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Israeli and Palestinian Postcards

Israeli and Palestinian Postcards
Presentations of National Self

Tim Jon Semmerling explores how Israelis and Palestinians have recently used postcards and greeting cards to present images of the national self, to build national awareness and reinforce nationalist ideologies, and to gain international acceptance.

April 2004
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255 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 color and 68 b&w illus. |

Searing images of suicide bombings and retaliatory strikes now define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many Westerners, but television and print media are not the only visual realms in which the conflict is playing out. Even tourist postcards and greeting cards have been pressed into service as vehicles through which Israelis and Palestinians present competing visions of national selfhood and conflicting claims to their common homeland.

In this book, Tim Jon Semmerling explores how Israelis and Palestinians have recently used postcards and greeting cards to present images of the national self, to build national awareness and reinforce nationalist ideologies, and to gain international acceptance. He discusses and displays the works of numerous postcard/greeting card manufacturers, artists, and photographers and identifies the symbolic choices in their postcards, how the choices are arranged into messages, what the messages convey and to whom, and who benefits and loses in these presentations of national self. Semmerling convincingly demonstrates that, far from being ephemeral, Israeli and Palestinian postcards constitute an important arena of struggle over visual signs and the power to produce reality.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Presentation of National Self
  • Chapter 1. Palphot's Israeli Self
  • Chapter 2. The Palestinian Self in Artwork Postcards
  • Chapter 3. The Janus-Faced Palestinian Self
  • Chapter 4. The Ecological Palestinian Self
  • Chapter 5. The Orientalized Area Self
  • Chapter 6. The Heritage-Enriched Palestinian Self
  • Conclusion: Tom Sawyer, Visual Methodologist, and the Presentation of National Self
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Tim Jon Semmerling is an independent scholar in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, who holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from Indiana University. Presently, he is studying for his J.D. degree at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago.


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Picture postcards are ubiquitous, relatively inexpensive, and easily discarded. They are often looked upon, or even dismissed, as trite and cheap objects associated with the bric-a-brac of tourism. However, as this book shows, picture postcards are much more than that. They are visual artifacts that deserve scholarly attention and discussion. In fact, they may actually play an important role in the culture and politics of national identity discourse. Like novels, newspapers, magazines, film, and even comic books, postcards, too, are part of the family of print capitalism that fosters and creates national identity and identification, even if only "imagined," as termed by Benedict Anderson.

Postcards from Israel and the Palestinian Territories are cases in point and the subjects of this inquiry. In the following chapters we shall see that postcards collected in these areas are not merely mundane objects but provocative and active presentations of "national self." Their makers and sellers consider them expressive declarations and performances of national status. The postcards are intended to inspire and demand for the particular nation a conferment of all the intrinsic rights and privileges of national and international consideration, stature, membership, and even envy. For the tourists and local consumers of postcards, they are important bases of social knowledge, recognition, and expectations about the modern nations that the postcards claim to represent and the relationships of these nations to the world at large.

This book is a visual study that adopts combined methodologies that Gillian Rose calls "semiology" and "discourse analysis." Here visual artifacts are scrutinized for their use of signs to convey meaning (semiology). They are discussed as socially constructed displays of similarity and difference, articulations of discourse in images, and demonstrations of institutional practices, issues of power, and regimes of truth (discourse analysis).

A core theoretical concept of this book, and hence its subtitle, borrows from the works of an eminent scholar of sociology, Erving Goffman. His theories, as put forth in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Behavior in Public Places, are important to understanding social expression and interpretation. Goffman believes that individuals in social gatherings carefully construct and control their behaviors, on the verbal and semiotic levels, in order to convey preferred impressions to others. As he states,

This control is achieved by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he [the individual] can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan. Thus when an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilize his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey.

Goffman compares such behavior to a stage "performance." He describes the individuals who perform the behavior in these face-to-face interactions as actors who act out a "social face" in a "front" area, while the true self exists in private or in a "back" area. Moreover, he identifies those to whom the performance is displayed as an audience that either accepts or rejects the performance based upon socially accepted rules of moral conduct.

The ideas of control and performance are key to the presentation of self, and, with these in mind, Goffman provides an important caveat. Audience members must beware that performers can dupe them into making false assumptions. In some cases, a performer may be so concerned with achieving moral stature that he or she is amoral in engineering a convincing impression that standards are being realized. Moreover, audience members can deceive themselves into believing such performances based upon their own moral and role expectations.

