national heritage
Reuven Pinsky, head of the national heritage department in the Prime Minister's Office. Photo by Emil Salman
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To put it delicately, preserving sites of national historical import has never been a top priority of Israel's government. Exactly two years ago, for example, there was a big furor over national heritage sites. In February 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed his cabinet at a festive session held in Tel Hai, and announced the launching of "a comprehensive plan, the largest ever, to strengthen the national heritage infrastructures of the State of Israel."

The amount of money mentioned then raised even the eyebrows of preservation advocates: Hundreds of millions, the prime minister promised, would be allocated to this effort. Criticism was not long in coming: Practically immediately, a debate erupted over what places should appear on the list of national heritage sites. At the heart of the controversy were issues such as the potential sites' place in history, their status, financial considerations, tourism potential and so on.

A 300-page booklet prepared at the time by Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser presented a detailed six-year scheme. The introduction to this weighty publication stated, among other things that, "this plan comes to change long-standing arrangements."

Dr. Avi Sasson, a senior lecturer in the Eretz Israel studies department of the Ashkelon Academic College, who is involved in the planning committee of the preservation project, says there was a misunderstanding when the scheme was presented.

"There was no intention of presenting a full list of Israel's national heritage sites. Nor is that meant to happen at the conclusion of the project," he says. "The intention was to locate the important sites that are not receiving support, that were neglected over the years and deserve to be saved, and should have their tourism potential maintained and developed."

Today, two years after the announcement, and one-third of the way through the period allotted to the project's realization - it is too early to draw any conclusions about it. But if there is some revolution underway involving national heritage sites, it is happening far below the surface.

Independence Hall on Tel Aviv's Rothschild's Street - which was mentioned by Netanyahu specifically - has not changed much; the ancient inn at Sha'ar Hagay has still not opened as a visitors' center; Jerusalem's Ades Synagogue is beautiful, but has not been changed in any major way; and the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association school in Petah Tikva is still completely empty, awaiting refurbishment.

No hurrying

Reuven Pinsky, who is head of the national heritage department in the Prime Minister's Office, explains that haste is the greatest enemy of preservation.

"You can't do preservation in a hurry," Pinsky repeats several times during a conversation in President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi's small house on Abarbanel Street in Jerusalem. "Haste is the antithesis of heritage preservation."

In the first stage of the program, it was decided to formulate clear criteria for the heritage sites. "We do not randomly decide on the list," explains Pinsky. "In addition to the list prepared by an initial planning team, we approached anyone who owns or manages an asset that could be deemed a 'national heritage site.' We received some 220 proposals."

So far, renovations have been approved for some 20 sites around the country. The list, approved in December 2010, includes the little shack in which we are sitting; the first stage of its renovation has been completed. What makes a visit here worthwhile is the huge, wonderful rug on the floor. Its designers, Oded Burla and Ruth Dayan, made it for the hut in the 1950s, and weavers from Umm al-Fahm worked on it.

Other sites included on the list include the Tel Lachish archaeology site in the Negev (where a visitors' center is to be built ); Metzudat Koah (a fortress, also known as the Nebi Yusha police station ); Herodion near Gush Etzion, where King Herod's tomb is located; Gamla and the ancient synagogue in Umm el-Kanatir in the Golan Heights; Tel Arad; the old train station at Tzemah; Hatzer Kinneret and so on.

Pinsky divides the places that are likely to receive recognition and support as national heritage sites into two groups: small-scale sites that should be preserved for future generations but do not require investment of a lot of money or time; and large and more interesting projects that have "a story that can be made tangible" - as he puts it.

Citing the Ben-Zvi house and Tel Aviv's Independence Hall, he explains that, "the combination of a story, a good location and values gives the site a high score when it comes to inclusion in the list of heritage sites."

To demonstrate the problematic nature of the site-selection process, Pinsky mentions five different proposals received for building a museum of the history of kibbutz settlement. "Many kibbutzim have large, important buildings that are not currently in use. But our job is to consider the big picture, to say there is no need to invest the money in more museums of the kibbutz movement. Two will be enough for the whole country. New ideas for preserving these buildings need to be raised. We have to find other uses for them apart from as museums. There is a kind of stagnation ... After all, there is a need for classrooms, lecture halls and even high-tech plants ... We don't help to build five overlapping museums. There is no need for them; and in the future there will be no potential visitors for them. They are just white elephants."

