Art and Identity in Ottoman Palestine

When I visit Israel, I like to walk through the Jaffa Gate into Jerusalem’s Old City for lunch. I glide over the slippery Jerusalem stone, down narrow streets made narrower with the crush of vendors on either side. As I walk down the alleys I inhale smoke from nargilahs as I pass by spice stalls and souvenir shops with chess and sheishbesh sets until I get to my destination of Hummus Lina. After lunch I circle back a few doors to Elia Photo Service, the real reason for my pilgrimage.

I have fallen in love with Photo Elia, which isn’t hard for someone who loves Ottoman and British Mandate-era Palestine. In this store, you can hold a photo of Jerusalem from 100 years ago as you stand and ask yourself, “How did we come so far?” Yet my favorite part of Photo Elia is what it can teach us about the way different people navigate the world. Art becomes a powerful way to bridge the gap between different narratives, and the photos enrich us by exposing us to alternate worldviews. In addition to being the universal language, art can promote understanding by drawing on traditions and themes that predate conflict between people. I love Photo Elia because, when I scan through their hundreds of prints, I am challenged by other points of view, and this reckoning leaves me feeling like a better, more whole person.

Two photos in particular illuminate this idea. Both were taken in the early 20th century by photographers who were active in Palestine at the time. A member of the American Colony Photographers took the first photograph, Women Reaping Grain Beneath the Mount of Olives. The American Colony was formed by a group of Swedish and American immigrants who moved to Israel to await the second coming of Jesus. Their compound was in East Jerusalem in what is now the American Colony hotel. The American Colony group included many enterprising photographers who sold their work in a shop in Jerusalem’s Old City, just inside the Jaffa Gate.

Three Women Reaping Grain Beneath the Mount of Olives
Three Women Reaping Grain Beneath the Mount of Olives

Israeli film pioneer Ya’acov Ben-Dov took the second photograph. His photo depicts a single halutz sowing in a barren field in a cloudy dawn. Ben-Dov was born in Ukraine and moved to Palestine in 1908 as part of the Second Aliyah. After studying at Bezalel Academy he became a photographer and Israel’s first filmmaker. Like many Jewish photographers at the time, Ben-Dov sold photographs and prints to the Jewish National Fund in order to document the progress of the New Jew in Palestine for JNF donors around the world.

The photographs echo two paintings originally by Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners and The Sower, respectively. Artists from Van Gogh all the way to Banksy have reproduced these iconic images and themes. The Gleaners features three women gleaning wheat at a French farm. The women show nobility, grace, and a natural harmony with their surroundings despite their isolation and the bent backs that identify the difficulty of their labor. They have an intimate relationship with the land and crops they depend upon. Millet paints the lowest classes of society in the light of decency and goodness, and he forces us to recognize the humanity of the poorest among us. The Gleaners also calls to mind Ruth gleaning in the field of Boaz, an image of courage and power.

Millet carries similar themes into The Sower. In this painting the sower exhibits a purposeful forward stride through the field. He has a muscular torso, and he twists his waist toward the viewer in a position you might find in a Michelangelo statue. About 40 years after Millet’s original, Van Gogh painted Sower with Setting Sun. Van Gogh uses a variety of brilliant blues to color the field in the sunset. The sower is smaller in this version, and his clothes match the colors of the field. He forms an integral part of the natural landscape, marching with a heroic gait away from the sunset.

Jean-Francois Millet's The Sower
Jean-Francois Millet’s The Sower

In the 1910s, Christian photographers from the American Colony and Jewish pioneer Ya’acov Ben-Dov both found meaning in these images. They took the themes Millet first expressed and grafted them onto the surrounding Palestinian landscape. The pictures tell familiar and unfamiliar stories. Ben-Dov’s sower is a tale I know well; one of pioneering Zionist heroes and a new kind of Jew being born through working the land of Israel. I am unfamiliar with the experience depicted in the American Colony photo. Throughout my Jewish education, I never learned about Arabs living in Palestine in the 1900s. I never imagined that these Arabs, like Jews, had an attachment to serving the land that an artist might find virtuous or moving. I struggle with this narrative about the land of Israel, and I am challenged to integrate it with the more familiar story that Ben-Dov portrays.

I find that art like this can be a way of learning to engage seriously with different, often competing worldviews. We do not benefit from living in isolation and refusing to acknowledge the myriad ways that other people look at and find meaning in the world. I love Photo Elia, because every time I leave there I have a new picture that tells a different story. And with every new story I push the limits of the way I live and see the world around me.

About the Author
Eli Cohn-Postell is a Jewish educator and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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