BOOK REVIEW:White City Black City. Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa

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. Read more.

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