The highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Highway 1, looks like any other highway in the world. This fact alone is disconcerting. The road to Jerusalem should be special. Somewhere deep down I suppose I wanted it to be a dirt road, a cobblestone road, anything but a normal highway. I even fantasized that the ascent from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would not happen by means of a road at all. It would just happen. In reality, it is a highway. A highway filled with too many cars and bastard truck drivers probing the limits of vehicular stability and good sense.
About two thirds of the way up to Jerusalem, however, an interesting and unusual sight does present itself. It is the sight of abandoned vehicles along the side of the road. They aren’t normal vehicles, passenger cars or trucks. The vehicles are painted in the telltale green that only gets slapped on things owned by the military. You don’t get much time to inspect these military vehicles as you drive by on the highway. It is hard to guess their purpose, though it looks like they’ve been there for a while, remnants from something that happened in the first half of the 20th century.
My friend Ori, who was driving me from Ben-Gurion airport outside of Tel Aviv, explained that the vehicles were remnants of the military convoy that broke the Arab siege of Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948. The convoy was led by an American general, Mickey Marcus, Ori told me. “We call him the first Israeli general—aluf in Hebrew—since biblical days, since Joshua blowing his trumpet at the walls of Jericho.” The aluf, Ori said, was shot dead in the final days of the campaign. But the convoy made it through to Jerusalem.
For a week or so, while exploring Jerusalem old and new, the sight of those abandoned military vehicles along the road sat unbothered in the back of my brain. Then, I saw them again on a trip back down to Tel Aviv to visit friends. I began to understand what had nagged at me when I saw the vehicles the first time.
Half-destroyed military vehicles do not normally sit alongside a modern highway. These vehicles are monuments to the military struggles that attend the founding of the modern state of Israel. Such monuments might, in another country, come with an acknowledgment. No such luck in Israel. The armored troop carriers are presented without comment, without informational signs or explanation. The monuments are completely visible for everyone to see at the side of the road, and, at the same time, completely invisible, completely hidden in terms of symbolic value.
There is, I thought to myself, an unusual historical consciousness at work here. But I found myself lacking the proper set of keys, the proper codes to unlock the symbols, to understand how to read this ambivalent historical marker.
In Tel Aviv, I happened to be visiting my friend Roy Brand who, along with Ori Scialom and Keren Yeala-Golan, curated a project called The Urburb: Patterns of Contemporary Living. The Urburb was exhibited at the Israeli Pavilion of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennial. When I saw The Urburb, it had been recreated at Artport, a gallery on Ben Tsvi Road in Tel Aviv.
The Urburb / Israel Pavilion at the Venice Biennale from ArchDaily on Vimeo.
In his essay “Machine Event” for the publication that accompanies The Urburb exhibit, Roy describes the project like this:
Our installation is simple and direct. Four printers, customized for the pavilion’s space, draw images on desert sand, and then erase them. Every few minutes a new image replaces the previous one. Together they tell the stories of one hundred years of modernist construction in Israel. From the Ottoman period through the British Mandate for Palestine, visitors enter the construction site that became modern Israel.
Watching the customized printers drawing their images in the sand has a mesmerizing effect. I felt like I could stand there for hours, just bearing witness as the machines scratched their images and then erased them, over and over again. As I watched this process, the seeds of understanding began slowly to germinate. I started to realize, I’m not in an ancient land at all. I’m in a place that is engaged in a vast experiment with the radically new.
Or, as Roy puts it, Israel is the place of the “old-new.”
Israel is an old-new invention, a modernist project grafted onto a historical landscape. The age-old myth of a biblical legacy joins the modern myth of New Towns magically sprouting from the sand. This combination suggests a divine, ex-nihilo rebirth. Modernist construction, evident everywhere around the globe, is wholly dominant in a country whose majority was built from 1914 to the present.
So, it is not crazy at all to think of Israel as a land of brand new highways and modernist construction projects. Tel Aviv, for example, is often called The White City. This is because of its Bauhaus architecture. In the 1930s, Tel Aviv was awash in German Jewish architects. These architects had the freedom, the motivation, and the state sponsorship to build the most extensive Bauhaus city in the world. One of the great goals of architectural Modernism, especially in its Bauhaus manifestation, was to make a great break with the past. It was an architecture that sought to cancel the previous history of architecture in order to inaugurate something new.
