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Museum of Art at Ein-Harod
A Presentation to the Jewish Congress in Jerusalem
By Galia Bar Or
The subject of my discussion today is not an artist, an art work, or a thematic cross-section, but an artistic institution: a museum, one of the first in this country, the character of its repertoire during the forties, and its reciprocal relations with its surroundings.
The cultural establishment and institutional growth and consolidation in this country constitute a new subject of study. To this day - and this is no coincidence -
researchers of Israeli art have hardly ever concerned themselves with the institutional-organizational side of the cultural system in Israel - and it seems as though the institutional has never been here, as though there have been only artists and art works.
Researchers of Israeli art have dealt with "spirit", with descriptions of the "natural" and authentic growth of the artist and of art, and have identified an existential national Modernist revolution - a code-name for the creation of a Hebrew national identity that was the aspiration of everyone in the country.
Zohar Shavit, in the book A History of the Jewish Yishuv (1999), writes: "They dealt a lot with spirit, but refused to touch straw and bricks".
One consequence of the absence of an awareness of the historical value of the institutional material was that no work of archival sorting and preservation was done in most of the museums. The material is not available for research today - some of it is lost and cannot be reconstructed.
As stated, one of the reasons for the neglect of institutional research was that most of the researchers of Israeli art unknowingly adopted the value perspective of the system that they were supposed to research, and systematically ignored cultural components that did not suit the desired model, the "canon".
Not only was the place of the organizational aspect in Israeli art ignored, but significant contents, too, were considered irrelevant, and were therefore left out of the research: the Holocaust, the refugee condition, the Diaspora, and Jewishness. On the rejection of the Diaspora and Jewishness, Zohar Shavit writes:
"What nevertheless united all the various currents and outlooks was: the creation of the opposition between the Diaspora-Jewish culture and the Eretz-Israeli Hebrew culture, which was characterized by a recurrent endeavor to give a distinctive character to 'the Eretz-Israeli culture'… […] It made possible the building of the Hebrew culture in the Yishuv society in Eretz-Israel, because it served as an ideological basis and as a basis for a cultural consensus that constituted a precondition for most of the cultural activities."
I will try to hit two birds with one stone. On the one hand, to deal with the institutional aspect that has been so neglected, and, on the other hand, to consider the attitude of the art establishment in Israel to "Diaspora Jewish culture" during the forties. Was the rejection of the latter indeed so sweeping and unequivocal?
I will try to prove, through an examination of the direct and hinted messages of one particular museum, that the question of the attitude to the Diaspora and to Jewishness is only the tip of an iceberg in which much more is concealed than revealed, and the research is only in its beginning stages.
The museum I will focus on is the Mishkan Le-Omanut, the Museum of Art in Ein-Harod, which was founded in the late thirties. It will serve as a model, one of many, for a complex approach to the Diaspora and Jewishness.
Firstly, a few words about the ideological background of the Museum's political and social environment.
Kibbutz Ein-Harod was the place of the physical and ideological founding of Hakibbutz Hameuchad, the "United Kibbutz" movement, and of the crystallization of this movement's radical-Zionist conception, a central message of which was, so it seems, the negation of the Diaspora and Jewishness.
Hakibbutz Hameuchad saw itself as representing those who, while there was yet time, had pointed out the anomaly entailed in Jewish existence in the Diaspora, had foreseen the catastrophe, and had issued a warning. The events of the Holocaust made it possible to conclude that this kibbutz movement's way in Zionism had been right, because the movement had correctly read what was about to happen and had set up a preventative program. Hakibbutz Hameuchad had established the "Hechalutz" movement in Europe, organized illegal immigration to Palestine, and attempted to struggle with difficulties presented by other political currents in the Jewish community. On the face of it, in the official story of Hakibbutz Hameuchad and of Ein-Harod, a causative link was created between the existence of the Diaspora and the occurrence of the Holocaust; the lesson that was learned - the socialist national revolution and its realization in the kibbutz - was perceived as the answer to the humiliating life in the Diaspora.
If, however, it has occurred to anyone that the Ein-Harod Museum's collections of Jewish art, which document the life of the Jews in the Diaspora, were intended to illustrate the story of the negation of the Diaspora and of the rebirth of Israel - it turns out that the complete opposite is the case.
