At the Herzl Museum.
At the Herzl Museum. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Wikipedia Commons
Theodor Herzl in Basel. Photo by Wikipedia Commons

Compared to the dramatic glow of Jerusalem’s legendary golden light, a dark museum hardly sounds appealing.  But the Herzl Museum (on Mount Herzl, naturally) is worth a visit for the light it sheds on Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl.

The museum uses Herzl’s love of theater as the entry point to explore modern Israel’s ideological founding father, taking visitors on an hour-long cinematic journey that unfolds on multiple screens in several rooms. His story is told as a play within a play as we follow a young Israeli actor chosen to play Herzl in a production, coached by the play’s director and a Herzl expert. 

In the first room, you watch the actor encounter anti-Semitism at a Viennese café for the first time. As you turn from one floor-to-ceiling screen to the next, you see his realization that Herzl’s world was unlike anything a young Israeli could imagine.

The next room, in which visitors make a dramatic entrance from above, resembles the Basel convention hall where the first Zionist Congress took place in 1897. Seated on wooden chairs next to ghost-like figures representing congress delegates, you watch the young actor practice his lines – the words pulled from actual Herzl speeches – and continue to grow into the part.  The third room, behind a glass partition, is Herzl’s office with many of its original furnishings, where you learn via small, embedded screens about Herzl’s last years and watch footage of the reinterment of his remains in the cemetery just steps away.

The fourth room, an auditorium, takes you out of the dream and brings you face-to-face with the realities of Israel, showing a series of images that both attest to how Herzl’s remarkable visions have come true – high tech, culture and education – but also splices them with some of the less rosy scenes of the modern state: garbage, violent demonstrations and screaming legislators in the Knesset. Were these scenes not so brief they might have caused discomfort - suggesting not all promises have come true in the Promised Land - and saved visitors an overdose of Zionist cotton candy.

Calling this innovative exhibit “hands-on” is perhaps an overstatement, considering the (understandable) prohibition against touching anything. There’s also an insistence on discarding your chewing gum, which makes sense considering that on our last visit we found some stuck to one of the seats in the “Zionist Congress Hall” while Herzl addressed the heads of Europe.

In addition to this theatrical/cinematic historical romp, the museum offers a plethora of educational activities and is well-worth adding to your Jerusalem itinerary.

The Museum is located at the entrance to Mt. Herzl, Herzl Blvd., Jerusalem.

Telephone: 972-2-6321515

Sunday - Wednesday: 8:30 A.M. – 6 P.M. (Last tour at 5:00 P.M.)
Thursday: 8:30 A.M. – 7 P.M.
Friday: 8:30 A.M. – 1 P.M. (Last tour at 12:15 P.M.)

Cost: NIS 25 / adults; NIS 20 / children; free for children under age six