Israel’s Military Museums: History Museums or Memorial Monuments?

Maya Cohen-Mossek
Translation: Margalit Rodgers 

‘The discourse is open, but the discourse also has boundaries’.[1]

(MK Miri Regev, in an interview on taking up the post of Minister of Culture and Sport, May 2015).

Israel’s military museums are located in a sphere of discourse engaging with, inter alia, identity, national memory, and commemoration. They are presently at a turning point that will determine their future. The question of their relevance places even greater emphasis on the questions implicit in the Miri Regev quotation above: Where do the boundaries of the discourse pass? What is and is not permissible to say? With what subjects should museums engage? And is it permissible today to talk about subjects which fifty years ago were taboo?

In this article I shall first address the military museums in Israel in the context of national identity, and show how they function as a vehicle for commemoration and for creating collective memory. I shall then examine the museums on the seam line separating two concepts – history and memory – and show the effects of defining a museum by its contents. Finally, I shall address the photographs by Ilya Rabinovich as a reflection of the museums while focusing on the design of the exhibits and the illustration of their content.

Commemoration as a vehicle for creating national identity

Commemoration is a vehicle designed to preserve memory. The State of Israel is typified by devoting a large part of its national identity to the national collective memory, including the sphere of bereavement and commemoration which has gained the status of sanctity. The bereavement and commemoration leitmotif is interwoven into our life from an early age through exposure to a variety of content in the official institutions of the education system and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF): heritage and history lessons, memorial days, state ceremonies, monuments, and museums. All of these are a means of educating entire generations on values and heritage, and assimilation of the national imperative for the existence of an army. Moreover, in Israeli society commemoration of the fallen is practiced as a principle and is imposed on the individual by the collective. In other words, the establishment is responsible for commemorating the fallen, whether in the military cemeteries where all the headstones are uniform, or at state ceremonies under the aegis of the IDF or the education system. The families of the fallen take part in these events but do not dictate their private bereavement ceremony and do not channel it into the commemoration enterprise.

There are dozens of military history museums in Israel which are part of this enterprise. Considerable significance is accorded to the fallen in these museums; the climax of a visit to the museum takes place in the space devoted to the fallen – a commemoration hall or corner. The fallen are commemorated as heroes in these spaces, which are a vast glorification that accords them an almost holy status, somewhat like in a mausoleum. It is worthy of note that in each museum only the heroes of the organization to which it is dedicated are commemorated.[2]

The basic premise is that a visit to a museum shapes the visitor’s knowledge and memory of the commemorated subject, since how a person remembers something depends on the social context he was in when he experienced the event he is recalling.[3] It is therefore reasonable to assume that a museum visit experience that is based upon a social context will cause the visitor to learn and remember much more than he learns and remembers from reading school textbooks. Hence the history museums bear great responsibility in shaping the national collective memory, especially the memory being formed in young people and soldiers.

The establishment of the military museums in Israel spreads over several decades since the establishment of the state. The Haganah Museum was founded in the 1950s, but it was only following the rise of the Likud Party to power after the political turnaround of 1977 that the official commemoration of the Etzel and Lehi organizations began, and an accelerated process of establishing museums and memorial sites dedicated to these organizations commenced.[4]

In many cases the initiators of these museums were former members of the military organizations or units who sought to commemorate their activities. In some museums it was these members who were responsible for the content of the exhibits, their design, and management of the museum itself, and in most cases they remained involved in its management, and continue to serve as volunteer guides or lecturers to this day. Furthermore, in the years since their establishment the military museums have also served as a meeting place for former members of the military organizations and units after they had invested time and effort in establishing them.

Today, with the generation that initiated and founded the museums dwindling, a turning point is fast approaching at which we should pause and examine the relevance of these museums in the present, and where they are heading in the future. First and foremost we should examine the characteristics of the military museums and their role in Israeli commemoration by means of theories on history and memory, and what is between them.

In addition to the definition of the museums as history museums, and the fact that they in effect serve as agents of memory, the relationship between the two concepts – history and memory – raises questions and creates difficulties. I shall attempt to examine the role of the military museum by means of these two concepts, and explain the problematic nature of their relationship in the museal context.

