The Israel Museum and the Loss of Jewish Memory

By Ethan Dor-Shav

Israeli museums tell every possible story except one--that of the Jewish people.

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A first visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem can be overwhelming. The museum’s renowned Judaica collection, the sculpture garden, the Shrine of the Book, and the astonishing collection of archeological finds reaching back to the dawn of Jewish collective memory and beyond—all these can leave the visitor in a state of awe, as if he has come upon one of Israel’s greatest treasures, a magnificent repository of the nation’s most cherished art and artifacts.
Well, sort of. While asserting that it “fills the role of a national museum” (per its promotional material), the Israel Museum somehow ignores completely what should be the most significant story in the national museum of the Jewish state: The story of the Jewish people. Nowhere in this grand structure is any effort made to present the chronicle of the Jewish people through the generations: Not in the archeology wing, which houses countless relics of Jewish life during the biblical period; not in the Judaica wing, where vast displays of items evoking the mores and modes of life in the diaspora are presented according to abstract categories, rather than historical periods; not in the Shrine of the Book, which apparently has been designated the museum’s “miscellaneous” department, for exhibits such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and artifacts from the Bar Kochba revolt that do not quite fit anywhere else; and certainly not in the rest of the museum, whose galleries of captivating art and sculpture lack any reference to the Jewish people and their history. Instead, the museum’s disjointed presentation celebrates the grandeur of the items on display while emptying them of their historical and national significance.
Stranger still, the betrayal of Jewish history, while particularly striking in the case of the Israel Museum, is by no means limited to that venerated institution. Throughout Israel, museums have abandoned outright the story of the Jewish people, ever seeking other stories to tell, arranging their exhibits and their great halls always according to other considerations, selecting artifacts and facsimiles, selling memorabilia and promoting their exhibits, all according to criteria other than their significance to the grand tale of Jewish history. In the culture of Israel’s museums, the story of the Jews is simply left untold.

Ethan Dor-Shav is a senior copywriter at the advertising agency of Baumann Ber Rivnay in Tel Aviv.

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