Cultural Interaction and Landscape

The complexity of cultural interaction within Israel’s borders illustrates difficult relationships between and within groups. The most publicized relationship is that between the Israelis and Palestinians, yet that is just one of many layers. Reality dictates that, despite animosities, people cannot avoid interacting within a living area confined by national boundaries. Economic conditions make it impossible for people to remain in a spatial vacuum—although, depending on location, that can vary in terms of intensity and magnitude—and the landscape records it.

For example, Palestinian contractors bid on the construction of homes in the West Bank’s Jewish settlements that they consider to have been built illegally on Palestinian land (Figure 1). Jews drive to the Palestinian areas to purchase more affordable products and services, despite technically being banned from doing so by the Israeli government (Figure 2). One of my Jewish acquaintances travels to the West Bank from Jerusalem just to purchase herbs for his garden, because they are more affordable there even considering the bus ticket expense.

In terms of interaction within the seemingly homogenous groups, cultural landscape can capture variations in socioeconomic status, geographic imperatives, and religious affiliations. In older cities or neighborhoods, built in the 1930s-1950s, that can mean the differences and spatial preferences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews (Figure 3 and 4).  Meanwhile, in Jerusalem’s no-man’s land (Figure 5) Palestinian builders are erecting multistory apartment complexes without building permits.

In Haifa, knowledge of the Russian language can take one far (Figure 6). In Acre’s old town, once the Crusaders’ Holy Land bastion, a sense of place that operates on its own devices is unavoidable, particularly after markets close in the evening and tourists leave (Figure 7). Jerusalem’s Ultraorthodox Jewish community is considerably more affected with particular aspects of the cultural landscape and less concerned with other aspects of life (Figure 8). In Bethlehem, the demarcation between Arab Christian and Muslim neighborhoods begins when one encounters a liquor store.

All this, and much more, combines to make Israel extremely complex culturally. Awareness of complexity, and the ability to interpret a multitude of spatial relationships that exist here, is beneficial for our knowledge of the land and people. Such knowledge spans beyond the thirty-second news segment; i.e., better geographic comprehension greatly expands one’s understanding about this region (and allows him/her to apply essential geographic concepts when studying other regions). Let us examine some examples that illustrate the foregoing statements.


Figure 1. Jewish communities spread across the hillsides north of Jerusalem.  The view is eastward toward the border with Jordan. The owners of the Arab construction companies that are bidding on contracts to build them may in many cases see these settlements as illegal and as encroaching on Palestinian land, but they keep their political opinions and their business interests separate. [All photographs were taken by the author.]


Figure 2. Car repair and wash are more affordable on the Palestinian side of the wall of separation (in far distance), allowing the market economy to break the barriers. Israelis are technically not permitted to engage in this type of activity for security reasons; hence, an interaction between a customer and a worker at one of those shops, which you can observe on this photograph, is technically illegal according to the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank.


Figure 3. Previously a mosquito-infested coastal plain, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area is now Israel’s industrial and technological center. It is also a major destination for many who want to work and live there. For those without a high standard of living, due to high rents and real estate prices, residing in Tel Aviv becomes a challenge. This is where the internal Jewish socioeconomic division between the Askhenazi and Sephardic becomes more obvious by observing variations in a cultural landscape of their respective neighborhoods, at least in older areas of the city—newer Jewish neighborhoods tend to lack a strong ethnic identity, owing to the convergence towards a common Jewish Israeli identity—a process that is far advanced, although still not by any means complete. The following photograph is an example of such landscape differences.


Figure 4. A street view of Hatikva, an economically modest and traditionally predominantly-Sephardic neighborhood. The neighborhood was first built in 1935, to house predominantly Sephardic employees of the Tel Aviv municipality.  By the late 1990s, the proportion of Sephardic Jews among residents had fallen to about 50 percent, but the typically Middle Eastern style of architecture and street layout is preserved in the neighborhood’s dense, Casbah-like atmosphere. In the background, towering over the landscape is a skyscraper and another under construction, together signaling the future real estate changes in this part of town.


Figure 5. Buildings along the road to Ramallah in the so-called no man’s land legally do not exist. Although still within Jerusalem proper, this Palestinian-populated area is devoid of municipal services and left to its own devices. Skilled entrepreneurs utilize the space by building apartment complexes first and worrying about not having construction permits later.