(2)   Between historical narrative and national memory

What is a memorial museum?

In the world of museums there is a proliferation of memorial and commemorative museums. They possess three main characteristics: they engage with the idea of conflict or trauma; in many cases they appeal to a defined local audience; and they are located in a building significant to or connected with the nature of the museum.[5]

Military museums in Israel comply with these three characteristics of a memorial museum. First, they are generally intended for the local Israeli audience, particularly groups of soldiers and students known as a “led audience” or “captive audience”, namely an audience that visits the museum not out of personal choice.

Second, most museums are located in a building of historical significance to the nature of the museum. For example, the Haganah Museum on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard was once the home of the Shertok family whose members were among the leaders of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Israel) and founders of the city. At the time when the Haganah organization was active, after the death of the paterfamilias, Yaakov Shertok, his daughter Ada and her husband, Eliahu Golomb, one of the Haganah commanders, lived in it. The house also served as Haganah headquarters where important decisions were made on the organization’s activities. The Lehi Museum, too, which is located in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, has a historical connection with the building that houses it. It was the home of Lehi members Moshe and Tova Svorai, and Lehi commander Avraham Stern (Yair), who was wanted by the British CID, went into hiding in the attic. There, on 12 February 1942, he was trapped and shot to death. In other museums the historical connection to the site or museum building is even more direct. For example, The Atlit Detainee Camp where immigrants detained by the British were held between 1940 and 1948, or the Etzel Museum – 1948, which mainly engages with the battle for Jaffa and its conquest by the Etzel in the War of Independence, and which is located on the site of the battle. In many cases the significance of the museum’s historical location expresses a large part of its concept and shapes its character (an apartment, battle and commemorative sites, and so forth).

Third, the military museums in Israel engage directly with the idea of conflict (they seldom engage with the subject of trauma). In some cases the story focuses on the pre-state period – the underground organization period in which the organizations fought against the British and the Arabs, when there was also friction between the organizations themselves. In other cases the museums engage with the period that followed the establishment of the state and are dedicated to the IDF, a particular unit, or a specific war or battle, for example, the Armored Corps Memorial Site at Latrun or the Etzel Museum – 1948.

However, despite the fact that the military museums fit the definition of memorial museums, they define themselves as history museums. Do they fit this latter definition as well? And what is the essential difference between memory and history?

Between memory and history

The boundaries of the definitions of the concepts of “history” and “memory” are not only unclear, they can also intersect, as Hannah Arendt claimed in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which was written in the wake of the Eichmann trial.[6] Memory-based testimonies always involve historical stories which the witness heard or read in the past. On the other hand, every story, whether written by a writer or a historian, is in some way based on a testimony or on a memory.

In contrast with the argument that memory and history intersect, Pierre Nora proposes a theory that completely separates the definitions of these two concepts.[7] According to him, memory is characterized by the fact that it occurs in the present. Memory is connected with notions of experience and tradition, and is associated with a group that collects and preserves it (memorialists). For this reason the idea of memory embodies danger since it is easy to manipulate it and include in it only those facts that suit the group representing that memory.

On the other hand, according to Nora, history is a representation of the past, a reconstruction of something that no longer exists. History is connected with processes and relationships between things and is therefore analytical and critical, and it is also critical of the notion of memory. In other words, the role of memory is to preserve and commemorate something that is sacred in the eyes of someone, and the role of history is to release or deconstruct that memory.

According to Nora, since the existence of memory is in danger, in order to preserve itself it must “secure a foothold” by conducting ceremonies and establishing sites of memory (Lieux de mémoire),[8] which include museums, burial sites, monuments, archives, and events or traditions like memorial days. Were it not for the supervision and responsibility of the groups that ascribe importance to the preservation of memory, history would have erased the memories long ago.

According to Nora’s theory and the definitions he proposes, it emerges that Israel’s military museums fit the concept of memory: they are connected with an extremely focused group – veteran members of the organization whose goal was commemoration. It was the veterans who established the museums; it is they whose presence was important both in the establishment stages and also in the subsequent years. Moreover, in many cases the narrative is based upon their testimonies and experiences. For example, the narrative of the Haganah Museum is based upon Sefer Toldot HaHaganah (History of the Haganah) whose writers include Shaul Avigur, one of the organization’s leaders.[9]

The narrative is usually adapted to the perspective of the organization’s members and it relates a subjective and very partial segment of the whole story, since each organization chose the best way of telling its story. Thus, details were omitted that were part of the full picture of the period which touched upon other underground organizations and bodies that were active in the same place and time. There is barely any mention of other underground organizations, and where there is it is presented very cautiously as a marginal detail.

