Inside the Whale

October 10, 2006

Israel 8 – Afterword

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 8:57 pm


After Word

What is the significance of these experiences in Israel for me and for my work – as a Jew? As an American? And as an artist? There is an intense relationship between the current conflicts between the US and Europe and the Middle East and the issues confronting Palestinians and Israelis. This is part of our post 9/11 reality but it also grows out of centuries of western involvement in the region.

This became clear to me as I stood in New York watching the twin towers burn. Throughout that day I had flashbacks to a night in 1994 when 3 Palestinian gunmen sprayed gunfire down the very street that I was walking. It wasn’t the fear or the chaos that was similar; it was the moment after, as the streets suddenly become empty of traffic, as people wandered aimlessly trying to make sense of this break with what we perceive to be normal reality.

Just raising these experiences and their connection feels like a kind of right wing gambit – an attempt to lump together “the Arabs” the “Islamicists” or any other generalization now common in US and Israeli parlance. I’m not interested in these generalities or calls for revenge. But I do think that the rift in our sense of normalcy that these moments created allows us to see the intersection of histories and ideologies that we might under normal circumstances believe to be separate.

One has only to walk through parts of Israel to see this. The landscape is littered with the residue of history. Structures left by the crusaders are all over, and each time that I passed one, I couldn’t help but think of Christian Zionists right here in Texas who have become so involved in the region, not to mention Bush’s own flirtation with the language of European religious imperialism.

In the end, this project is about identity, the stories that make up the lives of people living at the crossroads of ideologies. It is about the way that our identities exist in terms of place, as architecture, religion and nationalism. The stories that people told me about their lives confirmed that both their lives and the places that they called home were not fixed with clear boundaries. Rather, home and a sense of self were ever evolving things arrived at through an intermingling of multiple trajectories.

The stories that each person told me had to do with religion – being Jewish, Christian, Muslim – or its opposite, reacting against any or all of these. They had to do with history, of families running from wars, oppression, hatred and violence. They had to do with lives under construction or under the process of deconstruction. For many, their stories intersected with Israel as a land based in agriculture. This took the form of biblical right, secular Zionist belief in the labor of the land or the simplicity of a Palestinian’s relationship to his family’s olive trees.

Their identities cross with the memory of the holocaust, reconciliation with the Zionist ideal, memories of the crusades, the effect of American Christian Zionist interest in Israel and Palestine, and the Islamic world’s belief in Jerusalem as a holy city.



I set out to Israel in the wake of the most recent war with Lebanon and an upsurge of violence in Gaza, after one main question – what is the relationship between home and physical space for people who live in a place so divided over ownership? What is this relationship in Israel? In Palestine? But obviously a host of other questions rose to the surface. Home evokes questions of family, of history, memory and exile.


Many of the people that I spoke with were immigrants in some sense. Parents, grandparents and great grandparents had left one place for another.

Some Jews left homelands (Or were they adopted homelands? Is there a difference?) because of anti-Semitism. This included Russian Pogroms, the Holocaust and Arab Nationalism that began to turn against the Jews who had lived in Morocco, Yemen, and Iraq for centuries once the state of Israel was established.

The Palestinians had left much smaller distances, leaving one village for another, displaced by the Israeli state. But these small distances might have been continents apart. I found this to be true for Israeli Arabs (Palestinians who are citizens of Israel), Bedouin, and Palestinians who live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

These complex notions of status, of naming and the rights accorded to each sub-group, are increasingly being overwhelmed by the unity that many Arabs feel under the banner of Palestinian nationalism. Obviously Palestinian identity is also very complex. The current rift between Fattah and Hamas as well as the increasing factions that grow in the Palestinian authority are examples of this. But there seems to be an increasing resistance to separate Palestinian identity into groups based on rights that the Israeli government gives them.

In this sense, human rights, the very issue that propelled so many Jews toward a new life in Israel, has replaced the details of exile as the primary grievance of many Arabs living under Israeli occupation.



Some Jews also came to Israel in search of something. Zionism propelled some to leave easier lives in search of some kind of Utopia. For Jews this ideal space (or state of being) was contained in the land of Israel as both a symbol of an ancient past and a future of new beginnings. Daoud Kuttab also spoke of this imaginary absolute but said that for Palestinians it exists as an idealized memory of the past – a past which has now become the identity that propels the very being of a nation.

These visions of utopia weren’t uniquely Jewish concoctions. In fact, the secular German immigrants brought with them European ideas such as socialism and aesthetic formalism. Bauhaus architecture is almost the norm in Tel Aviv and it surrounding towns.

I’m interested in Israel as a model of utopian aspirations. Kibbutzim are one extreme, but everything from architecture and design to the way that the whole country mediates public and private space, are examples of a society (other than the Soviet Union) experimenting with socialism. The unique aspect of Zionism is that it also combined a more explicit religious undertone to the typically secular ideas of utopia.

But in many ways Israel is a model of the failure of utopian aspirations. Most kibbutzim have failed economically because they were based on agriculture or industry, both economic models that are giving way to a service economy in Israel. The very idea of competing religious and nationalist claims to one space as having objective transcendent value also contributes to the problems with the universalisms of utopia.


Hybrid existence was paramount in these conversations. Between East and West, new and old, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. There are Arab Jews from Yemen, Morocco, and Iraq who exist as an underclass within Israeli society. There are Christian Palestinians who feel the reverse sense of otherness that many Jewish immigrants from the US feel. Many Americans that I spoke with were running away from a country where Christmas and Easter made them feel different and strange. Christians in Israel are a minority not only to the Jewish Israeli state but also to the growth of Islam within Palestinian culture.

Israel is made up of immigrants who were too ethnic – too much of the east for Europe and too much of the west for the mid-east. It is a society where German, Russian and North African food are mixed up into Israeli cuisine.

It is a place that is between places, between times. It is too cosmopolitan to seem like a westerner’s idea of the east and yet it is too steeped in religion and tribal organization to meet any western idea of modern culture.



The architecture of Israel is loaded with ideology, both political and religious. Settlements in the West bank are seen as both as benign real estate development and as symbols of imperialism.

Holy sites such as the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s tomb in East Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, The Al Aksa Mosque, all are defended by the military and often the setting for riots. Indeed, it was Arik Sharon who helped spark what is now called the Al Aksa Intifada by merely setting foot on a place that is held to be holy by Jews and Muslims.

In Gaza and the West Bank as well as in East Jerusalem building permits are like gold. They are routinely given to Jews and denied to Palestinians. Thus the demolition of houses is so common, not only to punish the family of a suicide bomber or some other enemy of the state but also for the beaurocratic sin of building without a permit.

On a tour of the new separation barrier I noticed that across the street from a new Jewish building in East Jerusalem was an archeological site with workers patiently sifting through dirt and sand to reveal the structures of the past. Both architecture and archeology are about structures of identity on contested land.


Often these structures, both new and old are meant to function symbolically, to exist not so much in terms of their actual function but more so as a sign of an action, a moment in time.

This project is about identity built by structures in space but it is also about the means by which these ideas were explored – conversations and relationships with people. There is often a lot of talk in the peace camps about the vague of talk – about anything. As I sat for hours with one person after another simply asking them about their lives this became very clear.

I made a drawing for each person that I spoke with and am sending these drawings as a gift in thanks for the time and stories that they gave me. The drawings above that punctuate this post are examples of that group. I plan to show a copy of each drawing as a record of this symbolic exchange.


Create a free website or blog at