As Our Heritage Decays

Independence Hall is in disrepair, and the blame game is fast and furious.

The large, dead cockroach lying alongside the photos of Israel's national luminaries was the highlight of my visit two weeks ago to Independence Hall on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. This was one of many signs that the building in which David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel has suffered from decades of neglect.

The carpets are stained and filthy, the walls are peeling, plaster is exposed and wooden picture frames are broken. In the center of the display space stands the historic table on which the nascent country's leaders signed the declaration on May 14, 1948, stating, "Eretz Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books."

Ben-Gurion declaring independence May 14, 1948 (IPPA)

None of those luminaries could have imagined that, 62 years later, a wad of chewing gum would be stuck under that same table.

A security guard sits at the entrance, but anyone who wants to avoid the security check and the admission fee can enter through a wide-open side door. They only obstacle is a small heap of garbage near the bench in the yard. A small sign in the yard informs visitors that they are standing before the Zina Dizengoff garden - a bleak reminder that this building was once also the home of the first mayor of Tel Aviv and his wife.

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, which manages Independence Hall through the Eretz Israel Museum, boasts that tens of thousands of visitors pass through the site annually. When I was there, there were only two other visitors.

About two weeks ago, the ministerial heritage committee held a meeting in the wooden hut that once belonged to the second president of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. The restoration of this building was the first part of a year-old plan "to strengthen the national heritage." At the meeting the ministers confirmed the next targets for restoration: Independence Hall topped the list, with a NIS 5 million government grant.

Independence Hall (David Bachar)
David Bachar

"We owe this to ourselves, to our children and to the coming generations. This is our historical and cultural heritage," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the event. "Our unique connection to this land is expressed in the sites that are being eroded. We will return them to center stage."

Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told Haaretz, "Independence Hall is the cornerstone of the project for restoring the infrastructure of our national heritage."

"Nowadays the site looks like something from a Third World country," he admitted, but promised that the heritage plan would again make it "the Pantheon, the founding place and the most important site in the history of this country."

At best, work will begin only after the next Independence Day.

Independence Hall (David Bachar)
David Bachar

Home with a blessing

The building at 16 Rothschild Boulevard - one of the first in Tel Aviv's Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood - was the residence of the city's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff. After the death of his wife, Zina, in 1930, Dizengoff decided to turn their home into an art museum in her memory. He bought dozens of original works in Europe, arranged them in the two-story home and built a small studio apartment for himself on the roof. The museum was called the Tel Aviv Museum.

In 1935, a year before his death at age 75, Dizengoff wrote in his will: "My final request of Tel Aviv's residents: I have devoted a great part of my life to this city and now, upon taking my leave of you, I am putting into your hands the son of my old age, the child of my delight - the Tel Aviv Museum. Take care of it because it contains a blessing, the future of this institution will glorify and honor our city."

The building went on to become a cultural center. In 1948 it took on further historical importance, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel at a meeting there of the temporary state council. Jerusalem was under siege and Tel Aviv had been chosen to host cabinet meetings. It was with good reason Ben-Gurion chose the home of Dizengoff - the man who had built the first Hebrew city on the sands - as the place to declare the state's establishment.

Ben-Gurion sought to keep the structure in good repair. In a joint decision by the cabinet, the president and the municipality, the building was handed over to the Society for Bible Research in Israel, which Ben-Gurion led. In 1972 the society established the Bible House Museum there, thus fulfilling Dizengoff's wish to make the place "a museum for Jewish art and the art of the Bible."

"The building where I declared independence will contain a museum that will show that independence did not start in the days of David Ben-Gurion, but rather in the days of David ben Yishai [David son of Jesse ]," said Ben-Gurion.

In 1978, the Bible House Museum agreed to give the municipality the ground floor to create an Independence Hall Museum. That floor now contains a reproduction - most of it inauthentic - of the room where independence was declared. But the most important item that was supposed to be on display there - the Declaration of Independence - is in storage in the National Archive basement, far from public view.

