International History and Politics
12 April 2021

Mona Bieling on Landscape and Power in British Mandate Palestine

Mona Bieling is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute. In her PhD research, she looks at landscape changes in the British Mandate for Palestine (1917-1948) and how these influenced power relations between communities on the ground. Mona holds a BA in Language and Culture Studies from the University of Utrecht and an MA in International History and Politics from the Graduate Institute. She has spent semesters abroad at the University of Haifa, Israel, as well as at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

What is your research concerned with?

I am looking at different types of landscape changes that occurred in the British Mandate for Palestine (ca. 1917-1948) and how these influenced the power relations between the British, Jewish and Arab communities on the ground. The four case studies I examine are land reclamation techniques, forestry, the Dead Sea development and botanical gardens. I see my research sitting at the intersection of colonial/imperial and environmental history, and I am interested in bringing to light the effects that colonialism had on the environment. In my specific case, this means investigating British and Jewish attitudes towards the Palestinian environment – an environment that was foreign to them initially and that they were trying to influence in the ways they saw most suitable for their goals. 

In the case of the Jewish settlers, this often meant instrumentalising nature to support Jewish nation-building. The best-known example here is the case of forestry: The Jewish National Fund (JNF) and other organisations planted millions of trees in Palestine without necessarily prioritising environmental concerns. Instead, trees were planted to bring the arid lands of Palestine closer to the Biblical image of a “Land flowing with milk and honey”. The choice of planting pine trees reflected the need for the Jewish leaders to make settling in Palestine easier for the mostly Eastern European Jews that were immigrating: it was hoped that modelling Palestinian landscapes after the landscapes the immigrants came from would make it easier for them to stay and prosper. Trees were also used for more straightforwardly political and geographical concerns: to demarcate the envisioned future borders of the Jewish State and to acquire land. 

A second dimension of my research is my interest in how colonial knowledge is produced and travels throughout empires. If we take the example of forestry again, we see that the British colonial officials copied many ideas developed by the French in Algeria in the mid-late nineteenth century. A certain ‘environmental orientalism’ was rife among French and British colonial officials, for example in terms of narratives about desiccation and land degradation. In the British Empire, these ideas, together with ‘scientific’ forestry were mostly experimented with in India before being applied in other parts of the Empire as well, without too much concern about adapting the template to the local environments. 


How have you been going about your research?

For the first three years of the PhD, I worked as Research Assistant on a Swiss National Fund-supported project “The Myth of Homogeneity: Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919-1939”, together with Emmanuel Dalle Mulle and Professor Davide Rodogno. In the context of this project, I had to travel to various archives whose locations at times coincided with the archives I needed to consult for my dissertation. To make the most out of my time, I thus often combined my research trips for the project and the dissertation, which made the first three years quite travel intense. In hindsight, this was a good decision as I now have the bulk of the material collected and was not too negatively influenced by the travel restrictions since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

One aspect that I really enjoy about my work is meeting enthusiastic researchers at conferences and workshops who are working on topics connected to my interests. Exchanging ideas and (re)sources with likeminded peers is an invaluable part of my journey as a doctoral student. Moreover, attending conferences forces me to put my thoughts somewhat coherently onto paper, which can be quite difficult at times if I have gotten lost in yet another fascinating side story from my archival material… 


What led you to focus on this particular set of issues?

While studying for my BA in Language and Culture Studies at Utrecht University, I had the opportunity to spend one semester at the University of Haifa in Israel. During my stay, I increasingly noticed the – sometimes surprising - connections between Israel and trees. For example, while hiking in the Galilee, we suddenly came upon a majestic eucalyptus tree, which seemed quite out of place. Or, while strolling through the old town of Jaffa, I turned a corner and suddenly was faced with an orange tree “floating” above the street (“Floating Orange Tree” by Israeli artist Ran Morin, 1993). Upon my return, I started reading up on the history and symbolism of trees in Israel, quickly finding out about their cultural and political implications. At the same time, I became more and more interested in the study of connections between the environment and different imperial projects, starting with such foundational works as Crosby’s “The Columbian Exchange” or Grove’s “Green Imperialism”. The selection of my case studies developed as a dialogue between my personal interests and the material I discovered in the archives. They also reflect the need to discuss different kinds and scopes of landscapes, including large industrial and infrastructural projects on the one hand and more seemingly self-contained endeavours such as Hebrew University’s botanical garden. 

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