Museum with an artful history

The Wilfred Israel Museum in the Jezreel Valley has a valuable collection of Far Eastern, as well as local artwork.

By LYDIA AISENBERG
September 28, 2006 16:53
4 minute read.
Museum with an artful history

sand mural 88. (photo credit: )

 
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A pre-World War II friendship between businessman and traveler Wilfred Israel and members of a Zionist group in Germany formed the background of a rather special museum in his name at Kibbutz Hazorea in the Jezreel Valley. The museum houses a collection of ancient Far East art mainly from China, India, Cambodia and Thailand and a selection of exhibits from ancient Near Eastern cultures, especially Iran and Egypt. Antiquities discovered in the vicinity of the German-founded kibbutz and in important archaeological sites such as Beth She'arim and Megiddo are also on permanent exhibition at the Wilfrid Israel Museum at Hazorea. The museum was built in l951, some eight years after the London-born businessman perished in the Gulf of Biscay in an unsolved mystery. Merchant, philanthropist, intellectual and Zionist activist, Israel was the son of a well-to-do German Jewish family with pre-war business interests in Germany. He was endowed with a keen interest in art, and during his sojourns in the Far East acquired a rich collection of local objects. In Germany he befriended young Zionists belonging to a group called the Werkleute, who eventually founded kibbutz Hazorea. Israel visited British Mandate Palestine twice and even spoke about eventually building a home there. The globe-trotting admirer of the impoverished agricultural collective bequeathed his collection of art and a large sum of money to construct a suitable building for it within the kibbutz. Inheriting the valuable collection led to many a heated kibbutz general meeting, but eventually agreement was reached for the museum to be built within the kibbutz grounds. However, having made that decision the kibbutzniks had to fight for what had rightfully become their own - the Israel collection. Not only did the weary pioneers have to struggle with living under the British Mandate in Palestine, but they also had to do battle with the British Museum, which had its eye on Israel's coveted works of art. That was one battle the British lost, as the treasures were crated and shipped to Israel in l946. "Since then, the collection has been enhanced by donations and acquisitions," explains Elissa Dvir, director of the Wilfrid Israel Museum of Oriental Art and Studies at Hazorea. "Alongside permanent exhibitions, the museum also presents various temporary exhibitions mainly by Israeli artists and in all art forms, including paintings, graphics, sculpture, textiles and ceramics," says Dvir, an American-born member of the kibbutz. In recent months the museum has been home to "The Way of the Mandala" exhibition and a plethora of workshops and activities around the special and spiritual art form (paintings and magnificent designs using sand), which is pleasing to the eye as well as, for some, the soul. "[Creating a] sand mandala is another way of meditative practice. Several monks mindfully create a mandala of colored sand and then scatter it on the river as a symbol of impermanence," explains Dvir, standing in a gallery surrounded by bright colored paintings and stunning works created from sand. Traditional mandalas and thangkas (paintings) from Tibet and Nepal are shown next to contemporary ones by Israeli artists, accurately representing the interest and love of the art form held dear by the museum's patron. Israel was one of four passengers on a Dutch civilian plane plying the Lisbon-to-London route when it was shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay. He was organizing the departure of Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal to Palestine at the time he perished. Israel rescued thousands from Hitler in the months before war broke out, ransoming prisoners from concentration camps and ceaselessly canvassing politicians, diplomats and anyone with influence to help his rescue missions. After the National Socialists seized power in 1933, he founded several organizations aimed at assisting Jewish emigrants, including the Central Committee for Assistance and Building and the Children and Youth Aliya. In 1939 he was forced by the Nazis to transfer the family business to Emil-Koester-AG. Thus one of the last "Jewish" trade enterprises in Germany disappeared. Israel fled Germany for Britain, where he served as a liaison between government agencies and Jewish refugee organizations. He also worked in Oxford as an advisor to The Royal Institute for International Affairs. Another passenger on board was the popular actor Leslie Howard, who played Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. Many an intrigue and myth developed over the years as to why the Germans shot the plane down. One of the rumors concentrated on the dashing Hollywood star's accountant, also a passenger on the ill-fated plane. He was a portly gentleman prone to smoking extra-large cigars, apparently leading the Germans to wrongly assume he was British prime minister Winston Churchill. The plane was flying at an unauthorized altitude, having delayed departure which was accredited to Howard's having been held up by a "romantic assignation." Even more befitting a hero of the silver screen, there were stories of his being involved in a secret mission for the British. There were those who believed that it was more than fate that brought the quiet and rather frail Israel to be on the same flight as the Hollywood film star and vice versa, but it would seem in all probability - myth-building aside - that it was just an unfortunate coincidence.

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