Robert Fisk’s World: The presence of the Palestinian in the Israeli painter's eye

Many of the Tel Aviv paintings show an emergent Israel with fewer Arabs
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The Palestinians celebrate their lost land with poetry and art, but always it is a place of lost oranges and olive trees and snug village houses, a mixture of Mahmoud Darwish and old David Roberts prints which show Arab men leaning on ancient wells beside classical ruins, proving that Palestine was not, as the popular Zionist narrative would have us believe, a land without people.

So – on the principle that I always try to consume one art gallery in every town in the world in which I set foot – I tiptoed into the Tel Aviv Museum of Art off Shaul Hamelech Boulevard this week to take a look at how the Jews of Palestine saw their would-be homeland before the 1947-48 Arab exodus.

I say "tiptoed" because just opposite this fine, grey-stone museum stands that symbol of Israeli dominance, the spaceship-towered Israeli ministry of defence, headquarters of the army whose morality, nobility of arms, humanity and sense of honour eternally dwarf all other armies in the known world. Etc, etc, etc. Compared to this grotesque fantasy, the Tel Aviv art museum is a blessed relief, an inquiry, amid the propaganda of Zionist super-virtue, into the Jewish dream and the Jewish nightmare and which even acknowledges the Arabs of Palestine, albeit sometimes unconsciously. Look at Maurycy Minkowski's Refugees (1906-1909), where two bearded men and a boy are lugging sacks of possessions, protectively leading their women, gaunt-faced, a trail of figures and carts rumbling behind them in the dust. They are Jews, of course. But they might be the Arabs of Palestine 40 years later, fleeing the Haganah at the moment of their own Nakba, the catastrophe of 750,000 souls who set off for what was left of eastern Palestine, for the camps of Lebanon, for Syria and Jordan.

Historical parallels are dangerous. The Arabs of Palestine did not undergo the pogroms of eastern Europe or the Nazi Holocaust but their calamity is no less real; and their ghosts – uninvited, no doubt, but history is not always kind to the victors – move persistently through the museum's galleries, the finest collection of which is undoubtedly David Azrieli's. The Canadian-Israeli designer and philanthropist was himself a refugee in 1939, fleeing his home in Makow Mazowiecki north of Warsaw, through Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Baghdad to Palestine, joining (and then deserting from) General Anders' Polish army on the way. He arrived in time to fight in Israel's war of independence, the very struggle which created the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees who are now being quietly abandoned by a newly meek Barack Obama and further crushed by the obsequiousness of Europe.

There's a chilling moment in Ziva Koort's introduction to the collection when she remarks that paintings by Moshe Castel, Sionah Tagger, Marcel Janco and Ludwig Blum "portray the Arab as native to the place, deeply rooted in its landscape ... the artists of the 1920s, viewing Arabs as exemplifying a local, indigenous way of life, presented them as picturesque ... in environments that could also usually be readily identifiable as local landscapes with oriental characteristics".

That, of course, is part of the problem. For while the Arabs of Mandate Palestine were certainly "indigenous", they would certainly not have regarded themselves as "picturesque", let alone possessed – in a lovely pre-Said-ian moment – of "oriental characteristics". They were, in many cases, the owners of the lands which Blum, Janco and their colleagues were portraying, no more "oriental" or "foreign" than the Jewish immigrants arriving in their midst with their Yiddish language and prayer shawls, or the chess-playing rabbis in Henryk Gotlib's lovely painting of 1935 – the white-bearded clerics looking remarkably like a pair of preoccupied Muslim imams.

Yet these Arabs exist in Jewish-Israeli art. In Castel's 1930s Figures in a Café on the Beach, a group of Arabs sit around a table next to the sea, beneath a generous awning, the sunlight illuminating a man's white keffiyeh, two fez-headed boy serving refreshments; on the horizon to the left, a steamship chugs meaningfully away from them, heading for land, a flurry of black fumes from its smokestack. Is it travelling to the mandate's great ports? Into Arab Jaffa? Or Haifa? Carrying Jews, perhaps, now that Palestine's imperial masters have adopted their notorious "quota" system of immigration? Almost 30 years ago, I watched Yasser Arafat's Palestinians set sail from the Lebanese port of Tripoli for exile in Tunisia and, only much later, for their chaotic return to a rump Palestine. Indeed, the story of the Jews and Arabs of Palestine sometimes seems to be a pageant of ships arriving and leaving the Middle East, their passengers alternately weeping tears of joy and misery.

I've seen the wood-ribbed suitcases of Palestinian refugees still piled in the corners of refugee huts in Lebanon. Those same cases appear in Meir Pichhadze's paintings over the past decade, his own self-portrait of 1997 depicting a whey-faced man in a crumpled jacket and beret, clutching three massive volumes and two of those familiar suitcases, walking desolately away from a row of black hills and a burnt-out sky. I've seen many of those same suitcases in the extermination camp at Auschwitz, pitiful proof that their doomed owners really did believe their journey would end in life rather than death.

But – and I fear there must be a "but" here – many of the paintings in the Azrieli collection show an emergent Israel whose landscape includes fewer Arabs. Instead, muscular Jews work on building sites, lay roads, clamber through scaffolding or crack stones – Castel's 1930s The Pioneers (Halutzim at Work) is almost Soviet in style, Stakhanovite men drilling into massive rocks – or prepare to fight in the 1948 war against the Arabs. The latter – unlike Jack Yeats' frightening portrait of the armed men of the old IRA (an institution which the Haganah fighters much admired) – are almost romantic; Blum's Palmach Soldiers, Be'er Sheva depicts a group of exhausted young men brewing coffee, a rifle hanging lazily on the wall; or Mordechai Arieli's cubist Fighters in the 1948 War in which three short-trousered men open a shipment of automatic rifles on a hillside, their weapons clearer than their faces. This, of course, was the war in which David Azrieli fought.

And as the years pass, Arab villages are no longer inhabited by Arabs. There's a magnificent landscape of Jerusalem in 1960 – Blum again – in which, I suddenly realised, the Al-Aqsa mosque does not exist. It should lie, from the painter's location in the west of the city, on the horizon to the left of the King David Hotel, above and to the right of the Jaffa Gate. But it is not there. It has disappeared. Why? Does life imitate art? Or does art imitate what the Israelis like to call "facts on the ground"? Or dreams? I came out of the museum this week and looked at the still life opposite, the tower of the Israeli defence ministry. From here were sent out the orders for Operation Litani and Operation Peace for Galilee and Operation Grapes of Wrath and, just as notoriously, last year's Operation Cast Lead. Who dare paint the results?

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