Figure 6. View of the lights of Haifa from the direction of Acre.  Israel’s third city and immigrants’ stopover on the way to Tel Aviv, Haifa has been a common destination for the Russian (and neighboring countries) Jews. Nowhere in Israel does one sense a place being more strongly impacted by the Russians, at least based on my observations. Moreover, Haifa’s long history and heterogeneous population, among them a sizable portion of Christian and Muslim Arabs and nearby Druze villages, contributes to an interesting interaction between diverse groups. The sense of place is greatly different from that in nearby Acre.


Figure 7. A market scene within Acre’s old city’s walls once the tourists go away for the day. For those few visitors who remain around after the market clears out, the sense of place rapidly transitions from a tourist-oriented to an inclusive residential area, almost an American inner city-like atmosphere after business hours and a sharp contrast from other places in Israel. In regard to an attachment to the place this part of Acre is almost unique, something that is unsurprising considering the physical restraints this medieval fortress has created by being there. The people who reside within the city walls have been living there for centuries. Almost none of them are Jewish.


Figure 8. An opposite sense of place from that in Acre is experienced in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Jewish Mea Shearim neighborhood.  Everyone living in this community is Jewish. The cultural—social and economic—restraints are self-imposed and promoted as such, rather than being delineated by the physical boundaries of a medieval fortress. It is also another example of heterogeneity of the Jewish residents of Israel, often mistakenly perceived as a single, monolithic bloc opposite to the Arabs.

Cultural Adaptation to Natural Environment

People choose to live where they can utilize the natural environment to the best of their needs. Throughout centuries, the mosquito infested marshland, unpleasantly humid summers, and absence of natural harbors south of Haifa, have left the coastal plain undesirable for settlement. It long remained undeveloped.  Similarly, in the rain shadow east of Jerusalem, low precipitation and sparse vegetation were most suitable for only subsistence farming at the time. The absence of large-scale urbanization there is quite evident. Even though one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world, Jericho is nothing more than a peripheral location struggling to overcome isolation.

In the south, where the landscape transitions into Negev Desert, the desire to establish a permanent residence there remains a challenge even today. Hillsides and valleys of central Israel—the highlands of the West Bank and vicinity—have always been the most densely populated area in this region. It embodies all the advantages of the Mediterranean climate and, perhaps, partially explains why it has been a land of seemingly-eternal conflict.

With an advent of demographic and political changes, Jewish migration to Palestine and the subsequent formation of the state of Israel, the region rapidly transitioned to a market economy. Unutilized marshland along the coast now hosts Tel Aviv and a series of other cities, while the stretch along the Jordan River represents a major commercial agriculture project (Figures 9 and 10).


Figure 9. View westward toward the cultivated coastal plain and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. To the left (south) is a town, Zikhron Ya’akov, founded in 1882 as an early agricultural settlement by the European Jews. On the neighboring hill is the Arab town of Fureidis.


Figure 10. Note the absence of natural vegetation on the hill slopes and lush greenery in the town and adjacent fields. Market agriculture (economic incentives) and irrigation have transformed the rain shadow area along the Jordan River into a predominantly green landscape. Without this change much of the landscape would remain similar to that of the hill slopes in the background.

Step-By-Step and Side-By-Side

As the country continues to evolve, so will the issues pertaining to the geography of conflict.  People’s adequate spatial adaptation, to each other and to natural environment, is the essence of minimizing the ongoing problems and improving an overall quality of life. Regardless of how complex and heterogeneous the region, everyone has to share living space and tackle their own and mutual challenges and opportunities.


Figure 11. The changing cultural landscape of Israel and the different stages of transition, atop soil layers containing the records of 10,000 years of adaptation, interaction, and conflict.

In this three-part series of a cultural geographer’s observation of Israel, its physical and cultural borders, I emphasized some of the aspects of life there that are sometimes overlooked, particularly how everything is spatially intertwined and, as such, requires a geographic awareness in order to learn more about the land and people. It is only a glimpse, of course, and many more words could be written about this fascinating region.

Sense of Place in a Space of Conflict: Israel (Part 3)
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