Gender, Nostalgia, and the Space of Appearance (Israel)


zivah arbel hannah zemer

I don’t know why, but I was deeply moved by the publication in Haaretz last week of these two pictures, one of the recently deceased Zivah Arbel and the other of Hannah Zemer, who died ten years ago.

Born in Turkey, Arbel was an officer in the pre-state Palmach paramilitary strike force. The  picture of her was shot in 1948 at a gathering of Palmach fighters after the conquest of Lod. The article in Haaretz informs us that this was an iconic image that did much to shape a new feminine mystique for a new state. For her part, Zemer, a Holocaust survivor of the Ravensbruck concentration camp, was a leading editor at Devar, the newspaper funded by the Histradut labor federation. The picture of her looks like it was shot in the mid to late 1960s or early 1970s.

These are both pictures of iconic women in masculinist environments, military and journalistic. The pictures remind me of Hannah Arendt’s notion of politics as a space of appearance, an arena that makes possible the formation of new subjectivities. Why are these pictures so evocative today? Strong and secular and fiercely independent, caught at the historical transition into something new, are the pictures of Arbel and Zemer supposed today to represent nostalgia, memory, and memorialization at the time today of the passage of that now old Israel once clearly known and familiar into the unknown of a completely new Israel that will soon bear an uncanny no-resemblance to what once was? Historically fraught, especially the image of Arbel, these pictures and their republication allow us to look back at the past from the present barely able to anticipate the future.

These are interesting photographs. It’s probably not right to note the iconic khaki and  modish patterns. The gender of the two subjects stands out against the gender of the immediate and social environments which serve as the pictures’ backdrops, whether inside or outside the picture-frame. Natural and even given, there is nonetheless nothing relaxed about either picture. There is an ideological terseness to both images, conveyed by the black-white-grey color tonality. There is something not quite right in either picture. Maybe it’s the oblique angles of the two shots. The subjects are not facing the camera. Arbel, and also her fellow fighters in the foreground deep in thought, Zemer looking off to her left. They belong to different worlds than our own, a time and a place about which I don’t think we are competent to judge.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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