Redemption, Conservation and the Making of Territory

Our most recent landscape surgery session was presented by Dr Yoav Galai, a lecturer in global political communications from Royal Holloway’s own department of politics, international relations and philosophy. Yoav’s research is concerned with narrative politics, visual politics and collective memory.

The presentation was of an ongoing project of Yoav’s that is exploring the ways in which interventions in the natural world are used to legitimise political claims to land, with a specific focus on the production and realisation of Jewish imaginaries in Israel and the dispossession of Palestinian land. Yoav made frequent reference to Zionism here then, which for him, refers specifically to the ‘redemption’ of a Jewish nation is what is now Israel. Indeed, as can be seen below, these two lands often come into close contact.

Yoav adopts stereoscopic photography to visualise the overlapping cultural, social and political layers, that define these contested territories. This technique, very popular during the beginning of the 20th century, is used to portray picturesque views of urban landscape, consists of capturing and displaying two slightly offset photographs to create three dimensional images. Using two paired digital cameras and a visor to merge the resulting images into a three-dimensional composition, Yoav produced a series of landscape photography of contested areas in contemporary Eastern Jerusalem. The talk began with Yoav showing us a photo of his taken as such.

A section of land in Israel, that has been ‘colour coded’ to show the checkerboard-like nature of distinctions between Jewish and Palestinian land. Each colour corresponds to either Palestinian or Jewish ownership.
Photo taken, edited and provided by Dr. Yoav Galai.

From there, we discussed interventions on the land and photography more generally. The two main discussion points were interventions with flora on one hand, and fauna on the other, highlighting how each of these have been utilised in various ways to project the imaginaries of redeeming and restoring the Holy Land onto the landscape.

The first example we were presented with was flora, namely, an ongoing project of afforestation by the Jewish National Fund, to create abundant tree cover to Israel in attempt to re-create a landscape associated with ancient Jewish ownership. As Yoav notes, this is in line with the ‘making the desert bloom’ narrative, restoring the barren Palestinian land’s former vitality through Jewish reoccupation.

Of course, this example serves popular discourses such as caring for the environment, and creating natural public spaces, yet Yoav argues that it simultaneously works to legitimise Jewish ownership of the land, under the guise of what he calls an ‘angelical narrative’. It is thus an act that is weaved into that general category of redemption. We also learn that there is a ₪7000 (ILS) (this is currently around £1500 or €900) fine for removing the trees, and even the possibility of jail time, meaning that once these trees have been planted, that land is off limits.

We now turn to some of his more recent work, similar in nature, but this time concerned with live animals, the fauna. Hai Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve was established in Israeli in 1986 with the aim of re-introducing the biblical animals (to varying degrees of success) that are said to have been made extinct in the wild during Muslim occupation, such as the donkey, oryx and addax. The animals are bred here and then re-introduced into the wild.

The point of the Hai Bar then, is clear, to restore the land to its supposed former state, with a lack of modern intervention, recreating the fertile land associates with Jewish ancient occupation. Yoav reminds us here that, of course, it is not a biblical safari, but is a reproduction, bringing an imagined land from the past, to the present.

At this point, we spend some time thinking about the role of photography in this construction of this imaginary. Yoav introduces us to the late nature photographer Gail Rubin. Her posthumous publication Psalmist with a Camera (1979) worked hand in hand with the aims of the Hai Bar. Within are wide framed shots of the animals of the Hai Bar, representing at once both the fertile, rich lands and the fauna that belong in them. They are shot in such a way as to document the existence of the ancient Jewish lands, both influenced by and feeding the Jewish imaginary through representation, and thereby working to establishing the facts of the realm. 

Gail Rubin’s (1979) Psalmist with a Camera: Photographs of a Biblical Safari. Abbeville Press.

An interesting point here is the contrast between Gail’s nature photography and Yoav’s photograph included above. Gail’s work aims to represent solely Jewish ownership of the Israeli lands, denying the possibility of Palestinian associations by excluding the Palestinian lands from her lens. On the other hand, Yoav’s image above shows the reality of Israel’s contested lands, and how both Palestinian and Jewish claims to the land are not as separate as the former collection implies. We must remind ourselves then, that the camera is not an objective tool. In every photo, the photographer choses what to include and exclude, whilst these choices are often framed by social context and subjectivities of the photography. What is not in the frame then, can tell us as much about the image and what is visible.

So, what we are seeing with these examples is the construction of a biblical gaze that works as an antagonism, redeeming and restoring the former Jewish lands as legitimised by pro-environmental discourse, whilst dispossessing the Palestinian of that same land. It is, Yoav argues, the mobilisation of biblical narratives in various ways that work to legitimise a political, territory-based narrative.

Yoav finishes by reminding us that all of this is still ongoing in some ways, and that the take home point is that it is important to put such interventions under scrutiny, highlighting their political nature and origins.

Written by Rhys Gazeres.

Edited by Rachel Tyler.

Contributions from Stefano Carnelli.


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