In 1944, the artist Chaim Atar [originally Aptiker], the founder of the Museum and its first director, was quoted in Davar, the official party newspaper of the Labor movement, as follows:
"The Mishkan Le-Omanut [literally 'Abode for Art'] seeks to concentrate the works of art created by the Jewish people, and, through them, to pass on the distinctive values of the Jewish life that has been destroyed in the Diaspora to the youth and the children who are growing up in this country, and thus to reinforce their Jewish feeling and to make perceptible to them the Jewish atmosphere that their fathers created in the dispersions."
The Jewish collection of the Museum of Art in Ein-Harod came into being largely through the activity of members of Kibbutz Ein-Harod in Europe during the late thirties, in the framework of Hakibbutz Hameuchad.
As we know, the "emissaries" to Europe during those years worked to save human lives, and in general nothing was said about the value of saving the Jewish culture that was being destroyed. The fact that the kibbutz members who were emissaries became involved in rescuing the remnants of Jewish culture indicated an awakening of their consciousness of Jewish life. This is what one of those emissaries in Poland, Zerubavel Gilead , the author of "the Palmach anthem" (ten years later), wrote to the members of Ein-Harod in 1938:
"There is one feeling I cannot free myself of when I walk in the streets - the feeling of respect for these Jews. And do you know for whom? Particularly for those Jews who are untidy in their dress, the raucous, the irritable ones, who would fight to the end for a penny worth of livelihood, who are persecuted and humiliated by policemen and those who send them - how they withstand all these things! It is not only their stubborn hold on life that evokes respect, but also their ability to preserve their selfhood [the author's emphasis] in it all: the small hats, the long kapota and the beard and the sidecurls - these things clearly say 'We are Jews, and we bear this Jewishness of ours in this Warsaw with pride!'"
A survey of the exhibition repertoire at the Mishkan Le-Omanut in the forties shows that in 1942 there was an exhibition about Polish Jewry, in 1943 an exhibition of papercuts by the artist Yosef Wiznicer; in 1945 a joint exhibition of Atar, Gileadi and Okashi, and after that "The Exhibition of the Holocaust and the Revolt, Extermination Camps in Poland" (photographs and exhibits), as well as an exhibition of photographs of life in the Warsaw Ghetto (the material was passed on to "Beit Lochamei HaGhettaot", the Ghetto-Fighters Museum, on its establishment). In 1946 there was an exhibition on the subject of synagogues built of wood in Poland, and in 1947 there was an exhibition on the subject of the destruction of Polish Jewry, which opened on Tisha B'Av of that year.
For Chaim Atar, the exhibition on the subject of synagogues built of wood in Poland served as a means for transmitting an acute and topical message.
In his view, the wooden synagogues were an ideal model for imitation by the kibbutz, which was seeking for ways to shape its festivals - a model of the collectivity of the Jewish spirit and of shared creativity. He spoke in these terms in address at a conference of cultural organizers on the subject of the culture of festivals in the settlements of the Yizreel Valley in 1944.
That same year he expressed himself as follows:
"It seems to me that the destruction of the Diaspora in our times, the destruction of all the minor temples [synagogues] and the destruction of Jewish life, is a greater destruction than that of the two Temples in their time. We have always borne the memory of the destruction of Jerusalem throughout all our exiles, and we will also know how to remember the Diaspora that has been destroyed before our eyes."
By creating the analogy between the destruction of the Temple(s) and the Holocaust, Atar removed the basis from under the conception of the superiority of Eretz-Israel over the Diaspora: destruction had occurred both here and there, and the Temple was not more important than the synagogues in the Diaspora. Atar accorded the two catastrophes an equal place in the Jewish people's collective memory; in his perception, the extermination of Jewish life in the Diaspora was more terrible than the destruction of the Temple.
In Atar's words, and in those of other members of Ein-Harod, as well as in the exhibition repertoire at the Mishkan Le-Omanut, there is no trace of the structuring of the past, the Diaspora, and the lesson learned from the Holocaust as ostensibly practiced in Hakibbutz Hameuchad, a revolutionary society that aspired to shape a "new man", and had severed itself from Jewish roots and from the traditional Jewish home in order to create a new social, national and cultural world.
