In Reinventing Itself, Israeli Museum Recasts History of Jewish People

Expanded Beit Hatfutsot will emphasize the positive aspects of the lives of world Jewry.

Beit Hatfutsot
Yaakov Bril

“In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us.”

An uplifting take on history, it certainly is not. Yet this famous passage from the Passover Haggadah has come to encapsulate the way the story of the Jewish people is traditionally told.

Now, one institution engaged in the business of telling it is daring to try something different.

As part of the first phase of a huge renewal project, Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish People is putting the age-old narrative under a new lens: Rather than harp on death and destruction, the goal is to highlight Jewish life and creativity.

“When they look at the past, we want people to leave here smiling, not grieving,” says Orit Shaham Gover, chief curator of the museum.

The great tragedies will obviously not be glossed over in this new telling of Jewish history, but as Shaham Gover notes, neither will they dominate.

“Let’s remember, there were other things that happened to us over the years besides being expelled, killed and persecuted,” she says. “Most of the time, people tend to forget, the Jewish people were thriving.”

On May 24, the Tel Aviv-based museum will unveil a new 25,000-square-foot wing with five galleries. To mark the completion of the first phase of this $100 million project, it plans to open four new exhibits on that day – all true to its new mission of celebrating the best of Jewish life. One of three temporary exhibits will pay tribute to celebrity singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. Another will tell the story of the first big wave of Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel. Topping off the list will be a new family and children’s gallery exhibit that pays homage to 148 Jewish “superheroes” – ranging from Moses through Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Dan Tadmor
Yanai Yehieli

Also scheduled for unveiling later this month is the first section of the museum’s new permanent exhibit. Its existing collection of 21 synagogue models from around the world – a longstanding visitor favorite – will be transferred to the new wing where it will be incorporated into a much larger, multifaceted exhibit devoted to the theme of Jewish prayer. This revamped exhibit will include historic artifacts from each Jewish community represented in the collection, video art, music, personal testimonies and children’s activities.

The complete permanent exhibit is scheduled to open in late 2018 or early 2019, depending on when the second phase of the renewal project is finished.

Opened in 1978, the museum was originally called just plain Beit Hatfutsot (“Museum of the Diaspora”). As the name suggests, its founders envisioned it serving as a shrine to the Jewish communities of past and present around the world. Through its permanent exhibit, the museum traced the story of the Jews from their expulsion from the Land of Israel 2,600 years ago up until the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

Considered a novel idea back then, Beit Hatfutsot somehow lost its luster over time, turning into an outdated and neglected institution. As the visitor lines got shorter, financial difficulties accrued.

Orit Shaham Gover, chief curator of the museum
Aviv Hofi

Five years ago, the Israeli government approved a plan to expand and overhaul the museum, in the hope of making it relevant again. Even before the ground was broken for the new wing, one of the first steps taken in this major reinvention effort was a name change: No longer Beit Hatfutsot, but from now on Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish people.

Those extra few words reflected a total shift in mindset, explains Shaham Gover. “When the museum was first opened, many Israelis tended to view those in the Diaspora as less complete Jews,” she notes. “The point of the name change was to show that we are now taking a more inclusive and pluralistic approach to the story of the Jewish people.”

As museum CEO Dan Tadmor adds: “It is no longer about drawing lines between Israel and the Diaspora but looking at what we have in common.”

Tadmor, who was recruited to the museum just after the project was launched, borrows terms from his former career in the newspaper and television business to describe the “rebirth” he envisions. “When you tell a story, there are lots of editorial decisions that need to be made,” he says. “We’ve decided that the story of the Jewish people that we want to tell here is not one exclusively about Orthodox Ashekenazi men, but rather a story of diversity and pluralism. The goal is that all Jews who visit – no matter what their gender, background or denomination – feel they are part of the story.”

It is no coincidence that among the first exhibits to mark the new era of diversity is one devoted to Ethiopian Jewry – and this time around, with a slight twist. “We’ve held exhibits before on Ethiopian Jews,” says Tadmor. “The difference is that in the past we had others tell their story for them, while this time they will be telling their own story.”

In charge of the design and content of the new exhibit, which profiles 10 Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel more than 30 years ago, is an Israeli-Ethiopian female filmmaker.

Of the $100 million required for the grandiose expansion and overhaul of the museum, $60 million has already been raised – the bulk of it from the government of Israel, Russian-Israeli magnate Leonid Nevzlin (a shareholder in Haaretz), the Cleveland-based Milton and Tamar Maltz Family Foundation, and U.S. attorney and diplomat Alfred Moses.

On average, the Museum of the Jewish People gets 200,000 visitors a year – about 85 percent of them local Israelis.

The long-term target is to double this number. “Our goal is to make this museum a must stop again on the itinerary of every visitor to Israel,” says Tadmor, as he guides a visitor around the galleries of the new wing, some still under construction.

“Don’t worry, this will all be ready by the opening day,” he reassures his companion.