The logo for the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism draws from the poster below, which is archived at the Palestine Poster Project Archive (PPPA). The poster was created in 1946, shortly before the Nakba, as a Zionist celebration of the construction of Israeli settler colonies. The poster appropriates the sabr and the orange tree, which are (and were, at the time) deeply-connected Palestinian symbols of community, culture, land, and nationhood. In the scene, the sabr gazes down at symbols of Zionist settlement: modernist buildings, a water tower, and pine trees. The orange tree has been absorbed into the new colony.
In our logo, this sabr is reclaimed as a witness and critical observer of Zionism. The poster is a reminder of the need to unravel and unarchive the stories that Zionism has created about itself.
Sabr is the cactus that has historically marked out Palestinian places, tracing the shape and organization of Palestinian communities, and uses of the land. Communal understandings of the sabr reflect the sharing of lives, spaces, resources, and belonging, all tied to the land. As Zionist settlement has worked to replace Palestine with Israel, surviving sabr fences hold the places of ethnically-cleansed villages and fields.
Nasser Abufarha writes about the Palestinian meaning of the sabr:
Being planted at the boundaries of the fields and orchards, the cactus trees themselves have shared ownership by the bordering parties… For the members of the community as a whole (normally residents of a village), picking the saber is acceptable. However, this shared ownership stops at the boundaries of the village, such that people from neighboring villages cannot come to pick from another village’s orchard….
…Palestinians have drawn on similarities between the saber and characteristics of their lives. First, the cactus thrives in a harsh environment, the hilly and mountainous terrain… Second, the sweetness of the saber fruit that lies beneath the thorny skin… mirrors the sweetness of village life alongside the endless state of tedious work and struggle. Third, it is resilient: saber bears fruit, even in times of drought… This generosity of the plant mirrors the generosity of the villagers, who are giving and hospitable even in hard times…
…[E]ating saber is a social gathering grounded in sharing and community. Just as the father withstands the thorns for the sake of his family, his self-sacrifice passes on the lesson of self-sacrifice that puts the community above the individual.” (Abufarha, 347)
The orange tree was, at the time the poster was made, an emblem of Palestinian national industry, as Jaffa oranges had become a major global export in the decades just before it. Two years later, the orange tree was transformed into a Palestinian symbol of Zionist appropriation. Abufarha writes:
In 1948 Zionist militias not only took over all Palestinian orange groves along the stretch of the Palestinian coast but also took the brand “Jaffa Orange”… and turned the orange into a symbol of “new Israel”… For Palestinians the robbery of a nation was exemplified in the orange robbery. (Abufarha, 349)
Images of pine trees and water towers were used to deny indigenous Palestinian presence and attach Jewish colonization to notions of vibrant life, progress, and labor. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) planted pine trees on ethnically-cleansed land, relabeling Palestinian villages as parks. It projected the image of Zionist-planted, pine-forested land into diasporic Jewish communities, and connected them to Jewish identity through coin collection boxes and the practice of “planting a tree in Israel” to mark life events. (Long, 68) Joanna C. Long describes the JNF’s “scenic renderings of the Palestinian homeland-scape as historically verdant and heroically re-forested by Zionist settlers”, claiming nature and land stewardship as the domain of Zionist settlers, in contrast with Palestinians whose land it depicted as both unused and abused. (Long 62-3, 66) Decades of continuing Zionist enclosure destroyed many more local plants and Palestinian ways of living with them, and “environmental protection” became a rationale for closing off land to prevent its use by Palestinians. (Manna)
Water towers also sprung up as Zionist icons across Palestine in the 1930 and 1940s as Jewish agricultural settlements were set up far from existing water sources. Rather than viewing the need to import water as a sign of disharmony with the land, Zionist imagery (following European imagery) made water towers into icons of technological mastery of land. (Azaryahu, 317, 322) Maoz Azaryahu writes that on skylines and maps, Zionist water towers “provided the iconic equivalent to the church tower and the minaret as representative icons of the Christian-Arab and Muslim-Arab villages respectively. (Azaryahu, 325)
In the present, anti-colonial resistance includes making Palestinian trees — olives, figs, almonds, pomegranates and others suited to the landscape — not just visible, but persistently seen and recognized. (Kelly, 98) It involves continually replanting trees as they are attacked and seized, and mindfully violating Israeli “green” closure laws to continue using the land. (Kelly, 88-9; Manna) The imported pine forests are prone to forest fires, “indicative of the wasting logic that underpins settler colonial/indigene relations”: as one JNF forest recently burned, it aptly left visible again the Palestinian terrace technology that worked with local conditions and channeled shared water from one garden to another. (Alqaisiya, 7) The technology of building water towers in dry places has long given way to more catastrophic hydrological projects, aimed at encouraging Jewish settlement by making water appear abundant in select places, and stripping Palestinians of both land and water. (Elmusa, 257-8) Water towers are now symbols of water apartheid (Al-Haq), and of an outdated claim that has fallen completely apart: that Zionist settlement is about loving the land.
The 1946 poster is packed with these appropriated, contested, and reclaimed symbols of indigenous Palestinian life, Zionist colonization, and Palestinian anti-colonial resistance. It does represent “Israel” — but not with the approving meaning that it intends. Instead, it shows the way that Zionist narratives have worked to appropriate and assign new meanings to land, people, and ideas. The poster also shows the failure of those efforts. The sabr is now not only a symbol of the Nakba, but also represents resistance to Zionism’s effort to erase its origins. As an artifact of the time when the Israeli state was emerging, the poster’s inability to hold onto its intended meaning reflects, too, the shared project of unraveling of settler colonialism.
– Emmaia Gelman, July 2023
Abufarha, Nasser. (2008). “Land of symbols: Cactus, poppies, orange and olive trees in Palestine.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 15: 343–368
Steven Pesach Ir-Sahi (1896-1968). (1946) Poster: “Israel”, Mandate Palestine. Palestine Poster Project Archive (PPPA)