Chaim Atar's activities in Ein-Harod to create an ongoing affinity with the Jewish past expresses a position that had additional spokesmen among his generation. For some of the members of Ein-Harod, the Zionist revolution was a Jewish revolution, in the spirit of Berl Katznelson's teachings rather than those of Ben-Gurion, who sought to consolidate a monolithic "Israeli", Hebrew, collective identity.
Chaim Atar was the quintessential kibbutz artist, in the sense that, since the early twenties, beside his personal work in art, he displayed much involvement in all the cultural and visual aspects of the society's life. From the very outset of his path he aspired to connect the new society with the Jewish sources that he had brought with him from the Jewish town in Eastern Europe where he was born, and sought to implant the collection of Judaica that he had gathered from various Jewish dispersions into this new society's life and landscape. He never severed himself from the East-European folk tradition of his origins, and already in the twenties he designed tombstones in that spirit. The fact that Atar's "diasporic" festival decorations for the Passover Seder in the kibbutz did not encounter criticism in the kibbutz, and that no-one argued that it would have been more appropriate to display more "Israeli" decorations, is a symptom of the simultaneous existence of different positions in this kibbutz, and of the perception of them in all their complexity. The "diasporic" character of Atar's decorations was evinced in the traditional Jewish motifs taken from manuscripts and paintings in synagogues in Europe, which he preferred over stylized depictions of the landscape and people of this country, of nature and of the joy of labor. The "diasporic" as opposed to the "Israeli" was also discernible in the color scale and the manner of paint application: Aptiker did not make use of pure colors, and did not include a rich and "optimistic" diversity of colors. His decorations were mainly monochrome, and the paint application was heavy and charged. Throughout his life he was concerned with cultural conservation; evidence of this is the Ein-Harod archives that he founded and activated. Above all, however, Chaim Atar did not see the "diasporic" Jewish character as clashing with the new Israeli character, and did not think of Hebrew as contradictory to Yiddish.
How can we explain the incongruity between the conservation (or reconstruction) of the past by the Mishkan Le-Omanut and its director, Atar, and the shaping of the collective memory in the story of Hakibbutz Hameuchad?
It is not easy to downplay the phenomenon of the Mishkan Le-Omanut as something negligible, or an exception. For we are speaking about the very core of Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Ein-Harod, the place where the Secretariat of Hakibbutz Hameuchad was based in those days, not far from the Mishkan Le-Omanut.
It is also difficult to downplay the phenomenon of the museum's director, Chaim Atar. In the kibbutz movement and in the community, Atar was considered an authority on matters of collective memory - he engaged in constructing the meaning of this memory in ceremonies, in shaping this memory in the archives, and in passing on the values of the past by means of the collection he had put together. Not even a single piece of indirect evidence has been found of any critical response to Atar's emphases in his treatment of the past, the present and the future, while there is much evidence about the deep respect felt by members of the kibbutz for the Mishkan Le-Omanut and for Chaim Atar, and there exist many descriptions of the atmosphere of sanctity in the Mishkan, and of the stillness of the visitors in the presence of Atar's sweeping descriptions.
Was the Mishkan Le-Omanut one of the "sites of memory" (a term coined by Pierre Nora ["les lieux de memoire"], which accorded a dimension of sanctity, a halting of time and a suspension of forgetfulness for the revolutionary society whose roots had been cut off?
Researchers of collective memory agree among themselves that the collective memory is structured by a society out of its immediate needs in the present, and that it is always in a constant process of being reshaped. Several researchers point out that the collective memory is not planned in a single channel but splits up into a colloquium of various approaches that co-exist simultaneously in the society - for example, the negation of the Diaspora and the inclusion of the Diaspora in one and the same society. The "deviation" of the Mishkan Le-Omanut and of Atar may be explained by a theory that claims that the centralized cultural vessels of the hegemonic elite are penetrated by the peripheries, or the users, who pour new content into them - an everyday culture that has set up a different form of "consumption" of the cultural vessels.
The story of the Mishkan Le-Omanut and of Chaim Atar contains something of a challenge for the commonly accepted historical conception, and perhaps we need a certain refreshing of the prevalent, unsatisfying and rigid description of the monolithic character and the ideological dichotomy of the Jewish Yishuv in general and of the Kibbutz Meuchad movement in particular. It appears that collective consciousness and memory are too paradoxical and complex to configure in a narrow vise - but this is already a subject for a different framework of discussion.