Wreck and Ruin

Of the 150 historic sites recognized by the government, only half receive any official funding and manage to keep operating - for now.

Kfar Menachem

The historic site on the "tower and stockade" kibbutz, Kfar Menachem near Kiryat Gat, has been closed to visitors for five years. The four small buildings there, as elsewhere in the area, were built in 1939 to prevent Arab incursions into Jewish agricultural settlements. What remains is now neglected and totally exposed to the elements. The gate in the wall that encloses the structures is locked, and bears a sign warning that it is dangerous to enter the place, which no one maintains or visits.

"We approached 1,001 people, but found no support and closed the site," says Ora Dvir, a kibbutz member who managed it for a decade. "Today you risk your life going near it," she adds, pointing to the crumbling wooden fences. "Soon it will be completely demolished. The kibbutz needs the real estate."

Industry and agriculture provide a living for the 800 members of this kibbutz. Historical tourism, however, does not help turn a profit.

"The kibbutz has no interest in it any more. It's finished - a corpse," says Dvir, adding that whereas once buses filled with schoolchildren visited the site, the only young people seen there today are vandals who climb over the walls to smoke inside.

What is the big deal about NIS 150,000 for reconstruction and a few tens of thousands of shekels more for year-round maintenance? Dvir is pessimistic. "Who can afford it? It is very sad, but there is no way that anyone will find such a sum," she says.

Of the 150 historic sites recognized by the government and the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, only half now receive any ongoing, official funding and manage to keep their heads above water. But there can be no long-term planning in the absence of a set, permanent budget.

Those sites that do not receive government support "are under constant threat, are battling for survival. It is never clear whether they will continue to exist in the coming year," says Elad Bezaleli, director of the heritage society's education department. "If a site is not preserved, it's finished."

Bezaleli, who travels the country from site to site, is especially concerned about sites in outlying areas, such as in the south.

The Israel Antiquities Authority is legally responsible for archaeological sites, but places of interest from the last 300 years have no such support. Preservation laws state that maintenance is the job of local authorities, but they are not always able, or willing, to provide resources. The government-funded SPIHS, which three years ago split from the Nature Preservation Society, has stepped into this vacuum. Its logo features the Herzliya Gymnasia High School on Herzl Street in Tel Aviv, which was demolished in 1959 and replaced by the Shalom department store.

"If we had existed then, the Gymnasia would not have been destroyed. Today everyone cries about it, but then there was a lack of awareness about the subject," says Omri Shalmon, the society's director. "At first people didn't understand why we were involved with some ruins that someone once built. Today they understand that preservation is a great stimulus for development and even raises property values."

Shalmon, who has had various roles in SPIHS over the last 20 years, is very worried about the fate of many sites: "There is a race to demolish here, to renew and build. Sometimes we can't see one foot ahead of us, because of narrow-mindedness and insensitivity. The society aims to remind us that we, the current generation, did not invent the wheel. We must be sensitive to those who were here before us and those who will come after us. A little humility wouldn't hurt."


The condition of the Open Museum on Kibbutz Negba is much better than that of Kfar Menachem, thanks to the funds it has raised. Its tower and stockade, located at the entrance, is open now after being restored with the aid of the Jewish National Fund in the U.S. A memorial to 43 fallen soldiers from the Givati Brigade and to kibbutz members, who died during the 1948 War of Independence, is clean and well-maintained, due to support from the Defense Ministry. The site also contains an Egyptian tank seized by the Israeli army - "given as a gift to the children of Negba," according to the plaque. There is also a historic water tower, erected in 1940 and damaged in 1948, which serves as an observation point.

A visit reveals that all work here is being done by one idealistic person, who exhibits exceptional initiative and is manager, secretary, cleaner, marketer and guide all at once. Meir Mindel, 64, was still in Lvov (now part of Ukraine ), when the events about which he talks so excitedly took place. He immigrated in 1958 via the Youth Aliyah organization and was educated on Negba.

"Unfortunately, I work alone. Once there was a small group of guides, but not any more," he explains, holding a rifle from the 1948 war. "We are not supported by anyone, and the kibbutz has also decided to invest in other things. We live off the nominal entrance fees we charge. Here and there I manage to get help from organizations and good people."

