The introduction sets the stage for exploring the divergent meanings of the desert as a symbolic landscape within the "spatial code" that Hebrew, and later Israeli, culture developed. Hebrew culture foregrounded the settlement as the key to Jewish national revival and relegated the desert to the background. This study reverses this relation, placing the desert at the center and setting out to examine the ambiguities underlying desert-settlement relations. The introduction presents the historical and thematic framework of the book. The first part addresses the duality of the symbolic desert in the Hebrew culture of late Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine. The second part focuses on post-1948 Israel and the concrete Negev desert that is now included in its territory, examining the construction of the desert within the discourses and practices of settlement, environmentalism, and tourism, thus revealing the diverse visions of the desert in Israeli culture.
1Desert as Historical Metaphor
This chapter explores the dual meaning of the desert as a chronotope that links space and memory. The desert plays a critical role in the biblical exodus, as the "nonplace" set between Egypt, the land of exile, on the one hand, and the Promised Land, on the other, and the desert is hence the site of divine revelations and profound transitions that shaped the Israelites' collective identity. Jewish memory views the desert as representing the period of Jewish exile that led to the destruction of the homeland. Jewish tradition interprets exile as a divine punishment and Zionism constructed it as a regressive period within its decline narrative. References to the landscape outside Jewish settlements as a desolate "desert" and a "wasteland" underscored the redemptive mission of the Zionist settlement. The discussion addresses the tension between these interpretations and the use of the desert as a symbolic category.
2The Desert Mystique
This chapter focuses on European Jewish immigrants' fascination with the desert mystique. The desert appealed to European Zionist Jews as the mythical site of origins that preserved their ancient heritage. Orientalist images of the desert as resistant to modernity and change further reinforced the mythical view of the desert and its Bedouin inhabitants, but also Yemenite Jews, as inspiration for the construction of a modern Hebrew culture and identity. A nostalgic longing for the ancient past led some Zionist settlers and Hebrew youth to selectively adapt cultural idioms from Palestinian Arabs and generated the hybrid "Hebrew Bedouin" identity and a Hebrew desert lore. Other Zionist immigrants warned against the impact of the East on the Hebrew culture. The competing attitudes to the East reveal the Zionist Jewish settlers' ambivalence, as exiles returning to their homeland with conflicting ideas of separateness and belonging to the Middle East.
3Desert as the Counter-Place
This chapter explores settlement discourse and its competing interpretation of the desert as the counter-place. Early Zionist settlement narratives allude to wide-ranging terrains such as sands, swamps, barren mountains, and arid land as aspects of a hostile and chaotic "desert" while presenting the Jewish settlement as an "oasis" or "island" of order, modernity, and progress. The gendering of landscapes, the veneration of technology, and the use of war rhetoric enhance the achievements of the Jewish settlement in transforming its environment, and these ideas have been articulated in literature, songs, and art. The discussion addresses the influence of prevalent Western colonialist and modernist ideas and land-reclamation practices on the discourse and practices of Zionist settlement. As the national conflict in Palestine flared up in the 1930s, the discourses of settlement and security became intertwined and played a more prominent rolein shaping the view of the desert-settlement relations.
4The Negev Frontier
After the 1948 war, the new state of Israel included the large and arid Negev region, and the discussion shifts from the symbolic desert outside the Jewish settlement to a concrete desert that has become an internal Jewish frontier. Although Prime Minister Ben-Gurion championed the goal of "making the desert bloom" and the state transferred water to the Negev, the limited response by established Israeli Jews led to the forced settlement of new immigrants in the desert in the 1950s and 1960s. These rural settlements and development towns faced major hardships, and the post-1967 Jewish drive to settle the occupied territories further blurred the Negev's status as a frontier and a periphery. Even with large areas of the Negev designated as national parks, nature reserves, and military bases, the call for new Jewish settlements continued, leading to experimental forms that diversified the Negev's Jewish population.
5The Negev Bedouins
The Negev's Bedouin population, greatly diminished after 1948, is the focus of this chapter. The state relocated most Negev Bedouins to the enclosed Siyag area, where they remained under military administration until 1966. Since then it has pursued an urbanization plan for the fast-growing Bedouin population in designated "Bedouin towns," yet a significant number of Bedouins refuse to settle their land claims, preferring to remain in their unrecognized rural villages. The government regards the so-called "Bedouin dispersion" as the embodiment of a chaotic and subversive counter-place while it promotes Jewish settlements in the Negev. Residents of the unrecognized villages live in the gray zone of a semi-permanent temporary state. The Bedouins' growing alienation, the rise of crime in the Negev, and harsh measures by law enforcement contribute to the perception of the Negev as the Wild South.
This chapter examines the environmental discourse and its revisionist view of desert-settlement relations. The environmental lobby acknowledges the desert-settlement opposition but reinterprets its meaning: the desert represents nature and the open space that must be protected from an overly aggressive settlement drive and development projects, and from its perception as a "national dump" for undesired, discredited, and dangerous human and material elements. Most of the desert is designated for nature reserves, national parks, and military bases. The environmentalists employ salvage rhetoric and the legal recourse to defend the desert environment from settlement development and industrial projects, while some proponents of the settlement agenda attack their position as anti-Zionist. The discussion highlights the contested visions of the desert and the fluidity of the coalitions formed between the state, local authorities, the army, the industry, tourism, and the environmental lobby in different cases.
7The Desert and the Tourist Gaze
This chapter examines the discourse and practices of tourism, which offer multiple visions of the desert that highlight its contrast with life at the urban center and ignore the tensions between them. Sinai desert tourism offered a popular alternative to Israeli desert tourism in the post-1967 period, yet today Eilat and the Dead Sea area are major tourist attractions, and Negev tourism is developing. Tourist publicity highlights the unspoiled landscape, yet offers tours of archeological sites that are World Cultural Heritage sites, as well as a diversity of modern rural settlements in the Negev. Tourism highlights the simple life in nature in the open space and its spiritual dimension, but also offers a rough terrain for adventure seekers and upscale lodgings with "pampering amenities." Jewish desert sites perform "Bedouin hospitality" for tourists, but visits to Bedouin towns and villages reveal rapidly changing and diverse lifestyles in different settings.
In the post-1967 era, the emergence of two divergent visions of Israel reveals continuity with earlier themes and metaphors surrounding desert-settlement relations. One advocates a return to pre-1967 borders in exchange for peace, which led to the peace treaty with Egypt and the Oslo agreement and advances transnational cooperation around common interests. The second vision promotes the Jewish settlement and security agenda in the occupied territories, embracing the view of an inherently conflictual relation between Israel and its neighbors. The epilogue examines the entrenchment of Israel settlement and security discourse and the growing impact of the "besieged island" template. Israel has surrounded itself with walls to prevent illegal entry and terrorist attacks, recreating a modern Jewish ghetto while imposing territorial divisions and besieged islands within the Palestinian territory. Israeli culture may also provide alternative solutions for the negotiation of a different future in the Middle East.