A Work Camp in the Lowest Place on Earth Is Israel's Latest Tourist Attraction

The new Dead Sea visitor center revives glorious chapters in the history of the pre-state Jewish community

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Glamping, Dead Sea Works-style.
Glamping, Dead Sea Works-style.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Two rows of white cotton tents, flapping in the warm wind next to a large factory, is all one can see at first. Erected in the sands of the desert – a place where temperatures approach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) most of the year – this mysterious new camp seems foreign to its surroundings, a fata morgana of times long gone. The sea’s southern section has been completely altered over the last century; virtually nothing remains of its natural state.

Most people coming here would never have heard the name Moshe Novomeysky. The founder of the pre-state Potash company that was the precursor of the Dead Sea Works has vanished almost completely from Israeli history. But this new visitor center, recreating in part a harsh work camp for early Zionists in Sdom (aka Sodom, the location of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah), should restore his lost honor and that of his partners.

The new Dead Sea Works visitor center at Sdom.

The wooden buildings, accurately recreated with the aid of in-depth research, are located at the foot of Mount Sdom, where the potash workers’ camp was located back in the 1930s. There is only one main difference: everything here is air-conditioned.

'The story of the Palestine Potash Company is one of the most glorious chapters in the history of the pre-state Jewish community'

Novomeysky, a mining engineer from Siberia, first saw the Dead Sea in 1911. After recognizing its economic potential, he spent years trying to obtain a license to mine it. In 1930, he founded the Palestine Potash Company, which was originally based in Kalia, on the northern Dead Sea. From 1934 onward, it also ran operations 80 kilometers to the south, at Sdom, where Dead Sea Works is located to this day.

Because there was no road connecting the two sites at the time (Route 90 was only built in 1970), traveling from one to the other required going by ship – a voyage that took eight to 12 hours. The Sdom site was considered the loneliest place in the country at that time.

My grandfather worked as a welder at the company in the ’30s, and my father used to say that summer vacations at the workers’ residences near the factory – especially sailing a sailboat on the Dead Sea – were some of his best childhood experiences. He was 10 at the time and he, his mother and his brother spent the month of August there.

A recreation of the potash site workers camp at the Dead Sea.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

My favorite part of the story was his description of the admiring looks the other workers gave his young mother when she got off the boat. I looked for my grandfather in the beautiful photographs at the visitor center, but couldn’t find him.

As the southern factory grew, residences for the workers’ families were built there in the mid-’30s. A significant portion of the visitor center tour focuses on the heroic persistence of the first workers and the harsh living conditions they had to cope with. The tour at the center included the reconstructed kitchen and dining room, and the tents where the workers lived. It was nice to discover that the workers had ice and lemonade.

During the War of Independence in 1948, the northern factory was abandoned. Kibbutz Beit Ha’arava was set up near where it used to be (most of its members worked at the factory). The southern factory, at Sdom, was besieged. Five workers remained there to guard it, headed by one of Novomeysky’s partners, Moshe Langotsky.

After the war ended, Dead Sea Works – a government company that marketed the Dead Sea’s minerals overseas – was established. Since 1968, it has been owned by Israel Chemicals, which was privatized in the ’90s. Israel Chemicals is a subsidiary of the Israel Corporation, currently controlled by Idan Ofer.

The Ofer family’s license to mine the sea expires in 2030, and the government must make a decision about the sea’s future by then. Teams comprised of officials from the relevant ministries are supposed to ensure the state’s interests at the Dead Sea are protected by drafting a new license with improved terms.

Historical justice

Langotsky, Novomeysky’s right-hand man, came to the Dead Sea in 1925 and worked at its factory for 44 years. At times, he was there all alone, displaying great courage and persistence. Among other things, he established the company’s maritime department – a fleet of some 20 ships that plied the Dead Sea.

His son, Yossi Langotsky, is a well-known geologist who was involved in discovering the Tamar and Dalit natural gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea and has won the Israel Defense Prize as well as other awards. The Dead Sea is very close to his heart, and for years he sought to get a visitor center built in Sdom.

People visit the new Dead Sea Works visitor center at Sdom.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“The story of the Palestine Potash Company, one of the most glorious chapters in the history of the pre-state Jewish community, was forgotten and obscured in the years after the state was founded,” he once wrote. “This is mainly because the potash company was depicted by the dominant political players of those years as a capitalist company, ostensibly foreign to Zionist ideology. The potash company was a Zionist enterprise founded at the initiative of individuals imbued with Zionist consciousness, people with economic daring, and scientific and technical expertise who turned it, with the sweat of hundreds of workers’ brows, into the biggest industrial plant of the pre-state Jewish community.”

