The Lie of the Land

'Why haven't I visited the settlements? They don't want to be looked at,' says visiting Prof. W.J.T. (Tom) Mitchell, a founder of landscape criticism. Despite fierce opposition to the occupation, he has traveled to Israel many times.

Dana Gilerman
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Dana Gilerman

When Prof. W.J.T (Tom) Mitchell visited the Negev for the first time in the late '60s, he was reminded of his childhood home in Nevada. "I thought to myself, I know this place, it's Nevada 60 years ago. Look at these people, who are pioneers and cowboys, and the expanses of desert. Everything was familiar in a strange way," he said on a recent visit to attend the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design's "Landscapes of Conflict" conference.

"But in the Negev," said his host, Prof. Larry Abramson, "you can't walk for half an hour without encountering fences, atomic reactors, 'illegal' Bedouin and 'legal' Bedouin, Jewish cities. It's Israel's backyard without any open space."

"You're right," answered Mitchell, "but everyone carries with him the image of his childhood landscapes. It's not always a rural or urban landscape. For my Pakistani students, who immigrated in their childhood, for example, it's JFK Airport. My father was a mine engineer and spent a lot of time roaming the desert with me. He taught me to look around me. He would ask me: 'What do you see here?' 'The desert,' I answered; 'No,' he'd say, 'this is the ocean floor.'"

The gap between the imagined and the real, between the landscape and what it represents led to one of the most important articles in the field of cultural criticism, "Imperial Landscape," which was published in the mid-1990s. Mitchell, a professor at the University of Chicago and the editor of the distinguished journal, Critical Inquiry, laid the academic foundation for the new field of landscape criticism. The image of the landscape, he argued, is not another genre, but a medium, an ideological tool. During his visits to Israel over the years - his wife is Jewish and they have friends in Israel - he often lectured onthe image of the landscape in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first Palestinian map

Mitchell's contemporary attitude toward the state resembles that voiced by most foreign left-wingers. But the beginning was different.

"Many of our friends immigrated to Israel in the 1960s, they were part of a generation that believed it was helping to build utopia," he says. "We believed in socialism, in equality among people, in anti-imperialism. We thought that Israel was the hope."

The second time he visited Israel was in 1987, 17 years after his first visit following an invitation to participate in a conference at Bar-Ilan University. By then he was already talking about colonialism, settlements and military occupation. His speech, which opened the conference, sparked a lot of anger. "They accused me of being a Bolshevik, an anti-Zionist and an anti-Semite," he says. "I'm not an anti-Semite, but I'm certainly anti-Zionist. Zionism, as far as I'm concerned, was a wonderful dream with a very unpleasant, dark side. We realized this too late."

His next visit to the area was a year later for the "Perspectives on the Landscape of Palestine" conference at Bir Zeit University. For him, this was a moving experience, during which, he says, for the first time the Palestinians mapped out their territory.

"Until then, they didn't have maps of Palestine, they used military maps of Israel, British maps, maps of the Ottoman Empire," he relates. "It was very exciting to talk with all those young people who decided to do something and present themselves from a cartographic, topographical and archaeological perspective. They all went then to photograph and sketch their space and everything was shown in an exhibition." Since then, he has visited the area a few more times and lectured at various conferences. In 2003, he came to attend the funeral of close friend Edward Said.

Why did he come to Israel despite his strong opposition to the place?

"Because of friendship, there are people I met and I'm in touch with them," he says. "But I come only when I'm invited. I hate being a tourist who is shown a model package of the place. In the late 1980s, for example, I visited Masada and got a lesson from the guide that accompanied us about mass suicide and the heroism of ancient Israel. Obviously the moral was: Modern Israel is Masada, and it is surrounded by Arabs. Are the Arabs compared to the Romans in this story? The modern Romans are the Americans. We are the ones who intervene and conquer the Middle East. We are the world's biggest empire. So there's real confusion in the story of Masada. When I come, I want to be useful, or at least to be in a dialogue with people. For example, I would be happy to visit settlements, I'd be happy to lecture there, but they have to invite me."