On the other hand, compliance of the military museums to the concept of history is scanty. As we have seen, history is analytical and critical, it examines processes, insights, and interrelations, and is even critical of the concept of memory. The museums do not engage with historical processes such as the development of relations between the entities residing in pre-state Israel (the British Mandate, the Arab residents); they barely acknowledge the other underground organizations that were active in the country during the same period, or the complex relationships between the underground organizations themselves. For example, the affair of Haganah members informing on Etzel and Lehi members during the so-called Saison, the “hunting season”, which symbolizes the height of the struggle between these organizations, is barely represented in the museums. It is understandable that in the first years of the state nobody wanted to harm national unity, and that while members of the organizations controlled the museums there was fierce competition between them. Today, however, things have changed; in retrospect, the story of the struggle between the underground organizations is of considerable historical and educational value that cannot be ignored, and it is clear that the museums are the place to engage with it.

Other subjects with which the museums do not engage include the fact that the establishment ignored everything associated with the Etzel and Lehi organizations, whose commemoration commenced only after the rise of the Likud to power in 1977, or the fact that some of the organizations’ activities were illegal, and there are those who compare them with terrorist acts perpetrated by the Palestinians against Israel. The museums chose not to engage with issues associated with the reality in which we live and which influence that reality, even though it is impossible to detach reality from the historical narratives exhibited in the museums.

Ilya Rabinovich’s photographs: A mirror illustrating the contents exhibited in the museums

Ilya Rabinovich’s photographs focus on nine of Israel’s military museums: The Eliyahu Golomb Haganah Museum; The Etzel Museum – 1948; The Lehi Museum; The Haganah Museum at Juara; The Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum at Latrun; The Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa; The Museum of Underground Prisoners in Jerusalem; The Israel Defense Forces History Museum; and The Atlit Detainee Camp.

In his photographs Rabinovich confronts the viewer with the character and design of the exhibit; in other words, he documents how the museum staff chose to illustrate the narratives with which they engage. The photographs raise questions concerning the intention that guided the exhibit’s designers, and it often seems that the choices were made without a great deal of thought.

In the Haganah Museum almost no use is made of physical objects, yet the exhibit is very crowded and accompanied by numerous texts. The materials characterizing most of the scenes include an authentic historical photograph, a cutout taken from authentic historical material, a reconstruction made from non-authentic materials such as plastic mannequins and scenery, or from local materials such as stone or wood that symbolize Israel.

The scene that opens the historical exhibit at the Haganah Museum (Photograph #1) raises questions concerning the idea behind it. The figure standing at the entrance to the verandah of a wooden hut in typical Arab dress and a kefiyyeh welcomes the visitors. The life-size figure “guides” visitors into the museum and helps them bridge the physical and emotional gap between the external reality and the museum, and what is happening inside it.

The scene depicts the founding of the HaShomer and Bar-Giora organizations which added the mission of self-defense to their pioneering endeavor. These organizations were established at the time of the Second Aliya and were the precursors of the Haganah. Although where and under what circumstances they were founded is known, the scene in the museum does not address either the original situation or the specific location, and thus creates the feeling that the phenomenon of the first defense organizations was a timeless and countrywide necessity.

Closer observation of the scene and its visual design raises essential questions associated with politics, cultures, and identities. The guard, probably an immigrant himself, is wearing local Arab clothing as was accepted among the Jewish guards; but the local Arab who was in fact the enemy against whom HaShomer was guarding, is not presented at all. The museum chooses not to directly mention the Arab presence in the country, even though the Arabs constituted a decisive majority at the time. These mixed identities continue with the two artificial trees representing the landscape – the local cypress presented two-dimensionally, and the date palm that was imported from Iraq by the Zionist movement in the 1930s (although in fact the HaShomer movement was active from 1909 to 1920), which is presented in a three-dimensional plastic molding.