This week, Langotsky welcomed the visitor center’s establishment, terming it a “miracle.” He said he was involved in starting it and is generally pleased with the result.

'It’s a place that was built with much toil at the ends of the Earth, it’s the beginning of industry in Israel'

Nevertheless, he also had some criticisms of the content. The main problem, he noted, is that it omits the last chapter of Novomeysky’s story.

The visionary who founded the company died of a broken heart at age 87 and was buried in Tel Aviv. According to Langotsky, he was furious because in the ’50s, when he tried to rehabilitate the company after the War of Independence, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s government informed him that it intended to nationalize it. That forestalled the possibility of securing investments from overseas.

As the disappointed Novomeysky wrote in Haaretz at the time: “The company is like a boxer who was taken to the arena with his hands tightly tied behind his back, and then they blame him for losing the match.”

The renovated workers' canteen at Sdom.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Langotsky alleged that at some point, the people in charge of setting up the visitor center decided he was too opinionated and neutered his influence over the content.

“The new center is a success, and I don’t want quarrels and strife, heaven forbid – but there are people who see the place as Disneyland,” he said. “I understand them. Maybe I wouldn’t have done things exactly this way, but this is apparently what will attract a wide audience. And the responses to date have been very good, so maybe I’m wrong.

Moshe Novomeysky, who established the precursor of the Dead Sea Works at Sdom.Credit: Nir Keidar

“At the same time, I have many questions. For example: Why didn’t they make a model of how Mount Sdom came to be? It’s legitimate to present the life of the pioneers in the place – that was an important component – but I feel the main thing that’s lacking is that they chose not to address the problematic aspects of the kibbutz movement’s integration in the factories. On this matter, Novomeysky essentially dug his own grave and it’s a story they don’t want to tell there. It’s natural that they would want to present a rosy picture, but I’m bothered by the deviation from the historic truth.

“The visitor center is important because it can present the historic truth. I have many more reservations, but my main objective – commemorating the founding of the Dead Sea Potash Company – has been achieved.”

It all started 25 million years ago

This beautiful facility is a clear case of the cat describing the glories of the cream. In many cases, the center provides historical justice to people who have been marginalized. It also offers a dignified portrayal of the difficulties entailed in founding and running this Zionist enterprise.

There’s an impressive 3-D display that shows the formation of the Great Rift Valley. I also sailed the Dead Sea with the help of virtual reality glasses and got a detailed explanation of the pioneers’ living conditions in a place where it’s almost impossible for people to live.

But beyond all this, a lot of questions arose during my tour of the new visitor center.

The Dead Sea’s important and dramatic story is clearly told from the viewpoint of the owner: ICL Dead Sea Works. The new visitor center is located on the company’s grounds and tells the story of the company and its founders. It was financed by Dead Sea Works, a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals, to the tune of 60 million shekels ($19 million). The Council for the Conservation of Heritage Sites – a nonprofit organization with little money that relies on meager government funding – came up with the idea and was an active partner in the venture.

But when a commercial company whose goal is to turn a profit is involved in creating content for visitors, and when such a center is located at the scene of one of Israel’s most serious environmental problems, questions arise.

An aerial view of the camp at Sdom.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Dead Sea’s water level is falling by 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) a year. Dead Sea Works, located at the sea’s southern tip, is responsible for about a quarter of this decline; the rest stems from the drop in the amount of water flowing into the sea from the Jordan River.

'The ‘Salt Harvest’ has not come up in any of our discussions. The Dead Sea Works looks out for us and we look out for them'

The tour opens at a large shack that describes the formation of the Great Rift Valley 25 million years ago. Next, sophisticated exhibits depict the routines of work and daily life in the camp. There are also many photographs and reproductions of original items. All this is accompanied by videos starring an actor who portrays Novomeysky’s grandson (in reality, the entrepreneur had no offspring) as he traces his grandfather’s life work. (The content director is Udi Armoni, the designer Nitzan Refaeli and curator Dr. Meirav Balas.)