In this book, I analyze the social faces people, or collectives, present to an audience as national identity. I take into consideration that the audience members, who are predisposed to national consciousness and claim national selves of their own, can identify these individuals and the selves they profess within national identity discourse. In this way, we can speak of individuals as Israelis and Palestinians expressing themselves to Americans of the United States and as Americans seeing and recognizing Israelis and Palestinians. Additionally, we can envisage national compatriots communicating with, and recognizing each other within, the discourse of shared national identity (e.g., from one Palestinian to another).

Presentations of national self find fertile ground in the cultural practices of tourism. Three scholars help us understand the tourist and the tourist's predisposition to national discourse. Jonathan Culler points out that the tourist is the ultimate "semiotic accomplice." Tourists are the avid collectors and voracious consumers of signs. They actively set out from their homes for an adventure where they can encounter new cultures. They look for signs that are characteristic of other cultures and nations and use these signs to identify these nations and their cultures. Their insatiable quests for the sign explain, according to Culler, why the "tourist in Japan looks less for what is Japanese than for what is Japanesey . . . for to be Japanesey is to signify Japaneseness." William O'Barr notes that the tourist seeks out signs of foreignness, purchases them, captures them on film, and celebrates when they are found. Furthermore, Dean MacCannell shows that for the tourist, to see and to know the world is to grasp a series of signs. The tourist sees that there is no way of understanding or making sense of the world other than seeing it as a series of easily classifiable cultural spectacles. In a modern world that is in reality fragmented, and wherein individuals are feeling socially unattached in their perceived mundane lives, sense is made when it is organized as a series of equivalent spectacles, with each nation having its characteristic monuments, lifestyles, cultural practices, and scenery. MacCannell also points out that, in their attempts to accommodate tourists, "entire cities and regions, decades and cultures have become aware of themselves as tourist attractions." They have accepted these roles and are willing to perform them as designated hosts to tourists, habitually exploiting tourists for specific identity and for monetary and political gains.

With this in mind let us now consider the presentation of self through the sign transactions between tourists and hosts in postcards. The postcard meets the sign-seeking tourists in a face-to-face contact of the tourists' gaze with the picture projected off the cardboard plane. The postcard expresses national identity through the signs that make up the picture. This face-to-face interaction between national self presented on the postcard and the tourist viewers provides, even inculcates, the latter with an acquaintanceship knowledge of the nation about which opinions come to be formed. But this acquaintanceship knowledge is highly superficial, generalized, and based upon stereotypes. The stereotypes infiltrate the tourist viewers' discourse concerning the nation. As Gordon W. Allport's theory of prejudice suggests, these stereotypes run the risk of sensitizing the tourists, prevent the tourists from exercising differentiated thinking, and may cause the viewers to judge future evidence, like newspaper and television reports, in terms of these learned categories. Such acquaintanceship knowledge may even help in forming prejudices in support of the national self and against national Others.

Furthermore, these inferences are not fully trustworthy, because the presenter highly controls the self. The national self, as presented on the postcard, is a performance or a front of the postcard maker or image supplier that can drive the tourist viewers' perceptions. The postcard makers choose, construct, and manipulate the signs in order to define national self and to give impressions that will cause the tourist viewers to act in accordance with the presenters' plans. They obtain certain sign equipment for display and discard other signs in this staged front. They try to control impressions through carefully chosen text, strategic arrangement, distinctive framing devices, and, when possible, contexts of display in which the postcards are sold.

The postcard maker follows a process that can be described as "entextualization"--an idea borrowed from verbal performance and folklore studies, and one I refer to often in the following chapters. As Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs show, entextualization is the process of rendering a given instance of verbal discourse as a text, detachable from its local context. This "decontextualized" text is then placed within a new context, a process referred to as "recontextualization," which can create whole new meanings for the text within this new setting. The detachment, removal, and placement of this verbal discourse/text are a performance that is an act of control and an execution of power. Similarly, postcards become visual performance through the entextualization process that lifts events, practices, places, and objects from their natural surroundings through photography and visual manipulation. Then, they are recontextualized onto the postcard and into the context of national attributes, placed on display, and opened up to the scrutiny of an audience of viewers.

Senders and receivers of these postcards may have never witnessed the particular portrayal of the national self in real life, but, since it contains expected signs and is based upon moral character and virtuous behavior, it is accepted as a plausible signifier. To borrow from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the presentation of the national self takes on a "Dis-torical" approach, or a Disney-ized history, wherein only the best of the best, the most attractive images possible, are the forms of expression. The assumption is that if the national self possesses these characteristics, then it has a right to be treated in an appropriate way, it should be respected, and it is not held responsible for all that it does not appear to be but in reality might be. The postcard as presentation of the national self is intended to create a "we-rationale" with the tourists, with the recipients far away, and even with the local residents. In essence, as I shall argue in the Israeli and Palestinian cases, it negotiates "a transnational space" in world acceptance.

