Ground Narratives, by Gil Pasternak
Members of three families take their place in front of the camera. Their portraits are part of a larger series of photographic images captured within the geographical terrain of the state of Israel and the Occupied Territories. Named Territoires de l’attente by the photographer Assaf Shoshan, this series opens with an image of an abandoned military fortress built during the British Mandate in Palestine (1923-1948). The fuzzy flowers in the foreground, coupled with the pastoral and mountainous landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see, imbue the photograph with the look of a postcard that has lost its intelligibility.
The following image opens a subseries of seven photographs confronting the viewers with military hardware and the wreckage left scattered over Israeli military training grounds. Entitled “Playground”, this subseries sets the contextual tone for the images to follow, all of which show human-made landscapes associated with precarious living conditions created by the past or present interventions of armed forces, primarily the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF): Palestinian houses of the village of Umm esh-Shaqaf abandoned during the 1948 Arab-Israel war; Jordanian military buildings in Kalya, in the West Bank, captured by Israel during the 1967 war; Makeshift Bedouin settlements established following the Israeli government’s demand that Bedouins give up their nomadic way of life so as to facilitate their subordination to Israeli law.
These sites relate to the grand ideological and historical narrative created by the Israeli state about its establishment, the wars it fought against its neighbouring countries, and its treatment of the Arab residents who remained after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Shoshan photographed them all with equal clinical attention, as if recording meaningful archaeological finds devoid of personal significance. In isolating them from the rest of the geographical terrain currently occupied by the Israeli state, Shoshan portrays them as sites whose physical conditions require further attention, exploration and accountability, raising questions about Israel’s policies and attitude towards its non-Jewish inhabitants.
Similar questions about the political nature of the Israeli state were already raised by some Israeli scholars in the late 1970s, when governmental archives were opened to public scrutiny . For the first time in Israeli history, citizens were able to examine confidential documents concerning the last days of the British Mandate in Palestine and the 1948 Arab- Israel war that followed the departure of the British, as well as documents exchanged between the Zionist leaders in Palestine, Jewish military groups, and the high commands of the embryonic IDF . Numerous archival-based scholarly accounts published between the mid-1980s and late 1990s contradict the innocent historical narratives circulated by the Israeli state since its establishment concerning its political agenda and the attitude of the Zionist leadership in Palestine towards the local Arab population .
The so-called Israeli “post-Zionist”, or “new historians” of the 1980s, challenged and demythologized the main tenets of Israel’s grand historical narratives . For example, a number of new historians argued that after the end of the 1939-1945 war the Zionists had rejected political and territorial compromises that might have led to a peace agreement in the Middle East, as did their Israeli successors in the late 1940s and early 1950s .
The problem of Palestinian refugees was also re-examined. If prior to the emergence of the new Israeli history the Israeli state asserted with confidence that the Palestinians chose to leave their houses and were encouraged to do so by local Arab leaders, the new historians argued otherwise: They postulated that those Palestinians who fled during the battles of 1948 did so because they dreaded the cruel reputation of the new Israeli army, and feared for their lives . Some new historians produced detailed evidence of massacres of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. They showed that even though the Zionist leadership never officially instructed the soldiers to expel the Palestinians, many of them were chased away at the initiative of individual Israeli commanders . Other historians argued that the Zionist project was colonialist to the core . According to their investigations, its primary goals included territorial conquest, the demarcation of purchased lands as national territory, and the deprivation of the Palestinian people of the right to cultivate this land. The Palestinians were thus denied the means of production necessary for their survival, possibly with a view to inducing them to leave the country.
These new historical studies were inspired by recent, mainly European, work on nationalism, the nation-state, post-colonialism, collective identity and identity formation, as exemplified by authors such as Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Edward Said . Yet, the 1970s and 80s also coincided with an emerging critical attitude towards the rightist Israeli government of the day. Arguably, this was a consequence of what a critical mass of Israelis considered as the unnecessary Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967, as well as the avoidable involvement of the IDF in a war in Lebanon, which began in 1982 . Due, in particular, to sustained protest by Israeli citizens against the government and its military activities in Lebanon, the national media of the day helped legitimize criticism of the state in general . This became even more acute during the First Intifada of 1987 when many Israeli-Jews became worried about what they perceived as the oppression of civilians by the Israeli army .
