The little squares tell the story

The little-known Alexander Museum of Postal History and Philately is the only philately museum in Israel.

stamp 88 248 (photo credit: Daniella Ashkenazy)
stamp 88 248
(photo credit: Daniella Ashkenazy)
A classic Yiddish joke tells of a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Jew who were asked to write essays on the elephant. The Englishman focused on "Hunting Elephants." The Frenchman chose "The Love Life of the Elephant." The Jew submitted an essay on "The Elephant and the Jewish Question" - as if to underscore that even elephants could serve as a stage for heated political polemics. A no less curious avenue for understanding the tumult, the temper and controversies of past times is the Land of Israel Museum's little-known Alexander Museum of Postal History and Philately in Tel Aviv. While not named the Israeli philately museum it is, in fact, the only philately museum in Israel - a joint project of the Israel Postal Authority (now privatized and renamed the Israel Postal Company), the Tel Aviv Foundation and the Land of Israel Museum. Housed in a special pavilion in the Land of Israel Museum complex in north Tel Aviv, the museum demonstrates that the history of postal services in Israel can serve as a prism to break down the historical, social and political changes that have taken place in Israel since the mid-19th century. While part of the 1000-sqare-meter museum uses all the latest museum video gadgetry to present the broad range of services provided by the IPC today - a section designed primarily for kindergarten and elementary school field trips - for history buffs, the heart and guts of the pavilion is the museum's profile of the development of postal services. Based on memorabilia - envelopes and letters, photographs and posters that characterize each period - the historic gallery that opens the museum's permanent exhibit traces the development of local postal services from the Ottoman period (1854-1918), through the British Mandate period (1918-1947), and the War of Independence, culminating with the establishment of a Do'ar Ivri - a Hebrew Post - two weeks before the establishment of the state in May 1948. The name "Do'ar Ivri" reflects the fact that at the time the first stamps were printed, a name hadn't yet been chosen for the nation. One of the more piquant aspects highlighted in the exhibit is associated with the first regular postal services in what was then Ottoman Palestine. A little over a decade after the first postage stamp was issued in England (1840), ushering in the era of prepaid mail, the first post offices were established in a backwash of the Turkish Empire then known as "southern Syria" - and they were run by foreign consulates, not the Ottoman government. Granting the right to operate postal service to foreign countries was part of the "capitulations" - special dispensations granted European powers by a weak Turkish government - that allowed diplomatic missions to establish a strong political and cultural presence in the Holy Land, which eventually included not only operating public hospitals, but also the privilege of establishing "public utilities" (such as postal service) that were normally the prerogative of the sovereign. The first postal services here were set up by France in 1852, followed by Austria, Germany, Italy and Russia - each with its own ornate, specially-designed mail boxes placed outside post offices, hotels and other central locations - competing with one another in pricing and quality of services. Today, all share the same wall display in the museum. The Turks subsequently established a postal service of their own to compete with the foreign ones. When the first train line was opened between Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1892, the Turks forbade foreign postal services from using the railroad to transport mail. Ironically, this method of providing exclusive "first priority mail service" backfired: the train took 12 hours to make its way from Jaffa to Jerusalem, while the horse-drawn mail carriages used by the foreign consulates took only seven hours to complete the trip! The Jews - both a literate community and one with close family and cultural ties with communities abroad - constituted the primary local market for postal services. In 1896, in an attempt to convince members of the Jewish community to use their services, the Turks appointed a Jewish postmaster in Jerusalem - Eliyahu Honig. Honig, who was blessed with a good head for business, printed special postcards, greeting cards, and fliers advertising postal rates to bolster business. The postmaster also designed a special cancellation stamp with the word Yerusalem embossed in Hebrew letters - a move that was seen as an affront to Turkish sovereignty and canceled by Turkish authorities several months after it was inaugurated. Actual transfer of letters to Europe was relatively swift - at most 10 days from sender to recipient (over 100 years later, it can still take up to 14 days for a letter to reach the US). Every day, at least one ship anchored in Jaffa, providing orderly transportation links with Europe, under contract. When in 1898 Kaiser Wilhelm visited the Holy Land with his wife Augusta Victoria, one of the festive events marking the royal pilgrimage was the inauguration of a German postal service. To advertise the new service, the Kaiser adopted a rather unusual "first cover day issue": Prior to his trip, the monarch had printed 300 special postcards illustrating the royal couple against the backdrop of various holy sites, posting them back to movers and shakers in his realm. One of the letters on display from this period is a postcard sent from Berlin via the German post to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in Jerusalem - inviting the father of Modern Hebrew to address the 1909 World Zionist Congress on the revival of the Hebrew language. The display also carries another item - a famous photograph with a fascinating history: During the Kaiser's visit, David Wolfson took a photograph of his historic meeting with Theodore Herzl at the Mikve Israel Agricultural School outside Jaffa. Being a great philanthropist, but apparently a mediocre photographer, his shot