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Independence, Fighting Fit and Peanut Butter

The start of our day began with a trip to Tel Aviv where we visited Independence Hall, the place where the State of Israel was declared back on May 14, 1948. The sight of the announcement occurred in the house of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff who had converted his own house into an art gallery after his wife’s death. Eventually the gallery was renovated and served as the Tel Aviv museum until 1971.

A sculpture of Dizengoff outside his former house.

However, in 1948, the museum was to serve a more important purpose. The Jewish people were in the middle of a bitter civil war with the Arab peoples of Palestine who had laid siege to Jerusalem, and the British Mandate was set to expire the following day. Unable to declare independence from their spiritual capital, the Jewish leadership decided to use the Tel Aviv Museum on account of its ability to also act as a safe house in the event of a bombing. Invitations were sent out to important members of the public asking them to show up at 3:30pm the following day and to keep the meeting secret. Nevertheless, the next day crowds camped out in front of the museum and welcomed the leaders as they entered the building.

At 4:00pm, David Ben-Gurion began to recite the scroll of the Establishment of the State and approximately sixteen minutes later he asked Rabbi Fishman to say a traditional Jewish blessing. 25 members of the Moetzet HaAm (the Provisional State Council) signed the document – 12 members could not as they were trapped in Jerusalem. Once the members of the Moetzet HaAm had signed the document, the anthem Hatikvah played, following which Ben-Gurion announced to the world, “The State of Israel is established! This meeting is adjourned!” This then turned what was essentially a civil war into a war of independence as the neighbouring Arab nations of Trans-Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq all declared war against the new Israeli state.

David Ben-Gurion’s Place Marker and microphone (centre) in Declaration Hall.

Ignoring the political, military and social consequences of the signing, the site of the declaration is still a huge part of Israeli pride. Within the museum, the room in which the scroll was signed still remains in its original state (after being recreated by David Gafni, the man who had originally set up the hall). Around that walls are reproductions and originals of the art works that stood in the room as the declaration scroll was signed, including works by Marc Chagall and other Jewish painters. Finally, above the main table and sandwiched between two banners that would become the Israeli flag is a massive portrait of Theodor Herzl, the man who dreamed the Israeli state into being.

Declaration Hall within the Independence Museum, the place where the State of Israel came into being.

Following our time at Independence Hall our next port of call was the stunning Palmach Museum. The Palmach – established in 1941 – was the attack wing of the Hagana, the armed force dedicated to the defence of the Jewish communities prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Palmach was made out of youthful conscripts, both male and female in their late teens and early twenties. These recruits received vigorous training to prepare them for the armed conflict and sabotage missions that they would be exposed to. Early on in their creation, weapons and equipment were in short supply and units might only share one pistol or a rifle between them. This changed when the British Army recruited the Hagana to help them in their defence against the German forces under Rommel in North Africa. Suddenly, the Palmach had weapons and equipment at their disposal and used this to effectively train the youthful soldiers.

However, after Rommel’s defeat in May 1942, the British no longer needed the support of the Palmach and Hagana and requested their equipment back. Unsurprisingly, the British equipment wasn’t exactly forthcoming. The loss of British support also meant that the Palmach could no longer support itself and it faced the threat of disbandment. This was remedied by Yitzhak Tabenkin, the head of the Kibbutz Union (a kibbutz was a communal farm in British Palestine), who helped to keep the Pulmach alive by assigning platoons to the various kibbutzim. The Pulmach then worked a monthly schedule that involved 8 training days, 14 work days farming the kibbutz, followed by seven days off.

The Pulmach continued to exist and engaged in operations against both the British – in an attempt to force them out of Palestine – and the Arabs, in both a defensive and offensive capacity, oftentimes against civilian populations. The museum attempts to recreate the experiences of a Pulmach platoon from its inception during World War II through to the Pulmach’s assimilation into the Israeli Defense Forces in 1948 and the end of the Israeli War of Independence. As an experimental museum there are no normal displays or photographs. Instead groups are led on a journey that is seen through the eyes of the individual soldiers during the existence of the Pulmach. This journey includes watching battle scenes and listening to the stories of the soldiers as they experience both triumph and tragedy.

Members of the Israeli Defense Forces strutting their stuff in Tel Aviv. The Pulmach and Hagana were the forerunners of these modern units.

The actual museum is run by the Israeli Defense Forces and we were guided through our tour by two young female soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the extreme nationalism evident in the museum failed to mention some of the more questionable actions of the Pulmach, especially incidents in which they deliberately attacked Arab residential zones with the sole purpose of destroying them. Atrocities aside, the museum was a fantastic experience and really brought to life the fears and desires of a blossoming Israeli nation.

Following a visit to the Pulmach Museum, we then took a quick ride out to the city of Jaffa. To cut a long story short, we used the opportunity to frolic ankle deep in the Mediterranean and eat a vast quantity of caramel and peanut gelato. It seems that the residents here have a particular fondness for peanut butter flavour and it can be found in just about any snack, including chips, and I for one, cannot complain!

Standing ankle deep in the Mediterranean. The locals thought we were nuts, we thought the water was warm!