Moreover, the state itself adds an extra level of authority to the postcards' meaning through the official postage stamp bearing the national name and the national postal system's cancellation mark. Since the postcards are objects of transaction that originate in a faraway place, they are endowed not only with the spirit of the givers or senders, but also with the spirit of the nation they signify. The postcards are vessels that contain and export the presentation of the national self.

The postcard makers rely upon the objective, representative authority implicit in the technology and institutional uses of photography. Photography should, on this basis, protect the presentation of the national self from being considered subjective and false. As noted by John Tagg, a photograph is easily accepted as factual and as a bearer of truth when it intertextually conforms to predominant and institutional notions, beliefs, images, attitudes, modes of actions, ideologies, and narratives. In its intertextual conformance, or its adherence to proper national behavior, the picture postcard disguises its subjective presentation as objective representation. The illusion of objective representation is further entrenched when there are no competing claims for intertextual conformance. However, when competing claims do exist, it is much easier to see that the postcard is a subjective presentation of the national self. Under such circumstances, the socially constructed way of seeing is challenged, maybe even upset and exposed.

When considering the presentation of the national self in picture postcards, one must question what is being communicated. It is an issue of attending to what is being said and how it is being said, even if we deal only with pictures, not texts. In extending Tagg's queries, we should ask the following questions: What are the parameters of truth that govern? What is being chosen to be photographed in the construction and presentation of the national self? What is being left out in the process? What kind of knowledge is being made, who is making it, and how is it being made? What institutions are being buttressed? Who benefits and who loses out? Moreover, it is incumbent upon everyone who is susceptible to national discourse and the semiotics of tourism to ask, "Am I being duped or being played to in order to get me to act in a certain way?" These are the important questions for tourists experiencing Israel and Palestine, for those who are left behind at home and accept the postcards as surrogates for travel, and even for those local residents who encounter the postcards that profess their national identity for them.

Current Israeli and Palestinian postcards have been chosen here to illustrate the concept of the presentation of the national self because they comprise recent, indigenously made presentations and because they are competing for claims of national identity and political rights. Here, then, the subjective presentation of the national self easily manifests itself. Depictions of Palestine's Jews and Arabs were often controlled by Western imperialist photographers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As shown by Annelies Moors and Steven Machlin, picture postcards of pre-1948 Palestine were made for the Euro-American audience to promote imperialism. Jews and Palestinian Arabs were presented degradingly in order to support and to rationalize imperialist ideologies. Orientalism was the effective strategy used by Western postcard makers in presenting the Other. When Jews in Palestine began to make postcards of themselves before and after 1948, honorable images of new Hebrews were made to promote their statures, their rights to the land, and their national identity. Meanwhile, images of Palestinian Arabs continued to conform to the dictates of Orientalism. This is not to say that Palestinian Arabs did not use photography to positively depict their lives as well. As shown by Walid Khalidi, many Palestinian Arabs did photograph themselves, their political activism, education, professional employment activities, and communities from 1876 to 1948. Nevertheless, as Annelies Moors points out, many of Khalidi's photographs, representatively chosen from an archive of ten thousand, are those that were "commissioned photographs" of and for the modern, urban middle- and upper-class Palestinian Arabs. Most of these photographs were not produced into postcards by commercial photographers for tourism trade. While Khalil Raad, a Palestinian photographer whose work Khalidi includes, did make postcards for tourists, Moors adds that even Raad's presentation of Palestinian Arabs often used biblical connotations that conscribed their lives as static. The research presented in the following chapters shows that more recently, through postcards, both sides have laid claim to the "right to narrate." Palestinians are breaking out of the Orientalist stranglehold, and there is a new proliferation of symbolic presentations of the Palestinian national self that confronts the now-dominant narratives of Palphot, the leading Israeli postcard manufacturer.

In the context of struggle for national acceptance, wherein acknowledgment of the Other's national rights could compromise one's institutionalized national identity and political power, there is a struggle over national selves. The Israeli and Palestinian cases in the following chapters show how choices are made in the presentation of the national self, how knowledge of the national self borrows from the discourse of national identity, what the strategies of individual postcard makers or semiotic suppliers to postcard makers are, and how the national self benefits and how the national Other loses in the process. The competing semiotic displays show that there is, indeed, what Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson call a "sign war" going on here over the presentation of the national self and the national Other, or what Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann call a struggle for "the power to produce reality." Another level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is exposed, that one being over visual signs and their use in claiming reality.

