Gabriel Chazan, review of Rotem Rozental’s “Pre-State Photographic Archives and the Zionist Movement”

Rotem Rozental. Pre-State Photographic Archives and the Zionist Movement. New York: Routledge, 2023. 260 pp. Cloth $160.00.  ISBN 9781032182384.

Rozental cover

Rotem Rozental’s Pre-State Photographic Archives and the Zionist Movement makes a strong argument that photographs were crucial for promoting pre-state Zionism. The book draws upon a wide range of material, including the travel photography of Auguste Salzmann (1824-1872) in the Middle East; the work of the Zionist art school Bezalel, which sought to create visually “Jewish art;” and photographs of Russian pogroms that were used to foster muscular Judaism in early Zionism. At the center of the study, however, is Rozental’s analysis of the photographic archives belonging to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a fundraising organization. The JNF often used photographs of “the daily lives of the new settlers of Palestine” (6) as a promotional tool for its primary mission: buying large swathes of land to be distributed to Jewish immigrants in pursuit of the yet to be realized state. Most of her book is focused on these images. In them, she argues, “the Zionist subject is formed, as is the image of the land this subject will occupy and the image of their relationships, their connection to one another” (6).

According to Rozental, the photographs in the JNF archive are therefore more than merely passive representations of photographers’ surroundings; they are vital tools in the construction of a nation state then in the making. The archive, for Rozental, becomes a way to read who is included as citizen in a society to come, “as inclusion in this archive’s folders and shelves was to provide a passageway for inclusion in the state” (107). This is because “the Zionist photographic archive,” she claims, “drew boundaries that held the keys for our belonging to this land, keys that have also excluded those who did not meet its constitutive criteria” (6). The resulting interrelationship between photographic and political subjects became a particularly literal one inside an agency that also bought and leased large tracts of land.

The strongest and widest reaching interventions in Rozental’s book arrive when she positions the JNF archive “in future tense,” in the sense that the archive “functioned under the assumed guise of a sovereign nation-state, a state in a condition of becoming, in the making” (107)[1] She claims that, in the wake of that state’s actual establishment, the archive helped “shape civil discourse, its subjects, its territory and their relationships” (107). In other words, the way the JNF conceived of its photographic archive in future tense prepared it to shape the wider social fabric. This future-oriented program was of course far from unique to the Zionist context. Readers interested in a range of photographic and artistic moments will therefore find this moment of photographic archiving enlightening. Some other examples Rozental cites include “the archive administered in the 1930s by Roy Stryker for the Resettlement Administration [Farm Security Administration Archive]” (8), as well as the diasporic archiving practices of YIVO (the Yiddish Scientific Institute), now located in New York City.[2] Indeed, her book opens up a whole new way of thinking about how photographic archives like the JNF’s helped forge national identity across a range of national contexts.

Elsewhere, the historian Derek Penslar has suggested the Zionist movement must be “historically and conceptually situated between colonial, anti-colonial, and post-colonial discourse and practice.”[3] Rozental’s work shows us how this hybridity might be understood visually in the pre-state Zionist archive’s varying representations of both Jews and Palestinians. She describes an 1898 album by Zionist Jewish photographer Yeshayahu Refaelovitch, created before the JNF established their project in the area, as representative of an “early stage of Zionist activity in Palestine, [when] activists and settlers still sought to depict themselves as natives—indigenous descendants of the ancient Israelites who had supposedly remained present in Palestine” (110, emphasis added). This and other early images, such as the works produced at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, can easily be interpreted within travel and Orientalist vocabularies already popular within the field of visual culture. The Zionist pioneer is made indigenous by being presented in “clothes emblematic of the Levant-keffiyeh (head scarf), galabiya (long desert dress) and tarbush (the traditional Turkish headdress)” (110). This photographic sleight of hand, wherein, “the new Zionist body bears the mark of its expelled others,” continued apace as the archives of the JNF developed. They functioned “to position…inhabitants of the ‘old’ Jewish settlement (Eastern and Sephardic Jews) as well as Arab communities in this way,” Rozental argues, “as the negated contradiction of the positive presence of the new Jewish subject” (100). Photographs of the Zionist pioneer, in effect, framed them as distinctly separate, in a seemingly uninhabited landscape, rather than integrated within the local Arab population.

