Israel’s military museums and the country’s collective memory

The Israel Defense Forces have played a central role in the State of Israel and is often an important aspect of life for every Israeli citizen, beginning at an early age.

The Etzel Museum in Tel Aviv-Jaffa (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Etzel Museum in Tel Aviv-Jaffa
(photo credit: Courtesy)
French historian Pierre Nola wrote that “in the past [...] there was one national history and there were many particular memories. Today, there is one national memory.” One of the systems that helps preserve and indeed mold this collective national memory in Israel is its military museums.
The Israel Defense Forces have played a central role in the State of Israel and is often an important aspect of life for every Israeli citizen, beginning at an early age.
The establishment of the military museums in Israel began shortly after the establishment of the state, and they are run under the auspices of the Defense Ministry with the aim of instilling the battle legacy of the IDF in future generations.
According to Nola, “if we were able to live within memory, we would not have needed to consecrate lieux de mémoire in its name.”
The responsibility for these “lieux de mémoire” is with the Defense Ministry, which is in charge of commemorating the fallen in military cemeteries, at state ceremonies and in military museums across the country.
The military museums represent a sort of time machine, providing the visitor a journey from the pre-state days with exhibits on the prestate militias such as the Palmah and Hagana to the establishment of the IDF and then on to the present day. The museums, which offer various exhibitions, also showcase significant events which helped shaped Israeli society and the ongoing strengthening of the army.
But, today more and more of the generation that helped build the state and who founded the museums are passing on, and with the increasing reliance on technology by the younger generation, some believe that Israel’s military museums must grow with the times.
Culture researcher Maya Mossek told The Jerusalem Post Magazine that “those who founded the museums, are the ones who wrote the programs, the exhibitions of the museums. They are the curators, the real backbone of the museums.
“When you work in a museum,” she explains, “you have a very important role. As a guide you must know the entire story and give the visitor the entire story, and that is something that many of these museums lack,” Mossek, who works at the Eretz Israel Museum, said.
Mossek, who did a BA in cultural studies and her MA thesis on museum studies at the University of Amsterdam, said that the “museums desperately need to change. They need to grow with the times. The Hagana museum was founded in the 1950s, the Etzel (Irgun Zva’i Leumi) and others in the 1980s and ’90s. The displays they have are old; the exhibitions don’t change.”
The newest museum, the Palmah Museum in Tel Aviv, has the same number of visitors of all the rest of the museums combined due to its innovative and dramatic exhibition and tour, Mossek said.
One can visit the museum only with a prearranged tour; there are no documents or displays but rather an impressive audiovisual presentation throughout the 90-minute tour which guides the visitors through the entire story of the Palmah until the end of the War of Independence.
The museum, which in 2016 was ranked by Trip Advisor as the best museum in Tel Aviv, was the first Defense Ministry museum to translate its audiovisual presentation into Chinese, making it more accessible to tourists from that region.
According to Mossek, there is a plan to build a central IDF museum, but that is a plan in the works for the past 20 years, so in order to stay relevant other museums should learn from the success of the Palmah Museum.
The first course for Hagana instructors held at ‘Pinat Hashomer’ near today’s Kiryat Tivon, in 1938 (KLUGER ZOLTAN/GPO)The first course for Hagana instructors held at ‘Pinat Hashomer’ near today’s Kiryat Tivon, in 1938 (KLUGER ZOLTAN/GPO)
The other 10 museums belonging to the Museums Unit of the Defense Ministry are spread across the country.
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan told the Post that he hopes the museums would serve as a magnet for all Israelis so that every citizen would pay a visit at least once in their life.
“The museums contain the history of the return of the people of Israel to their land over the past 150 years, and the exhibits show the connection between the people and the land of Israel, as well as the dedication of the fighters of Israel’s defense units throughout the generations, thanks to which we are here today. The memory of the past represents a driving force for our citizens in the present and in the future of our country.
“Because living memory is disappearing from the world and with it the living testimonies of those who fought for the existence of the state in its early years, it is very important to bring the next generation – children, youth and students – to learn and get to know the wars fought by Israel’s previous generations. By doing that they will be able to draw strength and courage to face the challenges they will encounter later in life.”
The military museums are visited by generally local audiences, particularly groups of soldiers and students who visit for educational purposes, not for touristic reasons.
And while they are spread across the country, several museums are found in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, locations which sees hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
TUCKED AWAY in the Russian Compound in downtown Jerusalem is The Museum of Underground Prisoners.
