Blue & White in back and white

The documents in the Jerusalem section of an Israel Museum exhibition shed new light on the unification of the city after the Six Day War.

israel museum photo 248  (photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)
israel museum photo 248
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)
As historical events that change our reality are recounted repeatedly, they become legends. As such, they often shed the details that ground them to the situation from which they originally emerged. Now, at the Blue and White Pages exhibit at the Israel Museum, realities about Jerusalem that are today considered incontestable expose their contingent and ephemeral sides. And this thanks to the careful selection and presentation of original documents from the Israel State Archives. "The majority of the documents [in the exhibit] have some value as objects," explains Ido Bruno, an industrial and exhibition designer who curated the exhibit. "We're used to looking at the 'content' of a document, but there are also physical characteristics: ink, calligraphy, mistakes, corrections. Pieces of paper you can imagine being on someone's desk." For Bruno, the challenge was to prepare a historical exhibit at a museum expressly not about history. To do this, he focused on documents that had not only historical but also some cultural significance. He included only key original documents directly connected to historical events, whose origins were completely known, or second-degree documents that threw some new light on one of those events. Indeed, each of the documents that make up the exhibit's Jerusalem section touch on deeper issues in Israeli society than its mere words or images may initially imply. The documents relate mostly to Jerusalem's status as Israel's capital and its unification after the Six Day War. In them, we see the advent of larger trends within the city's and country's political life, embodied by its leaders, spoken boldly but with a sense of spontaneity in moments before, during and after some of Israel's major wars. For example, in a December 18, 1947, letter to the Jewish Agency and Provisional Government, the president of the Herzliya local council proposed that their moshav (town/village) would be an ideal place to house the government while there was still conflict in Jerusalem. For three pages, he goes on to explain that it is the only municipality that bears the name of Theodor Herzl, that it enjoyed relative quiet throughout the years of unrest between 1929-36, and that it was surrounded by other Hebrew settlements rather than being on the border with Arab states. "It raises the question," says Bruno, "of whether it would be possible today to make such a proposal. And since the answer is probably 'no,' why was it possible then? It shows us that at that time, everything was still quite raw and undecided." As unexpected as such a proposal may seem today, we see that in 1947 the issues that worried Herzliya's local council are the same ones that Jerusalem continues to deal with on a daily basis. If the government had moved there until the conflict in Jerusalem ended, it would still be there. Like the very name of the soon-to-be-established Jewish state, which in a draft of the Declaration of Independence is blank even a few days before the scheduled official signing, the language in terms of Jerusalem is fairly vague in the final declaration. Bruno explains that when looking for subtitles for each section of the exhibit, he chose to use extracts from the Declaration of Independence, the original of which is also on display. Looking for a phrase with the word "Jerusalem" in it, he noticed that the word didn't appear in any section of the document. The closest thing he found was "The Holy Places of all religions." Bruno then points out a telegram from David Ben-Gurion to Moshe Sharett, Israel's first foreign minister, who was on an official trip to the UN. On December 4, 1949, Ben-Gurion informs Sharett that in a day's time, the Knesset will propose a declaration that the "State of Israel will not abide by any sort of foreign rule in Jewish Jerusalem that would tear it from the state." He ends with even stronger words: "If we are asked to choose between leaving Jerusalem and leaving the UN, we would prefer to leave the UN." Bruno notes that this was written only a year after the Declaration of Independence, which failed to expressly mention Jerusalem. "It didn't just slip his mind," he stresses. ONE OF the longer documents in the Jerusalem section is a transcript from an Extraordinary Session of the Knesset on June 6, 1967. As part of the National Unity Government formed during the time of war, Menachem Begin was invited to join as minister without portfolio and was speaking to the assembled. The single-page extract catches him mid-statement: "Therefore, I say that we don't have to answer King Hussein [of Jordan], and we should put it off until we can get to the Old City." He continues: "Regarding the Old City, I ask that we not put it off, not even for another hour." Then he makes what he calls a "sentimental" request: "We're constantly using the word 'occupation.' Though militarily that's correct, I would prefer to say that the Old City has been 'liberated.'" He says that in case this "arouses any doubts," apparently referring to possible protests among other nations, the government can say that "the City of David is in the hands of the IDF," emphasizing the use of the words "City of David" and calling it the "utmost truth." In response, health minister Israel Barzilai says, "Yesterday we decided on something else." A bit later, Begin expresses confidence about entering the Old City: "I think this idea is near being realized. We need to broadcast this to the world." He states that the move will have great significance, particularly in the Christian world, because "morally we have conquered nothing." And he ends by reaffirming his request: "I ask first and foremost that we not postpone the liberation of the Old City for even another moment." Below the transcript is prime minister Levi Eshkol's desktop calendar. June 6 is empty of notes, as is most of June 7, until in the 4:30 p.m. slot we see a note in pencil regarding a meeting with representatives of ethnic groups (whether Jewish groups or others we don't know). In the 6 p.m. slot, there are these words: "To the Western Wall." And at 9 p.m., a defense meeting. Above the calendar and to one side of the transcript is a little-seen Associated Press photograph from 11 p.m. on June 6, 1967. In it, a young bride and groom smile at the camera, surrounded by soldiers and friends cramming into the frame, the Western Wall visible behind them. Bruno explains that the young couple had planned their wedding during the week of what became the Six Day War. When they heard that the Western Wall had been liberated, the couple asked to be married there immediately. Above the photo we see the original Telex instructions sent to the AP office in London. The first Jewish marriage to take place after the IDF's entry into the Old City was between a British ola and an Israeli kibbutznik. On the other side of Begin's early utterances as a member of government, Bruno has placed an original copy of the 1980 law that united Jerusalem and declared it Israel's capital, signed by Begin in his capacity as prime minister. The third point in the law states that Jerusalem's "Holy Places" will remain intact and be looked after, and that neither the places nor the people who want to pray there will be harmed. Bruno points out that, again, the phrase "Holy Places" refers back to the Declaration of Independence. In the center of the exhibit's Jerusalem section are two photographs. In one, a group of children plays soccer next to a high stone wall. At the top of the wall is a barrier of sandbags, to which an arrow drawn on the photo points, with the words "Arab Legion Post." An arrow pointing to where the children play says "Jerusalem (Israel)"; another pointing to the wall states "Israel Jordan Border." In the second photograph, a large concrete wall separating the Israeli and Jordanian sides of Jerusalem is being toppled. As the wall is caught mid-fall, the viewer can make out the top of a building on the other side of the wall, the anticipation frozen in what suggests the longer historical wait for this moment. "It's a kind of before and after," says Bruno, "though I didn't want to use the famous photographs that everyone has already seen." On a separate wall in the exhibition hall hangs the original map of the region on which two lines - one green, the other red - were drawn in March 1949, delineating the no-man's land between Israel and Jordan as part of the Armistice Agreement. In the middle is the city of Jerusalem, which the green line had divided almost exactly in half. Looking closely at the map with the green line, one can see erasures and changes, signed in each place by archeologist and later chief of General Staff Yigael Yadin. The line is drawn in thick colored pencil, and Bruno explains that in terms of scale it's about 300 meters wide. "And this is in a place where we fight over two or three meters. It's a working draft. The final map is a little different and is printed in the actual Armistice Agreement," he says, pointing to a showcase where the agreement lies. "They're just general points, lines, nothing absolute. Yet this document continues to affect us today." The Blue and White Pages exhibition at the Israel Museum runs until February 7.