Israel's First Steps and Growing Pains, as Seen Through Its Trinkets and Toys

What Israel looked like before 'Zionism' became a dirty word: A new exhibition at the Municipal Art Gallery in Ra'anana explores how a newborn Israel established, defined, and even branded itself.

Anat Rosenberg
Anat Rosenberg
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The popular cartoon character, Srulik, the Israeli Everyman.Credit: Courtesy of Municipal Art Gallery, Ra'anana
Anat Rosenberg
Anat Rosenberg

If you weren’t around to experience life in Israel in the early years after independence, it may be hard to imagine the country before it developed into the “Startup Nation," before it turned into a magnet for controversy thanks to settlements and the decades-long occupation of the Palestinians, before “Zionism” became something of a dirty word.

It’s also hard to imagine what it would be like to live in a country starting from scratch, a place that had to simultaneously craft a history for itself while forging into the future.

“As We Were,” a new exhibition at the Municipal Art Gallery in Beit Yad Labanim in Ra’anana, opens a window onto how a fledgling country went about establishing, defining, and even branding itself in its first few decades.

This exhibition isn’t some dry historical overview; it presents the story of Israel’s first 25 years through “the prism of everyday popular culture products from those years,” according to curator Orna Fichman. Together, some 600 items form a mosaic of nostalgia that depicts what Israeli society was like between the critical years of 1948 and 1973. The hodgepodge of memorabilia includes Independence Day posters, maps, board games, decorative housewares, dolls, children's books and various knickknacks and tchotchkes.

“We never stop revisiting the past, perhaps because the past covers itself in a patina of innocence,” Fichman writes in her prologue to the exhibition catalogue. “When we look at such nostalgic products from those years, we filter out the unpleasant memories and embrace the pleasant ones, perhaps even exaggerate them a bit, while also adding an element of wishful thinking.”

Even through this “patina of innocence,” it’s hard to ignore the fact that, from its earliest days, Israel placed great emphasis on the military and its influence in shaping the society.

One of the posters marking Israel’s first Independence Day, issued by the army’s cultural department, features a quote from the Declaration of Independence alongside two sturdy arms – one in olive green fatigues – hoisting up the Israeli flag. Copies of the declaration were also marketed as a collector’s item, sold in a box featuring two pictures: One of David Ben-Gurion making his historic announcement and the other of red-beret-wearing, smiling female soldiers.

Other items from the 1950s and ’60s also reflect the heroism of the “new Jews”: A board game called “Our War: from Private to Major General,” which ostensibly tracked players’ rise through the military’s ranks, while another called “Victory Game” allowed players to re-create battles from the 1967 Six-Day War. (The enemy, if shown at all in such items, was generally surrendering.)

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A board game also featuring the army, from the exhibition.Credit: Courtesy of Municipal Art Gallery, Ra'anana
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Detail of one of the earliest Independence Day posters, issued by the army's cultural department. Credit: Courtesy of Municipal Art Gallery, Ra'anana
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Detail of a vintage Independence Day poster from the exhibition.Credit: Courtesy of Municipal Art Gallery, Ra'anana

Soon after independence, the country went to great pains to create a culture for itself, fashioning and marketing heroes that its citizens could admire, explains Dr. Haim Grossman, the show’s academic adviser, in the catalogue. Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, was an obvious choice and his familiar face could be found on posters, a bronze desk lamp and an ornate Persian rug (presumably it wasn’t stepped on). Then there were wooden and bronze busts of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. Even American Jews got in on the act, with a 1950s comic strip called “Heroes of Faith,” which praised Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, for his leadership and hard work.

Around the same time, Israeli cartoonist and Holocaust survivor Kariel Gardosh (better known by his pen name, Dosh) conceived of a new symbol for the country: “Srulik,” a young, idealistic Zionist dressed in Israeli garb of the time – khaki shorts, a “tembel” bucket hat and biblical sandals. Srulik, the Israeli Everyman appeared in cartoons in the daily Maariv newspaper, and practically everywhere else: on key chains, ashtrays, decorative plates, birthday cards and cigarette ads. During wartime, he even “enlisted” in the army to help boost morale. As the newspaper’s editor at the time pointed out, Srulik was the antithesis to stereotypical caricatures of Jews – the hook-nosed, side-locked shylock.

Much as it does today, Israel in the 1950s and '60s emphasized the Jews’ connection to the land, both biblically and agriculturally. A New Year’s greetings card from the 1960s, for example, could easily be reissued today: It’s an amalgam of soldiers, Israeli flags, air force jets, the Tower of David in Jerusalem and Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem.

Children’s books of the time focused on protagonists from the Tanakh and “pioneers of the land,” while the United Israel Appeal (a fundraising group) launched a campaign to reach out to Diaspora Jews by sending them pressed Israeli wildflowers.

“The flower, an expression of the people’s rootedness in its old-new homeland would speak to children of the Diaspora in the language of beauty and renewal,” Dr. Grossman writes. In today’s era of smartphones and Facebook, such a campaign seems incredibly earnest, even bordering on naive.

What did help Israel strengthen its connection to Diaspora Jews, as many experts have noted, was the stunning victory in the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula, affirming the valiant image of the Israeli soldier. The triumph engulfed Israel in a wave of euphoria, which was represented in items ranging from a "decorative" bullet casing in a Perspex box to colorful flags for the Simchat Torah holiday featuring children and soldiers dancing with tanks and the Western Wall in the background.

The defense minister at the time, Gen. Moshe Dayan, could have opened a shop for sundries inspired by him after the Six-Day War. But six years later, following the Yom Kippur War, he likely would have had to shut it down; shock replaced euphoria, and Israelis came to realize that their heroes were fallible.

“The dream of a strong Israel, whose leaders are all-knowing and whose commanders easily defeat any enemy was shattered suddenly on Yom Kippur in 1973," writes Dr. Grossman, expressing a sentiment that still reverberates today. "Dayan was no longer considered a triumphant hero and the country filled with sadness and anger toward a leader that disappointed it so.”

“As We Were” is on view until June 29 at the Municipal Art Gallery in Beit Yad Labanim, 147 Ahuza Street, Ra’anana.