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No Longer in Exile: Overhaul of Diaspora Museum Reflects a New Zionist Narrative

It has long epitomized the Jewish state’s superiority complex toward Jews who live abroad. Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Jewish Diaspora was theoretically about the Jews living dispersed around the globe, but its narrative had them all ending up in Israel.

Leaving Zion: One of the exhibits near the entrance to the Diaspora Museum displays a detail from the Arch of Titus, which shows the treasures from the Second Temple being taken out of Jerusalem. Image by courtesy of the diaspora museum

Now, with a big jolt of funding, the museum has announced that it will completely overhaul its exhibitions in an effort to put Diaspora Jews on an equal footing with those in Israel. The state-funded museum, which opened in 1978, will soon begin a $25 million project to expand its footprint, redevelop the exhibitions and reopen in 2012 with what essentially will be a new museum, including a new name: the Museum of the Jewish People.

One of the main things that will be changed in the new museum is the old-fashioned Zionist narrative, which expected the Diaspora to disappear as Jews immigrated to Israel. Currently, the Jewish past is dealt with in five sections on Diaspora history. The sixth section deals with the end of the Diaspora in the establishment of the State of Israel. It’s a reality that has not come to pass, and the new museum will reflect that.

“The idea of the museum’s founders was that it was the history of the Jewish Diaspora, which started with the destruction of the Temple and ended with the return to Zion, the last chapter in Diaspora history,” Avinoam Armoni, CEO of the museum, told the Forward. “But 31 years on, we know that there is still life, and thriving life at that, in the Diaspora, meaning we need a different approach.”

Located on the Tel Aviv University campus, the museum houses permanent exhibitions, a genealogical database and photo archives. Abba Kovner, leader of the Vilna Ghetto uprising, conceived it, and when it opened it was considered a sign of the growing intimacy between Israel and Diaspora communities. The detailed redevelopment plan was announced at a meeting of the international board of governors at the end of June. The redevelopment will go forward without the museum closing.

At the new museum, there still will be exhibitions on the establishment of the State of Israel, but there also will be major displays on contemporary Jewish life outside Israel. An international advisory board, comprising members of communities across the world, will be involved in planning them.

“There will be no endpoint to the exhibition,” Armoni said, drawing a contrast with the current exhibition. “It will start with Abraham and Sarah from the Bible, and there will be no end — it will continue to develop as the story of the Jewish people is still unfolding.”

The plan will be bankrolled by the government of Israel and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the central body for Holocaust restitution claims. Donors also will contribute, including a fund run by the Russian-born, Israel-based oligarch Leonid Nevzlin, chairman of the museum’s international board of governors.

The funding represents a change of fortunes for the museum, which has spent much of the past decade in financial crisis — to the extent that on several occasions, there have been rumors of impending closure. The museum today has the feel of an institution that has lost its former glory; many of the features that were cutting-edge when it opened no longer work, due to poor upkeep.

The museum’s fortunes turned around in 2005, when the Knesset passed a law making the museum a national institution and ensuring it an annual budget from state coffers. Around the same time, Nevzlin became involved and became a major funder.

The changes at the museum represent the latest stage in an evolution in Israeli thinking about the Diaspora. Until the 1970s, Zionists of all political shades tended to be committed to the principle of shlilat ha’galut, translated as “negation of the exile.” The Israeli school curriculum promoted the idea.

In the 1970s, the language used was softened. People began to refer less to the galut, or “exile,” and more to the tefustot, or “Diaspora.” Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the future of the Jewish people lay in Israel and not in the Diaspora, and it was in this context that the Diaspora Museum was established.

Haifa University sociologist Oz Almog, an expert on contemporary Israel, told the Forward that the mindset today could not be more different: “Ask Israelis now what they think about Jews coming from countries where they aren’t persecuted, like the U.S. and Britain, to live in Israel, and they’ll say, ‘Those who do are nuts.’”

Museum insiders say that nowadays, using even the word “Diaspora” in the museum’s name is considered chauvinistic, because it puts foreign Jews in a single boat even though their cultures are diverse — hence the new name.

“There was a sense that “Diaspora” is a pejorative term,” said Mark Kurs, director of the visitor center.

There has been a notable lack of opposition to the changes. Even pressure groups that fight to strengthen Zionist identity in Israel, such as the hawkish Institute for Zionist Strategies, which produces leagues of tables telling how well different lawmakers score in terms of “Zionist legislation activism,” welcomed the plan.

“Zionists don’t expect every Jew to move to Israel today,” institute founder and president Joel Golovensky said.

It is not only the Israel-centric mindset that will be challenged in the new displays. Women and Sephardim, who were given short shrift in the old displays, will be given more prominence in the new designs — as will non-Orthodox religious movements.

Hebrew University sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi said the fact that it has become commonplace for Israelis to move abroad, either permanently or for a stint, makes it contradictory for their families to look down on Diaspora Jews. More than this, she said that while Zionist ideology traditionally preached that Jews are vulnerable in the Diaspora, today, following two intifadas and various other attacks, “many people are not so sure that Israel is the safest place for Jews.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]

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