Last year, Art Deco Mumbai and Bauhaus Center Tel Aviv co-hosted an exhibition, Mumbai–Tel Aviv: Architecture Moderne that first opened in June 2022, at Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai and in November 2022, reached Bauhaus Center Tel Aviv. Celebrating the 1930s Modernist architectural styles of Art Deco and Bauhaus, this event was jointly organized by the Consulate General of Israel in Mumbai and the Embassy of India in Israel. With its focus on the precincts of the Oval and Marine Drive in Mumbai and the White City quarter of Tel Aviv, the exhibition stressed on how connected, how similar two cities, otherwise 4,000 km apart, are. It also formed part of the “30 years of India-Israel Friendship” commemoration, where moving on from weapons and surveillance technologies, architectural elements of entrance hallways, balconies, façades, front doors, and windows were used as exuberant commodities that strengthen the bilateral relations between the two states. Photographs of cinema halls, office buildings, apartment lobbies, schools, and residential blocks from the two cities were placed next to each other in a manner to render any difference between them illegible, locking the two in each other’s image: fabricating innocence and wonder as the playing field of friendship, commanding the viewer to forget the bloodsoaked legacies of settler-colonialism and fascism that inform India and Israel. Shalom! Namaste!
This year, as Israel celebrates its 75th “Independence Day,” it is more restless to market its spatial propaganda which is neither cohesive nor coherent. It will count on the impunity such cultural exchanges bestow upon its illegitimate, immoral project. It needs strategic partners like India, where establishing ideological and aesthetic continuities grants legitimacy to its mythologies. Take Mumbai–Tel Aviv: Architecture Moderne for example, it has been so keen to celebrate the “conservation” techniques of Tel Aviv that it chose to rub out Jaffa/يافا upon whose rubble the settlerscape of Tel Aviv sprang up.
SETTLERSCAPES AS CRIME SCENES ///
When fixed as a relic from the past, objects are qualified by their aesthetic value, often depoliticized and isolated from the contexts that produced them. They are thus diluted for mass consumption, ready to be slathered with any narrative that dominant forces consider fit to strengthen their structures. However, if we reinstate these objects back in history, they turn into evidence instead, inviting us not to merely look at them, rather through them.
Settlerscapes actualise in typologies, infrastructures, built environments, and materials the ambition of settler-colonial projects, where indigenous population is annihilated to be replaced by the settler state’s exercise in “sovereignty.” Consequently, they rely on aesthetics to inspire awe and admiration for their spatial artifacts, to proclaim their presence on stolen land as “natural,” and to manufacture collective amnesia against what preceded them. Settlerscapes necessitate erasure of not only the native inhabitants, but also of their crimes against them, and depend, therefore, on institutionalized forgetting, which is labeled as culture to act as a proxy for their power.
Any space is composed of interlocked layers: layers of how a space is imagined, how a space is designed, how a space is inhabited, how a space is governed, and how a space is perceived and carried forward. In a settlerscape, these layers are forced to undergo changes and their interactions with each other as well as with their inhabitants are dismantled and rearranged by distorting their relationship with time. Overcome with the knowledge of their own transience, settlerscapes seek to destroy all indigenous practices of memory-making and use violence to secure their permanence. Interrupting the temporal continuity of indigenous lifeworlds, settlerscapes brandish their “immortality” as an excuse for their violence. They engineer their future on the ruins of native’s past. Despite its desperate attempts to use the alibis of development, beautification, and civilization, each settlerscape holds within itself buildings and streets that are evidence pointing towards the very history it negates. In Lifta’s Ruins: The Presence of Absence, Khaldun Bshara argues for the agency of ruins and opposes all attempts at their museumification, where they are reduced to a “product of an unknown producer, the crude material found in natural history museums with abstract (aesthetic and historic) descriptions detached from their context.” Every node of destroyed or depopulated site which crisscrosses across settlerscapes should be read as a crime scene where the testimony against the perpetrator is inscribed. These sites bear the fundamental paradox of Israel: its need to simultaneously produce and conceal violence in order to continue existing.
