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Museums & National Parks in Israel: The Palmach History Museum

by Ruth Heiges

After nearly a decade in design and construction, Beit Hapalmach, the Palmach History Museum, located next to the Land of Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, has finally opened its doors. The aim of the museum, explains Ilan Lev, Director of the Museum, is to give a sense of the period which led to the founding of the state.

"Since January 1st, when the museum opened its doors to the public, over 10,000 people have seen the exhibit," Lev says. "The reaction - 'magnificent'."

While Israel is not short of museums and monuments dedicated to the creation of the state and those who fought for it, this museum is outstanding. The full complex has not yet been completed; a 450-seat auditorium, a lecture hall, a library, archives, an exhibition hall, a memorial and a cafeteria are to be added as soon as funds become available. However, the museum is already being cited for its architectural importance, and was even featured in the March 1999 edition of Domus, a leading Italian architecture journal, which hailed the design as "totally integrated into the natural landscape and topography, a design language that seems to fuse the ideals of the Palmach with local materials."

The Palmach was the strike force of the Haganah, the pre-state underground defense organization which was eventually incorporated into the Israel Defense Forces after 1948. Though it existed for only seven years, the values which the Palmach promoted - mutual responsibility, assistance, sacrifice and contribution to the greater good - are legendary in the annals of local history and society.

Appropriately, the main exhibit takes place underground, in a series of chambers. Groups of 25 visitors, led by a guide, begin the tour at a memorial to the fallen. The next room is a scale version of Tel Aviv's Herzl Street in 1941. Here, the multi-media experience begins, with a newsreel of the war in Europe projected onto the street scene. This sets the stage for the formation of the Palmach, which was created to deal with two threats: the advance of the Germany army towards Egypt, and attacks by hostile Arabs on the Jewish community.

Moving into the next chamber, one is in a eucalyptus grove at night. Here, a movie is projected onto an entire wall, introducing the visitor to a fictional unit of seven new Palmach recruits meeting with their commander for training orientation. The story of these characters carries the visitors throughout the rest of the program, which lasts over one hour.

Over time, the unit gains training and experience, and personalities emerge. Some are assigned to blow up bridges, others to lead supply convoys to Jerusalem or to bring in immigrant ships. The visitor watches as they expectantly listen to the UN vote on the fate of the country, as they battle through the War of Independence, and as they express their grief at the gravesides of those who did not make it. Remarkably realistic sets, sounds, lighting, special effects and even moving rooms make the visitor feel part of this extraordinary experience.

"When Shaike Weinberg [the late founding director of the Museum of the Diaspora and the U.S. Holocaust Museum] first visited Beit Hapalmach while it was under construction, he said its vision couldn't possibly be realized," explains Yishayahu (Shaike) Gavish, retired general and chairman of the non-profit organization which raised funds for the building of the museum. "Upon visiting again in 1999 and experiencing the tour, he stated, 'This is going to be an international school for museology.'"

The museum was designed by architects Zvi Hecker and Rafi Segal. As Hecker is currently based in Berlin, German students of architecture have been showing up at the museum. "I tell them they will not be able to understand a word, because the entire program is currently in Hebrew," explains Karkom Rosenstein, the guiding coordinator. "But, they insist on going in, in spite of the language problem, and the fact that they have absolutely no connection to this experience. Afterwards, they tell me, 'We didn't understand a word, but we felt everything.'”

Visitor Information:

Visit to the museum must be pre-arranged. The tour is carried out in groups of up to 25 people (individuals visitors will be pre-arranged into groups).

The tour is for children over 6 years only.

The length of the tour is 90 minutes. The presentation is in Hebrew. English speakers will be provided with a translation through headphones.

Entrance fee: 25 NIS for adults. 15 NIS for school children and pensioners (payment is by cash or check only).

Address: 10 Haim Levanon st. Ramat-Aviv, Tel-Aviv.

For correspondence: the Department of Museums, Ministry of Defense, Hakirya, Tel-Aviv, 64734. Tel. 03-6436393 Fax. 036436964

Source: Palmach Museum