Rozental’s historical research illustrates that slotting these photographic works into exclusively colonial, anti-colonial, or post-colonial discourses and practices would miss the very fluctuations within the JNF archive. The curation of Zionist image and identity took many forms, in the hands of many varied subjects and creators included in and peripheral to the JNF itself. For example, a particularly fascinating chapter in the book features a discussion of how the JNF archive’s visual rhetoric even managed to influence the apparently private photographic albums of Haim Shmuel Mizrahi, a Sephardic Jew and Revisionist Zionist activist from Corfu. Rozental captures this process most explicitly by identifying a page from Mizrahi’s album where “he is seen wearing a keffiyeh right above an image that shows him with a headscarf and a high neck white shirt, which was a customary style among the halutzim. On the right, a close-up portrait of Mizrahi with a tie, and no head cover” (187).  What these photographs show, she concludes, is that “this shadow of a man could assume any potential guise: the traveler, the native, the intellectual” (187). The reader is made to understand—here, and elsewhere throughout the book—how photography was used to gain power over landscapes as well as form boundaries to exclude those such as non-Ashkenazi Jews, for example the Sephardic Mizrahi, who would be pushed to the margins as an “inherent contradiction, which the archive could not predict or reconcile” (14).

At bottom, Rozental’s book, to borrow her own words, considers the “interrelations of state formation and cultural technology” (6). The study provides a solid introduction to the history of the region for any audience and includes an impressive array of primary sources, which she uses to build on wider trends within visual culture studies. Within that field, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay has produced the largest body of work on Zionist photography currently available in English.[4] Rozental draws on and expands upon Azoulay’s work while also integrating a host of other Hebrew-language research. She also includes more details about the many photographers working for the JNF and their artistic influences. Similarly, the book adds to a growing body of work on Ottoman Era Palestinian photography and visual culture recently published in English, such as studies on the photo albums of Wasif Jawhariyyeh (1904–1972) by Issam Nassar, Stephen Sheehi, and Salīm Tamārī.[5] While I imagine Rozental’s book will for the most part be read by specialists on Israel/Palestine, its insights on photography and power are germane to scholars working across the history of art and photography. Art historians can learn from the current focus on settler colonialism by historians both of Israel and Palestine.[6] Even more generally, for all historians, this study makes clear how photography does not simply document history: it helps make it.

[1] This framing echoes Gil Hochberg’s recent theorization of an “archival imagination of and for the future” in Palestinian art. See Gil Z. Hochberg, Becoming Palestine: Toward an Archival Imagination of the Future (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 2.
[2] On the FSA, see Sara Blair and Eric M Rosenberg, Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
[3] Derek Jonathan Penslar, Israel in History: The Jewish State in Comparative Perspective (London: Routledge, 2007), 91.
[4] Ariella Azoulay, From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950 (London: Pluto, 2011); Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso Books, 2019).
[5] See Issam Nassar, Stephen Sheehi and Salim Tamari, Camera Palaestina: Photography and Displaced Histories of Palestine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022).
[6] For two representative works see Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017 (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2020); Liora Halperin, The Oldest Guard: Forging the Zionist Settler Past (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).


gabriel chazan headshotGabriel Chazan is a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He focuses on Jewish identity, representation, and culture within art history and visual culture. His work is placed in an interdisciplinary nexus within art history, drawing in interlocutors from queer theory and Jewish Studies. He has received research support from the Department of Art History and the George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at UW-Madison. Before arriving at UW–Madison, Gabriel completed his M.A. at University College London (UCL). He will teach a course on “Art, Visual Culture and Holocaust” this fall.

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