The chapters that follow are based on the collection of postcards that I acquired during research trips to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in 1998 and 1999. I either purchased the postcards at souvenir stores, mostly for under the equivalent of one American dollar apiece, or received them as gifts from the actual postcard makers. Although postcards make up the majority of the sources and are thus the basis of most of the discussion in this book, in some chapters the discussion has been extended to greeting cards, which are also used for the presentation of the national self. Despite the fact that some of the postcards were not current issues of the postcard makers, they were still being sold in the tourist market and, hence, still appeared as semiotic currency. As such, they are considered as remaining within the accessible and active presentations of the national self of this time.

This book finds further significance because of the period in which I conducted the research. It documents the presentations of national self made during a period of vision, pride, hope, skepticism, delusion, and maybe even arrogance in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. These presentations were made at a time when there was active talk of two states, attempts to implement the Oslo Accords, movement toward Middle East peace, and a boom in the building of the Palestinian National Authority's infrastructure. Now, however, the world exists in a post-September 11 environment. It struggles with, among other issues, the definitions and meanings of a "War on Terror." A second Intifada has been raging for over two years, leaving hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis dead. There has been a sharp increase of lethal Palestinian attacks on Israelis, and the extent of Israel's destruction of Jenin and other incursions has yet to be fully revealed and understood. Moreover, Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has attacked and severely wounded the infrastructure of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority. Today, the period of the late 1990s seems a distant past of what may have been better times.

However, these latest events, in retrospect, shed more light on many of the presentations of the national self and support the analyses in the following chapters. While many of these postcards show national selves of inflated valor and virtue, the enmity and distrust of the Other have never been far away, always close to the surface, and woven into the semiotic codes. Although it would be wrong and wholly naïve to suggest that we could have predicted today's specific events from picture postcards, I will suggest that, in some cases, we could have seen that the two cultures were having difficulty in moving their national identities away from the conflict's definitive stranglehold on their cultures. While worthy attempts were made to come up with new symbolic capital, many of the presentations relied upon and refreshed the conflict. Identity was, in some cases, dependent upon the relative enmity of the Other and the supremacy of the self. Despite the official hopes, quests, and declarations for peace, aspects of cultural performance, as are evident here, continued to reflect the predominance of the conflict.

But even tourists, had they been looking deeply enough and had they been armed with an understanding of the presentation of the national self, should have been able to see that a culture of conflict was prevalent in both nations. Today, we find ourselves in a cultural period where we hazard into an even deeper blindness. An official post-September 11 depiction of a world bifurcated into categories of good and evil, where there exist only those with us and those against us, gives us a new postulate, one that makes us deaf and blind to other points of view. We may be in the process of shutting off an important avenue of communication when we refuse to hear (or see) what others have to say and ignore the strategies they employ when expressing themselves. We may also find it easier to accept, rather than sort out, contrived narratives and images that play to these bipolar classifications meant to fit our needs. To do so, however, deceives us into believing in a Western-centric sense of power that will only impair us. This new postulate will keep us from seeing and understanding the diversity of the world in which we live. Wielded as irrefutable dogma, it threatens to stifle our intellectual drive to reexamine assumptions and to take into account new information brought to light by new methodologies. This monoscopic way of viewing, which refracts the world through such a September 11 prism, does us no favors.

Chapter 1 focuses on Israel's leading postcard producer, Palphot. I show that Palphot's Israeli national self originates in the cultural reasoning of what is picturesque. Photographing scenes that support and attest to Zionist ideologies and their realization is what Palphot believes to be picturesque and the basis of what semiotic choices Palphot makes to present the national self. In turn, the chapter introduces the idea that showing the Other as derelict in the appropriate behavior of nations undermines the Other's claim to national self, while gaining strength for one's own presentation of national identity.

Only Chapter 1 is devoted to Israeli-made postcards because of Palphot's domination of postcard images of Israel. Palphot leads the Israeli postcard market in sales, experience, and recognition. A 1985 article in the Jerusalem Post reports that Palphot produced up to 95 percent of the postcards in Israel at the time. It is a point that Palphot does not deny in the late 1990s. Furthermore, Palphot began its operations in the 1930s and, as reported by the Jerusalem Post, is considered "the nation's premier purveyor of such items." Although postcards of other and newer Israeli companies can be found, including Poma, Shalom Cards, Steinmatzky, and Jeru Art, their postcards were relatively less prevalent at the time of this research.

In comparison, the market for Palestinian-made postcards does not yet have a Palphot equivalent. No single Palestinian postcard manufacturer dominates the Palestinian postcard market so decisively. Therefore an array of approaches to the presentation of the national self, as opposed to one prevailing or dominant authority, has been found. Consequently, the remaining chapters of this book are devoted to Palestinian postcard images, their makers, and their performances of presenting the national self.

