Farther Afield: History lessons of a riveting kind

Succot is the perfect time to visit the variety of museums run by the Defense Ministry.

Hagana Museum 311 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Hagana Museum 311
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Museums operated by the Defense Ministry can be wildly different, both in location and in theme. Nevertheless, they have two things in common: They tell the riveting, some would say miraculous, story of the State of Israel – and they are closed on Friday and Saturday.
Which is why the intermediate days of Succot are the perfect time to visit (and if not this fall, then during Hol Hamoed Pessah, next spring).
All four of the museums listed below are within an hour’s drive of the Tel Aviv area, and three are in the city itself. The fourth is a 19th-century building in downtown Jerusalem.
The Hagana Museum
Following the British conquest of the Holy Land in 1917, and with the onset of a British Mandate, the Jews in Palestine hoped there would be no more need for self-protection. Imagine their frustration, then, when Arab nationalists began inciting the locals, and the British were unable to establish law and order.
In 1920, after the northern settlement of Tel Hai was attacked and Arabs rioted in Jerusalem, it became apparent that the Jews would have to rely on themselves for defense. That year, a few pioneers decided to establish an organization for Jewish defense in the Land of Israel.
Hashomer (The Watchman) – a group of men and women who had banded together to guard Galilee settlements in 1909 – was disbanded. The Hagana was born.
Eliahu Golomb, who immigrated to the Land of Israel from Russia at the age of 16, was one of the founders of the Hagana. For the next 25 years he worked tirelessly to promote Jewish defense and immigration, but didn’t live to see the establishment of the State of Israel.
Golomb’s inspiring life story and the Hagana’s contribution to settlement, defense and immigration during the British Mandate are all unveiled at the Hagana Museum, situated at Sderot Rothschild 23.
Built in the 1920s, this beautifully renovated structure originally belonged to the Shertok family. After Golomb married Ada, sister of Moshe Shertok (later to become prime minister Moshe Sharett), the couple settled down in the Shertok residence, and their home served as the headquarters of the Hagana.
Two of the rooms have been preserved as they were in the 1940s, and are a delight to explore, while three new floors contain lively, sophisticated exhibits that trace Israel’s defense history, from the earliest Watchmen all the way up to the War of Independence.
One of my favorite exhibits is all about one of my heroes, Major Orde Charles Wingate, the Christian Zionist whom Jews in Palestine called “the Friend.”
From 1937 to 1939, before he was recalled by the British, Wingate organized special squads of Hagana volunteers and taught them innovative methods of fighting Arab terrorists. On display are his pistol and his colorful beret.
Another exhibit is a graphic display of the Night of the Bridges, and a third showcases the Watchmen – who were farmers during the day and soldiers/guards at night.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

