Alon K. Raab
A War in Postcards, p.2

However, Semmerling’s analyses of specific cards are not always convincing. In one Israeli card, “Come, Join me in Ein Gedi,” a woman wearing nothing more than a tiny shirt and high heels, her behind exposed, is interpreted by Semmerling as “the Israeli national self, denoted by this woman, is presented to the viewer as beautiful, sexy, and erotic. The postcard encourages the viewer to partake in the benefits of Israel’s ‘scenery’ and to idolize the new Hebrew as a beautiful being.” An alternate reading might be that she is an immodest tourist and, judging by her attempt to walk the desert in high heels, not too bright.

While focusing on a few images in depth has its merit, an accompanying statistical analysis of a much larger sample would have been illuminating. Choosing Palphot as the sole representative of the Israeli outlook has its drawbacks. Semmerling selected the company because of its long dominance of the Israeli market (though the figures he cites are company claims from two decades ago), but its gigantic output is not as uniform as he would have us believe. For example, along with Palphot images that diminish the importance of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif mosques, there are also cards where these monuments appear in all their splendor as the focal point. And while it is true that the portrayal of Masada has often centered on images of war and death with their possible contemporary implications, many other Masada cards emphasize its natural beauty.

Furthermore, Semmerling ignores all other Israeli card companies and the work of individual artists, creating a false image of a nation ruled by a monolithic ideology. Jewish society was always comprised of competing groups and belief systems. Palphot founder Tova Dorfzaun’s statement that when she arrived in the country in 1934, “there was so little here to photograph” does indeed echo a popular Zionist conception about the desolation of the land. But this is hardly the only Zionist narrative. There have always been individuals such as Ahad Ha-am, Yitzhak Epstein, Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, as well as various peace groups that recognized the Palestinian people and their rights, and artists who have reflected those concerns. Semmerling quotes several of the post-Zionist writers and their cutting analysis of Israeli society, but does not give sufficient weight to the massive changes in Israeli individual and collective consciousness that have taken place since the 1967 war and have gathered speed since the peace efforts of the early 1990s. While Semmerling does not claim to address all ways that Israelis have looked at themselves and at the “Other,” his decision to lump all Israeli cards in one chapter, and selectively read the output of a single postcard company gives the impression that there is a singular Israeli awareness and perspective. This is a misleading view, which such books as David Ohana’s “Myths and Memory-Transfigurations of Israeli Consciousness” and Rubik Rozental’s “The Inner Split” would have put to rest.

Finally, Semmerling focuses only on the differences between the two people’s representations, leaving out obvious parallels. Many symbols and images Palestinians currently employ, such as the glorification of the farmer or the importance of the olive tree, mirror ones that Jews embraced while under British and Ottoman rule, and the enthusiastic response of Palestinian exiles to the homeland photos of Ziad Izzad has its equivalence in the way Diaspora Jews yearned for images of their homeland. Semmerling shows the deep connection Palestinians feel to the land’s flora and fauna, but ignores the many Palphot cards echoing this, as well as cards by private and governmental Israeli nature organizations. The book would have been strengthened by acknowledging such connections, perhaps even tracing the history of how certain images from one side of the conflict became adopted by the other.

Of course, in any writing about such a loaded subject, the question of objectivity is always raised, and Semmerling occasionally does provide balance. He uses sources by writers of conflicting stripes, from the nationalistic Shmuel Katz to the anti-Zionist Ella Shohat. And while a major part of his criticism is directed at Israeli blindness and callousness, he also shows weakness in Palestinian representations: the nostalgic emphasis on farming life, ignoring social and economic divisions and most evidence of modernization; the way the representation of victimization absolves Palestinians of responsibility for their fate; and the denial of Israelis’ humanity.

In his concluding chapter, Semmerling refers to the hot air balloon journey of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim, with Tom functioning as “a visual methodologist” who connects what he sees from up high with the imagery of maps. This fools Tom into believing that he is still over Illinois, since he did not see the tell-tale pink-colored state of Indiana. Israel's borders are a bit more absolute: the "green line" is indeed green, and visible from space; and the Israeli separation wall is unmistakable. Still, Semmerling hopes we can all descend from our balloon and see things not as political semioticians, tourists, or propagandists, but from the perspective of those living on the ground. His book is a flawed but valuable step in that direction.

[1]       2
Top image: Postcard by Palphot
Middle image: Postcard by Palphot
Lower image: Postcard from

Alon K. Raab teaches Judaic Studies at Portland State University, Oregon, and has been active in peace groups since his youth. An avid collector of postcards since childhood, his prized possessions are late 19th-century postcards and stereoscopic images of the Holy Land.

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