Monday, December 28, 2015

Shira Wilkof / Review (December 2015, Journal of Levantine Studies)

Since its publication in Hebrew in 2005, White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa has become a part of the canon of critical spatial studies in Israel. This long-awaited English edition is most welcome. The original Hebrew edition was published a year after UNESCO had, because of Tel Aviv’s singular concentration of interwar modernist architecture, declared “The White City of Tel Aviv” a world heritage site.1 Since then two parallel dynamics have taken place. While the brand name “White City” has become a powerful economic and cultural engine, a magnet for global tourism that has dramatically changed the face of the city, the book itself has opened up an important critical avenue into understanding the cultural, political, and urban processes that gave rise to this phenomenon.

Rotbard’s main objective is to debunk the “myth” of the White City of Tel Aviv. The term refers to districts in the center of the city, where the modernist style became predominant. These areas were constructed and settled by European Jewish (Ashkenazi) immigrants during the urban boom of the interwar decades. The “Black City,” by contrast, includes historic Jaffa and the Jewish neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, where Arabs, Mizrahi Jews, and the working class have traditionally resided.
In a postcolonial Saidian vein (and with a title alluding to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks), Rotbard proposes a dual-city model, whereby the two “cities” are conceived of as both geographical realms and mental constructs. The White City is European. Its modernist architecture—flat roofs, white-stuccoed walls, and clean lines—reflects the overarching values of its inhabitants, namely the Ashkenazi-Zionist hegemony, aspiring to European order, rationality, and human progress. The Black City is its Oriental negative, the “absolute ‘Other’ of Tel Aviv” (122): chaotic, backward, and sinister. However, argues Rotbard, the two “cities” are in a dialectical relationship with each other, whereby the physical and mental construction of the so-called “White City” is inherently intertwined with the processes of destruction, war and effacement of its counterpart, the “Pandora’s Box of Tel Aviv” (62). If the White City is the narrative of victorious hegemony, it is the untold story of the Black City, of those who were defeated and pushed out of collective memory, which Rotbard wishes to uncover.
Since its publication, Rotbard’s conceptualization has proven to be an effective and accessible counter-narrative, extending beyond professional and academic circles and generating wider public debate. It joined the small but steadily growing critical scholarship on Zionist-Israeli spatial construction that over the past several decades has explored issues of power relations, collective memory, identity, and colonialism.3
As suggested by its title, the book is divided into two main parts. The first part traces the rise of the narrative of the White City since the mid-1980s, providing a rich historical, cultural, and urban context to its evolution. The UNESCO declaration marked a twenty-year process in which a complex network of cultural agents gave rise to this urban legend. The starting point was a modest retrospective architectural exhibition, White City, which was held at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1984. Picked up by the Tel Aviv Municipal Preservation Department, this architectural “discovery” was then popularized through the department’s own landmark 1994 festival, “Bauhaus in Tel Aviv” and further enhanced by an older urban legend, that of Tel Aviv emerging from the white, sandy dunes, culminating in the highest seal of international approval in 2004.
Particularly interesting is his debunking of the Bauhaus style as synonymous with Tel Aviv modernism. Rotbard convincingly shows that while Bauhaus became the “flagship brand” (53) of Tel Aviv’s modernism, there were in fact only a very few direct links to this renowned German avant-garde school.
According to Rotbard, the rise of these themes came at a time when the Ashkenazi hegemony was losing its primacy (following the 1977 Likud rise to power). The myth of the White City provided the old guard with a sense of nostalgic reassurance. It allowed those who “felt disinherited of their Israeliness, the opportunity to console themselves in the warm embrace of a familiar white, European identity,” where the “stoic purity of the Bauhaus” articulated “values of order and rationality” against “the amorphous black chaos” of the present (27).
In his discussion of the flaws of the “White City” narrative (56–63), Rotbard makes two important observations. First, he argues, it is simply inaccurate geographically. He rightly notes that the modernist style was prevalent in the “black” districts of the city as well, extending beyond the UNSECO-protected area. The borders of history and memory, he concludes, intersect with socioeconomic and demographic borders, which are also the exact “mental iron curtain, that has divided the city into north and south ever since the 1930s” (56).
Second, he critiques the architectural discourse on the “White City” for being formalistic and falsely detached from its urban and political realities. This Eurocentric story, in turn, finds its way back into the national narrative, assuming “a decisive role in the construction of the case, the alibi, and the apologetics of the Jewish settlement across the country” (2), and coloring it with modernist utopianism.
In the second (and more extensive) part, “The Black City,” the focus shifts from discourse analysis to urban history. Rotbard first focuses on the decline of Jaffa vis-à-vis the emergence of Tel Aviv in Mandatory Palestine. This urban history unfolds as part of the increasingly binational conflict. Each successive wave of violence (1921, 1936) led to a further reorganization of urban space in which exclusively Jewish Tel Aviv emerged stronger, self-reliant, and ethnically segregated, while Jaffa, arguably the most important Arab city in Mandatory Palestine, significantly diminished in importance.4
