Moments in Time: A Journey to the First Days of the State of Israel

As Israel’s 75th Independence Day approaches, we take a look at the achievements and challenges of the young country, portrayed through a variety of moments: first steps on Israel’s soil; water pipes breaking through the heart of a desert; meetings between languages and cultures. Moments of joy and creation, difficulty and coping, but mostly seeing how so many individuals joined together to create something beautiful: Israel

Mia Amran
Ulpan Lesson with Efraim Kena'an, Photographer: Yosef Drenger, Nadav Mann, BITMUNA, from the collection of Joseph Dranger, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When the Visitor’s Centre at the National Library of Israel decided to put together a photographic exhibition in honor of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, everyone was excited and eager to share their ideas. Each member of the team, a native Israeli or someone who has chosen to live in this country, had different aspects of society that they wanted to show off in the photographs. The big question was how to make something that represented each person’s love and reverence of Israel while also creating something collective and whole.

This desire to preserve the needs of the individual while also creating something coherent, is a necessity that doesn’t only exist in the meeting rooms of the National Library of Israel. In fact, this dichotomy is actually the key theme hidden throughout the pictures of the photographic exhibition.

After lots of back and forth, negotiations and additions, the team knew that if they wanted to make something that truly represented how far Israel had come, they had to take it back to the basics – the building blocks of what makes Israel, Israel. So they went back to the beginning, the conception of Israel and its first two decades as a state.

As the curators started looking for photos in the National Library Collections and Archives, they encountered some recurring themes. The building of society was of course one of these – the brave pioneers who planted, toiled, grew, bricked, plastered and planned intricate cityscapes and communities. It was important to include the building of each society within this exhibition but during the photo selection process, some groups seemed to be conspicuously missing. Not wanting to exclude these communities from the final picture, the National Library curators started thinking about the minority groups arriving in Israel just as the Sabras were building their own state.

Immigration. The second group of images simply had to represent the many people arriving in Israel at the end of the 2nd World War and the Holocaust, as European refugees lost their entire villages and sought out their indigenous homeland, and Arab countries expelled Jews from their territory, seeing them arrive at Israel’s borders. As many such groups arrived at Israel’s doorsteps – from Iraq, Romania, Morocco and more – each with their own culture, clothing, language and customs, the aforementioned challenge presented itself once again: how to combine all of these different peoples into a collective nation?

The images on display certainly document this struggle. As much as the exhibition was erected to celebrate Israel and the immense and impressive strides that the country made in its first 20 years, the challenges of society are evident in the images selected, which tell a story of overcoming barriers that is worth listening to.

“Look at this picture” one of the Visitor Centre staff tells me. She says that it is one of her favorites. It depicts a family arriving from Iraq in 1951 – just moments before their new life in Israel was about to begin. Tens of thousands of Jews were rescued from deep persecution in Iraq, and brought to Israel to start a new chapter. In this image, they are dressed in typical Iraqi clothing, long sidelocks and hats, formal dress and coats for the women. To their left is an Israeli man sent to welcome them from the Jewish Agency, in typical Israeli light casual clothing, cotton trousers and loose shirt, comfortable and smiling. The difference in posture, clothing and demeanor is so clear – how was Israel to ever glue these groups together so that they may live as one?

In the rapid process of building a state, thoughts were not always spared to preserve heritage. This would be the job of parents and grandparents, should they wish to pass on their old country customs to the next generation. The job of the sapling state was to create a melting pot, mixed enough to have a society full of people who not only got along but would be able to fight, pray, live and work side by side.

