Lithograph postcards for tourists were a potent and public expression of the Bezalel School’s ideas about the nature of Jewish settlement of Palestine. As public displays of Zionist sensibility they could simultaneously promote their ideas abroad and confirm their worldview at home. Meir Gur-Arie produced a beautiful set of silhouettes of Palestine around 1925 and continued to specialize in them in the years to come. “Ya–Halili” (“Oh, My Flute” in Hebrew or “Oh, Make my World Sweet” as an Arabic love song), pictures the shepherd flutist in a vision of almost pagan but romantic rural life. At the Well is likewise an image of the simplicity of age-old peasantry with the faithful shepherd providing water by hand for his flock. It is important to note that the Zionist programs of agricultural communities, aka kibbutzim, increasingly using mechanical and automated means, were effectively designed to end this primitive way of life forever. Also typical of this work is his romantic view of Palestinian Judaism. In Almsgiving the classic virtue of giving charity is encapsulated in a silhouette image of a Yemenite Jew receiving tzedakah from a young Ashkenazi. In its simplistic way the image both confirms the European hegemony over oriental Jews and the everlasting needy role of pious Jewry in Palestine. Both issues have continued to haunt the Zionist enterprise.
In December 1918, Boris Schatz was forced into exile in the Galilee by the Turks just as the British liberated Jerusalem. For 2 years he could not return to the Bezalel School he had founded. During that time he wrote a utopian novella, Jerusalem Rebuilt. His bizarre vision of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel in the year 2018 combined socialism, “science fiction, traditional Jewish belief, euthanasia, free love, communal ownership of property, moving sidewalks, solar energy and a rebuilt Third Temple.” Equally fantastic was his vision that fully 30% of the population would be engaged in artistic production and that this would be the nation’s principle industry! Most telling is Ze’ve Raban’s drawing for the cover of Schatz’s book that shows the confrontation between Schatz and the original Bezalel ben Uri, casually leaning against the famous Raban menorah (copied from the biblical model) on the roof of the Bezalel building. Again the biblical confronts the contemporary, but the reality as it unfolded is of course much more complex than either.
Israel has not become an industrial artistic complex. The agrarian shepherd model has only persisted in the most backward portions of Israeli society. While aspects of pious Judaism in fact hewed to the ancient model, nonetheless many Jews adopted a much more modern, progressive and productive piety. And perhaps most tellingly, the original Bezalel School went bankrupt in 1929, and three years later its founder tragically died while fundraising in America.
Boris Schatz’s concept of Jewish nationalist art, though visionary and an expression of an aspect of early Zionism ultimately did not reflect the historical reality as it unfolded in his time. According to Israeli art historian Dr. Gideon Ofrat, Schatz’s Bezalel was “divorced from the dynamic development of the Jewish community in Palestine, and equally remote from the languages of modern European art…was doomed to an early end.” Perhaps more to the point was that aspects of the Bezalel project had a greater belief in simple Zionism than in the content of Judaism or the uniquely Jewish struggle to reclaim our ancient homeland in exclusively Jewish terms.
(I am indebted to curator David Wachtel for his learned exhibition notes and wall texts)
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org