The top two floors are still home to the Bible House Museum, which displays hundreds of works of art that tell Israel's story as "the continuation of its thousand years of independence in this land - from ancient times until our day." The museum also organizes lectures, tours, meetings and symposia in honor of Dizengoff and other Zionist activists and founders of the first Hebrew city.

Disputed fall

So how is it that this venerated building fell into such disrepair? The dispute between the Bible House association and city hall has been going on for years.

Bible House association members described what they saw upon entering the building in the early 1970s in a booklet titled "Meir Dizengoff's Last Request": "The house, which played an important role in the history of the first Hebrew city and was an important fount for the development of Tel Aviv, stood abandoned, empty, crumbling and even infested by mice.

"The municipality took Dizengoff's property and money for itself, emptied and sold the house, and made off with dozens of works from his collection. Has the time come to establish a public committee of inquiry to find out if the municipality sold stolen property?" the association wrote.

The Tel Aviv municipality, for its part, accused the association of having "for many years not seen to the maintenance of this important building, so that its condition deteriorated to the current state of neglect." Moreover, charged the municipality, "The association has done everything in its power to thwart the mayor's attempts to bring the structure back under the aegis of the municipality, so that Dizengoff's will can be executed and the house restored, as befits a building with such important historical values."

The association fired back that it rescued the building and maintains it voluntarily, using its own limited funds. On a tour of the place its directors pointed out the leaky roof they repaired, the ceramic flooring they replaced, the air conditioners they installed, as well as electrical repairs and paint jobs. They also showed me many letters they had sent the municipality with requests for support, which they said were rejected.

"The municipality has refused to help us renovate the building and has also forbidden associated bodies to provide help - including the Tel Aviv Development Company, which was established by Dizengoff himself," the association said. "It's not clear by what moral principle the municipality is preventing us from receiving help for renovations and at the same time claiming the building is not maintained."

A municipal official responded that the city regrets selling the house and wishes "to rectify the injustice done to Dizengoff's will, and restore the very neglected building to the municipality in order to refurbish it." Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai has called the municipality's conduct a "disgrace."

This week the government tenders committee recommended that the Tel Aviv municipality be the body that is charged with rehabilitating and restoring Independence Hall. The Bible House association called the decision absurd, blaming the municipality for the initial neglect.

"The municipality, which failed to maintain Independence Hall and has transformed the contemporary Zionist holy of holies into a shabby place, is showing horrible insolence in its attempt to tighten its grip," the association said.

Municipal officials rejected the accusations, promising to "restore Dizengoff and his home to the status and respect they deserve, and make the place a magnet for visitors." The municipality added: "In recent years we have proved our ability and our willingness to restore, renew and maintain historic buildings in the city," offering as examples Bialik House, the first City Hall and Hatahana train station.

Breaking the Bible ties

The Bible House association now fears it will be thrown out of the building and that the connection between the Book of Books and the Declaration of Independence will be broken. "The municipality is ignoring Ben-Gurion's worldview, which was that the campaign to establish the state and the War of Independence were based on the Bible," a source said.

MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima ), chairman of the Bible House board, submitted a proposal this month for a bill to tie the two institutions.

"It isn't logical to separate the Bible House from Independence Hall. I want to ensure that the former will remain a major element [of the building] and that no one will turn the complex into a business and expel the Bible House," Sheetrit said.

Cabinet Secretary Hauser promises that everyone will benefit from the restoration and that all the disputes will be settled. "We are working against all the odds and against bureaucratic obstacles," he said. "We will pass the baton from the founders' generation to the coming generations, in a format worthy of a well-run, developed state."

Hauser showed up early to the event at Ben-Zvi's former home, so he could be briefed on the state of the work. "I have to report on this to the prime minister," he told the crew at the site. An hour later, like a contractor reporting to his landlord, Hauser told Netanyahu proudly, "The roof has been completely replaced, the wood has been repainted and the original carpet has been restored."

The prevailing excitement and sense of historical mission drove Netanyahu to err several times, even calling Ben-Zvi Israel's first president (though that was in fact Chaim Weizmann ). Hopefully at the ceremony for the restored Independence Hall, he will not have reason to forget the name of Tel Aviv's first mayor.