This poster is a graphic take-off of a now-iconic photograph of modern political Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, leaning over the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois during the Fifth World Zionist Congress in 1901 in Basel, Switzerland. In 1897 he had launched the Zionist Organization (since renamed the World Zionist Organization) in this same city. The Hebrew text on this poster says "Israel", and reflects the visual format of many similar posters marking Israel’s annual celebration of its independence in 1948.
Dishon has created a poster that not only uses political irony — a staple of left-leaning Israeli poster artists — she expands it exponentially while simultaneously reinforcing modern design dictates that stress simplicity and clarity of concept. Done entirely in the national colors of the Palestinian liberation movement — green, red, black, and white — Dishon seeks to drive home the point that just as Herzl founded the Zionist Organization to pull together the disparate elements of world Jewry to launch the rebirth of the Jewish nation, so Yasser Arafat set out to pull together the often fractious elements of Palestinian society when he took control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1967. By morphing Herzl into Arafat Dishon eliminates all moral distinctions between the origins and objectives of their respective movements. Dishon is saying that all the political activities for which contemporary Israelis so vociferously criticize Arafat — traveling to world capitals to raise funds, speaking at international forums, motivating Palestinians to believe in their cause, clarifying the role of Palestinians in history, creating new national institutions, in short evangelizing Palestine and its liberation movement — are exactly the same kind of activities in which Herzl engaged.
Dishon could be saying that Herzl was Arafat’s political model and mentor. In his manifesto of Jewish nationalism, The Jewish State, Herzl said, “Palestine is our unforgettable historic homeland.” Arafat himself has said the very same thing innumerable times over the course of his political career. Herzl died in 1904 at the age of 44, never having held any military position so the comparisons between the two men must be limited to their politics and ideologies. Parallels abound but three are of central importance: (1) both men sought to lead their people out of a exile; (2) both men led their people to Palestine; and (3) both men believed their cause was just. In that same book Herzl also said, “...the restoration of the Jewish State...presents no difficulties worth mentioning.”
What track would history have taken had he been able to imagine the Great Arab Revolt, the Zionist pre-state militia attacks on British military and civilian targets, the Nakba, Israel’s wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, the retreat from Lebanon, the first Intifada, the Al Aqsa Intifadah, suicide bombers, Operation Defensive Shield, Jenin, Gaza, the “security” wall...? Dishon is determined to remind Israelis that many of the core assumptions of the early Zionist visionaries were deeply flawed and that they did not have an understanding of Palestine the place. That naiveté has had vast, tragic consequences that are still being played out.
The early Zionists understood Jewish history and the mechanics of 19th century colonial enterprise: however, they failed to even consider the indigenous people of then-contemporary Palestine. They were not alone in this blindness. The English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgian, and all the other European powers that engaged in imperial colonial projects during the 19th century all demonstrated the same tragic indifference to the aspirations of the indigenous peoples they sought to annihilate, disperse or occupy.
The main differences between those failed European colonial efforts and the Zionist enterprise is that the former were not irredentist in nature, were not driven by a millenialist religious fervor, and were reliant upon a single source of financing and emigration. Perhaps what makes this such a fascinating and, to stalwart Zionists, troubling poster is that it hints at the possibility that the massive and multiple internal contradictions complicating Zionism's progress are not a function of post-independence conflict, but rather were evident (to those who would see it) from the beginning, in Basel.
The irony is compounded further by the fact that Arafat himself is the object of both the admiration and scorn on the part of many Palestinians. Almost universally respected by Palestinians for his military courage and personal commitment to the liberation of Palestine, he is also widely criticized by them for his autocratic style, penchant for cronyism, blind eye for corruption, and his less-then-convincing commitment to authentic democratic government.
Considered by Israelis to be the grand architect of Palestinian violence, Arafat has purportedly been the target of assassination attempts by both Israeli and Palestinian groups over the years. He survives less as a model of political leadership and more as a symbol of Palestinian resistance and determination. At present he is isolated in his demolished muqata (Arabic: headquarters compound) in Ramallah and is actively ignored by the Bush administration as well as the Sharon government. Israel hints at plans to deport him and recently the Sharon government publicly voiced an intention to “remove” (assassinate) him. Few who know him expect him to acquiesce to any demand that he leave the public stage voluntarily.
Dishon’s poster is a gift to her people. She uses it to remind them that Herzl’s vision was that of one man, not received wisdom. In The Jewish State, Herzl said, speaking of the fulfillment of the dream of a state for the Jewish people, “If this generation is too dull to understand it rightly, a future, finer, more advanced generation will arise to comprehend it.” Dishon is saying Israelis would do well to understand that Arafat, like Herzl, believes in exactly the same idea. Both men accepted that they were symbols and that the fruition of their ideas might not come about for decades, generations or even longer. For mainstream Americans struggling to fathom the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this poster serves as an invaluable educational primer. It clarifies, and confirms, the conflict’s fundamental status as a contest: one wherein the visionary projections of Herzl and Arafat are locked in a protracted colonial vs. nationalist struggle on the same small slice of geography.
Source: Liberation Graphics website. Written by Dan Walsh. 2003.