Driving through the streets of Northern Tel Aviv is like traversing the never-quite-realized dreams of Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School. Gropius wanted Bauhaus designs to become “an integral part of the stuff of life.” In Tel Aviv, it almost does that. Street after street is defined by the stark geometry, the bold curves and angles of Bauhaus. The ubiquitous Bauhaus sensibility begins to infect your mind. I heard from more than one Jerusalemite that they like to go down to Tel Aviv sometimes to clear the mental palette. In Jerusalem, you feel the heavy weight of the past always, the tension of contested sacred space claimed by everyone and fully controlled by nobody. Tel Aviv, many Jerusalemites will say, is just plain fun, refreshing.
That is what Modernist design was so often meant to do; blast away the past, clear out space for the present. In Tel Aviv, I was reminded of what Walter Benjamin once wrote about the great German architect Adolf Loos:
Adolf Loos, the forerunner of modern architecture, states “I write for people who posses a modern sensibility . . . I do not write for people consumed for nostalgia for the Renaissance or the Rococo.” A complex artist like the painter Paul Klee and a programmatic one like Loos—both reject the traditional, solemn, noble image of man, festooned with all the sacrificial offerings of the past. They turn instead to the naked man of the contemporary world who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present.
It is not difficult to understand why Bauhaus architecture would resonate deeply with German Jews fleeing the Nazis in Europe and trying to establish a new homeland, a new civilization in Palestine. There was a great, and completely understandable desire to cancel the past and to begin anew. The irony for the modernist architects of Israel is that they were borrowing the most “advanced” ideas and concepts of German culture in order to cancel that culture and build a new civilization in the deserts of the Middle East.
Here is Roy Brand again from his essay:
At the core of modernism is the notion that the world must be radically reshaped. Modernism begins again, always again, from a clean slate. “A la mode”—“current,” “of its time,” or the time of the new—new architecture, new art, new typography, new man and new society.
You see this newness all over Israel. Driving up and down the spine of Israel – the area that extends from the Mediterranean to the West Bank – one concrete and glass town after another seem to have sprouted from the desert floor. Or maybe they were dropped down from the sky.
This is the meaning of the neologism “Urburb” thought up by Roy Brand and taken as the title for the art project of drawing maps in the sand. Urburbs are not quite cities, but not quite suburbs either. According to Ori Scialom (co-curator of The Urburb):
The current Israeli man-made landscape has blurred the familiar dichotomy of “city” and “suburb” and produced a new hybrid: the Urburb is neither city nor suburb, but rather a patchwork of islands; a fragmentary combination of the nucleus city, dilapidated modernism, and capitalist residential projects that stretch over swaths of privatized land, stitched together by infrastructure.
Urburbs are self-enclosed, self-contained. These Urburbs were initially created of the desire to spread the growing population of Israel evenly across the land. Today, more than eighty percent of Israeli citizens live in these modern housing developments. These people experience little of Jerusalem, little of Tel Aviv for that matter. They are trying to realize a fantasy of Israeli life that has almost nothing to do with what the rest of the world generally associates with The Holy Land.
Keren Yeala-Golan (co-curator of The Urburb) explains the fantasy like this:
The fantasy of Urburb living is promoted via images of idealized children dressed in white, running through endless fields. In these fields grow golem-like buildings, that might have already stood up against their creators, ascending from the sand, spreading rapidly and cheaply. These breeding grounds are created by a young country motivated by a hysterical history, to create a womb for her wandering children.
A womb is a place to hold and protect new life. New life is vulnerable and exposed by definition. It is a newborn babe lying screaming in the dirty diapers of the present, as Walter Benjamin put it in the above quote. That is one of the unsettling contradictions of modernism, with its radical newness. The newness is a source of strength, a liberation from the wounds and traumas of history. The blocky solidity of Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv serves as a bulwark against the European history that culminated in such complete disaster for European Jewry. But radical newness, as the metaphor of the screaming babe suggests, is also vulnerable and unprotected by the very nature of its infancy. When confronted with a newborn baby, the instinct is to swaddle it up.
The instinct to swaddle can become, as Yeala-Golan puts it, “hysterical.” So you can think of the Urburbs of Israel, the places where the vast majority of Israelis actually live, as monuments to a hysterical swaddling. The hysteria is heightened by the fact that the land of Israel was never actually a tabula rasa, never truly a blank slate upon which the fantasy of Modernist newness could be established in housing blocks set up on the pliable sand. The myth of Israel as a giant garden blooming in the otherwise unpopulated desert is exactly that, a myth. The act of swaddling comes with conflict, war, displacement, military occupation.
In his essay, Ori Scialom writes a single sentence that sums up the terrible problem. “The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 brought with it continuing waves of immigration coupled with the forced emigration of Palestinian refugees.” You move one group of people out. You move another group of people in. Thus, the ongoing moral dilemma of 1948 for everyone; Israeli, Palestinian, Jew, Muslim, Arab, Christian, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Druze, and so on and so on. In 1948, however you slice it, one group of people was gaining a homeland while another group of people was losing one.
