From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record, 1947-50

Throughout this month the Mosaic Rooms in London plays host to the exhibition “From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction & State Formation 1947-50”. The timing of the exhibition, curated by visual theorist Ariella Azoulay, coincides with the release of an English translation of her accompanying book, and is complemented by a series of talks throughout the month of November.

Public viewing following the curator's talk

Public viewing following the curator's talk (photograph: arenaofspeculation.org)

This article offers a short discussion of this important exhibition and the curator’s own talk, which took place on November 5. The Mosaic Rooms describe the scope and contemporary relevance of the collection itself:

The exhibition documents a critical four year period in the history of Palestine/Israel, 1947-1950 and features over 200 photographs from the Israeli State archive, many of which have never been seen outside of Israel. This collection offers further insight into the first years of the Israeli state and its relationship with the remaining Palestinians.

The images are accompanied by in depth textual analysis. At times referencing the official descriptions issued for the photographs in the state archives, the images are re-contextualised based on Azoulay’s extensive research into the period. Often providing contrasting or probing interpretations, this body of work presents a record of the period previously ignored or only partially acknowledged by the West. It also reveals the power of documentary photography and its associated narrative in the (mis)representation of historical events and in the creation of political entities.

al-Majdal mosque "Of 160 mosques found in the area that became part of the state of Israel, about 40 remained standing"

al-Majdal mosque "Of 160 mosques found in the area that became part of the state of Israel, about 40 remained standing" (IDF and Defense Archive, June 10, 1949)

In her talk, Azoulay spoke of her own positionality – as a Jewish Israeli seeking to engage critically with her own state’s founding narrative – in undertaking the extensive research on which the exhibition was based. In working almost exclusively with Israeli state archives, she was faced with the challenge of telling a story visible only in the subtext of the dominant Zionist narrative. A master narrative common not only to the state and its archivists, but also broadly common to the photographers of the time, whether civilian or military. Certainly, the violence and human tragedy of 1947/48 was visible in these images only as traces, perhaps most graphically in the residual destruction of the Palestinian built environment.

However, Azoulay also spoke of another kind of violence rendered visible through the photographs as a collection. Using the term “constituent violence”, she described a clarity of intent that can be seen in actions between 1947 and 1950, to create and maintain a demographic balance – or, more specifically, a ‘body politic’ – conducive to realising the Zionist vision of ‘Jewish and democratic’ state in Palestine.

Introductory text presented from each chapter of the book

Introductory text presented from each chapter of the book (photograph: arenaofspeculaition.org)

Azoulay chose to display blank frames rather than omit reference to key images

Azoulay chose to display blank frames rather than omit reference to key images (photograph: arenaofspeculation.org)

Notably, the time period of the photographs in the exhibition extends beyond the Nakba (‘catastrophe’) of 1947/48, and into the first years of Israeli statehood. A particular point that Azoulay chose to dwell on was the necessity to see this period as pivotal not only in Palestinian history, but also in the creation of the Jewish Israeli identity. Alongside the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians, she spoke of 1947-50 as cementing the self-narrative of Jewish Israelis as the “master of the land” and rendering the remaining Palestinians “subordinate” to this new dominant identity (termed ‘Arab Israelis’).

Such a reading insists that the Nakba is constituent to each of these identities and that, in Azoulay’s words, “recognising the catastrophe is part of stopping the catastrophe”. She argued that it is at this point, where Israelis genuinely recognise the catastrophe – and its very real ongoing manifestations in the present – that there is the possibility to challenge the master/subordinate relationship, and to move towards a shared and open conversation about the future.

Capturing the destruction of the village of Bir'im

Capturing the destruction of the village of Bir'im (photograph: arenaofspeculation.org)

The exhibition runs from November 4-25 at the Mosaic Rooms, and is accompanied by a series of talks investigating the “relationship between archival photography, film and the writing (or re-writing) of history”, with speakers including Michel Khleifi, Eyal Sivan and Ghada Karmi.

Photographs from the exhibition are published here with kind permission from the Al-Qattan Foundation.

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