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Making Peace with Israel’s Mythic Past

Haunting images of Israel’s founding mothers rise up from every corner in Gaby Salzburger’s home. Nestled in the Jerusalem hills on the quiet moshav Evan Sapir, the apartment is crowded with evocative images: Tin, steel and lead sculptures bearing the faces of Israel’s founding mothers grace every surface. In the background, through every window, is a vista of the mountains that stretch out from her balcony. With so much artistic landscape to take in, it’s hard to pinpoint the source of inspiration behind the 34-year-old Israeli native’s impressive oeuvre. Which is, perhaps, precisely the point: It is both the land and the women—and also neither, a deeper, more personal infusion that influences the artist.

Like many Jewish-Israelis of her generation, Salzburger grew up breathing and believing the basic tenets of Zionist mythology: that the land was won back from the wilderness; that it was empty when the first pioneers arrived; that the Jews were an oppressed people who became strong when they reclaimed the land of Israel; that men and women worked side by side as equals to drain the swamps and make the desert bloom.

But the rosy picture quickly began to fade. The invasive Lebanon war—which coincided with Salzburger’s army service—and the subsequent intifada rocked the foundations of her belief. Israel appeared to be an occupying, even terrifying, force. Salzburger left the country.

At the School of Visual Arts in New York, Salzburger began an investigation, through photography, into Israel’s collective past using famous images of early Israeli pioneers struggling to tame the land. “We always wanted to beautify the past,” says Salzburger. “We believed in the pioneers.” Shocked by Israel’s violence during the intifada, Salzburger decided to “look again at the roots” of Israeli society to see what had gone wrong with the dream. What she found was that the myth was wrong: “Growing up we were very idealistic. We wanted to be in that time. We felt women were equal—it was very attractive—[but] we were ignoring everything—the land wasn’t empty.” With almost obsessive zeal, Salzburger attacked the images that had filled her textbooks as a child.

The result was a collection Salzburger called “Rustic Pioneers.” Starting with well-known images of the early Halutzim (pioneers) from the 1920s, she etched them onto steel and tin with acid. The images are indeed “rustic” but they are also—with a little help from Salzburger—”rusting” and thus never static. Salzburger hopes that her audience will be forced to reconsider the mythology these images inspired and to reconsider the history that created them.

Salzburger’s reevaluation of Israel’s past dovetailed with a movement in Israeli historiography to do the same. But she distinguishes herself from the “new historians” by emphasizing the importance of the myth, as well as the need to deconstruct it. In fact, though she has lost her rose-colored glasses, Salzburger still admires the pioneers and their ambitious attempt to create a new religion—a religion of work—even if they didn’t succeed in transferring their idealism to the following generations.

When Salzburger returned from the States in the early 1990s, she began to work with a 1924 photo of female construction workers that to her symbolizes the “romanticism” of the period. Salzburger began, literally, to move closer to her images, enlarging them until they became grainy and surreal, pixels and dots instead of eyes and mouths. These photos, transferred onto malleable sheets of lead, hang around her apartment and on her studio walls. In the process, Salzburger says, the women “lost their personal, private details and became more symbols—feminine symbols, not pioneer symbols. Through this I was led to a further past, an archetypical past, a mythic past.”

Though her work began as a very political commentary, her more recent work has taken an inward turn, an ambitious analysis of the foundations of “womanhood” and “feminism.” The images are almost totemistic—many are on four-sided columns of steel with the posed women duplicated again and again down their sides. Her shifting eye—from the myth of state to the myth of woman—has been lauded by Israeli art critic Gedon Efrat for exploring the tension between “collective tradition and individual expression,” a path that Israeli society as a whole is beginning to explore in earnest.