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The throwback museum that echoes independence

TEL AVIV — Independence Hall.

Do those words ring a bell? 

No, not the bell that you’ll find with a crack in it in Philadelphia. I am speaking here about Independence Hall in Tel-Aviv. Even if you are a Jew with strong ties to Israel, there’s a chance that this Independence Hall won’t be as familiar to you. You may never have visited it, nor heard much about it. 

In a country that treasures its past and goes to great lengths to memorialize, remember and restore it, Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv stands apart. Though it makes just about every list of tourist destinations, many visitors to Israel never get there; their time being taken up with visits to the more fashionable spots in Tel Aviv, the ancient sites in Jerusalem, or to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.  Though you can readily see that Independence Hall has gotten lots of love from its staff, it’s neither state-of-the art, nor particularly interactive in a 21st century sort of way. There isn’t even a museum shop, though you can buy a few souvenirs and pamphlets at the front desk where you pay for your admission ticket. 

It’s a throwback kind of museum. And for that reason, it was my favorite place on a 12-day-tour of Israel that took my group from the Lebanon border to the Negev Desert and many sites in between. Of course, we were lucky on the day we visited. Tali Kanterewicz was our guide. 

Kanterewicz, a native born-Israeli, an Army veteran and a mother of three children, spoke to our group from Central Reform Congregation, but she aimed most of her remarks at another group that had joined us — some Jewish students from California. She told the students that many people would try to fill their heads with history and facts. What she wanted to do was make them “feel it.”

And she was superb at doing just that, first describing how this place was the home of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff. He had come to what was then a dusty road in April 1909 with a handful of other Jewish families to create a neighborhood in an as yet unincorporated town. In 1930, after the death of his wife, Zina, he donated his home to the city and requested that it become a museum — The Tel Aviv Museum of Art. 

Eighteen years later, Zionist leaders would choose that site to name the Jewish State Israel and declare Independence.

Kanterewicz told us that much of the furniture at Independence Hall where hundreds gathered to witness the historic event at 4 p.m. May 14, 1948, are not the real things.  The ceremony was planned and held in a heated rush. The signatories anticipated an attack within hours and no one was going to hang around to figure out what they ought to hang on to for posterity, other than the scroll that was signed to establish the state. And, after all, the place went back to being an art museum, which it remained until 1971. It wasn’t until 1978, that Independence Hall opened to the public.

Even so, you could feel it; there in the main hall hung the portrait of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, flanked by two Israeli flags. The names of those who attended the ceremonies are on the dais and chairs.

Then you could hear the voice of David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the independence movement and Israel’s first prime minister, as the scratchy radio broadcast of the event had been preserved. Then came the voices of 350 people in the hall singing the Hatikvah, what would soon become the Israeli national anthem. “The State of Israel is established!” Ben-Gurion said. “This meeting is adjourned!”

The students kept their cells phones stowed. They sat rapt as Kanterewicz shared small insights of what it must have been like as the leaders prepared for the signing ceremony. Invitations were sent on the morning of May 14, telling recipients to come at 3:30 p.m. and to keep it a secret. The text was typed the same day at the Jewish National Fund building and Ze’ev Sherf, who was to carry the text to the museum, had forgotten to arrange for a ride. He flagged down a passing car. On the way, a policeman stopped the car for speeding, though Sherf was not given a ticket after he offered an explanation about what he was up to. He walked into the hall with the declaration at 3:59 p.m., a minute before the start of the ceremony.

Yes, you could certainly feel it. But you had to be there. You have to go there. Add it to your itinerary and ask for Tali Kanterewicz.

Richard H. Weiss is a contributing editor for the St. Louis Beacon and managing editor of BeyondNovember.org, a website covering politics and elections on behalf of the Beacon, the Nine Network and St. Louis Public Radio. He is a board member of the Jewish Light.