several taxis plain refused to take us, proof as an Israeli friend later observed that the ‘green line’ which is ignored politically (Israel absorbed Palestinian East Jerusalem after the second Intifada) is strictly enforced socially. Finally one taxi driver agreed to take us, but with the proviso that he didn’t know the area and we would probably get lost (we gave him a detailed street map with directions). En-route he wanted to know how why it had taken us so long to visit Jerusalem (‘the origin of the world’) and how come we had made such a terrible mistake booking into a hotel on the wrong side of town (‘filthy’, ‘chaotic’: I told him I spent several months of the year in rural India and was used to such things). This was our first experience of ‘the situation’. The Old City is a textbook palimpsest of overlapping and disjunctive identities, all increasingly subject to military regulation since the second Intifada. But it is only in Bethlehem, on the other side of the Wall, where you start to experience the rhizomic involution of territory. Through the presence of massive settlements, one is shaken by the intractability of an invasion that has been fully sanctioned by the present regime, and it is only then that one can start to grasp the political dimensions of material culture in Palestine. The estimated 300,000 West Bank settlers make their presence felt through serried, semi-fortified encroachments around much of Bethlehem whose alien architecture stands as a very visible political demand.
In the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour you look across a valley to the Har Homa colony in which vast tower blocks, regiments of condominiums, are advancing towards Palestinian territory. They are monolithic and endlessly repeated: dwelling paces but also ideological embodiments of an unstoppable state-sanctioned invasion: material culture mobilised in the cause of politics.
A Fateh-proseltysing (and decidedly anti-Hamas) cab driver took us under his wing, and after a chilling slide show delivered on his smart phone (young child cavorting on the beach of Tel Aviv juxtaposed with a Palestinian child in Hebron having an IDF machine gun pointed at his head), we departed for Herodium and Hebron. It was there that two other kinds of settlement presence can be experienced. The first involves sporadic land-grabs fuelled by an extraordinary frontier spirit: settlers will occupy hill tops overnight and wait for the Israeli Defence Force to install water and electricity supplies. Tents become portacabins which rapidly become houses, forming the nucleus for whole new towns built in months. Central to this process is a politics of invisibility in which the near-total Israeli military control of much of the West Bank is denied. On the road up to Herodium (in an Oslo Accord Area C, under full Israeli military control), for instance, you pass a large IDF base on your right, filled with armed personnel carriers and surveillance equipment. At the top of what remains of Herod’s extraordinary creation (from where you can see the Dead Sea and Jordan in the distance) there are helpful photographic panoramas, provided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority which identify topographical features and nearby towns. The Bad Fulah ruins are identified and also Solomon’s Pools even though they are, as the legend says, ‘hidden’. But in the foreground (such exorbitance being one of the inconvenient conditions of photography) lies the un-named sprawling military camp, built to protect several recent settlements nearby and new kibbutz. On another of the photographic panoramas an unknown visitor has helpfully hand-written the word ‘settlement’ below the printed name of Tko’a.
Departing Herodium we encountered another aspect of ‘the situation’ that seemed to give some insight into the the subsequent abduction and murder of three youths that resulted in the lockdown of Hebron. A Settler resident and her adolescent child approached our driver and asked whether she could get a lift to the bottom of the hill. We said fine, no problem (it was very hot, she looked parched). Our driver explained that he would like to help but that legally he couldn’t (the fine for driving Israeli citizens in a Palestinian green licence plated cab was 50,000 shekels and two years arbitrary detention he later told us). We were starting to get a sense of the existential dilemmas and anxieties that both Palestinians and Settlers face in this extraordinary occupied landscape where the occupation itself is made invisible and the occupied are forced to apologise to the occupiers.
As a casual visitor to the West Bank you encounter the tyranny that Palestinians are living with on a daily basis in relation to their material culture. I heard plenty of stories from the conference in Tel Aviv from participants and friends of theirs who had been strip-searched, forced to miss flights, and in extreme cases, detained for two days and then formally deported because of evidence of West Bank visits. A Polish friend told me she had been required to check in five hours before departure and that every item in her luggage meticulously inspected before each book was held upside down and shaken vigorously in ways that reminded her of 1980s martial rule in Poland (don’t take any books she said).
