Blue and White in Black and White

"Keren Kayemeth Umetsalemet - Tmunot Mehakufsa Hakhola 1903-2003" ("The Jewish National Fund Photographs - Pictures from the Blue Box, 1903-2003"), edited by Gadi Dagon, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael - The Jewish National Fund, 237 pages, NIS 70.

"Keren Kayemeth Umetsalemet - Tmunot Mehakufsa Hakhola 1903-2003" ("The Jewish National Fund Photographs - Pictures from the Blue Box, 1903-2003"), edited by Gadi Dagon, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael - The Jewish National Fund, 237 pages, NIS 70

One of the best-known (and most battered) anecdotes from the period of the War of Independence tells of a rabbi in Safed. Shortly after the victory of the Haganah and the establishment of Jewish control over Arab Safed - which was six or seven times larger than the Jewish population of Safed - the rabbi was asked how this could have happened. He replied: through deed and miracle. When asked to explain, he elucidated with full confidence: The deed was our prayers to the Lord God and the miracle - that the Palmach arrived.

Over the years this remark has evoked endless smiles and snorts, to the effect of: Go forth and see the perverted logic of that rabbi and his ilk. Eventually, I met Meir Meiber, the commander of the Haganah in Safed during the War of Independence, and I asked him for his opinion of this story. He surprised me by saying: "That rabbi was right. In the embattled Jewish Safed that was fighting for its life, every person made his contribution: The young people fought until the Palmach arrived and then helped it; the adults did any difficult job - digging trenches, fortifying buildings, producing weapons; women were radio operators and nurses and cooked for the fighters; the children and the adolescents served as messengers. The old men and the rabbis came to us and told us that they also wanted to help. We asked them: What do you know how to do? They said: We know how to pray and read Psalms. We said to them: Very good. And indeed they prayed and did what was required of them, and therefore they too have a part in the victory."

I remembered these words when I read the texts that accompany the catalog of the exhibition "Keren Kayemeth Photographs," which was held not long ago at the historic "Reading A" power station in Tel Aviv. In this exhibition, curated by Gadi Dagon (who also edited the book of the same title), the claim is reiterated, time after time, that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) photographers, over a period of several decades - from the 1920s to the end of the '50s - were sort of modern Marranos: They had to hitch themselves to the "cart of Zionism" while in their hearts they were often disgusted with the determined society that they photographed.

As Adam Baruch wrote in his article "Hurrah for the Planters!" in the book: "The JNF was interested in image-building materials, creating an image, strengthening an image. The JNF was part of the Zionist ethos. The JNF, the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization were part of the hegemony. Photography was a tool for propaganda and the effective appropriation of the hegemony. Working Jewish land in the Land of Israel represented the hegemony. The working of the land was photographed and shown in this country and abroad, and along with it, photographs of the soldier boy and the soldier girl, the working man and the working woman, the water towers, the guard towers, the roads, the conquest of the wilderness. Independent photography - that is, not committed propaganda photography - crowded into the margins. For the independent photographer had no real employer." The photographers, most of them immigrants from Central Europe who had no choice, contributed their part to "the Zionist production line."

Dilemmas and difficulties

Rona Sela, in her article "To Conquer the Mountain" at the beginning of the book, also describes the photographers' dilemmas and difficulties. They were forced to deal with a demanding establishment that not only required they follow the official line and "take photographs that for the most part were `properly' constructed (for example, with respect to composition) - aesthetic, beautiful and precise - which became an integral part of the system of marketing and information of Zionist propaganda," but also demanded that the photographers hand over to them the negatives of the photographs.

It seems as though she, and Adam Baruch before her, are ignoring the desire of most of the members of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) that was taking shape in the Land of Israel, to participate in the act of Zionist creativity. The photographers, like the elders and rabbis of Safed, wanted to contribute their skills in their own way, and despite the difficult conditions and the tiny compensation, they did their bit and apparently were proud of it. And with respect to the establishment that commissioned and was tough with the photographers - that is, the propaganda and photography departments of the national institutions - it appears that there is no call for the many complaints against it on the part of the editor of and contributing writers in this book: Thanks only to this establishment was a huge reservoir of 180,000 photographs collected in the JNF archive alone, as well as hundreds of thousands of other photographs in other archives. This establishment, which is often attacked for its authoritarianism and the fact that it dictated the subjects of the photographs, was what allowed for the preservation of the photographed history of "the state- to-be" and of the state in its early years.

