The interlinked histories of Jaffa and Tel Aviv are dissected and analysed diligently in Sharon Rotbard’s White City Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa (Pluto Press 2015). Colonial narratives have stipulated the supremacy of Tel Aviv’s recent history, demonstrating how geography can be altered by history, namely through both conservation and demolition. The process also encourages a cycle of oblivion and selective historiography, thus attempting to diminish the narrative of the colonised.
“The relationship between the history of the city and its geography is a direct and necessary one,” states Rotbard. “The geography of the city will always tend to conserve the stories to be remembered and to erase the stories to be forgotten.”
In 2004, UNESCO affirmed the recognition and endorsement of the “White City” myth by awarding Tel Aviv inclusion in the list of World Heritage Sites. Disregarding the colonial violence that culminated in the Nakba of 1948, UNESCO’s recognition of the Israeli architectural and historical narrative provided additional means of obscuring Jaffa’s history and existence. When Zionist paramilitaries ethnically cleansed Jaffa of its Palestinian population, its heritage was annihilated, reducing the city to an ostracised enclave.
In the first part of the book, Rotbard shows how the White City narrative was dependent upon several factors, notably the dependence upon myths in the same way that the Zionist historical narrative was created and maintained. In Tel Aviv’s official narrative, which was also endorsed by UNESCO, the city’s architecture was attributed to Bauhaus-trained architects, rather than a manifestation of European architecture erected upon the ruins of colonised territory.
It is clear that Tel Aviv’s architectural narrative reflects that of the colonisers, based upon a false premise that also shows how colonialism is dependent upon an entire structure of roles within the social spectrum. Not only does the name Tel Aviv date back to literature by Theodor Herzl, but the city’s narrative is also built upon the obliteration of Palestinian architecture; hence, the elimination of an essential part of the Palestinian narrative. Rotbard shows clearly how the Zionist shaping of the physical environment, compounded with militarisation and exclusion, has been reflected in Tel Aviv’s architecture and, in turn, the means which Israel used to colonise the indigenous population, despite claiming otherwise. The selective history utilised by Israel serves to strengthen the colonial narrative; it should also be interpreted as evidence of the destruction wrought upon Palestinian territory, upon which the fabricated narrative has been created.
Rotbard points out that the major flaw of the White City narrative consists of its obliteration of other accounts. Restriction and exclusion being fundamental to writing an alternative (mis-)representation of history, the destruction of Jaffa was inherent to Israel’s plans. Rotbard’s discussion of Black City details the omission of Jaffa from Israel’s official narrative. The myth that Tel Aviv was born out of the sand dunes conceals the fact that the history is incomplete without an acknowledgement of how Israel robbed Jaffa of its heritage to construct its colonial structures. Between the British Mandate, early Jewish settler communities and, later, the Nakba in 1948, the ethnic cleansing of Jaffa paved the way for further “urbicide”, providing evidence of how architecture can be used as a tool to alter both history and geography. “Jaffa did not only lose its inhabitants in 1948,” states the author. “For the first time in 5,000 years, it ceased to exist as an urban and cultural entity.”
The colonisation of Jaffa and its enforced separation from the Palestinian cause was severe, with Israel imposing its own structures and interpretations on history upon a city that suffered both the ethnic cleansing of its indigenous Palestinian population, as well as the burden of Zionist settlers. Jaffa constitutes a prime example of the entire concept of Israeli violence as regards loss of identity. Indeed, Rotbard declares that the ethnic cleansing of Jaffa and replacement of the population rendered it “a non-existent city, an invented city, a city whose past, present and future have all been sculpted and manipulated time and time again, until no one is really sure where the real city begins and the imagined one ends.”
Rotbard not only explains the architectural history of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, but also provides insight into the violent narrative away from the establishment of Israel upon colonised Palestinian territory. Throughout the book, one can easily discern Israel’s underlying motives politically and architecturally. The concept of White City might resonate as an ambitious project. However, the reality is that of colonialism hastening to obliterate evidence of the destruction it has imposed upon Palestine.
Architecture was also used to consolidate concepts into ideology within the Zionist narrative; the veneer provided by buildings concealed the dynamics of militarisation and power, primarily for the benefit of the colonising power which, through its emphasis upon Tel Aviv, manages to obliterate the history of Jaffa. “The Israeli architect who plans and builds in Jaffa cannot ignore the looting of Arab property, as by virtue of his work he is forced to hold evidences of this in his hands,” writes Rotbard. “The architect, in his actions and his works, is the one who finalises the occupation, making it irreversible.”
At an international level, the endorsement of both the architecture and Zionist narrative by UNESCO is proof of how division, colonisation, ethnic cleansing and oblivion are rewarded. Not only does complicity in asserting the fabricated narrative stand out, but so too does the acceptance by UN organisations of Israel’s colonial project as an ongoing reality. UNESCO’s approval for Tel Aviv to be included among World Heritage Sites was based upon the false premise that the architecture “adapted to the cultural and climatic conditions of the place, as well as being integrated with local traditions.” Throughout the book, Rotbard not only destroys very skilfully the historiography imposed by Zionism, but also expounds upon the intertwining narratives which the international community has ignored intentionally, notably the fact that Tel Aviv’s story is incomplete without a thorough knowledge and recognition of Jaffa’s destruction.