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Desert in the Promised Land: The Politics and Semiotics of Space in Israeli Culture

14th May, 2019 @ 17:00 - 19:00

Weston Room


This lecture draws on the book of Dr. Yael Zerubavel - Desert in the Promised Land - which was just published by Stanford University Press (2019).

At once an ecological phenomenon and a cultural construction, the desert has varied associations within Zionist and Israeli culture. In the Judaic textual tradition, it evokes exile and punishment, yet is also a site for origin myths, the divine presence, and sanctity. Secular Zionism developed its own spin on the duality of the desert as the romantic site of Jews' biblical roots that inspired the Hebrew culture, and as the barren land outside the Jewish settlements in Palestine, featuring them as an oasis of order and technological progress within a symbolic desert.

Yael Zerubavel tells the story of the desert from the early twentieth century to the present, shedding light on romantic-mythical associations, settlement and security concerns, environmental sympathies, and the commodifying tourist gaze. Drawing on literary narratives, educational texts, newspaper articles, tourist materials, films, popular songs, posters, photographs, and cartoons, Zerubavel reveals the complexities and contradictions that mark Israeli society's semiotics of space in relation to the Middle East, and the central role of the "besieged island" trope in Israeli culture and politics.

Yael Zerubavel is a scholar of memory studies with an expertise in modern Israeli society and culture. Utilising an interdisciplinary approach that informs both her teaching and writing, her work explores collective memory and identity, national myths, the transformation of traditions, war and trauma, and cultural perceptions of space. Her work addresses the impact of nationalism, secularisation, immigration and dislocation, the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the reshaping of Jewish memory in Israel and developments within Israeli culture. Her award-winning book - Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (1995) - and numerous articles focus on the cultural construction of Israeli national myths and the politics of commemoration, drawing on historical sources, Hebrew literature, educational materials, popular and folkloric forms, as well as in-depth interviews.

Professor Zerubavel continues to explore the impact of the Holocaust and the Middle Eastern conflict on attitudes towards death, sacrifice, and bereavement and the image of the Israeli war-widow in Israeli fiction and film. She is nearing completion of a book entitled Desert in the Promised Land: Nationalism, Politics, and Symbolic Landscapes (forthcoming), and is at work on another that examines contemporary representations of antiquity and the changing role of the Bible in contemporary Israeli culture. Her study examines an array of cultural texts and mnemonic practices including works of fiction, media articles, popular performances, and tourist sites.

The Founding Director of the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Study, Dr Zerubavel is also a Professor of Jewish Studies and History. She has taught courses on Israeli culture, Jewish memory, the Jewish immigrant experience, Jewish space, memory and trauma, and Israeli literature, as well as an interdisciplinary graduate seminar in cultural memory.

For more information contact Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner.

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