So, they set about trying to ingrain this mentality in their citizens: Israeliness. Language could therefore be the only possible third category in the photographic exhibition. A number of posters serve to elucidate this point, boldly illustrating the narrative of Israel in the 1950s. The posters encouraged new immigrants to discard their native mother tongue, and adopt Hebrew as the common language instead. Some posters offered a straight and narrow path only open to those willing to learn the Modern Hebrew language, others promised to lift off the burden of the hardships of Europe if only the new immigrants could learn to speak Ivrit. They depict strong Israelis lifting the load of other languages off the backs of olim (newly arrived immigrants)– the new idea of brave and heroic Sabras ‘saving’ the unfortunate Europeans from their past. One image shows new refugees from Morocco gathered around a textbook in an Ulpan in the Northern Negev desert where they had been placed in a temporary settlement until they could be more permanently housed. Here, they learnt Hebrew by lantern light as resources were scarce, while trying to master a language to unite this new Babel that they found themselves in.

The mid-1900s was a time of immense change across the world and in Israel this was confounded by the need to build a new state, as well as keeping up with modern advances in technology, infrastructure and medicine. This exhibition is thus not only a time capsule from the first two decades of Israeli history, but also of a post-war world rebuilding itself into something new and exciting. The visitor’s center explains that the photos were meant to represent what people loved about this new and exciting age, what resonated with individuals and stuck in their minds.

As these photos were affectionately chosen, a new theme seemed to appear pretty much on its own. This segment wasn’t engineered but was so evident as a theme in the images that the exhibition team had no choice but to add a section in its honor: water. Water is and always had been one of Israel’s biggest projects. One of the goals of this exhibition was to encourage the public to truly understand the miracle of Israel’s conception. To see not only its challenges, but also its successes, and feel a sense of pride at how far we’ve come. There is nothing that better encapsulates the accomplishments and victories of young Israel than the fact that a society built on a desert managed to grow crops, generate clean drinking water and thrive.

The idea behind this exhibition was to keep the nostalgia of those first few years of Israel’s new statehood without delving too far into topics that would have been too difficult to summarize in an exhibition with just 52 items.

But there is some controversy to be found in the images that were chosen. It would be disingenuous not to show and reflect the complexity and challenges of Israel’s first decades. Of course, there was always going to be a struggle, as Israel fought to absorb so many new citizens. In less than 4 years the population of Israel had more than doubled. In Israel’s first 3 years alone, the population rose from 650,000 to 1 million people! In a sense, this exhibition relegates these struggles to the past, as looking back today we have the benefit of hindsight to tell us how this should have been dealt with differently; but even now, some of the challenges of those years pervade. Immigrants are still often expected to leave behind their old mannerisms and languages and adapt to life in Israel as if their past wasn’t a relevant factor in their life story. But at least now it is a conversation that is open to being spoken about with integrity, and we strive, as a society, to work together and create a welcoming and inclusive culture.

This is not the final iteration of the exhibition. Soon, a book of 21 additional photos will be available to the public, chosen by a plethora of people who work at the National Library, from the newest interns to the most senior of bosses. In addition to curating a look back on the first 20 years of the State of Israel, this will be a tribute to the elements of this country that are loved by the spectrum of people here at the National Library of Israel. Each employee who picked an image to contribute also explained exactly why they chose it – why it means so much to them. Because ultimately Israel is so many things for so many people, and despite the challenges portrayed in the exhibition, there is a lot here to love.

But for now, in these 52 items, an Israel of the past comes alive. Though no story of Israel can truly be told without mentioning the hardships which inevitably arose when more than half a million new immigrants showed up on Israel’s doorstep just months after the state was established, this exhibition is a testimony to Israel’s success: a small desert which managed to rebuild itself from the ground, and create a space that millions today call home. This is no small achievement, and this exhibition is witness to how far Israel has come on its 75th birthday.

The National Library invites you to visit “Moments in Time – A Journey to the First Days of the State of Israel” – an exhibition in honor of the 75th Independence Day of the State of Israel. Experience the wonder of these moments of joy and creation, difficulty and coping, but mostly – hope and a look to the future.

The exhibition is displayed in the Library building at the entrance to the reading rooms next to the  work of art -“The Ardon Windows”.

You are welcome to come independently during the Library’s operating hours or sign up for a free guided tour, which takes place on Thursdays at 11:00.

For further inquiries: [email protected]

Happy Independence Day!


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