It was within this intellectual, social and political context that new perceptions of the Zionist project and the Israeli state, their history and historiography emerged within Israel. Broadly speaking, Israelis have considered these new critical approaches towards the official national narrative as controversial, and a number of books have been published to contest them .
More significantly though, such critical research has been marginalized by a general tendency to unite behind the state following the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000, the 2006 war in Lebanon, the 2008-2009 conflict in Gaza and the perception of these events as new threats to the existence of the state of Israel. Analyses of Israeli history and historiography, the conflicting ideologies prevailing within the different factions constituting Israeli society, and of the relationship of the Israelis with the state and its institutions have lost their edge .
Opening with the postcard-like image mentioned above, an image connoting the period that paved the way to the establishment of the Israeli state, could suggest that in Territoires de l’attente Shoshan aspires to reopen the short-lived critical space first defined by Israeli new historians. His photographs look into both historical and contemporary sites, which together constitute a representative survey of the current political landscape of Israel. Mainly featuring structures that sheltered Palestinian families and Jordanian soldiers, or that are still used as temporary housing by Bedouin, Shoshan isolates them from any recognizable Israeli landmarks and other signifiers that might identify their specific location. By dissociating these sites from the dominant historical Israeli grand narrative, the viewers’ imagination is led to consider the living conditions of past and present occupiers, their experiences and possible fate.
Territoires de l’attente’s underpinning concern for the circumstances and wellbeing of non- Jewish inhabitants is enhanced by the three family portraits inserted into the series. These are the only images in which the viewer encounters human presence directly. They show Sudanese asylum seekers who recently fled their country due to the 1983-2005 Second Sudanese Civil War and the 2003 Darfur Conflict, which is still not entirely resolved. The vast majority of the Sudanese asylum seekers who have travelled to Israel to date did so after failing to gain refugee status in Egypt. Believing Israel to be more humanitarian and richer than surrounding countries, these asylum seekers – many of them aware of Israel’s good relations with many Western countries – assume that the state of Israel may possibly offer them a refuge or financial support to travel to Europe and start their lives anew.
In fact Israel only granted refugee status to 650 of the 60,000 African asylum seekers including the Sudanese who crossed the border from Egypt illegally between 2005 and 2011 [15.] Upon entering Israel, most Sudanese asylum seekers are caught either by the IDF or the Border Police. Sudanese men often end up spending some time in Israeli prisons, while women and children are commonly placed in military camps before alternative accommodation is found . Israeli police do not perceive the asylum seekers as criminals, nor do the IDF consider them a threat to national security. Consequently, they become the responsibility of the Israeli immigration police who, in 2007, sent a large number of them to Israel’s southernmost Kibbutz, Kibbutz Eilot, near the Egyptian border.
Shoshan wished to encounter the Sudanese asylum seekers because of his interest in nomadic and displaced populations . Equipped with his medium format and Polaroid cameras, Shoshan visited the Sudanese asylum seekers in Kibbutz Eilot in 2010. Initially he simply wanted to learn more about their experience and investigate the possibility of involving some of them in his photographic work at a later stage. While there, Shoshan took numerous Polaroid photographs for the Sudanese with a view to connecting with them and initiating dialogue. He began by taking individual portraits. His presence and dedicated attention intrigued a growing number of the refugees and they asked him to have their portraits taken. Having realized that many of the Sudanese asylum seekers married and started a family, and bearing in mind the limited number of Polaroid films available to him that day, Shoshan suggested the Sudanese gather in front of his camera with their partners and children. Leaving it for the sitters to take their place freely, he gradually started using his medium format camera for his own records.
About a year later, Shoshan looked at the family photographs captured during his visit to Kibbutz Eilot. He decided to include them in Territoires de l’attente under the title ”Asylum seekers” believing that they constitute another chapter in the history of nomadic and displaced populations in the region . If, as argued earlier, the images of military training grounds help viewers identify the subject matter of Shoshan’s body of work, the family portraits assist them in recognizing the impact of organized political powers on individual lives.
