I spent a pleasant afternoon in prison the other day, a day full of surprises. I joined a press tour to one of the most unusual venues in the Jerusalem Biennale, which opened October 1 and runs through November 16. The Museum of the Underground Prisoners, next to the capital’s Russian Compound, is dedicated to the members of the Jewish underground movements that operated ahead of the establishment of the State of Israel, including those who fought the Turkish rule that ended 100 years ago.
The museum’s long corridors and former cells are the unlikely backdrop for the exhibition dedicated to the theme of “Watershed.” Among the seemingly incongruous exhibits were works dedicated to the centenary of the Balfour Declaration that on November 2, 1917, changed the course of Jewish history. The Balfour Declaration fits the definition of a watershed moment for sure, but marking it in the confines of the jail was a daring and interesting choice.
The founder and chief curator of the Jerusalem Bienniale, Rami Ozeri, has seen his pet project grow in just three years from a private obsession to an exhibition of the works of more than 200 artists spread out in eight locations. Listening to him explaining his rationale, giving space to contemporary Jewish art, as opposed to Judaica, it was clear he feels liberated from the confines of his previous job as a financial reporter.
Ozeri strongly believes Jerusalem is the right place to put contemporary Jewish art on show. He also feels that the prison is an apt environment. The jail is a watershed in its own right, marking both British Mandate rule and those who opposed it.
Across from a room still fitted out with the trappings of the British prison governor, not far from the cell in which two Jewish prisoners would have been hanged had they not committed suicide the night before their scheduled execution, I found myself belting out the British hymn “Jerusalem.” I couldn’t help it. The words were embroidered on a shroud-like sheet covering a sleeping female figure in an impressive work, Jerusalem Dreams, by London artist Jaqueline Nicholls.
Someone asked me if I knew the tune of William Blake’s poem, written more than two centuries ago, and, like anybody of my generation who went to a non-Jewish British school, I was able to recall the first verse without looking at the artwork: “And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?” “It’s about the two dreams coming together, that of the Jews and that of the British people,” said Nicholls, describing her work.
The female mannequin was not a coincidence, of course. Nicholls noted that composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry gave royalties to the women’s suffrage movement so that every time it was performed, it supported women, furthering freedom of a different nature.
British Israeli artist Ruth Schreiber turned the one-page typed letter sent by British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild on November 2, 1917 into a work of art. As a man’s voice reads out loud “the following declaration of sympathy with the Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by the Cabinet...” the words appear on a gauze curtain, and turn into an elongated, easily trampled on, image on the cold prison corridor floor.
Schreiber described her “Balfour at 100” as deliberately emphasizing both the flimsy and the permanent.
Elsewhere in the museum, Beverly- Jane Stewart’s canvas Balfour Accomplished captures scenes from World War I, Balfour handing Rothschild the historic letter, London’s iconic Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament. At the center of the oil painting is a Magen David – the Star of David that is the emblem of Israel and the Jewish people. At the center of the star, a group of men is seen holding a Torah and praying at the Western Wall.
The conflicted nature of the relationship between Israel and Britain is stark in the dark jail.
There are images of Balfour helping the Jews on the path to creating the modern state, but there are also haunting reminders of promises broken.
It was Britain that prevented the Jews from immigrating to the Promised Land before World War II or during it – even when the extent of the Holocaust was well known, even when the war had ended and stunned survivors had nowhere else to turn.
Jews could not blow the shofar at the Western Wall on religious holidays while the British controlled it. They were not free to protect themselves. The bombing in 1948 of the offices of The Palestine Post, the forerunner of The Jerusalem Post, is believed to have been carried out with the collusion of rogue British soldiers and Arab terrorists. (That the newspaper marks its 85th anniversary this December is cause for a celebration in its own right.)
In a statement released by Ariel University ahead of the centenary, Prof. Abraham Sion described the Balfour Declaration as “the Magna Carta of the Jewish state... The intention was that after 2,000 years of exile the Jewish state would be established. Everything that happened after that was the product of the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration was the modern Exodus of the Jewish people.”
Dr. Udi (Ehud) Manor, another Ariel University expert, noted, “It’s not by chance that [Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen wants to sue the British for the declaration. Despite common belief, this was not the capricious act of a Bible-loving British conservative nor was it a gift to Chaim Weizmann in return for acetone. [He developed the process for industrial production of acetone used by the British as part of the ammunition producing process in World War I]. It was a document that expressed broad and principled international commitment that had already served as the basis for Zionist self-definition in the First [Zionist] Congress.”
So many anniversaries. The First Zionist Congress took place 120 years ago. Next week, the country will mark both 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba, where ANZAC forces beat the Turkish army in World War I, opening the way for the British to conquer Jerusalem.
This year, Israel is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, brought together after Arab forces tried to destroy Israel in the Six Day War and lost.
On Friday, the 7th of Heshvan, the country marks Aliya Day, a celebration of immigration to Israel. Immigration not subject to the whim of a foreign power. The opposite of colonialism.
The tragedy of the Palestinians does not stem from the Balfour Declaration. It lies in the lack of a leadership willing and able to create a similar flourishing state alongside Israel instead of consistently choosing to wage war against the Jews. The creation of the modern Jewish state was both a miracle of biblical proportions and part of the forces for national and personal liberation in play at the time. Long before the publication of Balfour’s letter, waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in the Land of Israel, fleeing antisemitism and pogroms and drawn by the ancient dream of “Next year in Jerusalem.” Today’s immigrants arrive, far more comfortably, for the same reasons. Jews in Britain and elsewhere know that antisemitism, shamefully, is not a thing of the past.
When I finished my prison tour, I stepped out onto a sunny, crowded street in the Israeli capital. Far from England. I was surrounded by hustle and bustle and the sound of Hebrew, the original language of the Bible, now used for everything from prayers to pop songs. This was the real and eternal Jerusalem. I put the mixed messages of the former British prison behind me. I celebrated being free and being home.
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