Sedimenting in a fractured time, settlerscapes are sites of asymmetrical power relationship where the myth of terra nullius is weaponized to invent the natives as “savages,” where imposing colonial brutality is an act of virtue. But even as they swell on narratives of peace and democracy, settlerscapes gaze out at an empty time, haunted always by the spectral topographies of the places and people disappeared, dispossessed, and killed for this adventure. These spectral presences transgress and exceed the colonial time, and so settlerscapes are always disturbed, always unsettled. They are frightened spaces, spaces where the colonizer’s fears condense; there is the echo rising from the river to the sea. This is the echo of memory that refuses to forget.
CALCIFIED AMNESIA OF TEL AVIV ///
Tel Aviv, before existing in any cartographic or historical record, was synthesized in a careful cultural production, ranging from literary fiction to exhibition catalogs and artworks. In 1902, Theodor Herzl published a novel, Altneuland (Old-New Country), which drew heavily from his political pamphlet, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), 1896, where a European Jewish settlement in Palestine was proposed as a modern solution for the Jewish question. It was in the subsequent Hebrew translation of his novel that Old-New Country became Tel Aviv, thus consolidating within the Hebrew language the political geography of a settler-colonial imagination.
The port city of Jaffa/يافا thrived as the cultural capital of Palestine, an enduring symbol where the local population anchored its economy and its pride. Tel Aviv was established in 1909, barely a few kilometers north of Jaffa/يافا, as an exclusive zone for the Ashkenazi Jewish communities. Tel Aviv sprawled as a reaction to the history Jaffa/يافا prospered in and subsequently grew large enough to devour it. It transmuted into its present-day hyphenated form after the 1948 Israeli invasion, which led to the Tel Aviv municipality seizing control of the region and creating the jurisdiction we are now made to call Tel Aviv-Yafo. Rules of punctuation may ordain that a hyphen be used to denote an amalgamation, but in this case, there exists a frontier between the two cities, between history and myth, between dispossession and its incessant denial. This hyphen has been grafted amidst strata of time: the 1880s when Jewish neighborhoods of Neve Tzedek, Mahane Yehuda, and Neve Shalom were carved through Jaffa’s body; the founding of Ahuzat Bayit in 1909; the destruction of Muslim neighborhood of al-Manshiyya in April and May 1948.
Whether land purchases by Zionist groups after the Balfour Declaration in 1917 or decades later, series of attacks by Zionist militias and military groups, the creation of Israel has relied upon both covert and murderous forms of violence directed against Palestinian life and land. The same violence continues to narrate Tel Aviv’s glory as the “first Hebrew city” of the world only to remain locked in the grain of the rubble it was birthed in. The city repeats itself over and over again to convince itself of its historic and ethnic distinction, even superiority, to Jaffa/يافا. Even before creating any buildings, Tel Aviv constructed its “innocence” — biblical, pure, and promised — to force its moral claim over Palestine, to validate the Israeli project of ethnic cleansing. Tel Aviv subjugated Jaffa/يافا, expelled its Palestinian residents, even stole from them the right of return, emptied the neighborhoods of their buildings, routes, names, maps, and laughters, and held the city’s memory captive. This “white, Jewish utopia” was perfected with spatial dominance acquired through leases, lotteries, and landscaping and maintained with the militaristic infrastructure of checkpoints, barricades, and turnstiles. Because all utopias are prolonged by the weight of their promise, Tel Aviv presented itself as a progressive, modern alternative to the uncivilized Jaffa/يافا, thereby making the Nakba a political and aesthetic necessity, introducing the catastrophe as a hyphenated suspension between the past and the present continuous for displaced Palestinians to inhabit.
For the Etzel commander Menachem Begin, Jaffa/يافا was an extension of Palestinian identity, a spatial blemish that had to be wiped out to actualize the utopia. So, between April 24 and 25, 1948, Israeli mortar gunners engaged in heavy shelling of the city center and the port area, almost four months after forcefully driving Palestinians out of their homes and tearing down public and municipal infrastructures in the city. Another Etzel commander Amichai ‘Gidi’ Faglin served the utopia by plotting detonation devices across the streets of Jaffa/يافا. The Haganah launched ‘Operation Hametz’ and the surrounding villages of Salameh, Al-Khayriyya, and Al-Shaykh Muwannis among others were captured, thereby rupturing the economic relationship between Jaffa/يافا and its hinterland that depended on the city for exporting its agricultural produce. As buildings were turned into ruins, tens of thousands of Palestinians were turned into refugees, both disconnected from their relationship with their own home, their own land.
