Israeli City Planning and Development – Ilan Troen’s “Imagining Zion” (84 cents)

I had been given a copy of Ilan Troen’s book, “Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement”, published by Yale in 2003. For a long while, it lay on a shelf, because the title did not make it sound particularly interesting, and because I had a lot else that I wanted to read. But one day last week, I picked it up, sat down in a chair, and began to look through it, and found it to be an eye-opening book, of particular interest to someone who has traveled through Israel and is relatively familiar with the country. Troen, at one time a resident of Israel, has taught at Ben-Gurion University there, and at Brandeis.

The book is about city planning and nation planning. When you visit any country, you tend to take its settlement patterns for granted. This is true even in the 65 year old country of Israel, where perhaps you should know better. After all, the Israel of today bears little resemblance to the Israel that came into existence in 1948, much less the British mandate Palestine that preceded it, and the Ottoman Palestine that preceded the mandate period.

When you go to Israel, you see a country whose main population centers crowd the Mediterranean shoreline, with the exception of Jerusalem (which you accept, for obvious reasons, as just that, an exception). You see Arab villages here and there, you see kibbutzim and moshavim seemingly randomly scattered about and, even if you don’t necessarily see them, you hear about the more remote “development towns”, where immigrants, past and recent, have been directed and which tend to be the source of poverty and unemployment.

But it turns out that nothing was random. From the beginning of Jewish immigration into Palestine, rational planning determined where settlements would be located. Some of this planning turned out to be quite successful, and some not so successful, but all was well considered and thought out.

It turns out (again this should not be surprising) that the British were engaged in town planning activities across the British empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That British town planning concepts, such as the garden city, were established throughout the world and that Palestine was no exception. But there was a difference in Palestine, because Palestine was also a center of Jewish immigration, and the Jews brought their own concepts (some based on historic European patterns and some based on the Zionist “back to the land” philosophy, where Jewish farmers were the clear priority), and their own planners and architects, mainly from Germany and Austria. How these factors led to the first agricultural communities, as well as to the creation of the first Jewish new city, Tel Aviv, is part of Troen’s story.

In addition to planning techniques (and of course the influence of world politics), there were other considerations. Some were economic – how many people could the land actually hold (there were many economic analysis, some greatly detailed, but still showing a political slant in their conclusions) and how long would it take to prepare for a major influx, and how do you set the balance between rural, town and city development? How do you control land, and land use issues? Much of the land was purchased by the Jewish National Fund from Arab landowners; other lands came into the control of the state as a result of the 1948 war and the abandonment of lands (forcibly or voluntarily) of Arab owners. How should it be used? What are the development priorities? Do you put extra resources into rural development to further the Zionist ideology, even when most Jews clearly would rather be in the cities?

And what about security issues? These turned out to be very important in the plans for border settlements, north at the Lebanese border and east at the Jordanian, where kibbutzim were sited, and fortified to act as a first line of defense. But, you say, there border settlements are not continual, they are very irregularly located along the borders, and this is true. But this is not the result of lack of planning for more, but the results of financial reality, and the lack of qualified settlers for a greater number of villages. (Village location was also used to establish Jewish control of areas where there were conflicting claims – such as the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, and Troen has an interesting map showing where settlements were located throughout those areas in the years following 1967.

When it became clear that too much was being concentrated in Tel Aviv and Haifa (one of the fears was that, based on European experience in World War II, cities could become targets of aerial bombing and too much concentration of the population could have a disastrous effect if the cities were hit during wartime), it was determined to spread the urban areas around the country, and to establish new mid-size cities in the northern Galilee, and in the Negev. Thus the concept of development cities was developed, a concept that came into being early in Israeli national history and at the same time there was an influx of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries (Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, etc.). (There is no question but that exclusionary policies – the European Jews really did not want to mix with the Arab speaking Jews of the impoverished middle east – played a big role here, as well.)

Many of these development towns failed to live up to expectations. The exceptions were Ashkelon, which happened to be located on the coast, and Beersheva, now the fourth largest city in the country.

And then of course, there was Jerusalem, which was a divided city from 1948 to 1967. Troen describes how Jewish Jerusalem developed during this time period, when the Old City was cut off from Israel, as well as the eastern portion of the city. When the 1967 War resulted in the unification of Jerusalem, although there was much support in Israel for turning the other conquered/occupied territories back to Jordan and Egypt, there was virtual unanimity that Jerusalem would not again be divided, and that it would remain both Israeli and the capital of the country. Although the Arabs of Jerusalem were never removed from the city (and in fact were offered Israeli citizenship, which virtually all declined), portions of the Old City, particularly near the Western Wall and in what formerly had been the Jewish Quarter, were restored, sometimes to the financial benefit of the Arab residents and particular Arab merchants, and often fanning their resentment. But in addition to the Old City, it meant that Jewish neighborhoods could be planned in areas formerly under Jordanian control, and that a set of suburbs could be planned to ring the city of Jerusalem, and to bolster the narrow area connecting Jerusalem in the Judean Hills with Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean. The purpose of these suburbs was threefold: to provide a place for population growth, to expand the Jewish presence in the capital (by the way, some of this land was annexed to the city, increasing the percentage of Jewish residents of Jerusalem), and to bolster the defense of the city (the apartment blocks doubling as border walls). Of course, this issue continues to make the front pages today.

All of these issues – European city planning techniques, Zionist back-to-the-land movements, influxes of immigrants, defense of the country, economic limits of settlement, need to expand the number of population centers and more – all contributed, and continue to contribute, to the Israel we know today. For those of you with an interest in these topics, Ilan Troen’s book will be of great interest in broadening your understanding of the country.

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