By 1948 Jaffa was an Arab enclave surrounded by Jewish settlements and disconnected from its rural hinterland, a reality that is reflected in the 1947 British Partition Plan. Rotbard describes the devastating effects of the Jewish military occupation in 1948–49. Physically devastated and ethnically cleansed (a maximum of four thousand residents remaining from a population of between seventy thousand and eighty thousand), Jaffa never recovered its pre-1948 position.
The post-1948 period is deftly portrayed as a series of continuous urban interventions that in the aggregate contributed to the physical and symbolic enfeeblement of Jaffa in various ways, reflecting the impact of market forces, Jewish-national agendas, and modernization schemes. Thus the Old City of Jaffa became at once a fossilized, Disneyfied version of an “Arab city” as well as an exclusively Jewish artists’ colony, the result of a large-scale urban renewal and preservation project that took place during the 1960s.
By contrast, the razed Arab neighborhood of Manshieh, bordering Tel Aviv, was left empty and was turned into a vast, open seafront park covered with grassy artificial dunes and providing spectacular views of the Mediterranean. The only remaining Arab home was reconstructed as the Etzel Museum, an acclaimed architectural project dedicated to the Jewish fighters who had conquered the neighborhood (see the Hebrew cover at the end of the review). Here Rotbard provides an illuminating architectural critique of the project and the deep ironies between the silenced Palestinian past and the present uses of the structure.
The Jewish parts of the Black City are encapsulated in the story of the poor neighborhood of Neve Shaanan. The construction of the city’s flagship modernization project, the now-notorious Central Bus Station located in the heart of the neighborhood, resulted in the complete destruction of its urban fabric, making it a telling NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) case study. The final sections, “White City, Black City and a Rainbow” and the “Afterword” for the English edition, provide a fascinating analysis of contemporary urban processes occurring along these dividing lines.
Those who expect to find a professional historical monograph might be disappointed. Rotbard, as he himself states, is not a historian but an architect full of “anger and the urge to bring justice to the city and to many of its people” (184). The result is more akin to an extensive essay that provides a penetrating cultural and architectural critique of the physical and symbolic construction of Tel Aviv. Trained historians might find, at moments, that the style is hyperbolic, peppered with axioms and sweeping generalizations. Nonetheless, the broad set of historical resources and their systematic referencing make up for it. The book, in this sense, provides an excellent roadmap for identifying primary and secondary sources about the history of Tel Aviv and especially of less-explored Jaffa.
Having said that, the 2015 English edition presents some regrettable departures from the Hebrew original. First, while the structure remains (adding explanations when needed), the English text is a bit truncated at times, leaving out the more poetic and thought-provoking reflections. The result is that, while the translation is faithful and informative, it is stiff at times, losing its unique thrust and poetic voice and sometimes making disjunctive leaps (evident, for instance, in the chapter “Good Old Eretz Israel”).
But perhaps the main drawback of the 2015 publication is the book’s treatment of visual material and its overall design. A major forte of the original book is the abundant visual material, a masterwork of collecting and merging maps, aerial photographs, book covers, newspapers, and historical documentation that enhanced the book’s explanatory power. It conveys an innovative edginess, reflected in its fresh typography and unique design.
The English version loses large parts of this innovative effect. Its design is standard, and the book is shorter and has fewer illustrations (see the English cover). The British Mandate urban maps, which in the Hebrew edition extend over several pages, disappear completely from the English edition. The impressive German air force aerial photographs from WWI appear only once (62), in a smaller size, thereby diminishing the dialogue between text and image.
These differences notwithstanding, the English edition is an important contribution to scholars interested in the general and urban history of Israel/Palestine as well as the landscape of Israeli critical discourse. It brings Rotbard’s honest, rigorous, and thoughtful exploration of his city of residence to the attention of English-speaking readers, making available to them a highly original work that, at least during the ten years since its publication in Hebrew, has enjoyed a continuing impact.


1 “White City of Tel Aviv—the Modern Movement,” UNESCO,
2 The years straddling the centennial in 2009 were characterized by a surge of books celebrating Tel Aviv’s Hebrew urban heritage. See, for instance, Maoz Azaryahu, Tel Aviv: Mythography of a City (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006); Anat Helman, Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities (Boston: Brandeis University Press, 2010). A more reserved approach is found in Nathan Marom, City of Concept: Planning Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv: Babel, 2010).
3 See, for example, Zvi Efrat, Ha-proyekt ha-Yisraeli: Beniya ve-adrikhalut 1948–1973 [The Israeli project: Building and architecture 1948–1973] (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2004), another immediate part of the canon, which is still awaiting translation into English. An important landmark is the special volume of Teoriya u-bikoret [Theory and criticism], vol. 16, Merhav, adama, bayit [Space, land, home] (Spring 2000), which explores Israeli spatiality through a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
4 On Jaffa, see Mark LeVine, Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880–1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Haim Hazan and Daniel Monterescu, Ir bein arbayim: Leumiyut mizdakenet be-Yafo [A town at sundown: Aging nationalism in Jaffa] (Jerusalem: Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2011).