Israel's Early Leaders Had No Style

British undercover police who had to pose as Jews in Mandatory Palestine faced a complicated challenge: Learning to look sloppy

Palmach members at pilot training in Lod, 1947.
Zoltan Kluger, GPO

In the history of local architecture, Charles Robert Ashbee is known as one of the figures who shaped the image of modern Jerusalem. In 1918, immediately after the British conquest of Palestine, he was asked by Jerusalem’s military governor, Ronald Storrs, to assist in city planning. It was because the British attached importance to aesthetics in the territories they ruled that Ashbee, an architect and a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, was summoned. The movement, which flourished in Britain and Europe from 1880 to 1910, espoused a romantic style of design that drew inspiration from traditional medieval crafts. Accordingly, Ashbee sought to base himself on the work of Arab craftsmen and restore Jerusalem’s ancient structures by way of preserving what he called its “Oriental character.”

Though Ashbee (1863-1942) spent only four years in British-controlled Palestine, he exercised considerable influence on planning and the aesthetic aspect of the country, particularly in Jerusalem. A century later, the principle he laid down – that the new part of the city must be a continuation of the atmosphere and aesthetics of the Old City – still exerts an influence on Jerusalem’s architectural style. Yet Ashbee abandoned what was then British Mandatory Palestine in deep frustration, even disgust. His relations with Storrs had soured, but what rankled him most was Jerusalem’s aesthetic deterioration. For that, he blamed one group in particular: the Zionists.

When Ashbee arrived in Palestine, he was sympathetic to a degree to the Zionist movement and the Balfour Declaration. Subsequently, though, the Zionists annoyed him with their fanaticism and obduracy. Ashbee was gay and liked to hobnob with the Muslims’ political and intellectual elite. In his letters, he reported admiringly about soirees he attended at the American Colony Hotel, in the company of “the Imams, and Greek Archimandrites in black flower-pot hats, and a Moslem aristocracy that goes back to the prophet – ‘all the World without his Wife’” There was much of the gentleman in the Arab, but not in the Zionist. Ashbee was appalled by the “slovenliness, the ugliness, the want of grace, the essential absence of any style which characterizes the Palestinian Jew.”

From this followed political conclusions. Summing up his time in the country, at the time of his departure in 1923, Ashbee wrote that it was essential “to leave as it is that peasant society, which still has so much dignity and beauty, if what we displace it with is the discontent and squalid ugliness of southeastern Europe Americanized.”

A strong anti-Semitic strain was rife in Ashbee’s perception of the Jews; the image of Jews as ugly and graceless had been invoked by anti-Semites across the ages. Still, his remarks reflected a genuine conflict in both style and substance that affected relations between Britain and the Yishuv (as the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine was known). The British, or some of them at least, wanted to maintain the relaxed colonial atmosphere of an Oriental territory. The memoirs of senior Mandate officials are laced with descriptions of the elegant banquets in Government House and of the bar at the King David Hotel, along with accounts of visits to the colorful markets of Jerusalem and Nablus. British affection for the Arabs was in part erotic and aesthetic.

The Zionists, in contrast, were fired by ideology, and refused to take part in the Oriental idyll. They were portrayed by the British as rigid, antipathetic ideologues with whom it was difficult to develop friendly relations. Those who got along best with the Zionists were fanatic Protestants like Orde Wingate, who viewed themselves as Gideon-like biblical warriors.

British military in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, 1920.
Universal History Archive / UIG

The British also viewed the Jews as inelegant and uncouth. In her 2003 book “The Mandatories: The Land of Israel, 1940-1948” (published in English in 2011 as “Out of Palestine: The Making of Israel”), Hadara Lazar cites testimonies of retired British officers who told her how they perceived the Zionists. Police investigators who had to pose as Jews in order to collect intelligence faced a complicated challenge. They had become adept at disguising themselves as Arabs, but how could they pass themselves off as Zionist types? In the first stage, they had to learn how to look sloppy. It was out of the question to maintain refined elegance, which came naturally to most of the British, an officer who served in Jenin and Netanya told Lazar. Creating an appearance simultaneously clean and careless was an art in itself that was not easily acquired by the British in Palestine. The idea was to put your hands in your pockets – something no reasonable Englishman would have done at that time, still less an English policeman – and try your best to look unkempt.

Zionism was out to implement reform in almost every aspect of Jewish exilic life. The “negation of the Diaspora” ideology strove to transform East European peddlers and yeshiva students, who were unacquainted with nationalism and militarism, into gnarled farmers and tough soldiers. David Ben-Gurion wanted to leapfrog over 2,000 years of exile and renew the mythic biblical past. Zionism did indeed succeed in revamping the Jewish consciousness and lifestyle. But one area in which the Zionist leadership intervened far less was the Jewish lack of interest in aesthetics.

Seemingly, the subject did not occupy the movement’s leading figures. Modern leaders such as Hitler, Trotsky and Gandhi devoted considerable attention to the aesthetic aspect of national existence. Ben-Gurion, in contrast, took no interest in this. His style was anti-style. The sabra generation venerated practicality and security, but rarely the aesthetic. The sabras shaped their style as a rejection of British elegance – a kind of rebellion against good taste, which affected mainly later generations of Israelis. In his 1946 novel “Thieves in the Night,” Arthur Koestler, a Jew, offered a shocked description of the new Jews of the Yishuv: “raw, arse-slapping youngsters, callow, dumb and heavy, with their aggressive laughter and unmodulated voices, without traditions, manners, form, style.” The old, unkempt Jew had become the new, unkempt Jew.

The Zionist project chalked up no few military, economic and cultural achievements, but was far less successful in the aesthetic realm. In most places, we have managed mostly to uglify the land. You can see it in buildings, highways, style of dress and numberless other areas. Beauty is a rare phenomenon in our built-up country, which comes across like a cross between a basic training camp and a Judaica store.

One can attribute this to security and economic constraints. But there also appears to be strong element of sheer disregard for the importance of the aesthetic dimension. Maybe it was Ashbee’s curse that infected the Zionist approach: the Jewish state came into being, but became an aesthetic disaster.