The Haganah Museum, opening scene of the permanent exhibit

One of the only scenes in which the Arabs are mentioned is the one of the Arab-Jewish violence in 1920-1921. The next space presents the establishment of the Haganah in 1920 as a direct continuation and inevitable outcome of these events.

The Haganah Museum

As can be seen in Photograph #2, the Arab figures are faceless. Cutouts of the Arab figures taken from the Haaretz newspaper of the period, have been torn or ripped from the paper as a symbol of the Arabs’ uprooting from their land.

The contrast between the presentation of the rioting Arabs and the romantic exhibit on the metal plaque (Photograph #3) standing behind the screen is heightened: the plaque bears faces and names. And not only that, the voices of the Jews who joined the ranks of the Haganah can be heard, and thus one can identify with each and every one of them. The motto on the plaque, ‘Every fine young man to arms’ (even though the plaque also bears some young women’s names) expresses the legitimacy of the mass enlistment of the people of the Yishuv in the Haganah, which became the largest establishment military organization.

Part of the plaque reflecting enlistment in the Haganah

An examination of the Haganah Museum’s historical exhibit reveals that the political messages in it are latent and indirect, so it is impossible to know whether the museum intended them or they were formed as a result of lack of thought. The museum engages quite substantially with the conflicts of the period, but it does so delicately and does not touch directly on sensitive subjects like the Saison. There is no reflective or contemporary engagement with the period, with the exception of emphasis of the fact that the IDF is the direct and legitimate continuation of the Haganah.

Another example, from which the extent to which the museum did not devote sufficient thought to the exhibit’s design can be inferred, is the photograph of the Chiefs of the General Staff Pavilion in the IDF History Museum (Photograph #4). A display of the victory and heroism medals is attached to the groin of the figure of the soldier standing at the entrance; the figure is fixed to a wooden beam between fluorescent strip lights with a piece of plastic that forms a halo above its head. The lack of awareness to details like this evokes a sense of the ludicrous and even derision.

The IDF History Museum, Chiefs of the General Staff Pavilion

The IDF History Museum which presents the IDF collections is laden to excess with an overabundance of objects, including weaponry, from pistols and rifles to tanks and anti-aircraft guns, flags and insignia, photographs, military equipment such as uniforms, and a variety of items belonging to senior IDF officers, press cuttings, and also spoils of war. In some of the pavilions visitors can learn about the stories of Israel’s wars and the history of the IDF.

There are two possible explanations for the vast quantity of items: (1) The IDF History Museum was intended to show the IDF’s wealth and power, so much so that the exhibit indicates a fetishist tendency; (2) for many years after Ben-Gurion’s order to establish the IDF History Museum the numerous items were kept in storage. With its founding, first as a temporary exhibition marking the state’s fortieth anniversary, all the items were taken out for the exhibit without any thought whatsoever, and in 1991 the collections were recognized as a permanent museum.

Photograph #5 is an extreme example of the exhibit’s amateurism that provokes ridicule. It shows shop window mannequins representing three soldiers, all of whom are light-skinned, fair-haired, and resemble fashion models. This bizarre situation, in which none of the soldiers are looking at each other, represents the Quartermaster Corps. It is hard to believe that there is any intentional thought whatsoever behind the design of this exhibit. Even after further observation it is hard to identify with these mannequins, for whom do they represent? Not only does this scene contain no representation of Mizrahi Israelis, there is no representation of Israelis at all, unless the mannequins represent Scandinavian soldiers serving in the IDF. The clear lack of thought characterizing this design begs the question: What is the point in presenting these mannequins?

The IDF Museum

In most of the IDF History Museum’s pavilions there is a sense that not much thought was devoted to the exhibit, neither in terms of the curating nor in terms of the design.

By contrast, the Lehi Museum, located not far away in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, presents a totally different approach to its exhibit. The museum’s ideological core is in its very location and in being an apartment building that was converted into a museum in 1991. In the attic of one of the apartments in this building the British assassinated Lehi commander Avraham Stern (Yair). The connection between the location and history is the source of the museum’s strength. The attic (Photograph #6) has been reconstructed and is the starting point of the guided tour of the museum, and from an emotional standpoint it is also the highlight of the visit.