Nearly 20 years ago, when the person responsible for the site, a Negba founder, could no longer continue, the kibbutz approached Mindel - a prizewinning musician and amateur historian - and offered him the job.

"They told me there was no money in it, that the kibbutz could not contribute, and anything I did would have to be done with my own two hands," he says. "No official governmental body appointed me, but I feel responsible for imparting the love of the Land of Israel to the soldiers and students who come here."

Ideally, he would like the site to be funded by the government, but he is not angry about it: "I have no complaints about anyone and I'm not frustrated because I love what I do."

Yad Mordechai

Southwest of Negba lies Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, founded in 1943 and named for Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. There are three historic sites here: a recently renovated museum dedicated to the heroism of the ghetto fighters; a water tower torched during the War of Independence; and a site which commemorates the famous battle there in 1948 - a symbol of stubborn resistance.

Some 25,000 people visited the kibbutz over the last year, a large number considering the security fears presented by its location, near the Gaza Strip. But a visit to the battle site clearly shows the urgent need for restoration; it hasn't been touched since it opened in 1965.

"Some people like it and find it 'authentic,'" says Vered Bar Samekh, the kibbutz's museum director, with some cynicism in her voice.

A sign near the water tower warns "danger of collapse." It is impossible to enter most of the rusty trenches, and the rifles on display are falling apart. The statues of Egyptian soldiers in the open field look out of date; they can hardly excite the imaginations of young visitors.

"This is how things look when you don't invest in heritage," says Hadas Gross, the site's guide coordinator.

Unlike many other sites in the south, Kibbutz Yad Mordechai got lucky and was recently chosen to be one of a few recipients of a one-time grant as part of a government heritage-preservation program authorized in December. The program is supposed to distribute NIS 400 million to 150 sites in the coming years.

The kibbutzniks are hopeful. "The government promised us NIS 3.5 million if we raise a matching sum," says Shuki Reisel, who is in charge of tourism on Yad Mordechai. "It's time - I hope it will happen."

Mitzpeh Gvulot

South of Yad Mordechai, not far from Kibbutz Tze'elim, lies Kibbutz Mitzpeh Gvulot. It was established in 1943 by the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, and was the first so-called agricultural lookout point in the Negev. Its bakery supplied bread to settlements during the blockade in the 1948 war.

The kibbutz now rents out a hilltop area for weddings (NIS 6,000 per night ) and hosts functions for high-tech firms, in which employees come to reenact and experience the lives of pioneers.

"We have reduced the level of maintenance and there is no one here on a daily basis," says Ronit Dvir, the site manager. "It's completely open and there isn't even a guard. Now and then thieves come looking for metal, but they leave with empty hands, after turning the cash box upside down."

About 7,000 people visit each year; several thousand more participate in the In-D-Negev music festival that takes place here. "We maintain it on our own, completely at our own expense, and do the best we can," Dvir notes.

A visit reveals a small and antiquated museum, which is not properly maintained and is falling apart.

Sde Boker

The modest bungalow home of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and his wife, Paula, is located in Sde Boker. In accordance with his will, the structure remains as it was at the "Old Man"'s death in 1973. It is supported by the Education Ministry, according to a law bearing his name. Additional funding comes from the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, which oversees the site. Nonetheless, says Miri Palmach, the director, "Ben-Gurion is deserving of a more appropriate memorial." For example, the exhibit has not been updated for 15 years. "It is constructed in an antiquated manner. Visitors ignore it, because it is not interesting," she adds.

Palmach has a vision of an exhibit "in the spirit of the times," that would include computerized, multimedia presentations. The physical condition of the bungalow is also wanting.

"We haven't got an air conditioner which is necessary ... and the roof is made of asbestos and not up to standard," she notes. "It's okay if you don't touch it. That way it doesn't crumble and fall."

If she had a bigger budget, Palmach says she'd like to renovate Ben-Gurion's original library, which contains 5,000 volumes. Meanwhile, she sends only those books "which are really in bad shape" for repair, she says: "One must see the books Ben-Gurion read to understand who he was."

Palmach, who also manages the southern branch of the historical site forum - a group that meets to exchange ideas, and was started by the preservation society - is pinning great hopes on the government's new preservation plan.

"It is the foundation of a foundation. These sites tell the story of the establishment of the state," she asserts. "They are a Zionist asset and a message to the world."