Driving further south, toward Hebron (El Khalil), where we would encounter another form of Settler presence, we criss-crossed in and out of Area A — nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled zones — where it is illegal, as numerous large red road-side sings declare, for Israeli citizens to enter (‘at risk to their lives’) and I noticed that our driver would, as a form of bodily hexis, unbuckle his seat belt whenever we passed a red Area A sign. After a while I started to do so too. Hexis, so Bourdieu argued is ‘political mythology, realised and embodied [and] turned into a permanent disposition’. In this case the unbuckling seemed to perform the mythologised possibility of political freedom, promised by the red road-side signs but obliterated everywhere else.
Hebron has a peculiarly bitter and contested history. It was the site of the massacre, in 1929, of sixty-seven Jews following rumours of attacks on Arabs in Jerusalem, and in 1994 of the murder of twenty-nine worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by US-born member of the Kach movement, Baruch Goldstein. Apparently one tour company offers a day tour of Hebron starting with a Jewish guide who narrates ‘their’ history, followed by an afternoon with a Palestinian who provides the competing, and incommensurable account. The Ibrahimi mosque was initially closed but has now been partitioned with both Muslim and Jewish access heavily controlled both spatially and temporally. The old town has been completely reconfigured by the conflict. Most of the Palestinian markets are closed, the majority of shops having been welded shut by the IDF. Despite the notices prominently displayed in the Jewish sector which complain about the thriving Arab market, it is a desolate picture, the open parts ‘roofed’ with wire netting to protect those below from the garbage which Settlers throw down on their new neighbours in an attempt to drive them out. Security turnstiles control access to the mosque and the Settler-controlled part of the town is off limits to Palestinians. Foreigners can get through after an inspection of passports and Israeli border entrance stamps and can mingle with Settlers who openly carry semi-automatic weapons in the largely deserted streets along which IDF vehicles frequently zoom. After Sabbath many dozens of Settlers march with cordial IDF protection through the Arab old town raising slogans about how this will become part of Israel. Closely scrutinised by many peace observers (from Temporary International Presence in Hebron, among others) this was a ritual-political occupation of space of the kind that is familiar from Northern Ireland.
Hebron is full of amazing things: embroidered cushions, beautiful kaffiyas and amazing glass work with a distinctive striated green sedimentation that reflects the quality of sand from the village of Bani Na’im and the sodium carbonate from the Dead Sea. The glassworks were established in Roman times and Hebron glass beads (especially efficacious in the protection they provided against the evil eye) were traded throughout many parts of Africa (becoming known as Kano beads). Export restrictions mean that this local industry now faces exceptional difficulties.
We threw away the wrapper for the Hebron kaffiya which proudly said made in Palestine and hid it in an internal zipper in my suitcase (it was a ‘fashionable’ red one, not the politically ‘authentic’ black and white variety). My book on old Hebron, which detailed the full-blown Apartheid division of the town, I could at least say was bought in the Educational Bookstore in East Jerusalem, now a de facto a part of the Israeli state. The assistant there had said it was easier to import class A drugs than books sympathetic to ‘the situation’. The Hebron glass was bought in the old city of Jerusalem (‘a small shop’ I would say if necessary), although I would be unable to remember its exact location. As it happened, we passed the profiling. I had been thinking that next time I visit the West Bank I’ll go via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, in order to ensure that I can fully consume the extraordinary riches that are made in Palestine. But I now understand that Israeli border controls there are even more severe. I departed with a sense of the double politics of material culture in this part of the world. Landscape and the built environment are fiercely contested in ways that make disputes about the future of Stonehenge seem positively parochial. The built environment and its aesthetics (condominiums versus olive groves) are centrally important. And then there is the question of the distribution of the sensible, what is made visible and invisible in a traumatic politics of appearance (and non-appearance). But there is also the question of Palestinian material culture in a more prosaic sense, those made objects, material manifestations of Palestinian endurance and resilience which the visiting anthropologist (or indeed any visitor) is unable to consume because of the impending shake-down at Ben Gurion International Airport or the Allenby Bridge. The Israeli state has tacitly declared these to be taboo, contaminating artefacts that reveal unauthorised itineraries or illegitimate sympathies. Never has a politicised study of material culture been more necessary.