Building up a reputation

With a rich history of cultural and political events, Binyenei Ha’uma celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Zionist congress 521 (photo credit: GPO)
Zionist congress 521
(photo credit: GPO)
It was just a “filler” between the presentation of the songs in the Israeli Song Competition and the jury’s decision: A young girl named Shuli walked onto the stage and sang a new song written by Naomi Shemer called “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold). The audience in the large hall of Binyenei Ha’uma on that evening in May in 1967 was unaware that the Egyptian army was reinforcing its troops on the border, preparing for war. Nevertheless, the song touched every soul in the hall and across the country, and it became an anthem.
Last week, in a moving ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC), Shuli Natan returned to the same stage and evoked much of that same emotion.
The anniversary celebration felt like a large family gathering.
Veteran reporters from the Israel Broadcasting Authority, singers and musicians, as well as high-ranking officials and politicians from the Jerusalem Municipality, all dressed to the nines, mingled in the large foyer before entering the Ussishkin Hall for the ceremony.
Perhaps the only thing that had changed since those early days was the food. There was a large variety of delicate sushi, something most Israelis had never heard of back in the 1950s and ’60s.
The ceremony, and in fact the whole evening, which included the presentation of the Yakir Binyenei Ha’uma award to President Shimon Peres, was bathed in nostalgia.
The evening was hosted by veteran television star Rivka Michaeli, who had been the host of the popular song contests produced by the IBA – hassidic, Mizrahi and Israeli – in the 1970s and ’80s.
The largest hall in the country was built for nationalistic rather than cultural reasons. In 1949, the decision to build a large hall in Jerusalem was made while “Jerusalem was not recognized as the capital of the state by the rest of the world,” explains Monica Lavi, curator of the large exhibition at the core of the 60th anniversary event. “So the decision was made mainly to reinforce the city’s status.
It was a national interest in those days, and in many respects not so different from today. There was a serious concern to present Jerusalem as the capital, as the most important city, to prove it, to insist on the issue both within the country and to the world.”
The complex was planned by architect Ze’ev Richter, who won the design competition launched in 1949 by the government. The construction took place from 1950 to 1963, although in 1956 it was already able to host the annual meeting of the World Zionist Organization. Due to economic difficulties and the government’s austerity policy during the first decade of the state, the ambitious project suffered from various delays and even a few lulls in construction – so much so that critics referred to it as hurbat ha’uma (national ruin).
According to Lavi, Richter’s design expressed the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after centuries of being scattered among the nations of the world. The building was a solid structure covered in Jerusalem stone on all sides except one, which was eventually covered with blue glass panels. Situated at the entrance of the city, it has 27 halls, with about 1,000 seats altogether, in addition to the main auditorium, Ussishkin Hall, with 3,100 seats. It also has 12,000 sq.m of exhibition space on two levels.
AMID THE two levels of the hall where the exhibition is displayed, actors walk about, portraying historical figures. An actor playing Theodor Herzl welcomes visitors to the event, citing in a long and involved speech the importance of the Zionist movement and the realization of its goals. A few steps ahead, visitors are welcomed by another actor representing David Ben-Gurion, wearing his trademark military-like shirt and shorts, inviting everyone to sign the original scroll of the foundation of Binyenei Ha’uma.
On one of the walls, a video shows the building’s most memorable moments, while the rest of the exhibition comprises large pictures, mostly in black and white, chronicling the 60 years that have elapsed since the cornerstone was laid. Golda Meir’s hand being kissed by renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein is just one of the moments captured alongside a long gallery of past Zionist leaders and current Israeli ones who visited Binyenei Ha’uma at one time or another.
It seems that the planners’ original vision did succeed.
“Binyenei Ha’uma has been, from the get-go, a ‘must’ on the itinerary of every Israeli child, since it was a landmark on the compulsory visit of students to Jerusalem,” explains Lavi. “But not only that. What soldier hasn’t met his unit at least once during his army service at the Binyenei Ha’uma parking lot? And who hasn’t come here at least once for a Zionist conference or an Israel Philharmonic concert, and years ago for one of the national song competitions produced by the Voice of Israel radio?” The national song contests launched by the Voice of Israel in the late 1960s were some of the events that made Binyenei Ha’uma such an important venue. Over the years, the large complex hosted the two Eurovision Song Contests (1979 and 1999) held in Israel (following the Israeli songs “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” and “Diva” winning the competition), operas, concerts (all the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra concerts in Jerusalem are held there), exhibitions, all the IBA song contests, as well as the International Housing Fair, the International Book Fair, all the Zionist Congresses and, on a totally different note, the Demjanjuk trial. Also last year, the ICC was the natural choice of venue to hold the first President’s Conference on the Future of the Jewish People.
But there is no question that the most special tie is the one between the ICC and the IBA.
“There is one whole wall in the exhibition dedicated to the IBA,” explains Amnon Shiloni, a veteran of the Voice of Israel and deputy director-general of special operations.
“We worked on this event, together with the people of the ICC, for a whole year to bring all the memories and the testimonies of what we have done here over decades. Since 1970, this hall has been home to all the major productions of the Voice of Israel – the Hassidic Song Contest, the Mizrahi Song Contest, the Children’s Song Contest, the Israeli Song Contest in which Shuli Natan first appeared – it all happened here. For some of us, it was just a natural extension of Kol Israel.”