Not a dirty word

The last pavilion at the visitor center focuses on questions such as why it was important to build the Dead Sea Works; what the minerals its produces are used for; how it impacts the environment; and what the future of the Dead Sea is. These questions are presented without answers. Visitors are meant to decide for themselves.

The Dead Sea Works declined to be interviewed about the content presented at the new center and referred me to the Council for Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. Dead Sea Works president and CEO Raviv Zoller said at the center’s opening: “ICL planned and spearheaded the reconstruction of the camp and its transformation into an innovative and unique center that tells the story of the heritage and history in an experiential manner that respects the landscape and the environment. We see the center as a source of knowledge on environmental issues, on sustainability, and on the connection of the industry and the plants that have operated in this area since then and until today. Cooperation with the various organizations heightens the importance of the center, which illustrates the company’s economic and social contributions since the first Zionist factory in the ’30s up until the significant activity of ICL today.”

Omri Shalmon, director of the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel, talks about the complexity involved in the connection between a business entity and an organization like the preservation council: “For 40 years, people were talking about preserving this important site. There’s a huge story there. It’s a place that was built with much toil at the ends of the Earth, it’s the beginning of industry in Israel, it’s about pioneering and boldness and economics and using the Dead Sea.

The visitor center at Sdom.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“The preservation council is a small organization. We only actively run nine out of the 200 heritage sites in which we are involved. We knew we needed a strong partner to help with this. We negotiated with the Dead Sea Works so they would fund the construction and participate in the site management. They are a business entity and we have a positive collaboration with them. There’s a joint steering committee for content, which I lead.

“You need to understand that this is an ongoing process that is far from completion,” Shalmon says. “We’re continuing with the preservation even now – mainly in the security building and the residences. The site was opened as a pilot last Sukkot and drew a lot of visitors. We formed teams to work on content and we’re still putting together the content on the desired subjects, such as the construction of a Zionist factory in the middle of nowhere and what it contributed to the country.

“We’ll also present content about preservation: what is preservation? What constitutes historic materials? I expect all of these things will be done in the coming year. In time, content will also be created about things like the landscape, trails and nature.”

One of the innovative exhibits at the visitor center.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

He also says this is a great example of the preservation council’s activity. “Humans have been active in this area since the early ’20s and shaped the landscape to suit their needs. This needs to be understood. By its nature, a site like this is highly dynamic. We have disagreements sometimes with the Dead Sea Works, but basically what we have is a good dialogue with a large private company that operates in the area.”

Should the site address the state of the Dead Sea? Should it talk about the sinkholes, for instance?

“I think so. The sinkholes are only touched on minimally. It is mentioned in the tour. The big issue is the rift. The Great Syria-African rift is an event that affected everything that man has done here since prehistoric times. Is it right for this to presented there? I believe so, but others could oppose this position. I think it could be included – but not in a defiant way. It does not clearly contradict what is shown there.”

Some of the original factory buildings at Sdom. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Is this something that can be discussed with the Dead Sea Works?

“I think it’s an interesting example, because it’s obvious that this is something that interests the people we are working with there. Remember, this is their land. They are the sovereign, and I am very pleased that we’ve been able to create a dialogue with them. That is not something to be taken for granted. Interest is not a dirty word, you have to know how to make the most of it.”

Last year, an excavation project began at the Dead Sea called the “Salt Harvest” – with the aim of halting the rise in the sea level in the southern section. The Dead Sea Works is responsible for the execution of the project and for financing 80 percent of it (at a cost of 7 billion shekels). The rest of the funding is coming from the government.

In your view, is it even possible for the visitor center to ignore such an issue?

Shalmon: “The ‘Salt Harvest’ has not come up in any of our discussions. The Dead Sea Works looks out for us and we look out for them. In this mix, if you’re a partner who is able to cooperate, you win. The Dead Sea Works maintain the site, and that’s a big thing. We have a serious say about the content and, to me, that’s an advantage.”

The new Dead Sea Works visitor center at Sdom.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

On the way home, on the winding road up to Arad, I remembered that 18 months ago, I wrote an angry piece about the idea of building a museum for the salvation of the Dead Sea in the southern city, with photos by U.S. Spencer Tunick (best known for organizing large-scale nude shoots).

After the visit to Sdom, I understand that the new visitor center there, as important it may be, cannot serve as a museum of the Dead Sea. That requires a broad and value-based perspective that is not connected to business. Moreover, saving the lowest place on Earth requires genuine work and not just a sophisticated and impressive exhibition.

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