Under the Tel Aviv municipality, every architectural symbol that denoted Jaffa’s Palestinian identity was imbued with Zionist mythology. The Arabic names of neighborhoods and buildings were replaced with Hebrew, so Al-Hamra Cinema became Alhambra Theatre, and Salama Road was renamed as Shalma Street. Last remaining traces of depopulated villages were swallowed to create the new Israeli “past”. On the rubble of al-Manshiyya, Etzel Museum sculpted Tel Aviv’s coastline in order to celebrate the Zionist paramilitary organization responsible for maiming, kidnapping, and murdering tens of thousands of Palestinians. The remains of Al-Mas’udiyya were drenched in tarmac to pave the Arolozorov and Ibn Gvirol streets. Al-Shaykh Muwannis crumbled under Ramat Aviv, where Tel Aviv University was established in 1956. As the university expanded its campus, it stole the house of Palestinian village chief Ibrahim Abu Kheel and turned it into a faculty lounge. Old Palestinian cemeteries were not spared either. This siege over indigenous time was further aided by the eco-colonial tactics of the Jewish National Fund, which built agricultural settlements over demolished Palestinian villages to conceal every sliver of local histories. As settlers enveloped the native population and conifers grew over fig, olive, and orange orchards, sites of massacres were sanitized by planting forests, by constructing new buildings, by manufacturing Tel Aviv.
The extractivist logics shaping Israel found utility even in Palestinian ruins. In 1978, Israeli architects Amnon Niv, Dani Schwartz, and Amnon Schwartz used the walls of a demolished house in al-Manshiyya as the foundation to build the Etzel Museum — rescuing a project of destruction with the rhetoric of “renewal.” Archeology, too, has been weaponized in the production of one Israeli city after the other, employing it not to investigate the past, rather to invent one. Justifying Zionist violence by invoking the Jewish “return,” digging for biblical remains to “rescue” them from Palestinian “savages.” In Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, Eyal Weizman writes, “Digging for the ruins of ancient Jewish archeology thus produced a layer of contemporary Palestinian ruin.” So, ruin becomes occupation’s lexicography, writing Palestinian memory into Zionist fantasies. Debris makes David Ben-Gurion’s “desert bloom,” debris is the aesthetic of imperialism’s civilizing mission, debris blends soldiers, architects, and curators in the service of Tel Aviv.
In this landscape of ruin, White City is advertised as being born out of sand dunes, as restoring “purity” to a mound of nothingness. Sand dunes are recast as the playground where the British Mandate, the Jewish National Fund, and Zionist military apparatus toss among themselves stolen Palestinian properties and histories, and grant legitimacy to their pillage by parroting the occupation’s rhetoric, “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
In White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Sharon Rotbard elaborates on how Tel Aviv’s relationship to sand is like its relationship to history: while traditional Palestinian buildings were constructed in a manner that synchronized their foundation with sandstone, White City’s modernity was built by removing this layer of sand instead, resulting in a pronounced topographic distinction between Tel Aviv and Jaffa/يافا.
Unable to reconcile with this, Tel Aviv deployed artists, architects, and academics who could not only aestheticize, but also anesthetize the past by concealing its recency and denying all future to the very city it feasts on. In 1994, Israeli architect Nitza Metzger-Szmuk organized the ‘Bauhaus in Tel Aviv’ festival and a decade later, published her book titled Dwelling on the Dunes: Tel Aviv: Modern Movement and Bauhaus Ideals. In 1993, Noa Karavan produced Air, Light and Utopia, a three-part documentary series about the Modern movement in architecture in collaboration with the UNESCO World Heritage Center and DoCoMoMo. Another documentary Grain of Sand (1999), directed by Yoav Ruda, went a step further and fused Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan’s biography with the fiction of Tel Aviv, using his childhood as the backdrop to exalt the sand dunes waiting to “bloom” into White City. In fact, even before there was a White City, there was Karavan’s Kikar Levana (White Square), 1977–1988, which appropriated Palestinian wind, sunlight, water, grass, and olive tree into the Zionist ideology, chiseling its obstinacy into glass and white concrete. Finally, with UNESCO declaring it as a World Heritage Site in 2003, White City of Tel Aviv found its innocence and its ingenuity cemented into the world it craved validation from.
