Water on stamps and the stamp that is yet to be made / Assaf Selzer

It should be noted that the readers of this text know what a stamp is, have used stamps to send a letter or package and may have even collected stamps. It seems there is truth to the claim that the younger generation knows stamps from the book series “Letters From Felix” or “The Itamar Letter” while the older generation among us remember stamp duty. Stamps disappeared from my daily life following the decline of letters and the sending of packages through couriers, but they still appear on the certificates of some of the schools (remember the JNF stamps?!). The Philatelic Service continues to produce stamps, series, first day covers and even souvenir sheets every year and invites the public to subscribe, claiming that stamp activity encourages quality time with children and grandchildren. Stamps, which were a means of collecting payment for a service and a significant means of disseminating information and exposing content that the state has a vested interest in, have become a recreational product for intergenerational connecting.

While the purpose of stamps and the way they are produced may have changed, one thing has not. Then and now, stamps relay content and messages from which we can learn about the  public and national agenda and what is important to the those responsible for their production. One such subject on the Israeli agenda is water. The country’s geographic location and limited water supply as well as the growing population and the desire to preserve natural spaces for future generations raise major questions.

One may ask — what do stamps (rubber stamps, postage stamps and first day envelopes) tell us about Israel’s water history? And what don’t they tell us? What is proudly displayed and what is being ignored? A stamp is not technically a standalone work of art; in order to understand the stamp and its content, we must know the date it was issued and the series in which it appeared. 

Desinger: Zevi Narkis, 1965

This stamp featuring the National Water Carrier of Israel was issued in a unique postal service series marking the day of remembrance for Israel’s casualties of war. Remembrance Day stamps are a further means of commemoration through the variety of design actions implemented by the establishment in acknowledging the date. The 1965 stamp presented the National Water Carrier of Israel which began operations in 1964. Since its establishment (and to this day), the carrier is the largest and most complex water plant established in the state of Israel. So it is understandable that it was immortalized on a stamp during a period of great nationalism.

The idea of establishing a water plant to transport water from northern Israel (can you recognize the Kinneret and the Golan Heights?) to the South were suggested as early as the time of the British Mandate. Only after the founding of the state of Israel and consulting international specialists was its structure determined and operations in the field began. Initially, the carrier’s starting point was at the Banot Yaakov Bridge, north of the Kinneret. But on account of Syrian protest to the UN and the security sensitivity, it was decided to divert the carrier’s starting point to the Kinneret. After further delays caused by legal issues, the carrier’s construction was completed. But because of the security sensitivity and events on the northern border, the carrier was inaugurated without an official ceremony or large public event. Israel did not hide its activities in building the carrier but managed not to provoke neighboring countries and refrained from holding a public ceremony. Instead, national pride was expressed on a stamp. 

The name of the designer was not specified on the Philatelic Service website

On the other hand, in 1955, a multi-participant ceremony was held to mark the inauguration of the Yarkon-Negev plant, the first of the national water plants established in the young state. The plant which carried all of the spring water from the Yarkon River to the Negev was in fact part of the national water plant (to which the National Water Carrier would later be connected). An event stamp was prepared in its honor and imprinted at a post office set up at the site of the inauguration ceremony. The text on the stamp — “The Yarkon will flow backwards” — highlights the achievement but, of course, does not present the future damage that they failed to prevent (despite some attempts) — significant harm to the Yarkon as a river, as a habitat, and space for the leisure, recreation and general enjoyment of the public. In those days when everything was mobilized to enact great ideas, water too was deployed for the national project (settlement and agriculture). In saying “backwards,” the designers of the stamp wanted to declare that in establishing the plant, the engineers and workers managed to change the laws of nature so that the river no longer flowed into the sea!

Desinger: Yigal Gabai, 1996

How and where does it flow on stamps? In pipes. The pipe motif expresses human ability and control over the resource. The pipe appears both in the carrier’s stamp as well as the first day envelope (an illustrated envelope on which the stamp is affixed and on which the postmark is stamped to mark the day of its publication) which was issued to mark the anniversary of the establishment of the 11 locations in the Negev (1946). In reality only certain components of the water supply can be seen in the landscape (drills; boosters; consumer connection points) but most of the infrastructure — the pipes — are invisible for various reasons. Stamps were issued to show the different plants, to hint at their size (see the diameter of the pipe in the National Water Carrier stamp) and to present achievements.