It may be pertinent to note that, since the late nineteenth century the nuclear family has itself often been considered as a social organization whose obedience to the nation-state sustains existing hierarchical social structures, and thereby the reign of the modern nation-state . Ultimately the institution of the family can be defined as a normative construct that induces individuals to accept their submission to prevailing social and political powers, and transmits the ideology of the nation-state to future generations, alongside its values as regards social hierarchies of class, gender, ethnicity, race and nationality.
The academic discourse concerning family photographs thus often considers them as fulfilling social and political functions beyond the visual documentation and communication of families’ apparently pleasing moments and biographical highlights . Even though their production, whether by family members or professional photographers, has been associated with innocence, it has also been considered to be a pre-structured response to authoritative social pressures regarding the significance and symbolic value of the nuclear family . Marianne Hirsch, for example, argues that family photographs play a leading role in consolidating and safeguarding family values, as well as bridging and negotiating between personal, cultural, social, historical, and ideological experiences . In her view, due to the late nineteenth-century simplification of photographic processes “the camera has become the family’s primary instrument of self-knowledge and self-representation – the primary means by which family memory is perpetuated, by which the family’s story is told” . Photography, in other words, has become the main medium families use to historicize their lives, to imagine and inscribe family members’ positions in relation to their social and cultural setting and sometimes even to improve their status, if only in fantasy. In short, family photographs are effectively used to pass down the constituent ideology of the nuclear family to future generations, an ideology that inevitably reflects the power structures, which dominate the nuclear families’ social environment.
Depicting the Sudanese asylum seekers in compliance with the convention and visual vocabulary of family photography evokes an idealized vision of social stability. It suggests that private lives can be dissociated from the political domain. Therefore, these family portraits may mislead the viewer to assume that they celebrate the indomitable human spirit, while other images in the series are more explicitly anchored in social injustice, conquest, ethnic cleansing and other political atrocities.
However, Patricia Holland argues that family photographs need to be looked at as representational mediations that, perhaps more than anything else, mirror the social and political dogmas that dominate the occasions they depict [24.] Applying this analysis to Shoshan’s portraits of Sudanese families and investigating the visual relationship between the figures they feature can be rewarding. The first family portrait, Asylum seekers #3, features Peter and Adora with their children, Mamo and Amos. Peter, the adult male figure, occupies the centre of the image, surrounded by Mamo and Amos. Adora is in the back. Peter and Adora hold Amos’ hands. Peter embraces the other child, Mamo. Both adults wear the smiles that have been the hallmark of family photographs at least since the first half of the twentieth century.
But this apparent harmony is disrupted and its credibility is put into question by the next family portrait, Asylum seekers #2, and even more so by Asylum seekers #4 the closing picture of this subseries. Asylum seekers #2 portrays Siama and Taaban, together with their children, Butrus and Bolis. The male and female couple are sat side by side. Each holds one child closely. Whereas Siama grins at the camera and appears prepared for the photographic moment, Taaban turns his gaze to her, as if to consider his own position in the frame in relation to Siama’s performance. Taaban’s unsettled pose detracts from his partner’s expression of joy, raising doubt regarding the authenticity of Siama’s expression and, retroactively, about the joyful expression of the first family portrait, Asylum seekers #3.
Shoshan again applies the same direct, uncompromising photographic scrutiny in Asylum seekers #4 when he shows Daniel surrounded by his three children, Graam, Shodhille and Taslash. This time, however, the camera captures only one adult male figure alongside the children. The family appears incomplete, severe, and none of its members are smiling. In fact, this family portrait echoes the visual conventions and facial expressions often preferred by documentary photographers committed to social critique and reform such as Walker Evans, Chris Killip, David Goldblatt, Mary Ellen Mark. Although Asylum seekers #4 portrays a family, it redefines viewers’ comprehension of the photographic Realism of the entire subseries.