included the Kaiser on his horse, but left Herzl outside the frame. Wolfson constructed a photomontage, superimposing another photo of Herzl in front of the German leader's horse. The historical but "doctored" photo was subsequently published all over Europe. Of the six postal services, the Austrians managed to capture most of the mail delivery market, dispatching two mail carriages daily from each Austrian ship docking in Jaffa, while France and Germany together managed to fill only one mail carriage. Most of the Jewish community - both the traditional ultra-Orthodox old yishuv and most of the pioneering agricultural colonies that constituted the new yishuv - used the Austrian Post. Also on display in the museum is a rare envelope sent from Petah Tikva to Vienna: Alongside the Austrian stamp of Franz Joseph - payment for delivery from Jaffa to Vienna - are two other stamps, one issued by the Jewish National Fund, the other issued by the agricultural colony of Petah Tikva, embossed with Hebrew lettering, designed to cover the cost of delivery from Petah Tikva to Jaffa. The stamps disclose the reason the Austrian post was so popular with Jews: The Austrians had signed an agreement with local governing councils in Jewish settlements stipulating that letters sent within the country would be delivered by the Austrians free of charge - but there was a catch. The local post office "charged" local residents for the free delivery with the special "Jewish" stamps found on the historic letter on display. The proceeds were used to support the Jewish community - an "added value tax" which the Turks later outlawed, almost throwing the mayor of Petah Tikva in jail, to boot. In fact, Petah Tikva is considered by philatelists to be the place where in 1909 the "the first Hebrew postage stamp" was issued. With the arrival of the British in 1918, advancements in public administration that were felt immediately included, in addition to a revolution in the judicial system and the economy, a vast improvement in postal services - which became the government's responsibility, run according to strict rules and regulations. Two mammoth hewed-stone post offices were built in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv - structures that stand to this day. The first uniformed mailmen were hired - including telegram messengers on bicycles. The messenger in the picture taken in 1923 - 16 years old at the time - was present at the opening of the new museum in June 1998. One of the most poignant display items in the museum is a postcard sent by a young Jewish woman in Europe in 1940 - one of many sent with laconic descriptions of life whose real message describing death and despair was hidden under the stamp. In Yiddish, the sender wrote under the stamp that "the old folks have lost all hopes of holding on to life. Even the state of the young people is terrible." The sender did not survive the Holocaust. Many letters sent during this period and saved for posterity lack stamps - the recipients having removed them in hopes of finding messages underneath. On April 13, 1948, the British announced that postal services would be suspended between April 15 and May 15 - the end of the British Mandate over Palestine. The Jewish government-in-the-making chose to continue postal services despite everything - empowering 80 settlements around the country to issue special seals to serve as temporary stamps, each emblazoned with the name of the settlement. In Jerusalem and three other places, special Jewish National Fund stamps were employed. As soon as it was announced that the British were about to leave, plans were drawn up to issue stamps of the nascent state. It was decided to decorate the stamps with images of coins minted during the Bar Kochba Revolt - the last stand for Jewish independence under Roman rule 2,000 thousand years earlier - bearing the words "Hebrew Post." With the War of Independence already in process, printing of the stamps was disrupted and a printing press from the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz had to be borrowed to continue the work. That now-antiquated printing press is proudly displayed in the museum. While the museum has, of course, a special section where serious stamp collectors can view all the stamps ever issued in Israel, there is also a more general standing exhibition that resembles a giant album that displays a representative selection of Israel stamps from 1948 up to the present. The array not only reflects historic events, but also serves as an indication of how prevailing social values and the way Israelis perceive themselves have changed. The changes in design styles and topics are clearly evident: Stamps from the early years after independence feature more serious subject matter, often sporting figures in heroic stances - including one from 1952 with a muscle-bound pioneer holding up a huge relief map of Israel. That map, issued when David Ben-Gurion was prime minister, decades before the Likud first took office in 1977, portrays "Greater Israel" - all territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. More recent stamps are less bombastic, more cheerful and even frivolous - including one sporting red hearts that reads "LOVE." The stamp chosen to celebrate Israel's jubilee year sports a well-known political cartoon caricature of Israel dating back to the 1950s, though one can also discern the appearance of more and more stamps with pictures of solemn-faced rabbinical figures, and not just Zionist cultural and political leaders, among those honored with memorial stamps. The museum traces the history of written dispatches through history in an animated and at times humorous video - geared for young visitors - that includes parts of authentic historic dispatches - beginning with the ancient Egyptians and Queen Esther of the Purim story, spanning King David to David Ben-Gurion and culminating in the War of Independence. In another section of the museum, designers have constructed a display that underscores the intimate relationship between historic events and commemorative stamps. Visitors can view historic film footage and 10 stamp designs - each chosen as portraying the "core essence" of a landmark event in the history of Israel.