The name of the designer was not specified on the Philatelic Service website

National and historical events are, as mentioned, an excellent motive to issue stamps. So it is with the stamp that marked the 70th anniversary of the water company — Mekorot. The company, established in the second half of the 1930s by both the primary Zionist institutions (Keren Hayesod and the JNF) and even the consumers (future inhabitants who would buy water from the company) was intended to supply discounted water to agricultural settlements. Its founders sought to make water a significant means of national revival despite the fact that sovereignty had not yet been achieved. With the success of its first plant in the Jezreel Valley, its operations were expanded to other parts of the country. Later, the company also formulated a national water plan. At the time when the state was established, Mekorot was its largest water company. Later the country bought it and, in accordance with the Water Law (1959), the water company was nationalized. The stamp marking the event represents its operations: producing water (the drilling tower), quality assurance and transmission (via the pipes); and encouraging rain and water treatment as part of a designated lake (the Eshkol reservoir in the Beit Netofa Valley) which also adds color to the landscape. This stamp, without so much as a ‘drop’ of history is in fact a marketing document in miniature. 

Desingers: Shlomit Ben Tzur and Gustavo Wiesler, 2013

Desalination is one of Mekorot’s central operations. Since the early 2000s,  in the face of the ongoing crises in the water economy, there has been an increase in use of desalinated water (see the Water Authority website). To mark the significant transition to desalination, a stamp was issued displaying a utopian and childish water reality. So utopian that instead of flowing to the sea, streams flow from the sea into the Star of David-shaped lake. The water in the river is clean, accessible to everyone, and revolutionizes the entire landscape as it is free of conflicts, environmental problems, noise or trash

But anyone who is not familiar with the reality of the rivers in Israel (even since the age of desalination) and the desalination operations will have a hard time recognizing it in the stamp. There are hints at desalination in the tab, in the form of the pipe ostensibly coming out of the sea and the use of the word ‘revolution’. But the stamp is somewhat cryptic, perhaps implying that all the consequences of desalination on our lives and the future of the environment have not yet been discovered. While this is not the place to expand on the technological, economic and environmental issues, it is worth emphasizing that any solution to water scarcity — for both man and nature — also has consequences and disadvantages. It seems that there is no argument on the contribution of desalination to the Israeli water market but will life in Israel look like this when the desalination revolution comes to an end? The stamp may indicate our aspirations, but in contrast with the other stamps that were presented here it does not offer a realistic water reality.

Is this the whole story of water in Israel? Is it all achievements, innovations (and we did not even mention the stamps portraying drip irrigation or Israel’s water reuse system), advanced research activities and technological developments? Of course not. The water stamps mark achievements and thus fit the role assigned them to bear messages and maybe a little propaganda too. Of course the stamps do not represent, or even hint at the problems and challenges of the Israeli water market. But we can assume that if we continue to see stamps in our lives, (or perhaps more accurately in the lives of collectors), eventually we will be able to see stamps that represent ways of negotiating future challenges. Tracking the stamps will therefore allow us to trace the continuation of the local story of human-water relations. Since the stamps deal with what is, and reflect past deeds, we wish for the day when we will see water in the stamp that celebrates peace (as opposed to a stamp showing the longing for peace). Because on the day that such a stamp is issued, we will know that Israel has implemented its achievements in water technology to assist neighboring countries and promote honest and meaningful relationships. Such activity already exists but as it grows and becomes a matter of pride, we will surely see it on a stamp, letting us know that we live in peace.  

The stamps are taken from the Philatelic Service website – © 2021. All rights reserved to the Philatelic Service / Israel Post. The use of images in this article is made after an effort to regulate their use, with the intention of giving full credit to the designers and without making any commercial use of them. If there is an error in the published information, please let us know as soon as possible.