It is crucial to note yet another discrepancy in this manufactured past: most commonly narrated story about the creation of White City mentions how the avant-garde innovation of Bauhaus emerged in Dessau of 1920s, where Jewish students and teachers of this school fled the Nazi violence and arrived in Tel Aviv to construct the ‘White City.’ However, as Rotbard points out, ‘White City’ as an architectural narrative did not circulate widely until 1984, when Israeli art and architectural historian Michael Levin curated an exhibition by the same name, White City: The International Style Architecture in Israel, Portrait of an Era, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. If a book constructed Tel Aviv, an exhibition established White City.
Aesthetics thus contributed to strengthening the political-military discourse of settler-colonialism as well as compounded gentrification, where the self-righteousness of White City was proclaimed as an excuse to discard to Jaffa/يافا everything (and everyone) it considers expendable. Over the last two decades, Jaffa/يافا has been subjected to the assaults of real estate sharks, and under the duplicitous nomenclature of “mixed city,” it is made to endure codes of spatial segregation and apartheid. Classified as “adaptive reuse,” many of the old city’s buildings have now been converted into guest houses, craft shops, and artist residencies by the settlers.
The buildings of White City became an alibi for Israel’s war crimes, inserting it instead into the international vocabulary of Modern architecture. And now, Mumbai–Tel Aviv: Architecture Moderne is a continuation of the same violence, a desperate attempt at yet another whitewash.
INDIA’S THEATER OF NORMALCY ///
For almost seven decades, India and Israel have maintained a close political and military partnership, which has flourished under the rhetoric of “civilizational ties” and “shared ideals.” However, it’s the last 30 years that have significantly accelerated India’s rise among the top markets for Israeli arms, and the two states have been investing in joint weapons production, army and intelligence services training, military drills, and circulation of carceral technologies. This military-industrial complex has been further cemented by a parallel partnership in the sphere of education, entertainment, tourism, and art, producing a mass consciousness that accepts and extols the logic of ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism practiced by India and Israel.
Such strategic culture relies on the myth of normalcy, and remains pervasive, kept out of sight, suggested as indisputable, and distributed as common sense in order to uphold the fable-like grandeur of the state. Dominant geopolitical order and majoritarian ideologies dictate culture to participate in national security strategies and foreign policies, while simultaneously cultural expressions reveal the psychosocial motivations behind the state’s actions. Exhibitions such as Mumbai–Tel Aviv: Architecture Moderne become an asset for Zionist and Hindu ethnonationalist statecrafting by socializing the viewers into a specific mode of militarist thinking where erasure of Palestinian spatial infrastructure and knowledges is distilled into amnesia. This is the power of strategic culture: it locks its consumers into behaviors that are presented as being preordained and inescapable and codifies public identity and the collective unconscious into the accumulated anxieties and aspirations of the state. Here runs the clandestine thread of manufacturing consent. Here, the colonizer reclines in the retroactive construction of his innocence.
At a time when Muslims of India find their homes bulldozed, detention centers built for those declared outsiders in their own land, libraries burnt down, mosques demolished, and all forms of spatial segregation being practiced against them, Indian architects and urban conservationists choose to submit to imperialist exhortation. This architecture of ruin has long been perfected in India’s colonial laboratory in Kashmir, which is the world’s most densely militarized zone today. Kashmiris are being forcibly displaced from their agricultural and non-agricultural properties to make way for incoming Indian settlers. Large swathes of land have already been stolen by the Indian occupying forces to build army camps, bunkers, military drill points, and artillery firing ranges. This spaciocide is a tool to engineer demographic change in the Muslim-majority region, and cites active inspiration from and complicity of Zionist superstructure.
In its reference to the “sorority of cities who shared similar architectural styles,” the exhibition communiqué echoes Netanyahu’s remark about the India-Israel partnership being a “marriage made in heaven.”
Art Deco Mumbai allowing itself to be co-opted by Zionist propaganda is concurrent with Indian artists, writers, and cultural practitioners crawling in reverence for genocide-enablers and oligarchs. Not just this exhibition, Tata, JCB, and Adani have also amalgamated Mumbai with Tel Aviv, India with Israel with their drones and bulldozers. And these are among the companies which now control a significant section of art philanthropy, literary awards, and cultural establishments in India, fully aligning intellectual and creative production with pragmatic national interests. This is the rancid theater of normalcy where war crimes are embellished and amnesia is rehearsed, where bloodstains are continuously wiped off the white walls. ■