In other words, Shoshan’s Asylum seekers #3 seems to represent the family members’ desire to live up to the socio-cultural ideal of familial cohesion and enduring contentment. Conversely, Asylum seekers #4, the last photograph in this subseries, depicts family members as if they were subsumed by the actual emotional and corporeal difficulties of their lives. Staring penetratingly at the camera, Daniel in particular appears to draw attention to the family’s circumstances, unable to communicate fully what they are and what they entail. His uneasy gaze, coupled with the placement of this image at the end of the subseries, suggests that none of the three photographs are generic family snaps. These images cannot be perceived as indications of accomplishment and self-fulfilment. Instead, perhaps they need to be understood as involuntary cries for humane attention, political intervention, and radical change.
Such a reading of the three family portraits, suggests that the presence of Shoshan’s camera in Kibbutz Eilot in 2010 increased the Sudanese asylum seekers’ political visibility, by communicating their plight and their aspirations. Because the conventions of family photography are virtually universal, it can be assumed that viewers will easily identify with the people featured in such pictures. And because family photographs are commonly perceived as depictions of individual biographic moments devoid of a hidden agenda, viewers can be drawn into the worlds and worldviews these images appear to represent . In line with this argument, the asylum seekers’ performative experiments with the ideological trope of nuclear family values enhance the viewers’ ability to identify with the sitters. The viewers may be better off than the asylum seekers, but the images’ allusion to family life can help the former to link their personal experiences to those made public by these photographs.
In fact, this series of family photographs could be said to function as a portal into the broader series of images featured in Territoires de l’attente. The asylum seekers’ performance, visualization and transgression of the ideological trope of nuclear family kinship remind the viewers of the politics of exclusion that sustain the absolute rule of any nation-state. These images reverberate with the same political forces that enabled the expulsion of the Palestinian people of Umm esh-Shaqaf in 1948. They echo the politics that led to the occupation of the West Bank and the eviction of many Palestinians in 1967 and the same political views that still prevent Bedouins from moving freely within the territory of the state of Israel. Featuring a temporary military camp at night, the closing image of Territoires de l’attente suggests that Shoshan perceives these same forces as underpinning the mechanism that prepares Israeli soldiers to endure the troubled existence imposed upon them by the authorities in the name of the state.
The three families of asylum seekers featured in Territoires de l’attente are now gone . There are no longer any inhabitants of Sudanese origin in Kibbutz Eilot. In 2012 the Israeli government informally began offering those who entered Israel the choice between departure and incarceration . Adora and Peter opted to take Mamo and Amos back to Sudan, as did Siama, Taaban and their children, Butrus and Bolis. Daniel refused to leave the country and was arrested. He and his children were sent to Sudan by force.
1 Refael Bashan, “The Gatekeeper of Israeli History: an Interview with Dr. Paul Abraham-Alsberg, the State Archivist,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 7 Yamim, 10.06.1983, 12–14.
2 Shlomo Nakdimon, “It is all about Politics,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 24 Shaot, 16.04.1989, 27.
3 Rami Tal, “No Topic is a Taboo for the Historian,” Yedioth Ahronoth, Shabbath, 23.12.1994, 30–31; Rami Tal, “We were Told Lies, Historical Truth was Concealed, Masked and Obscured,” Yedioth Ahronoth, Shabbath, 16.12.1994, 30–31; Dan Makman, “On History and Deceit,” Ha’aretz, 06.05.1994.
4 Idit Zertal, The Jew’s Gold: From Catastrophe to Political Power (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1996/Hebrew); Boaz Evron, Jewish State or Israeli Nation (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995); Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Keter and Domino, 1992/Hebrew); Boaz Evron, A National Reckoning (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1988/Hebrew); Ilan Pappe, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1948-1951 (Basingstoke: Macmillan in association with St Antony’s College, Oxford, 1988).
5 Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988); Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: myths and realities (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987).
6 Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1987).
7 Yehoshua Porat, “The Exile from Majdal was Carried Out Openly, a Year and a Half After the War,” Ha’aretz, 17.05.1991, 9; Emanuel Sivan, “The Refugee Problem: Was it Planned?,” Yedioth Ahronoth, Shabbath, 10.05.1991, 24.
