After 23 years of living in Israel I finally took my first and long overdue guided tour of the Israel Museum.
In fairness, I am not a big fan of museums and galleries. Maybe it’s my ADHD or just my lack of interest in them, but this time I found that I left with more insights and questions than usual.
I was surprised to discover a link between Canaanites and Hassidim. Although an unusual relationship, it is one that definitely provided me a source of optimism.
Nimrod in the Cardo
One of the most fascinating exhibits I encountered at the Museum was a sculpture of Nimrod. The statue stands in the middle of what the Museum calls “The Cardo” – a central space connecting all of the departments of the museum: Judaica, archeology, Israeli art, etc.
At the center of all of this stands Nimrod.
The sculptor is an Israeli artist named Isaac Danziger. Danziger was a central figure of a group of artists and intellectuals who received the nickname “Canaanites”.
The thought that popped into my head about the character represented in the sculpture: Why Nimrod?
Anyone with a drop of sensitivity towards the Jewish tradition, would know that Nimrod represents the exact opposite of Jewish values. Nimrod is described in the Midrash as a murderer, and in general, one who rebelled against God. Without a doubt, he is contrasted with the image of Abraham who was the one to introduce Judaism and monotheism to the world standing diametrically opposed to idol worship.
What then, was Danziger trying to say, and what actually were the Canaanites trying to contribute to the public discourse?
The Canaanites thought that in order to establish a state they must in fact renew a civilization.
The group – that was never particularly large in the first place, since disappearing from the landscape, hoped that the state-to-be would assimilate in the region. They therefore searched for an image that preceded even the founding fathers of the nation, Abraham and Isaac etc.
This thought seems pretty ridiculous today: a group of European refugees (Danziger himself was born in Germany and studied art in London) seek to skip or erase thousands of years of tradition and history in an attempt to resemble ancient tribes.
Apparently in the pre-State landscape of the 30s and 40s the thought of separation from Jewish sources was not ridiculous. Indeed there were strong currents of the Zionist movement seeking to replace the “old” Jew with a completely up-to-date model, with minimal connection to the exilic Jew that had suffered for so long in Europe. In that sense Nimrod represented something indigenous, powerful and even violent, in stark contrast to the European Jew, perceived in the Yishuv as weak and submissive to his European hosts, or masters if you will.
Here is an example of this specific philosophy from 1944 – the year in which the destruction of the European Jews was in full swing. The head of the group, Yonatan Ratosh, makes clear in his writings that from the point of view of the Canaanites, the fate of the Jews of Europe had nothing to do with them, and therefore, a passive approach is better than an attempt to save Jews and bring them to Israel. This reflects a high degree of cruelty, and represents little or no emotional or intellectual connection with their Jewish brethren in Europe.
This kind of ideology is echoed in some quarters today. For example, you can carry a direct line between them and those who favor repealing the Law of Return, or those who want to change the description of nationality on identity cards from “Jewish” to “Israeli.”
But there remains an open question: Why do the directors of the Museum leave this statue in such a prominent place? Ideological expression? Inertia? Historical importance?
These are questions for the leaders of the institution.
Haredim are also interested
Later on in my leisurely stroll through the museum, we came across more exhibits which took us on a journey from today, back through thousands of years. There is no doubt that this kind of place provides the perspective of time and illustrates the story of the Jewish people, in Israel and abroad, and at the same time raises issues of Israeli and Jewish identity in 2016.
Within all of this, the tour guide told us of a special exhibition in the Museum on display during 2012.
“Hassidim – not only black and white” was an ethnographic exhibition on Hassidim and Hassidut through photographs of dress and life-cycle events, in the world of Hassidut.
What caught my attention in the guide’s words, was not the description of the actual exhibits themselves but that the exhibition aroused significant interest among the Haredi public. It turns out that Haredim came in numbers never seen before in the Israel Museum, a place not exactly up to the Haredi standards of culture or Halacha.
According to reports, over 100,000 visitors showed up to the Exhibit — half of whom were Haredim, who were clearly not worried about the sculptures, or the lack of separate hours for men and women.
So what did I learn from my visit to the museum?
For more than a century there has been an ideological conflict between Haredi and secular Jews. At the core lies the Zionist elite on one side, offering or indeed hoping to replace all religious Jews and Haredim in particular, with a new Israeli or Canaanite figure. Opposing them stands the Haredi narrative claiming that Jewish existence over time cannot exist without a total and immersive commitment to Torah and mitzvoth.
Just visiting a site like the Israel Museum that can offer artisitic expression to both populations shows that even if it is still difficult to contemplate a constellation of Haredim and secular Jews – if not Haredim and Canaanites – living together, carrying out some form of mutual dialogue or at least co-existence, then at least in the Museum is one place that proves it is possible.
And this on its own is a cause for optimism.