At once an ecological phenomenon and a cultural construction, the desert has varied associations within Zionist and Israeli culture. In the Judaic textual tradition, it evokes exile and punishment, yet is also a site for origin myths, the divine presence, purification, and sanctity. In secular Zionism, the desert causes infertility and insecurity at the same time as it presents an inviting technological and agricultural challenge. Perhaps anywhere in Palestine where Jews do not live is a desert, or perhaps Israel itself is an oasis of order surrounded by a desert of instability.
Yael Zerubavel tells the story of the desert from the early twentieth century to the present, shedding light on romantic-mythical associations, settlement and security concerns, environmental sympathies, and the commodifying tourist gaze. Drawing on literary narratives, educational texts, newspaper articles, tourist materials, films, popular songs, posters, photographs, and cartoons, Zerubavel reveals the complexities and contradictions that mark Israeli society’s semiotics of space in relation to the Middle East, and how the ＂besieged island＂ trope lives on across Israeli cultures and discourses.