Tel Aviv Military Museums

Today in Tel Aviv I visited the museum of the Eztel, also known as the Irgun, as well as the IDF museum. The artifacts don’t interest me much – I don’t like weapons of war, and I don’t find the particularity of “this gun as opposed to that gun” to be significant compared to the motivations behind armed conflict. Unfortunately, the IDF museum was mostly artifacts – in quantities and sizes that are designed to impress. Rows and Rows of captured tanks, as well as Israeli tanks, and artillery pieces everywhere.

The most interesting thing about the IDF museum was the presence of Palestinian scarves on many of the mannequins. At first I thought it was a prank, but then I saw them on mannequins in several different areas of the museum, and noticed that they were old, faded, dusty – not a recent prank anyway. I wonder if no one who works there has noticed in months, even years, that they have been placed there?

The Etzel museum was much more interesting. It tells the story of the emergence of zionist paramilitary groups in the twenties, and their eventual split into three separate movements. The Etzel, also known as the Irgun, was an extremist off-shoot of the original Haganah, caused by an unwillingness of the Haganah to engage in pre-emptive attacks against Arabs. The Irgun, however, stopped the arm campaign against the British during the war, and even fought alongside them. The group which became the Lehi refused this temporary peace with the British, and insisted on maintaing the armed campaign against British presence in Palestine. After the military defeat of the Nazis the three factions joined together to form the Hebrew Resistance Movement, but tensions between them remained. These tensions culminated in the sinking of a Etzel arms ship off the coast of Tel Aviv by IDF (Hagannah) artillery. It is significant that this infighting did not break into a fully civil war.

The crest of the Etzel depicts the original borders of the British mandate of Palestine, along with a hand grasping a gun. The significance of those borders, which include the area known today as Jordan, is that these were the borders of mandatory Palestine when Britain issued the first white paper calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and these were the borders when the league of nations approved the mandate and zionist goal set out in the white paper. Irgun faithful rejected the legitimacy of the partition of Palestine into Palestine and trans-Jordan, maintaing the Jewish claim to the “East Bank”.

All over Israel, you can find the crest of the Irgun. From the war memorials I’ve seen, I’d say they are more prominently commemorated than the pre-state Hagannah, although this might be simply because their crest is more recognizable. I’m not sure how related commemoration of the Irgun is to faith in the original basis of the Irgun – a Jewish state according to the League of Nations mandate, and therefore to include Jordan. I feel this might be part of Israel’s repeated attempts to legitimize to its own people its claim to territory far greater than its 1948 borders, and therefore to experience the giving back of territory gained in war as “painful sacrifices”.

The Etzel, and the pre-state Hagannah, were paramilitary forces who’s victories were gained largely through the use of terrorism, and other military tactics outlaws by the Geneva convention. But there is nothing in either of these museums which expresses regret at the tactics used, acknowledges responsibility for civilian deaths, or even expresses regret. The narrative is bullet proof: anything in support of the cause of zionism is greatly commendable, and anything that stands in its way is evil and inhumane for all the normal reasons, in addition to the evil of anti-zionism. The fact Israeli state narratives still look this way, even after zionism is secure and strong in the region, suggests to me that Israel is in a state of structural dishonesty as regards its paramilitary past (to say nothing of its occupation in the present). What has not happened is the moment of victor’s reconciliation, as reached by Gutsy Spence when he expressed “full and complete regret” for the innocent civilians killed over the years by the UVF. I believe that it is essential at the end of a conflict for both sides to recognize the way their own partisan narrative has corrupted their ethical sensibilities, and attempt to redress these hypocrisies. Because I’m a Hegelian, I think the agressor/victor has to do it first. Maybe the problem with Israel is as simple as this – it’s never grown up to its own place as “the winner”.

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One thought on “Tel Aviv Military Museums

  1. The keffiyehs you saw on the mannequins were standard parts of desert military uniform, particularly for irregular/paramilitary groups like the Irgun. I think it was foremost its usefulness and second some sort of colonial trope about “going native”. The British, I think, wore them, too, depending on what they were doing…similarly, there’s a certain type of more special ops-y US soldier in Afghanistan (I’m not much of a milhist type either) who grow beards and wear Afghan headgear today.

    It’s only in the late sixties or perhaps the early seventies that anyone non-Arab began to wear them as signs of Palestinian/Arab solidarity (in a directly political sense, not the aforementioned “going native” appropriation).

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