Angela visited Israel in May 2018 on a Birthright Israel trip at a very contentious political moment for the country. In this post, she will analyze how Israelis interpreted the history of their Independence Hall and its degree of success as spaces for public history. All opinions belong solely to Angela.
When I visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the white windowless exterior was unassuming. The enticing shops and sunny weather of Rothschild Ave seemed more entertaining than going indoors on a sunny afternoon – which I think was the preferred option of some of my traveling companions. However, I was very excited to see the museum. I wanted to observe how it represented its history almost 70 years later. As an American historian, I was curious to hear another country interpret its founding moments and documents. I’ll explain in this post what I learned, how it was presented, and what conclusions I came to afterwards.
Much to my surprise, while the building has several floors, the museum itself is only two main rooms: the signing ceremony room and a room to watch an informational movie. My group was herded quickly through the lobby, though I was intrigued to see a very tall copy of the declaration in the corner. We moved towards the primary objective – the room where it happened. It’s a large space that, then as now, is dominated by a massive stage with tables, chairs, and an audience area that holds more than 70 people. I was also interested to know why there were so many art pieces on the wall, but figured I’d find out soon.
Once we were seated under a portrait of Theodore Herzl with a vaguely judgmental gaze, we began. The extremely enthusiastic docent gave us an overview of Israel’s tumultuous historical founding in that building. Jewish settlers coordinated plots of land in the areas around Jaffa and formed communities together, eventually founding Tel Aviv. Originally, this house was the home of Tel Aviv’s first mayor. Meir Dizengoff and his family lived there for twenty years until the death of his wife Zina, at which point he donated it to the city in 1930. I liked that the museum discussed gender by highlighting her role; her love of art inspired her husband and the city to turn the building into an art museum.
The docent emphasized that the Jewish people really wanted their independence from the British mandate that had controlled the region since 1918. I’m not going to go into detail about the specifics of the Jewish Agency and its decades-long efforts to create a homeland in Zion (Eretz Israel). Those efforts and the Israel-Palestinian conflict are far longer and more complex than a mere blog post can explain, and they are thorny issues that continue to be controversial to the present day, but here is a good summary from the U.S. Department of State that will have to serve for now. I encourage you to research it.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art operated for ten years before it became witness to history in 1948. Operating under extraordinary levels of secrecy, David Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders gathered at the museum in order to proclaim Israel’s independence from Britain on May 14, 1948. They had to do so by midnight before the British mandate expired (however, no one in the museum seemed to know what could have happened if they had not done so at that precise date). A local carpenter quickly built a large stage and decorated it with flags and a photo of Zionism’s founder, Theodore Herzl. I found out that the carpenter was later honored for his contribution to Israel’s history.
The docent pointed to where each famous individual sat, which has been a big project of the museum. This included Golda Meir, a future prime minister. (I had no idea that after her family had immigrated from Kiev, they went to Milwaukee.) We heard an archival recording of a rabbi’s blessing and then Ben Gurion’s reading of the declaration. The docent noted that the United States recognized Israel 11 minutes afterwards and has supported the state ever since. I was not there to push buttons on current events, so though I wanted to ask hard questions, I did not.
At that point, my 52-person group was asked to stand for the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. I was entranced by the melody, but then was taken aback when most of the room – including many Americans – began to sing. Meaning “The Hope,” the lyrics translate to the Jewish desire to be free in the land of Zion. I didn’t expect so many Americans to know the words, let alone join in because they felt so fervent in the historical emotion.
I was not particularly impressed at the museum’s attempt to ignore other voices that influenced Israel’s founding. To conclude, the docent announced that Israel went to war for its independence, but brushed over the rest of the story post-declaration. She summarized that “the Arabs didn’t react well to that, but your tour guide can tell you what happened afterwards.”
In the end, the museum is not a terribly engaging exhibit space, but that is not its objective. Paintings from the event remain on the museum’s walls, each signing participant is carefully recorded, and visitors are invited to become part of the event itself. There is only one story for this museum: to show visitors how the moment of declaring Israel’s independence mattered to the Jewish people. Much like the United States treasures Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Israel depicts Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall as the cradle of the state.
We shuffled back onto the sunny streets of Rothschild Avenue to wander the Independence Trail walking tour. There’s plenty of museums in Tel Aviv (for instance, the Haganah Museum was down the street), but this twice-over museum was an important slice of national and local history.