8 Gershon Shafir, Land, Labour and the Origins of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict 1882-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Baruch Kimmerling, Zionism and Territory: The Socio-Territorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics (Berkeley: University of California, 1983).
9 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1983); Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983); Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, ed. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
10 Yael Zerubavel, “Battle, Sacrifice, Victim: Changes in the Ideology of Patriotic Sacrifice in Israel,” in Avner Ben-Amos and Daniel Bar-Tal, ed. Patriotism: Homeland Love (Tel Aviv: Dionon, 2004/Hebrew), 61–99.
11 Orly Azoulay, “Seven Protest Movements Call the Government: ‘Bring the Boys Back Home’,” Yedioth Ahronoth, Shabbath, 03.06.1983, 10; Lily Galili, “Various forms of protests,” Ha’aretz, 03.06.1983, 15; Zvi Zinger, “Reservists: ‘Do Not Send Us to Lebanon’,” Yedioth Ahronoth, Coteret, 14.07.1982, 4.
12 Intifada is an Arabic word translated as “shaking off”. It refers to the Palestinian popular uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem that began on 9 December 1987 and lasted until 1993. A second wave of Palestinian popular revolt was commenced in September 2000. Officially, this recent Intifada never ended. See, Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Second Edition, 2006), 230–235 and 275–277.
13 Tuvia Friling, ed. The Hebrew Version: An Answer to a Post-Zionist Colleague (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronot Publication – Hemed Books, 2003/Hebrew); Shlomo Sharan, ed. and Mediniyut Merkaz Ari’el le-mehkare,
Israel and the Post-Zionists: A Nation at Risk (Brighton: Sussex Academic, 2003); Ephraim Karsh, Fabricating Israeli History: The New Historians (Tel Aviv: ha’kibuttz ha’meuhad, 1999/Hebrew); Yehiam Weitz, ed. Between Vision and Revision: One Hundred Years of Zionist Historiography (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Centre, 1997/Hebrew).
14 For a further discussion of post-Zionist literature see, Shlomo Sand, Historians, Time and Imagination: From the “Annales” School to the Postzionist Assassin (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2004/Hebrew); Laurence J. Silberstein, The Postzionism Debates: Knowing and Power in Israeli Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999).
15 Telem Yahav, “How Did 60,000 Asylum Seekers Arrive Here – and What is the State of Israel Planning to Do About This,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 22.05.2012, 2.
16 Merav Batito and Zadok Yechezkeli, “South Africa,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 7 Yamim, 02.07.2010, 18–22.
17 Assaf Shoshan, interview with author, 30 November 2012.
19 Deborah Chambers, Representing the Family (London: Thousand Oaks: New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2001); Pauline Boss et al, ed. Sourcesbook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach (New York: Plenum Press, 1993); Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman, ed. Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct (New York: Routledge, 1993); Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1989); Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1987); Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983); Max Horkheimer, “The End of Reason,” in Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Continuum, 1982), 26-48; Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan (New York: International Publishers, 1972); Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (London: Routledge, 1964); Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956); Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Rinehart, 1955).
20 Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1997); Barry King, “Photo-Consumerism and Mnemonic Labor: Capturing the ‘Kodak Moment’,” Afterimage 21:2 (1993), 9–13; Don Slater, “Consuming Kodak,” in Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, ed. Jo Spence and Patricia Holland (London: Virago Press Limited, 1991), 49–59.
21 Patricia Holland, “Introduction: History, Memory and the Family Album,” in Family Snaps, 1–14; Walter Benjamin, “A Small History of Photography,” in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott & Kingsley Shorter (1931, reprint London, Verso, 1985), 240–257, 246–247.
22 Marianne Hirsch, “Introduction: Familial Looking,” in The Familial Gaze, ed. Marianne Hirsch (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), xi–xxv.
23 Ibid., xvi.
24 Holland, “Introduction: History, Memory and the Family Album”
25 Hirsch, ed. The Familial Gaze; Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (London: Verso, 1995).
26 Assaf Shoshan, interview with author, 25 December 2012.
27 Itamar Eichner, “Chagai Hadas’ African delegation,” Yedioth Ahronoth, 25.12.2012, 10.