National Memorial Hall Celebrates Nationalism, Not Memory

Like other controversial monuments such as Ground Zero and the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, Mount Herzl's new addition is subject to intense debate.

 

The Israeli government has authorized the construction of a national memorial for fallen soldiers at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. The monument, to be called the National Memorial Hall, will commemorate the names of all the soldiers killed throughout Israel's history.

Ministry of Defense

Fine. The problem is that the architectural design selected for the memorial is clichéd. It is all too typical of the way Israel chooses to observe remembrance.

Commemoration architecture is meant to enhance people's private sentiment, say Etan Kimmel and Michal Kimmel-Eshkolot of Kimmel Eshkolot Architects, the monument's chief architects, and qualifies: the challenge is to find the most appropriate materials and design for the task.

That says it all. No need to read between the lines. Architecture isn't only being enlisted to help us remember our dead: it's becoming a soldier in service of the nationalist agenda prevalent in contemporary Israel.

Kimmel-Eshkolot's design was evidently not selected for mere ability to channel grief and bereavement. There are thousands of monuments throughout the country that do that perfectly well.

The architects made use of the tried-and-true formulas taken from what can only be referred to as our national database of clichés. Examples include: light and shadow motifs; the upward-turning spiral that represent ascension; torches and candles; and the arrangement of the individual name plaques to remind observers of the Wailing Wall.

Let us not forget the built-in technological wonder: each fallen soldier's memorial plaque will be illuminated on the anniversary of his death.

This sentimental manipulation has also proven successful in the past. It is designed to be emotionally extorting and is impervious to intelligent criticism. It is reminiscent of the display at Yad Vashem, of the candle flame reflected in mirrors ad infinitum, surely one of the acmes of kitsch architecture.

It bears mention that in approving the design, the Israeli government also made cynical use of the Israeli calendar. Convening in the days between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, the government wagered that the people would be too consumed with grief to really consider their opinion on it, especially a dissenting one.

Whether for that or other reasons, the government was right. There was no dissention. The project was endorsed.

The establishment of a central, national memorial was considered controversial when the idea was first raised 20 years ago. A different design, destined for Mount Eitan, southwest of Jerusalem, was shelved at the time by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, maybe because of public opinion or maybe because he was never that keen on extravagant monuments.

Whatever the case may be, the idea resurfaced. The current design may be smaller than the original one from 20 years ago, but it remains nonetheless menacing, central, national. And what is amazing about all this is that a monument of this scale has elicited not one a single constructive debate.

 

'Simple soldiers' and fascist logic

Memorials for fallen soldiers are a thing of the modern age. Before the 20th century, only statesmen and decorated military leaders were deemed worthy of commemoration. It was only after the First World War, and more intensively after the second, that monuments were erected for the "simple soldiers", men who had borne the true cost of war on their flesh, dying pointlessly, in pointless wars.

The controversial question of "how best to remember" is one that is both personal and political. Its intensity does not diminish over time. We find ourselves contending time and time again with how to best express what, in many ways, the inexpressible.

Ground Zero or the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, to name but the most recent and controversial works, are still subjected to intense debate, even though the construction of both is long over (2011 and 2005, respectively).

The most interesting voice to emerge from these debates is the American historian James Young. He chaired the Berlin Senate commission on Germany’s national Holocaust memorial, and counterintuitively, later became one of the monument's fiercest critics. He is still doubtful of its purpose.

The selection of architect Peter Eisenman's design for the Berlin monument was preceded by a 10-year debate, and hundreds of committee meetings.

"Rather than a national memorial, for me a national debate about memory would suffice," Young remarked.

Contemporary German artists who specialize in memorials are correct in seeing that that the Berlin monument is laden with the legacy of "fascist logic". According to Young, in order to disassociate memorials from fascism, we need to build "anti-monuments", the kind that can be "used against themselves".

The Israel National Memorial Hall remains very much a 'monument', just like the one in Berlin. It is designed to "enhance the private sentiment". It can never be an 'anti-monument'.

The only anti-monument worthy of mentioning in Israel is that of – surprisingly – the Israel Broadcasting Authority, the state-run television channel. In the past few years, on every Memorial Day, the IBA runs the names of all fallen soldiers, one after another, thereby creating an alternative memorial: a hall with no walls, a construct without architecture. A memorial that doesn't pollute the environment, because one can always turn off the television, but at the same time, leaves lots of room for personal reflection.

Every year the number of fallen soldiers rises, and every year each soldier is allotted less and less time. The viewer is left with the somber realization that we must stop the circle of violence. Soon, time will run out entirely.