Shiloni adds that upon its closure, within a year from now, the IBA part of the exhibition will move to its main offices at the renovated building of the old Shaare Zedek hospital on Jaffa Road. “It’s a piece of our history, not only of the IBA and its employees, but of some of the most important and moving moments in the history of this country.”
THE STORY of the Mizrahi Song Contest is very interesting, as the contest is considered by many singers and musicians to have paved the way for Mizrahi music to become more accepted here, in contrast to the more European and Russian kinds of Israeli songs that were popular in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Yosef Ben-Israel, an executive producer at The Voice of Israel, now retired, recalls how it all started.
“It was 1961, and I was invited to president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi’s home for a holiday meal. After the kiddush, I told him that the following week there would be a large concert of Mizrahi music that I produced independently of the Voice of Israel, performed by Israeli singers like Jo Amar, Filfel el-Masri and others at Binyenei Ha’uma. He came to the concert and enjoyed it very much. That was the first time that such music had been played at Binyenei Ha’uma. Then the Voice of Israel started to produce song contests there – Israeli song contests, hassidic song contests, children’s song contests, presented by the biggest stars we had at the time at the IBA, like Rivka Michaeli, and then Dan Kaner and Daniel Pe’er.
“I went to Drora Ben-Avi, then head of the entertainment and music department at the Voice of Israel (and granddaughter of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, another piece of this country’s modern history), and asked her, ‘What about Mizrahi music?’ She said, ‘Get money for the production, and we’ll have it.’ I went to Omanut La’am and they agreed to provide the money. And in 1970, nine years later, I held the first big Mizrahi music event. We came out with the first official Mizrahi Song Contest, at Binyenei Ha’uma, of course, the most ‘establishment’ location in the country, and it was an immediate success.
It went on until 1985, but by then practically all the song contests were canceled, I think for lack of money or perhaps also lack of interest,” he says.
Ben-Yosef recalls that for the second Mizrahi Song Contest, he persuaded the directors to invite the renowned Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis to be a guest star.
“I simply phoned him from my room at my Athens hotel, and he accepted immediately. But I had no idea what he looked like, so at Lod airport I had to ask one of the stewards to help me find him. He was so admired here, that when he stepped onto the stage of Binyenei Ha’uma, the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Binyenei Ha’uma was witness to some of the most magical moments of our culture and entertainment history,” he says.
The Children’s Song Contest also became famous, as it served as an inspiration for one of the most popular sketches of the 1970s, with Rivka Michaeli starring in the contest as monitor and in the sketch as an actress for one of the famous satirical TV shows of the time, with the tune “And Only Jerusalem Has 02.”
“It all happened here” says Shiloni. “Nothing really important could happen anywhere else but at Binyenei Ha’uma. It may sound strange today, with all the various venues we have in the rest of the country, but in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it was the only option.”
Natan Sharansky, who features in the exhibition and who attended the festive evening, recalls how Binyenei Ha’uma was a passage from hell to heaven for him when he was made his first public appearance at a special conference there after his release from Russia.
Amos Mar-Haim, a deputy mayor of Teddy Kollek’s, seemed particularly pleased at the anniversary event. Large festive halls were clearly a way to “put Jerusalem on the map,” he admits, and he recalls how Kollek was immediately aware of the strong impact of the big song contests, especially the Eurovision series, which “enabled the eyes of millions of people around the world to see that there was a normal, cultural and entertaining life in Jerusalem. And it was, of course, for our cause, the best publicity we could have.”
Today, the ICC has garnered high praise among large convention centers around the world, but for Mira Altman, the CEO, things have not yet returned to the promising situation at the beginning of 2000, just before the second intifada. “If it was not for the intifada, we would have been on our way to reaching one of the top 10 positions among such international facilities, as the ICC had undergone major renovations. But we’re not there yet.”
Altman points out that many local congresses and conferences are held at the ICC; however, the international conferences are still not coming back to the ICC, mostly for “political reasons connected to the geopolitical situation of the State of Israel and not because of what we can offer or even the risk of terrorism, since today such things happen everywhere.”
Over the past few years, several large halls have been built outside of Jerusalem, and Altman admits that some of them do offer good facilities, but she emphasizes that “nothing can compare to what the ICC can offer in terms of technology and requirements for international participation in conferences, and that is what this hall was meant to be right from the beginning.”
Daniel Pe’er, the legendary Voice of Israel broadcaster who hosted the pre-Eurovision contests (to choose the song that would represent Israel at the European contest), as well as the contest itself at Binyenei Ha’uma, says he understands that things change over the years.
“We were the only station broadcasting then, with almost 100 percent of the ratings. People were very much engaged and followed the song contests, and even participated in the voting to choose the winning song. This is something that obviously doesn’t represent Israeli society anymore. There was a live orchestra and live performers who managed to remember the words of the songs and didn’t need a teleprompter like they do today. Other times, other ways,” he says.
As for the fact that the ICC is not using its full capacity as an international venue for conferences, Pe’er believes it is the result of the delegitimization of the state and of Jerusalem’s status, which he says can be resolved only through political means.