How does one celebrate the end of a long, prosperous career in a way that will keep him busy in his retirement years? Zvi Meitar, founder and head of the third largest law firm in Israel; founder of a group of communications companies that included Golden Pages, Golden Channels and Amdocs; and financial benefactor of numerous cultural enterprises and universities, bought himself some photographs. In fact, he bought himself a lot of photographs – more than 200,000 images that now comprise the Meitar Collection, a private family-owned archive of fascinating, rarely seen pictures of the State of Israel in its early days.Meitar died in 2015.Located in a towering glass building at the edge of the bourse district of Ramat Gan, the Meitar Collection was established some 10 years ago under the direction of Dafna Meitar Nechmad.“The purpose of the collection is to maintain the photographs and to make them available to whoever is interested – students, researchers, PhD students, museum people, even film makers looking for information about Israeli history,” says Maya Cohen-Mossek, keeper of the collection. “Also private people and crazy people like you and me,” she adds, laughing. “They call us, they come and they do their research here.
“Zvi Meitar started collecting from a pure love of historical pictures. He bought photo collections directly from the photographers. All the negatives are here, stored in their original boxes.What they have in common is that they must deal with the Land of Israel from before its founding until soon after it was established. We have photographs here from the very late 1930s, especially the 1940s, also the ’50s and ’60s. We have a very broad context of topics, and more than 200,000 negatives. Not everything is catalogued yet.We still have boxes here, we still don’t know what’s in them. It’s my job to catalogue them also, and I’m finding surprises all the time.”Most of the 200,000 images have been scanned and digitalized. “The staff here has been working very hard these past 10 years,” she declares with evident pride.Meitar bought his photographs principally from three photographers: Beno Rothenberg, Boris Carmi and Moshe Levine.Rothenberg grew up in a hassidic family and came to Mandate Palestine in 1933 from Frankfurt, Germany, at the age of 19. He immediately enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and three years later joined the Hagana under the command of Yitzhak Sadeh. He bought his first camera in 1945, taught himself photography, and became a press photographer. In 1952 he signed on as photographer for the archeological survey of the Negev, and found his true love. He spent the next several decades documenting archeological excavations throughout Israel, earned a PhD in archeology, and became a senior lecturer in archeology at Tel Aviv University. He continued taking photographs until his death in 2012.Born in Russia in 1914, Carmi left home at age 16 after his parents died, spent the next three years in Poland, Germany and Italy before finding himself in Paris in 1933. It was while studying ethnography at the Sorbonne that he bought his first camera. Seeing which way the winds were blowing in 1939, he left Europe, arrived in Palestine and after a brief and unsuccessful stint as a farmer, turned again to photography. He joined the British Army in World War II as a map photographer, later became a press photographer, and then joined the Hagana. After Israel’s independence, he was chosen to be the photographer of the IDF magazine Bamahane, and later for the newspaper Davar. He was a photographer until his death in 2002.
“I love his work,” Cohen-Mossek says. “His pictures are very much focused on the people, the faces. Each picture has a fascinating personal story behind it.” Levine was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1921. After attending Temple University in Philadelphia, he served as a decrypter during World War II at General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters in Europe and later with General Robert Eichelberger in the 8th Corps of the United States Army in Japan. He came to Palestine in 1947, a year before the State of Israel was born, and soon became assistant editor of The Palestine Post, which shortly thereafter became The Jerusalem Post.An avid photographer, he has the distinction, according to Cohen-Mossek, of taking the first color photographs in Israel.“He took color photographs of Jerusalem and Israel. We see here color photos from 1948 and 1949. He had the first color camera in Israel. I’m from Jerusalem, and for me it’s really exciting to see his color pictures of the city from the late 1940s. Some look exactly the same as the places look now,” Cohen- Mossek says as she shows me a picture of what she describes as “Israel’s first policeman,” taken on Ussishkin Street in Jerusalem.“You can’t believe it’s from 1947.”
Meitar not only collected photographs, but documents as well, says Cohen-Mossek.“The document collection is not yet open to the public. What we have here in the office are documents dealing mainly with the Yishuv, with the Zionist movement from the 19th century onward.” These, according to the Meitar Collection website, include “documents and letters from the heads of the Zionist Movement and icons of Hebrew culture, such as Herzl, Dreyfus, Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Arlosoroff, Weizmann, Dizengoff, Leah Goldberg, Bialik and Tchernikovsky.”What is not kept in the office, however, are documents that in some cases are more than 500 years old, the oldest dating back to 1501. These, according to the website, include “documents signed by great leaders and world statesmen such as Napoleon, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Louis XIV, Cromwell, Richelieu, Bismarck, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Philip II, Winston Churchill, the Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria, Lord Allenby and Lawrence of Arabia.”But it is the photograph collection that the public is invited to use. One can get an idea of what’s available by perusing the collection’s website, www.meitarcollection.co.il, which contains a 2,000-image sample of the 200,000 photograph inventory. On the website, one can either browse or search according to such broad parameters as dates, photographers, people and sites. “People,” for example, provides photographs of Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin and Moshe Sharett. “Sites” offers pictures of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa, Sinai and Sde Boker. Photograph dates range from 1930 to 1960.The pictures, however, are low resolution, and each contains the watermark of the Meitar Collection. Anyone wishing to examine a vast range of photographs – larger, clearer, and without the watermark, must to so at the collection’s offices. There one has access to the archive’s on-site, in-house search program that provides not only access to more pictures but more specific search parameters. While the website lets you search for Tel Aviv, the in-house program enables a search, for example, for Allenby Street in the 1950s.There is no charge to use either the website or the archive itself. Photographs ordered for private use cost NIS 100 apiece; charges for commercial use are assessed on a case-by-case basis.“We don’t really make much of a profit from these charges,” Cohen-Mossek explains.The money goes to maintain the archive and keep the collection going.”If, as the old saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, then the Meitar Collection, with its 200,000 pictures, should be worth at least 200 million. For further information about the Meitar Collection: www.meitarcollection.co.il. To use the full archive: (03) 613-1676 or email@example.com