There are approximately a million bomb shelters, both public and private, littered throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Shelter!, a new exhibition by American photographer Adam Reynolds at Vienna’s Jewish Museum, documents this alarming proliferation.
A graduate of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Mr Reynolds began this documentary project in 2013, focusing on how Israelis have adapted the bomb shelter for more conventional usage.
The parking garage at Israel’s national theatre, for example, doubles as a shelter, as does the new train station in Sderot, which is specifically designed to withstand incoming rocket fire.
Those are grand projects but there are also more intimate manipulations of space. The shelter at a primary school in the Druze town of Hurfeish serves as a play area most of the time, while in a private home on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the border with Gaza, a bomb shelter is fitted out as a child’s bedroom.
Together, Mr Reynolds’ photographs show how bomb shelters have become regularised in Israel, even if they remain inherently abnormal. For Israelis, he believes, the shelters are “a practical solution to a seemingly intractable conflict”. They help balance “the ever-present anxieties about war and insecurity with a fierce desire for normality in daily life.”
As a prism through which to view contemporary Israel, Shelter! is stimulating and testing. Even if this is not its intent, it ostensibly inverts our traditional understanding of Israel as a haven for the Jewish people.
Theodor Herzl could be a cockeyed optimist sometimes, including in his perception that “the Jews, once settled in their own state, would probably have no more enemies.” If only.
Yet to view Israel only as a collection of bunkers and shelters is distorting. To retreat from the blazing light and look only underground is, by definition, to ignore what is going on up above — in this case, Israel’s dynamic economy and rich Hebrew culture.
Shelters alone reduce Israel to a collection of cowed victims — which the country, decidedly, is not.
Indeed, there is something empowering about having a Jewish state with the capacity for self-defence — and in that context, these shelters make a stark contrast with the hiding places that existed in the diaspora prior to Israel’s founding. This point is usually raised with reference to the military, but Israel’s network of bunkers is part of the picture, too.
Then there is the question of what Israel would do without these bunkers. It is not as if they were constructed as a matter of choice. Much is known about the trauma of those who lived in the vicinity of Gaza in the years before every home had its own mamad.
From the Knesset in Jerusalem to a synagogue in Eilat and a cosmetics studio in Gedera, shelters are ever-present if you know where to look to them. Shelter! forces upon the visitor a stark and challenging way of viewing Israel today.
The exhibition ‘Shelter! Architecture of Survival’ runs at the Museum Judenplatz (Jewish Museum of Vienna) until October 8