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The area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Egypt and Lebanon, is so small that mapmakers often can’t squeeze the word Israel into the space, let alone the words West Bank or Gaza. On this scrap of land, nearly every hill, every building, every town is named twice: once by Israelis, once by Palestinians. Symbols are taken up daily and fought over, interpreted, reinterpreted. Even a poster is not immune.
“Visit Palestine” is the caption, in large letters, of a poster that shows up, like Zelig, everywhere in the region, in restaurants, stores, hotels, cafés, offices. It’s a stylized, collage-like painting of Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock, seen from under the shade of a sprawling tree. The poster turns up mostly in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem — the predominantly Palestinian side of the city — but also appears in Tel Aviv and in West Jerusalem. It’s the Mona Lisa of the Levant: smiling at everyone, explaining nothing.
David Tartakover, sixty, is the graphic artist behind the appearance — or reappearance — of this poster. An Israeli who won the country’s top prize for design in 2002, he has created some of the most memorable images of the peace movement in Israel and devoted much of his time to seeking out and collecting memorabilia from Israel’s history. He stumbled on Visit Palestine, which had been created in the 1930s, loved it and got the idea of reviving it. “I liked the way it treated the landscape,” Tartakover says. “I thought, ‘It’s a pity people can’t have it on their walls.’”
Franz Krausz, who painted the poster, was a pioneer in Israeli graphic design, a German-born Jew who was part of the last big wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine before the Holocaust. He created Visit Palestine in 1936 as an ad for the Tourist Development Association of Palestine. The word visit must have been euphemism, or code, given the urgency that drove many Jews to Palestine at the time.
When Tartakover approached Krausz about reviving the poster, the Oslo Accords had just been signed. Peace, for many Israelis, seemed at hand. A Palestinian state — a new Palestine — seemed about to emerge. “The whole horizon was different,” says Tartakover.
The poster, in this new context, was a wink that acknowledged the past and the future of both Israel and Palestine. Tartakover and Krausz liked the ambiguity of the poster’s message: in the mid-1990s, many left-leaning Israelis were feeling magnanimous, even frisky; why not visit Palestine? Some started going to cafés and restaurants in Ramallah, making friends, living the future as a done deal.
Tartakover and Krausz printed a limited run of 1,000 Visit Palestine posters on extra-large sheets of good, heavy paper, and sold them mostly to museums. Krausz got a little money from it, they recovered their costs, and that was it. Tartakover didn’t think about the poster again until the late 1990s, as Oslo was beginning to deteriorate. Suddenly, he started seeing Visit Palestine in the background on TV as high-ranking Palestinian Authority figures were interviewed in their offices. He could tell by looking at the posters that they were unauthorized reproductions: they were printed on lesser-quality paper than he and Krausz had used, and the posters were smaller, the colors faded.
The words Visit Palestine had taken on a new power. Palestine had hardened into only one meaning, with the Dome of the Rock glowing in the middle of the poster, looking as if it had been painted with the Palestinian national movement in mind. Visit seemed sly in a different way than it had in Krausz’s original, since it was asking people to visit a place that didn’t yet exist, and hinting that if enough people went, no one could stop it from coming into being.
Tartakover was surprised, but not angry, to see that a poster painted by a Jew to entice people to Palestine in the 1930s and then revived by an Israeli in the heady days of a peace plan was being taken up by Palestinians as a symbol of their national ambitions. “I think everyone can use it the way that he wants,” he says. “You can’t control something you put out there. You can’t give people instructions how to use it.” &