To this day the JNF is one of the most "Zionist" organizations, and it is interesting to see how an almost official publication of this organization has been infiltrated by clearly post-Zionist overtones. Thus, in the aforementioned article by Rona Sela, not one of the photographers came to Israel in the sense of aliyah as in "ascent" or pilgrimage. At most he "arrived," and almost always "immigrated," in the nonspiritual sense. Sela also does not like the term "Land of Israel." In most cases she prefers "Palestine," the official British name for the country as it was written in those days on official documents and currency of the time.

The book itself, like the exhibition, is carefully executed and astonishingly beautiful. All the photographs are large and clear. About 80 percent of the pages are devoted to early photographs and those were taken during the first 20 years of the state, as well as to biographies of the photographers, most of whom are fathers of Israeli photography. On the remaining pages contemporary photographers are given the opportunity to grapple with landscapes and people of our times. The contrast is obvious, not only because of the use of color, as all the early photographs are in black and white; everything is so different, and there is nothing like the eye of the camera and the contemporary photographer to demonstrate this.

Among the "historic" photographers, mention must be made of S.Y. Schweig, Zoltan Kluger, Lazar Donar, Tim Gidal, Werner Braun and David Charis; among the modern photographers - Miki Kratsman, Michal Heiman, Tamar Karavan and Shlomo Arad.

Embarrassing errors

Thirteen photographs in the last part of the book are devoted to celebrities from Israel and abroad whom the JNF took the trouble to immortalize as they planted trees in its forests. We can find David Ben-Gurion there, and Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and other leaders alongside Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson and Brooke Shields as well as musical giants Artur Rubinstein and Pablo Casals.

For a moment the suspicion wells up in us that provincialism overcame artistic logic, until Adam Baruch comes along and rescues us. In his aforementioned article he relates that the French aviation company Air France published a book of photographs in 1991, a homage to French and international celebrities who flew in its planes. They are immortalized outside the plane and within it, next to the symbols of the company. And if Air France can do it, who are we to say a bad word about the use of celebrities to promote sales of an exhibition and a book?

Finally, in such a well-made book as the one before us, there are several annoying errors in the captions to the photographs. According to these, some of the photographers took the pictures here before they even immigrated. Thus, in Shmuel Yosef Schweig's photograph from 1920 of the Jezreel Valley, there is a tractor, while in that year no land had yet been purchased in the valley, there was not a single tractor in the country and Schweig, according to the book, came to the country only in 1922. That same photography year, 1920, appears in the caption of another of Schweig's photographs.

It is also not clear how two of Avraham Malevsky's photographs document Ma'aleh Hahamisha in 1937, while this kibbutz settled the land only the following year. The most embarrassing caption is attached to a photograph by Zoltan Kluger. The photograph shows a teacher during a geography lesson in Tel Aviv, and the caption says that the year is 1938 - while on the blackboard the Hebrew date of December 3, 1947 is written in chalk.

There also should have been more accuracy, both in the exhibition and in the book, about the date from which it begins. To begin in 1903 and to mark 100 years now looks and sounds "round" and fascinating, but it can't be helped - there is no photograph from before the 1920s.

But these are only comments. The history of creation over decades - mainly from the perspective of Zionism - is gathered in the pages of this beautiful album. It is not clear whether the photographers knew that they were taking pictures of history, but as in the words Natan Alterman put into the mouth of the photographer in his play "Kinneret, Kinneret," photographs have a lifespan of their own: "For light that is neither vertical nor horizontal / adds much vitality to objects / and the picture seems to be washed in dew / for up to 100 years, guaranteed."

Among the books by Dr. Mordecai Naor are "The Twentieth Century in Eretz Yisrael - A Pictorial History" and "The Jewish People in the Twentieth Century - A Pictorial History."