What would you like to tell them?

"I don't like to preach to the converted. I have a strong feeling that a historic injustice was done to the Palestinians and it has to be acknowledged. I don't intend to go there to lecture them, but to ask them to hear their side."

You refer a lot to the landscape of the occupation. Have you ever visited settlements?

"Not once ever. The landscape of the settlements I saw only from a distance. When I'm in the West Bank, I always go with Palestinians. I'm sure you can't just go to a settlement, can you? I don't intend to show up there unannounced. It would seem like a provocation. I think that it's a lot better to wait for an invitation. Do you think there's a single person there who is willing to listen to someone who thinks the opposite?"

What lies beneath

"Sometimes landscape is completely unreadable, enigmatic, and it's very important to acknowledge this," says Mitchell. "The statement has to appear in the medium, but it's like the white noise on television that suddenly focuses the image. That's how the landscape is. I always start to talk about landscape with an image of the painting of the 'The Monk by the Sea' by Caspar David Friedrich. There is the empty view of the sea and the sky there, which is reminiscent of western panoramas, where people deal with the unreadable ... This painting could offer two different readings: How meaningless is the monk, every footprint he leaves on the shore will disappear. However, he is there, the reference point amid this emptiness and so he becomes the measuring stick for the whole thing. This place becomes a landscape thanks to him."

Can you read a place through its landscape? For example, Israel?

"A large part of my reading is done via people, mediators. For example, Larry's critical reading of Road 6." (Abramson lectured at the conference on the Trans-Israel Highway, which, in order to preserve the disconnection from the chaotic Israeli reality, created a new landscape category for itself.)

But if the landscape is a medium and the medium has its own rules, why do you need mediators who have a vested interest in the matter?

"Because there are a lot of things that I won't notice. Reading and understanding the landscape are usually achieved through conversation - as in the painting, where the monk is the mediator between the observer and the painting. At one time, I wrote a book called 'What Do Pictures Want' and obviously the picture wants to be looked at, even though there are some pictures that don't want to be looked at, such as the painting, 'The Origin of the World' by Gustave Courbet, which for years was displayed behind a curtain. And if I go back to your question: Why haven't I visited settlements? I think they don't want to be looked at. And they especially don't want to be photographed by foreigners. I would never photograph a person without permission. It's voyeuristic. When you trap someone in your camera you have to be invited."

Said's eternal exile

At the conference Mitchell attended, four Israeli artists exhibited works dealing with landscape: Gal Weinstein, Gilad Efrat, Hanan Abu Hussein and Efrat Gal-Nur. In their works, he says, the change in the attitude to the concept of landscape was apparent.

"They no longer exhibit an abstract landscape and don't deny the loaded relationships, they investigate them. They have in them self-criticism filled with historical knowledge, research and primarily, they acknowledge the Palestinians' situation, something that was hardly found previously."

Does he see the change among Palestinian artists as well? He has a hard time answering.

"What do you mean by Palestinian artists?" he asks. "The other side of the Green Line? Those who live here? Those who move from there to here? There are also Palestinians in the Diaspora, such as Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian artist who doesn't live in Palestine. In general, their approach is very complex and I think that that Edward Said expressed it well in his writing. He documented the feeling of Palestinian exile, which sees this place as a homeland, exactly the same way the Jews feel about the place.

"Said recognized that in a certain sense he could never come back to live here. People told him 'come back and live in the West Bank,' but he would never have done it. After his funeral in 2003, I toured there with Miriam Said, his widow. 'Edward could never have lived here, taken buses, traveled around on these awful roads. He is ... aristocratic,' she said.

He knew he was a permanent exile and he accepted that. I think that there is an entire community of Palestinians, for whom the return, as far as they're concerned, is not the question. They want an emotional return, they want justice; they want to restore ties that were cut off. Many of them have set up lives in other places and therefore, like the Jewish Diaspora, the Palestinian Diaspora will be long."

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