Chapter 2 deals with pre-Intifada and the first Intifada-era postcards. Since presentations of the Palestinian national self could invite Israeli retaliation, postcards were often made of paintings where signifieds were masked with ambiguous signifiers endowed with broad meanings. Paintings worked better than photographs in this case. Palestinian artists found and experimented with key symbols to develop presentations of Palestinians as political victims and as heritage-enriched nationals. Palestinian artist Kamel Moghani could see that the latter were more consistent with a theme of self-reliance and a better method of asserting independence from the Israelis. Political events such as the Intifada, however, would cause Moghani to relapse into presenting the national self as victim, thus creating reliance upon the Israeli presence for national self-presentation.

With confidence and empowerment gained in the Intifada, the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, and pre-state discussions, various postcard makers had begun to emerge in the West Bank. Chapter 3 discusses the work of Mahfouz Abu Turk, who takes photographs and sells them to the Palestine Human Rights Information Center. The Center turned his photographs into greeting cards that were to be put into envelopes, since the photographs were likely to be highly offensive to Israelis and to be intercepted in the mail. His fascinating work is intended to boost the Palestinian national self by juxtaposing it to its opposite, the Israeli self, particularly in relation to "peace." Accordingly, a Janus-faced national self results, wherein one is as much as one is not, and one can only be when one's opposite is present. In its presentation, the national self eventually has to rely upon the national Other.

Chapter 4 is a presentation of the national self developed by photographer Ziad Izzat. Izzat turns to the natural surroundings of Palestine to evoke a sense of identity and identification. Izzat is concerned that his compatriots are becoming spoiled and misguided by the influx of activity brought on by the arrival of the Palestinian National Authority in the urban centers. Therefore, Izzat returns to the countryside to find landscape symbols to define the national self and to picture the nation. It is like a return to Tönnies' Gemeinschaftian ideals to promote awareness and admiration of national self.

While Chapter 4 discusses the work of a relatively new photographer and small producer of greeting cards, Chapter 5 looks at one of the most prolific photographers and postcard makers in the area, Mardo Nalbandian and his GARO Photo Studios. Nalbandian is an interesting photographer and postcard producer who prides himself on his avoidance of political side-taking. He prefers to put postcard production within the context of business and monetary profit. To this end, he attempts to appease the Western Holy Land tourist, who, he believes, eschews Middle East politics, embraces spiritualism, and looks for evidence of the Judeo-Christian civilization. Nalbandian promotes an "area self" based upon the images and symbols of the Holy Land. This means that he subordinates the area self to the Orientalist desires of the international, mainly Western, tourists.

Chapter 6 looks at the work of Maha Saca. Saca intends to promote a national self abroad and is committed to inculcating knowledge of a national self at home. Saca tries to undo damage done to the Palestinian national self by postcards that promote Orientalized portrayals of Palestinians. With the recasting of antique objects and the artistry of Palestinian embroidery and dressmaking, Saca tries to recapture the postcard image of the Palestinian man and woman from the hands of Palphot. Saca also shows that, as much as the postcard can convey semiotically with photographs, its effectiveness requires the control of text on its verso and of contextualized display in staged heritage experiences.

Before turning the reader over to the following chapters, a quick note about transliteration practices and illustrations must be added. Transliteration from Hebrew and Arabic to English follows those guidelines proposed by the Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, and the "English Transliteration System" of the International Journal of Middle East Studies. Transliterated words have been italicized within the text. In many cases, though, Hebrew and Arabic words have been adopted, formally and popularly, into the English language. Words such as "Intifada," for example, appear in basic roman type. When individuals printed their names in English, these names also appear without transliteration. Many times, Hebrew and Arabic words are reprinted in the text, just as the postcard presents them, written in the Roman alphabet. In these cases, it is important to leave them just as the postcard maker intended them to be read. Here the word is written in its presented form with the marker "[sic]" following the word, phrase, or sentence.

Moreover, copyright permission could not be negotiated to reproduce all postcards and greeting cards. Therefore, where such illustrations could not be reproduced, I have supplied inventory numbers taken from the verso of each card for those readers who wish to research the item further.



“This is a significant and highly original contribution. . . . Semmerling provides a new way for both the specialist and the non-specialist in Israeli-Palestinian relations to understand the wide range of claims to national identity, as well as the biases informing those claims.”
John R. Clarke, Annie Laurie Howard Regents Professor of Art History, University of Texas at Austin


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