Phone: (03) 560-8624 Fee: NIS 15/10. Wheelchair accessible
IZL Museum
Despite the efforts of the Hagana, Jews found themselves defenseless during massive Arab riots in 1921 (Tel Aviv) and 1929 (Jerusalem and Hebron, when 133 Jews were massacred and 230 injured in the course of one week).
In the early 1930s, some members of the Hagana grew impatient with its policy of self-restraint and formed a paramilitary force called Irgun Zva’i Leumi. They believed in retaliation against the Arabs as well as actions meant to drive the British out of Israel, so as to hasten the establishment of a Jewish state.
Many people feel that the activities of the IZL during the crucial pre-state years were instrumental in the British decision to toss the Palestine question onto the stage of the United Nations. But not everyone realizes that IZL soldiers also played an important role in Israel’s War of Independence, especially during the fierce battle for Jaffa and the brutal fight to recover Ramat Rahel from its Arab conquerors.
You will learn all about the IZL underground movement and the part it played in the history of the state during a visit to the striking IZL Museum, located at the southern end of the Tel Aviv seaside promenade.
Much of the museum’s design is symbolic, blending the old and the new. Originally a khan, or caravansary, in the Manshiya neighborhood of Jaffa, its kurkar (sealimestone) walls have been strengthened and the building was finished with glass.
Three-dimensional exhibits, a sound-and-light presentation, and unusual features offer you an unforgettable glimpse into the recent past. Look for a model of a prestate defensive position for protecting settlements. And don’t miss a great new movie with authentic shots from the period.
IZL veterans are especially proud of the organization’s part in the ferocious three-day battle over Jaffa, then a large Arab city. To learn about the innovative approach they used, read the explanations and watch the fourminute (Hebrew only) film.
During Succot, the museum will offer guided tours every two hours in Hebrew, and activities and movies for children all day long. Also, and unique to this museum, a special kiosk provides English-speaking visitors with extra information and movies in English.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 8 a.m-4 p.m.
Phone: (03) 517 7180 Fee: NIS 15/10. Wheelchair accessible
IDF Museum
Located next to the Tahana Complex between Neveh Tzedek and the sea, the IDF Museum is one of Israel’s finest salutes to our heritage.
Its wonderful assortment of exhibits, both indoors and out, presents visitors with a complete history of the Israel Defense Forces from its very beginnings until the present time – a nostalgic and inspiring journey.
Visitors can climb inside one of the actual armor-plated buses that brought personnel to Mount Scopus before and after the division of Jerusalem in 1948.
Examine a collection of over 550 types of hand gun, many sent by Jews from all over the world just before the outbreak of the War of Independence. You will view personal equipment and uniforms issued to soldiers way back in 1948, and see a display of captured enemy vehicles from Israel’s wars.
One exceptional pavilion holds weapons and other equipment used by Arab terrorists. Another displays two enormous coastal guns that the Egyptians positioned in 1956 near the Straits of Tiran just before the Sinai Campaign. A third demonstrates where it all began (from 1920 to 1948), while a fourth features official cars – such as the vehicle which carried Brigade Commander Motta Gur into the Old City after the liberation of Jerusalem.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 8:30 p.m.-3 p.m.

Phone: (03) 517-2913, (03) 516-1346 Fee: NIS 15/10. Wheelchair accessible Important: you can buy a combined ticket for five Tel Aviv Defense Ministry Museums at any of them that is good for a month, and costs only NIS 20/15.
Museum of Underground Prisoners
In 1864, after buying a large plot of land outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Russian Orthodox Church built a pilgrims’ hostel for women.
Early in the British Mandate, the long, squat building was turned into a jail for thieves and murderers; later, Jews were thrown into the prison for defending themselves, carrying weapons, belonging to the underground, and terrorizing the British.
For decades after the founding of the state, its history forgotten, the prison provided office space and storage for different institutions. Later, former inmates transformed the building into a shrine for Hagana, IZL and Lehi fighters hanged by the British and called it Hechal Hagevura (Hall of Heroism).
Eventually, recognizing the underground’s significant part in the nation’s history, the Defense Ministry restored the building. Today it serves as the Museum of Underground Prisoners, telling the spellbinding story of a relentless struggle to oust the British and help create a Jewish state.
Several of the bleak cells have been restored along with the bakery, workshops and a makeshift synagogue. The exercise yard, now empty, of course, is where prisoners about to be flogged were tied to a wooden structure that stood in the corner.
One cell holds two “attractions”: names, mottos and inscriptions that prisoners chiseled into the floor, and the open hatch under one of the beds through which 12 Jewish prisoners managed to escape.
Fifteen members of the underground who were incarcerated at the Jerusalem Central Prison were sentenced to death. Nine sentences were commuted to imprisonment, but six men were scheduled to hang.
In the execution chamber, you will see the gallows and the red uniforms worn by prisoners condemned to death. However, no Jewish prisoner was hanged in this room. That’s because the British feared violence on the part of Jewish Jerusalemites and took four of the condemned to Acre Prison. They were executed at dawn on April 17, 1947, and went to the gallows singing “Hatikva.”
On April 21, just hours before they were scheduled to hang, the other two blew themselves up with a grenade that had been smuggled into the prison, inside an orange.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; during Hol Hamoed Succot from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Phone: (02) 623-3166.

Fee: NIS 15/10.