This means that the founding of the independent state of Israel was also the instantiation of a new historical trauma. The initial trauma of the Holocaust was erased by means of a new traumatic act, the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. That is why, what Israelis call the War of Independence is known to Arabs as Al-Nakba, The Disaster.
The military vehicles at the side of the road along Highway 1 are a mute testimony to the troubled conscience of the story of Israel’s founding. That’s how I see them at least—sitting there without fanfare, without obvious meaning but for those who already know and understand the significance of WWII-era military vehicles at the side of the highway.
My second-to-last trip down Highway 1 included a stop at the gas station in Sha’ar Hagai. Just a regular gas station, except that nothing is regular in Israel. Since construction work started on Highway 1 a couple of years ago, they’ve been moving Mickey Marcus’ armored vehicles to different spots along and near the Highway. Many Israelis, however, will always associate the vehicles with Sha’ar Hagai. That’s because of a famous song by Yaffa Yarkoni, sometimes called Israel’s “war singer.”
The song is called “Bab El Wad” (what the Arabs call Sha’ar Hagai). “Bab El Wad” was written to commemorate the people who died trying to get through the road that is now Highway 1 back in 1948. The song opens like this:
Here I am passing, standing by the stone.
An asphalt road, rocks and ridges.
Day goes down slowly, sea-wind blows
Light of a first star, over Beit Maschir.
Do remember our names forever,
Convoys broke through, on the way to the City.
Our dead lay on the road edges.
The iron skeleton is silent like my comrade.
Just utter the first couple words of the song and many Israelis will immediately sing the rest.
Yarkoni did not much like being thought of as the war singer. She said in an interview a few years before she died in 2012, “I am tired. For 51 years I am singing about Israel all over the world, telling stories about how it was before – the first war, the second war, every war. War, war, war. They call me the singer of wars. I don’t like this name. I want to be the singer of Israel.” Upset about Israeli military actions in the Occupied Territories, she once said (angering many Israelis), “We are a nation that went through the Holocaust. How can we do things like this to another nation?”
The lyrics to “Bab El Wad” were written by the great Israeli poet Haim Guri. Guri fought with the Negev Brigade during the 1948 War of Independence. He travelled to Hungary just after WWII in order to assist Holocaust survivors in their emigration to Israel. He worked also as a journalist and wrote important articles in the Israeli press about the Eichmann trial.
But Guri has remained troubled, all his life, by the root contradiction of the state of Israel. Born in Tel Aviv, he was raised to believe in the old-new myth of Israel. As Guri got older, he often wondered about the Arabs, who were moved out so that a new people could move in. He wrote an essay for Haaretz in 2011.
At the end of my book “Ad Alot Hashahar” (“Till Dawn”), from 1950, I wrote after the Green Line was established: “From our watchtowers we see the expanses of the captured land … our paths rub up against their watchtowers, our ways are windings and the borderline passes through our souls, which are torn and not made whole.”
Years went by, until the Six-Day War, in which I fought as a company commander in Jerusalem. Motta Gur declared: “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” We continued north, to Ramallah. I felt as if I had come home, to those biblical vistas. But I came upon many Arabs. …
I was in the heart of reality, among the neighboring people under our control, in that confrontation that puts beliefs and opinions to a cruel test. There were increasingly blunt discussions over whether to call “those territories” “occupied,” “liberated” or “meshuhzakim,” a Hebrew neologism that combines both these words. What to do with all those Arabs?
I think, though I cannot prove (how would you prove such a thing?), that the abandoned military vehicles along Highway 1 are unacknowledged by word or marker because no words are sufficient to the history that is being memorialized. It is safer to let silence reign. In the silence, each person is free to read the significance of Mickey Marcus’ trucks as they will. A symbol of Jewish suffering. A testimony to Israeli statehood. A memorial to The Nakba and the forced displacement of Palestinians. An abstract monument to the traumas and antinomies that linger just beneath the surface of Israeli life.
It is a normal highway winding up the hills from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And it is anything but a normal highway. •
Photos by Northern Lights 19 via Flickr (Creative Commons), Nina Jean via Flickr (Creative Commons), Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr (Creative Commons), orientalizing via Flickr (Creative Commons), Visit Israel via Flickr (Creative Commons),Claire Gribbin via Flickr (Creative Commons), Itamar Grinberg / The Israeli Pavilion 2014 via ArchDaily, orientalizing via Flickr (Creative Commons), and Adiel lo via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons).