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Snapchat's Tel Aviv feature erases a reality of dispossession

By featuring Tel Aviv on its ‘live story,’ Snapchat helps brand the city as young, vibrant and fun, leaving out traces of the destruction it helped sow.

By Shimrit Lee and Ilker Hepkaner

Snapchats from Tel Aviv’s ‘live story.’

This past week, video messaging app Snapchat put Tel Aviv on the map when it decided to spotlight the city on its “live story” feature. Tel Aviv’s Snapchat story put together hundreds of photos and videos, including young people riding roller-coasters, seeking out bargains at the local market, dancing at an outdoor concert, and indulging in “Shawarma Tuesdays.”

In one video, a man spray-paints the names “Mohammed+Moshe” in the middle of a heart, superimposed with the Snapchat graphic “Tel Aviv Life.” A Druze woman makes taboon bread. One woman explains how streets signs are written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. As one user proclaims to the camera, “Here in Tel Aviv, we have everything!”

Snapchat caters towards millennials with short attention spans by allowing users to send short videos or photos that self-destruct seconds after being opened by a recipient. Through their live story feature, the app broadcasts a collage of users’ video or photo “snaps” in a selected number of cities worldwide. In most cases, the live stories correspond with major world events.

While the Tel Aviv live story did not correspond to a significant holiday or event, journalist Rania Khalek went on Twitter to lament the bitter irony of the timing:

She then asks her followers to “Compare these beaches,” posting a Snapchat of surfboarding children in Tel Aviv next to a gruesome photo of the aftermath of a missile attack last summer that killed four children on Gaza beach. In the wake of the backlash, Snapchat streamed a “West Bank Live Story” two days later, complete with a “Shawarma Thursday” from the other side of the wall.

Since the devastating Israeli attack on the Strip last summer, which left 2,200 Palestinians dead, an air of normalcy has persisted in Tel Aviv. The Snapchat live story, viewed by nearly 100 million active users, reflects a visual field that defines “business as usual” in Tel Aviv while branding the city as young, vibrant and fun. This field of vision is simultaneously restricted by mechanisms of erasure and denial that reach back to its early years. In this city, a violent reality fades as quickly as a self-destructing photo.

A Palestinian woman stands inside a damaged house in Shujayea neighborood, which was heavily damaged during the latest Israeli offensive, east of Gaza city, September 4, 2014. During the seven-week Israeli military offensive, 2,101 Palestinians were killed, including 495 children, and an estimated 18,000 housing units have been either destroyed or severely damaged, leaving more than 108,000 people homeless.

A Palestinian woman stands inside a damaged house in Shujayea neighborood, which was heavily damaged during the latest Israeli offensive, east of Gaza city, September 4, 2014. During the seven-week Israeli military offensive, 2,101 Palestinians were killed, including 495 children, and an estimated 18,000 housing units have been either destroyed or severely damaged, leaving more than 108,000 people homeless. (photo: Activestills.org)

Snapchat’s visual framing of Tel Aviv is only the latest round in the retelling of an urban history that relies heavily on imagination and cultural construction. Originally a fictional city in Theodor Herzl’s novel The Old New Land (Altneuland), Tel Aviv’s story became a reality in 1909— first with the official foundation of Ahuzat Bayit, a Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Jaffa, which later took the name of Tel Aviv.

Contrary to the modern Zionist mythology, which glorifies Tel Aviv as a quintessentially Hebrew city, Tel Aviv did not boom as a miracle in the middle of the desert. Instead it flourished because of its proximity to Jaffa, the Arab port city on the Mediterranean situated on the crossroads of vibrant trade routes.

Read more: Why the Arabs are coming to Tel Aviv

Over the course of the years, Tel Aviv grew and eventually “swallowed” Jaffa and the surrounding Arab villages with its self-proclaimed “modern” urbanization and much-advertised Bauhaus-inspired architecture. With a Eurocentric outlook, architects of the city cashed in on an imagined contrast between Jaffa and Tel Aviv—the former perceived as an Orientalist obstacle to the European development of the latter.

After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jaffa’s city center was left in ruins and most of its Arab inhabitants were forced to flee. Sharon Rotband’s book “White City Black City” traces how Jaffa then became an impoverished suburb of Tel Aviv before being rebuilt as a tourist district in the 1960s.

Today, while Palestinians residents of Jaffa continue to face social and economic hardships, “Yaffo” thrives as a largely gentrified, chic neighborhood and a tourist site with theme-park attractions. The silence surrounding the disappearance of the Palestinian city persists. The Snapchat story, while including a few picturesque images from Jaffa’s coastline under its Hebrew name, reproduces the urbicide of this once-thriving Palestinian city in favor of a narrative that “keeps the peace.”

A demonstration commemorating Land Day, Jaffa, March 30, 2014. (Photo: Keren Manor/ActiveStills.org)

A demonstration commemorating Land Day, Jaffa, March 30, 2014. (Photo: Keren Manor/ActiveStills.org)

The Snapchat live story not only reflects these multiple erasures, but also actively brands Tel Aviv as vibrant, pluralistic and young. The municipality recently launched the Global City initiative to promote “nonstop” tourism and construct the city as a “blend of East and West” that “reveres creativity, entrepreneurship and free thinking.” The city is advertised as a way to “bypass the conflict existing in the region.”

Ayam Zaum, a private consultant for place branding, boasts that the digital revolution of the 1990s is exactly what Tel Aviv has been waiting for: “An opportunity to detach from place, culture, or language and to join a placeless, new, exciting culture and industry, in which everyone is new, and your past or location do not matter.” These things also do not matter in the frames of Snapchat, where colorful graphics dress up the city in a veneer of youthful modernity as each proceeding image swallows the next.

Shimrit Lee is a PhD student at New York University, focusing on visual cultures of militarism and the commodification of war in Israel/Palestine. Ilker Hepkaner is a PhD student at New York University, studying politics of space and heritage in Israel and Turkey.

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    COMMENTS

    1. mt noise

      In other words, How dare Tel Aviv be a bright and modern city while Jaffo is a standard Arab slum found all over the middle east.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        That’s not what the article says or even implies:

        “After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jaffa’s city center was left in ruins and most of its Arab inhabitants were forced to flee. Sharon Rotband’s book “White City Black City” traces how Jaffa then became an impoverished suburb of Tel Aviv before being rebuilt as a tourist district in the 1960s.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Primel

        Great article.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Pedro X

      Yafo is again an Israeli City. In the past many times it was an Israeli City. It has never been solely a Palestinian City, despite the propaganda of the Palestinians.

      Legend has that it was founded by Noah’s son, Japheth. Jonah set off in the opposite direction of Niniveh from the Yafo port.

      In the Iron Age the tribe of Dan settled in the area, as well did the Greeks with Canaanites becoming Philistines. Israeli rulers from Solomon until the destruction of Yafo by the Assyrians and the exile of the Philistines by Babylonians controlled Yafo. Following the Babylonians, Persians and Greeks controlled Yafo.

      The Maccabees took Yafo away from the Macedonian Greeks only to lose it to the Romans. The Romans eventually gave Yafo to King Herod but took it back in 68 C.E. Then came the Byzantines who gave way to Arab conquerors who gave way to Christian conquerors. Then Muslim conquerors took it from the Christians and then the Christians took it back. The Mamluks took it and destroyed Yafo. The Ottomans restored Yafo and then it was destroyed a couple of times including by Napoleon who left no living person there in 1799.

      Yafo recovered and grew in the 19th century C.E. By 1915 it was a City of 40,000 persons, 15,000 of whom were Jews. An influx of Jewish immigration and Jewish capital set Yafo on its way to gain more impressive growth. Tel Aviv grew out of the dunes and real estate prices soared. Villages rose up around Tel Aviv and Yafo. Yafo by 1947 grew to 101,500 persons, 70% Arab Muslims and Christians and 30% Jews. It was a mixed City, not a Palestinian City.

      The Arabs of Yafo were divided between the elite Muslims and Muslim Arabs from Arab states who had flocked to Yafo because of the economic activity spurred by Jewish investment in the area. Each Muslim ethnic group had their own neighborhood, maintained their own customs and social networks. The Muslim elite would not give their daughters to Egyptians or dark skinned Muslims. Egyptian and other Muslims from North Africa spoke their own dialect. Turks, Afghans and Iranians spoke their own languages. The Christian community was divided between Arab and European Christians, between Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants. The Muslims looked down on the Christians. Arab society was extremely fractured in Yafo.

      Politically and militarily the Arabs in Yafo were divided. The political elite in Yafo were not on the same page as the Arab Higher Committee and Amin al-Husseini. For the Muslim elite and Christians war was not wanted. The Partition Plan allotted Yafo to the Palestinian state. But war came. Even before the partition vote al-Husseini had planned confrontations in the Yafo and Tel Aviv. Jewish traffic was attacked and 7 killed. There was sniping into Tel Aviv. The 3 day national strike called by al-Husseini in wake of the overwhelming positive UN vote for partition descended into torching and looting of Jewish shops and businesses, sniping, and rioting. Jewish residents of Yafo retreated to Tel Aviv. Christians took off from Yafo in mass flight remembering their treatment at the hands of al-Husseini henchmen in 1936-39. By the end of the month 66 Jews in the Tel Aviv area had been killed. The political leadership of Arab Yafo and the leadership of Jewish Tel Aviv negotiated a cease fire but al-Husseini declared Jihad against the Jews. He sent his commander Salame to the area and he and the Arab Salvation Army attakced two Jewish communities in the Yafo Tal Aviv area. They failed but the slide to war was now accomplished. By the beginning of 1948 one third of the population had flown. On January 4, 1948 Lehi blew up the National Committee’s headquarters of Salame. The Arabs took to flight even though the National Committee threatened to confiscate the property of the runaways.

      By February there were 1600 Arab fighters in Yafo and this was growing. Yet the Irgun not particularly adept at fighting swept away the defences. Arab troops began to extort and loot Arab areas. The Igrun mortared parts of Yafo and the Arabs ran some more. On the other side, Jewish areas were mortared and attacked but their residents held their ground.

      By April 25, 1948 the Arab population had dwindled to 20,000 people the rest having taken flight. The British stepped in at the end of April with 4500 troops, tanks, and war cruises to support the Arabs in Yafo. The British found that they could not stem the tide of flight and instead began the final evacuation. By May 8, 1948 some 3,000 Arabs remained in Yafo.

      Sir Henry Gurney, chief secretary to the Palestine Mandate government said that “Really the Arabs are rabbits.”

      Yafo’s Iraqi commander in February 1948 said:

      “I do not mind destruction of Jaffa if we secure destruction of Tel Aviv.”

      As a result of the war, Yafo again became a Jewish City in a Jewish state. In 1960 Israel began a plan for the economic revival of Yafo. Yafo is now part of Tel Aviv, a vibrant Jewish City, like no other on the earth.

      Reply to Comment
    3. bar

      Tel Aviv is a vibrant, amazing modern city. It was built over sand dunes and purchased property initially, even if it eventually grew beyond into areas where Arabs had lived.

      However, the story of Tel Aviv is different than the authors’ tale. It is a story of a vibrant, new community built by people seeking to establish a home for themselves. They built a modern town on dunes, using their own resources and nobody else’s. They then had to fight wars to protect their homes – wars started by the Arabs and intended to drive away the Jews. These wars of ethnic cleansing which the Arabs launched – and by Arabs I’m referring to local and regional groups and states – demonstrated with finality to the Jewish Yishuv and then to Israel that it must take on a defensive posture, protect the areas it conquered in the war and limit the number of Arabs in its midst lest it find itself in yet another war. The Israelis had reason to be afraid: they lost over 1% of their population in the war, many times that became casualties and, the Arabs continued to threaten them and Jews all across the Middle East.

      This last part is critical because Jews across the Middle East found themselves having to flee their homes and communities. Most found refuge in Israel and re-established their lives there. One of the cities that benefited from this influx was Tel Aviv. Like all of Israel, this city has a high percentage of refugees and their descendants from Arab lands. These are people who have built new homes because their old homes are gone forever – and gone forever because of the violence Arabs launched against Jews, not the other way around.

      Today, Tel Aviv is bustling and a major city because Israelis built up this country out of a need to establish a safe refuge for Jews in what is obviously a very hostile Middle East. And let’s not kid ourselves, we can all see clearly what would have happened in 1948 in the fate of other minorities in the Middle East. Ask the Kurds, Yazidis, Copts, Baha’i, Druze, non-Coptic Christians and even Shia in Sunni majority areas and vice versa whether it’s better to have a strong state to protect a minority from those who will attack it. Their answer would be unequivocally yes. The Jewish people did this and did it well enough that Tel Aviv is one of the world’s greatest cities. Those who would seek to color this achievement through the lens of political fate of those who launched this war would do much better to push for full integration of Arab refugees into the countries where they’ve been living for some decades. They can build their own beautiful and vibrant cities.

      Reply to Comment