Designed as Israel

*Published on “Source 05″, A publication of the IM Masters, the Design Academy Eindhoven.

Israel is now 62 years old and can without doubt be called a designed state. In 1897, after about 50 years of growing movements promoting the Zionist idea, the first Zionist Congress in Basel issued its initial principals, forming in fact the first design brief for the Jewish state. In the ensuing decades, a location was agreed upon, as well as a system of governance and a language to be raised from the scriptures. New social systems were devised (such as the Kibbutz), and cultural taste was structured (traditional dance and song based on Russian folklore). All these decisions were made by a fairly narrow and idealistic group of people, representing Jewish communities from around Europe (but not the Sephardic Jews, which would later create problems of assimilation). A lifestyle code was established, one that more then 3,000,000 immigrants from around the world would later take upon themselves, putting the strengths and weaknesses of the design of the state of Israel to the test.

Designed as Israel aims to explore two techniques that were used in the implementation of the design principals. These techniques offer somewhat bizarre and unnatural examples, which seem a good representation of the quickened design process of the new state of Israel. The first refers to the manner in which Israel has designed its landscape, planting over 240,000,000 trees in less then 50 years and completely changing the territory. In the process, the ruins of at least 80 Arab villages were covered over, creating an image of a wild, uninhabited land. The second technique is called the ‘melting pot’, referring to the design of the Israeli character. The Jewish people were scattered around the globe, adapting to different cultures of the Diaspora. Now, immigrants from all over the world had to match a predetermined ideal of the new Israeli.

A DESIGN OF LANDSCAPE

After reaching an agreement over the location of the new state, wheels were set into motion. The KKL (JNF or Jewish National Fund) was founded in 1901, at the second Zionist congress. Its mission was to purchase land in Palestine and colonize it through Jewish settlement. To that end, the KKL took in donations, from large organizations and individuals alike – the KKL’s blue tin donation box, circulating in Jewish homes around the world, has been an Israeli symbol for many years. In about thirty years, the KKL purchased more than a million acres of land from the Arabs. New settlements began to emerge, inhabited by Jewish immigrants who followed the ever-expanding Zionist dream.

The KKL had another important role as a designer of Israeli landscape. In five decades, it planted the trees that covered 900,000 acres of land, thus drastically altering the landscape. At the beginning of the 20th century, Israel was a land of wilderness, rudimentary agricultural techniques and almost no major industry in the modern sense. It was at that time settled mostly by sporadic Arab villages, and there were almost no forested areas to be found. The KKL and the new Jewish state sought to quickly change all that, actually designing landscape as well as infrastructure to better suit their ideals. While these forests were planted for many different reasons, some researchers (notably architect Sigal Barnir, in Shaping Memory, published in 1998) point out the deliberate patterns of the Israeli forests, sanctioned by KKL and the early Isreali governments. More than 80 Arab villages, abandoned during the war of independence and the Six-Day War and subsequently nationalized by the Israeli state and destroyed, have been identified amongst the KKL forests. This research offers the theory that these forests were planted in order to erase the history of those inhabitants, presenting a façade of a new, uninhabited country, which was intended for the Jewish people to re-colonize. Nor was the choice of trees an accidental one. Eucalyptuses were imported to dry the swamps and marshes around the coastline and pines were planted to create a European image of the terrain, a Switzerland in the middle of the desert.

It can consequently be argued that the technique used for the design of Israeli landscape was ‘layering’ – a new natural layer (forests) covering a man-made layer (the Arab settlements). This project aims to reveal the designed nature of Israel, choosing the table as a metaphor, which is inspired by the Hebrew word, Mapa, which signifies both ‘tablecloth’ and ‘map’. The technique used for the design of Israeli landscape mimics the interplay of layers between tabletop and tablecloth, blurring the order of their appearance, playing with the question of which layer is in effect covering which layer.

A DESIGN OF CHARACTER

At 60 years old, the Israeli state is relatively very young, and it is comprised mostly of immigrants who arrived from many different countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. Upon arrival, they shared few cultural similarities, other than their religion and a history that had not been shared for 2000 years. Moreover, most immigrants had to come to terms with a physical and socio-political climate that was very different from what they were accustomed to. Above all, the young government directed all new citizens to contribute to the construction and development of the new state, building infrastructure, working in agriculture and constructing the military force that would defend Israel from its enemies. The country was in a hurry, because it was out on a limb financially, politically, and strategically. There was too little time and too few resources to create a long-term cultural identity through natural assimilation.

It is also important to remember that over the last 2500 years, Jerusalem and all of Israel (whose borders are still arguable) had been conquered by almost every empire that emerged – the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, Muslims, Turks and finally the British Empire. Each of these also left its mark on the culture and landscape, creating an almost indefinable cultural and linguistic eclecticism.

In the 1950s, the new Israeli socialist government showed little tolerance for those differences or for culturally unique characteristics. The goal was to create a new Israeli image of the socialist, strong, farmer-fighter, with no foreign accent, no special clothing or unique customs. The government tried to mould these different cultures, with Jewishness as the single common quality, into this new national character. But it was impossible for all cultural differences to just melt away. Though the New Israeli was eventually created, it was not exactly what the Zionist creators had imagined. Over the years, the cultures of the immigrants’ countries of origin continued to express themselves.

The second technique that was used in the implementation of the design principals of the state of Israel is often referred to as the melting pot. Designed as Isreal investigates the idea of ‘melting’ in many ways: playing with different materials, their relationships with their base material (the Jewish religion) and their new mould, creating the awareness that some materials will never mix and new textures will definitely arise.

ISRAEL: DESIGNED

While in most countries, cultural qualities are developed over centuries, Israel’s quickened development implies a carefully thought-out design process, rather than a natural cultural evolution. It is a unique example of a design process on such a scale, not necessarily in urban planning, long-term economic plans, etc., but in its design of culture, of a people. The design thoroughly covered many of the cultural and psychological aspects that create a uniform nation (though not always successfully, and some of the choices are still very debatable), including the arts, traditions, education, mythology, space and cultural archetypes. Architecture plays an important role in this process, and the Sharon plan for Israel in 1951 is one of the sole examples in the world of a physical plan for an entire state. Design on such a large scale is a valuable field of exploration, as it is frequently challenged, debated and negotiated, constantly adapting to new conditions. Examining the design in these different aspects can offer a fresh insight on the effect design can have on our lives, one with far-reaching consequences.

References:

Sigal Barnir, Shaping memory. 1998

David Ohana and Robert Wistrich, The Shaping of Israeli Identity: Myth, Memory and Trauma (Israeli History, Politics and Society), Routledge, 1955

Tzafrir Rinat, Where are all the villages?, Haaretz, 2007

JNF official website, www.kkl.org.il

Maps of deserted Arab Villages, http://nakba-online.tripod.com/

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