Saying no

American-born Pinsky, 37, is well aware that he will make enemies while working to preserve certain sites.

"My job is to often say no. If you know how to do that fairly, it's possible not to create a grudge," says Pinsky, who immigrated to Israel when he was five years old, and is now married and a father of six. He notes that he sometimes serves as a cantor, but professionally has worked in preservation and tourism for the Old City of Jerusalem Development Authority (and is proud of the fact that his farewell party was attended by Jews, Christians and Muslims ).

Asked about the politicization of national heritage sites, he answers very seriously: "The fact that we are located within the Prime Minister's Office gives us a status and presence that we wouldn't have if we were part of a ministry. It is impossible to ignore us. Everyone sees us as the right people to approach."

He says the prime minister and cabinet secretary are involved and interested in the national heritage project, but do not dictate what is to be done. Furthermore, recent cuts at government ministries did not affect his project.

"The decision to place heritage sites on the agenda is a legitimate political decision, but that is where the politics stops. Beyond that, everything stems from professional considerations. There is a lot of pressure on us, but it comes from local council heads. Many of them think I have piles of money to distribute."

'Based on merits'

The list of 220 proposed sites includes 30 in the West Bank. Five have either been approved or have a good chance of getting the green light for financial support and development from Pinsker and his colleagues. But the issue of whether a potential site is located inside or outside the Green Line does not seem relevant to Pinsky. "The question from my perspective is: How many visitors could we bring to the site after we decide to invest in it? It doesn't matter to me if it's in Judea and Samaria or Tel Aviv."

Pinsky says he is, however, aware of the criticism the project may encounter. "If someone suggests building an elevator in the Cave of the Patriarchs, because it is an important site, I would consider this based on its merits," he explains. "But because the site is a sensitive place, I would first submit a recommendation to the prime minister. I would not promote it on my own."

Pinsky gently criticizes the council heads in West Bank areas who, he says, "thought that the fact that a kippah-wearer was appointed to the job guarantees that their issues would be taken care of. Very quickly they realized things don't work that way and that we arrive at our decisions in a very focused way."

According to Pinsky, most of the progress over the last two years has been in the area of planning. In another year and a half, it will also be possible to see actual restoration work at many sites - and "finally we'll be able to get our hands dirty," he says.

Four years from now, when this stage of the project ends, NIS 800 million will have been invested in heritage sites. In Pinsky's estimate, at least two-thirds of the project will be completed on time: Some 70 large and medium-sized projects will be approved and renovated, along with another 100 smaller ones.

As to which sites are closest to his heart, he refuses at first to say, but later mentions three: Tel Aviv's Independence Hall, the Umm al Kanatir Synagogue in the Golan, and the archaeological project underway in the heart of Modi'in Ilit. He says dealing with the latter site is like "reinventing the wheel," because it involves a combination of archaeological excavations and dealing with a Haredi population.

When trying to find public figures or people who will speak out about the work of Pinsky and his team, one recalls his comment about the status and power - or more precisely - the immunity their work seems to receive in the Prime Minister's Office. It is hard to find anyone willing to criticize their project. Some people say it is too soon to do so. Others explain, somewhat surprisingly, that everything is being done in an exemplary fashion.

Presumably, the Ministry of Culture, headed by Limor Livnat, is not pleased that the Prime Minister's Office is running a huge project that is ostensibly on their turf, but until now nothing has been said there. The same is true of the Ministry of Tourism and other ministries that overlap to some extent in this area. And the silence concerning the national heritage project is especially noticeable when it comes to bodies such as the Israel's Antiquities Authority or the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS ), both of which have worked in this area for years and have suddenly been overshadowed by the new Prime Minister's Office effort.

Omri Shalmon, the director general of SPIHS (a public organization under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel ), explains that "to this day, there has yet to be a decisive government decision regarding these matters. We submitted 62 projects to the Prime Minister's Office that require immediate preservation. After two years, we are ready with detailed plans for some 20 projects where work can begin. Among the projects: Hatzer Kinneret, Metzudat Koah, and the Signor Synagogue in Tiberias."

When asked why another mechanism is needed to deal with restoration and preservation of national heritage sites, he cautiously answers that it would be better to address that question to the Prime Minister's Office. "We are ready to do anything to promote preservation," he adds.