The Lehi Museum, the attic where “Yair” hid and was captured

The exhibit in the room comprises period furniture, the wardrobe in which Yair hid, and the bed on which he was found shot. The room is not accessible to visitors who sit behind a glass wall and watch a dramatic film reconstruction of the assassination. In the film Yair is portrayed as a martyr who gave his life for the state.

On the same floor is the commemorative corner for the Lehi fallen and Olei HaGardom (Photograph #7: part of the corner). In the commemorative corners of every military museum the tendency is to mention only the organization’s fallen. The exception to this rule is Olei HaGardom – members of the various underground organizations who were executed by the British – who are granted special status in nearly all the museums.

In the commemorative corner of the Lehi Museum the fallen appear in a standard format of illuminated windows, each of which contains a portrait photograph, name, date of birth, and date of death. The close-up photographs create closeness and a connection between visitors and the portraits of the fallen. The physical connection of the reconstructed room where Yair was shot with the commemorative corner is not random: both emphasize the heroism and dramatic sacrifice of the Lehi fighters’ lives.

The Lehi Museum, commemorative corner

The museum has additional floors in which the history of Lehi is described. Here the museum chose to focus solely on Lehi and there is barely any mention of the other underground organizations. This reduction of content creates a very partial picture of the history, and furthermore there is hardly any reference to the period in which Lehi was active. The British Mandate, too, is only mentioned in the context of Lehi actions against its troops, such as the assassination of key British figures.

Another dramatic story that appears in both the Lehi Museum and the Museum of Underground Prisoners in Jerusalem is the tragic story of the Etzel fighter Meir Feinstein and the Lehi fighter Moshe Barazani, who chose to take their own lives after being sentenced to death in the British jail. The Lehi Museum constructed lifelike mannequins of the two in a reconstructed prison cell, including the hand-grenade that was smuggled into the cell inside an orange. The Museum of Underground Prisoners – the historical location where the event took place – chose a minimalist and symbolic exhibit: an empty cell with the uniforms of the two prisoners hanging on the wall, and the two rugs on which they slept. In all probability the original items did not survive the grenade blast (Photograph #8).

The Museum of Underground Prisoners


Therefore, an in-depth look at Ilya Rabinovich’s photographs reinforces the question concerning the nature of the museums and the message they seek to convey to their visitors. In terms of the design, where the context and choices of the exhibit’s character are unclear or were made without thought, there is a sense of disrespect for the visitors. In terms of the content, most of the military museums choose not to adopt firm stances or ask direct or incisive questions. Most prefer not to touch upon sensitive subjects like “the other” – who was the enemy, who lived and operated in the country – and prefer to present a partial picture of history that addresses only the organization the museum represents.

In general terms, it may be said in summary that the museums do not raise questions or cast doubt on anything associated with the memory they represent, rather they sanctify the memory and heroism within it. As an educational institution the museum is not obliged to adopt a position when raising these subjects, but it is important that it provides a platform for debate, critical thinking, and questions connected with the present and historical processes; a platform that will create interest for visitors and evoke a range of feelings in them. Perhaps this could be the way for the military history museums to remain relevant even at a time when these military organizations are no longer active.

[1]   See Retrieved on 13/7/15.

[2]   With the exception of Olei HaGardom (Those Who Went to the Gallows) – the members of the underground organizations who were captured and executed by the British – who are commemorated even if they belonged to a different organization.

[3]   The French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1887-1945) developed the idea of collective memory. See Halbwachs, Maurice, On Collective Memory, Chicago, Il., The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

[4]   For further reading, see Lebel, Udi. The Road to the Pantheon: Etzel, Lehi, and the Borders of Israeli National Memory, Jerusalem: Carmel, 2008 (Hebrew).

[5]   Williams, Paul. Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities, New York: Berg Publishers, 2007.

[6]   Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Tel Aviv: Babel, 2000 (Hebrew).

[7]   Nora, Pierre. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, Representations, 26, Spring 1989, 7-24.

[8]   Ibid.

[9]   Interview with Ms. Tali Tamir, director of the Haganah Museum, 28 December 2008.