Commemorating the activity of the Jewish underground movements – the Hagana, Irgun and Lehi (Stern Group) – during the period leading up the establishment of the state, it is a powerful reminder of the turbulent history of both the state and its capital.
First constructed in the 1800s as a hostel for Russian pilgrims, the building was converted into a prison during the British Mandate, housing those deemed a threat by the British, especially fighters of the underground movements.
With guided tours (by reservation and conducted in Hebrew or English) that last an hour and a half, visitors get a historic overview of the prison and exhibits, which include the prison cells, solitary confinement cells, the execution chamber, guard quarters and a room dedicated to the rabbi of the prisoners, Aryeh Levin. The museum is also child-friendly, with family activities available such as hiding a weapon in a slik (hiding place for weapons), and a self-guided scavenger hunt.
In Tel Aviv, there are several museums which also tell the stories of the underground militias, including the Hagana Museum, housed in one of Tel Aviv’s first homes on Rothschild Avenue, and the Etzel Museum, located in the ruins of an Ottoman-period building between Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
The Etzel Museum in Tel Aviv-Jaffa (Courtesy) The Etzel Museum in Tel Aviv-Jaffa (Courtesy)
Founded in the 1950s, the Hagana Museum is the main museum for the history of the Jewish para-military organization for the defense of the Jewish settlements during the British Mandate. Spread over three floors, it tells the story of the development of the organization, displaying a collection of weapons, documents, photographs and certificates.
The museum is in the former home of Eliyahu Golomb, one of the founders and leaders of the Hagana, with tiled floors and decorated walls and with the original furniture still remaining. The visitor is taken back in time.
A 20-minute walk away is the Etzel Museum, which tells the story of the battles against the British and Arabs, as well as the chilling battles of Jews fighting Jews. It sits not far from Jaffa on the green manicured lawns of Tel Aviv’s Charles Clore Park right next to the blue waters of the Mediterranean, where sunbathers and dog walkers enjoy the sun.
The museum is said to receive 1,500- 2,000 visitors on average every month.
Every few weeks, soldiers pour out of buses to visit the museum, which was built over the ruins of a former Ottoman-period building. But when the Post visited on a weekday, only three other visitors were in the museum.
Founded by the Union of Etzel Fighters in 1983, it is dedicated to the memory of the 43 fighters of the pre-state paramilitary Etzel fighters who died in the campaign to conquer Jaffa, and other battles that members fought in during the 1947-8 War of Independence.
While the museum focuses on the battle for Jaffa, another part of it deals with a battle between Jews, known as “the Altalena affair.” The Altalena was a ship laden with arms for the Irgun which was sunk by the newly formed IDF off the shores of Tel Aviv.
A monument to the ship stands at the bottom of Bograshov Street next to the Dan Hotel. The flag of the Jewish state which belonged to the Altalena, saved just before the ship went down, hangs in the center of the Etzel Museum, unmissable.
IN KFAR Giladi, which is located a mere 20 minutes from Mount Hermon near the Syrian border, another tourist destination for those who want to ski at the only ski resort in the country, is a museum dedicated to one of the most famous stories of the foundation of the State of Israel.
With a commanding view over the Hula Valley, the Beit Hashomer (Watchman’s Museum) was set up by members of the organization to commemorate the Hashomer members protecting the Jewish populations in the area during battles with Arab militias and British forces at the time of the British Mandate.
Inside the museum lies the slik which was built in 1922 some five meters underground and accessed via a ladder in a barn. It wasn’t known to kibbutz members until 1983 and is now home to antique guns, grenades and other weapons. There are also films and authentic clothing worn by Hashomer members which portray their experiences; for example, they traveled on horseback and adopted the language and dress of local Beduin in the area.
According to Dr. Ofer Bord, the deputy head of the Families and Commemoration Department in the Defense Ministry, the ministry is investing in the museums to make them more modern in order to attract the younger generations.
“Our main audience for the museums is the Israeli public first and foremost, and only then foreign tourists. We do hope that the museums will attract tourists as well, and that is why we have begun to add foreign languages and will continue to do so in the future,” he said, referring to the Palmah Museum.
Soldiers examine documentation at the Palmah Museum in Ramat Aviv (PALMAH MUSEUM WEBSITE)Soldiers examine documentation at the Palmah Museum in Ramat Aviv (PALMAH MUSEUM WEBSITE)
“It is important to understand and remember our history in order to know our future,” he said.
But one museum worker told the Post that “there needs to be a change” in how museums are dealt with by the Defense Ministry.
“We are part of a large organization whose heart is not about museums, but about the security of the country,” she said, adding that “there need to be more recognition, money and effort invested into military museums in the country.”