Israel: Places in History

Israel's first five decades are documented at attractions and historic sites throughout the country. The following rundown offers both a historic and a geographic perspective.

Tel Aviv
In a country whose history extends back several thousand years, Tel Aviv is a newcomer.

It was founded in 1909 as a suburb of the ancient, bustling city of Jaffa. By 1948, it had developed into a modern commercial city, and it was there, in May of that year, that independence for the modern state of Israel was proclaimed. Two years later, Jaffa and Tel Aviv merged.

Now not only a commercial center, Tel Aviv is a beach resort and Israel's most cosmopolitan city. Tel Aviv is home to the Israel Philharmonic, the country's major art museum and the Habima Dance Theater.

Major Attractions

  • The independence of the modern state was proclaimed at the home of one of the city's first mayors, Meir Dizengoff. The restored hall's memorabilia includes period paintings, flags and a portrait of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Call (011) 972-3 517-3942, fax (011) 972-3 641-2408.
  • The home of the first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, is now a museum that displays his library. Call (011) 972-3 522-4925, (011) 972-3 524-7293.
  • The Haganah Museum displays scale models, uniforms and guns and documents the military maneuvers of Israel's War of Independence. There is also material on the 1937 Arab pogroms against the Jews and a display about the Jewish brigade that fought with the British during World War II. Call (011) 972-3 560-8624, (011) 972-3 566-1208.
  • The Shalom Aleichem House is dedicated to the Yiddish/Hebrew writer who portrayed eastern European Jewish life and whose work was the basis for the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." Call (011) 972-3 695-6513.
  • The 36-story Shalom Tower, built 30 years ago, once towered over a low-lying city. Now it is nearly lost on a skyline filled with high-rises. In the lobby, mosaics depict vignettes of the city's early years, and on the top floors, an observatory provides a view and a cafe. Call (011) 972-3 517-7304.
  • The People's Council Museum is housed in a 1937 Bauhaus-style building that was renovated 10 years ago. It documents the achievements of the Jewish National Fund in land reclamation. Call (011) 972-3 526-1111, fax (011) 972-3 525-0415.
  • Jerusalem
    Jerusalem was bitterly contested in the 1948 War of Independence and was reunified under Israeli rule in 1967.

    The Old City's sites, which witnessed the development of monotheism through the ages, were protected by Israelis as the 1967 Six Day War raged.

    Outside the walls of the Old City, the new capital has blossomed since 1948. Modern sites include the Knesset (parliament) building and Supreme Court complex; the Shrine of the Book, where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on exhibit; the Bible Lands Museum, with its collection of Scripture-related antiquities; the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, and the Chagall windows at the Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem.

    Sites of Recent History

  • Ammunition Hill, just north of the Old City, is a museum set among the trenches previously occupied by Jordanian troops and from which the commanding position over the ancient city is clear. On display are documents and films that highlight the events of the 1967 war. Call (011) 972-2 828-442, fax (011) 972-2 829-132.
  • At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, several buildings house exhibits on the attempt to exterminate Europe's Jews by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and '40s. Call (011) 972-2 751-611, fax (011) 972-2 433-511.
  • Mount Herzl, Israel's military cemetery, is adjacent to Yad Vashem and holds the graves of former prime ministers Golda Meir, born in Russia and raised in Milwaukee, and Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1996. Call the Yad Vashem number for details about the cemetery.
  • Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, is also buried here, and a nearby museum focuses on his writings and personal life. Call (011) 972-2 651-1108, fax (011) 972-2 202-244.

  • The grave of German businessman Oskar Schindler on Mount Zion. Named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, a tree there honors his efforts to save 1,100 Jews from death by the Nazis. He became the subject of the movie "Schindler's List" and is buried next to the Old City.
  • Negev Desert
    The southern half of Israel is occupied by the Negev desert, and at the start of the hot trip south is the city of Beersheba.

    The Negev's harsh environment was intimidating, but David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, intended to "make the desert bloom" and blocks of agricultural success now relieve the barren landscape.

    About 75 miles south through the unforgiving terrain and heat of the Negev desert is the modern recreational miracle of Eilat with its lavish resorts on the shores of the Red Sea.

    Desert Stops

  • The Bedouin Heritage Center in Rahat focuses on nomads that have plied the desert for centuries. It features ancient and modern Bedouin art, animal rides and a hospitality area, where stories and music can be enjoyed over a cup of tea or coffee. Entrance fee is about $3. Call (011) 972-7 918-263.
  • Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the middle of the Negev on the road from the Ramon Crater to Eilat, was the retirement home of David Ben Gurion. For details about visiting the cabin he called home and its memorial to his achievements, call (011) 972-7 558-444, fax (011) 972-7 560-320.
  • Hai Bar and Timna Park, near Eilat, are ecology projects designed to restore a neglected environment and learn about life in ancient times. Contact the Elot Regional Tourism Association at (011) 972-7 356-782, fax (011) 972-7 356-351.
  • Haifa
    Haifa has been a major port for Israel since before Israel's independence, when it served as a major entry point for Holocaust survivors during and after World War II.

    From the port, many immigrants have gone on to one of Israel's most famous innovations, the kibbutz, a cooperative agricultural settlement that created a viable economy for the fledgling state.

    Today Haifa is a modern, thriving city, but for many tourists it serves primarily as a gateway to the Galilee.

    Area Sites

  • On the roof of the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum is a boat used to smuggle illegal immigrants into Israel in the days of the British Mandate, before independence. Call (011) 972-4 853-6249, fax (011) 972-4 851-2958.
  • At Atlit, south of Haifa, a camp still stands that was used by the British from 1939 to 1948 to detain tens of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors and prevent them from immigrating to the Holy Land. Guided tours and programs are available. Groups should make reservations. Call (011) 972-4 984-1980, fax (011) 972-4 984-2814.
  • The Ghetto Fighters Museum is at the Holocaust Research Center at Kibbutz Lochamei HaGetta'ot, near the Mediterranean north of the Haifa/Acre area. It documents the efforts of partisans in Nazi-occupied Europe. Call (011) 972-4 995-8035.
  • Rosh Pina, founded in 1878 by residents of Safed and new immigrants, was the first settlement in the Galilee but is now more famous for its chalk cliffs, accessible by cable car, overlooking the Mediterranean north of Haifa. Call (011) 972-6 936-603, fax (011) 972-6 930-004.
  • Kibbutz Yifat in the Jesreel Valley runs the Museum of Pioneer Settlement, which documents the history of the kibbutz movement. Call (011) 972-6 548-974, fax (011) 972-6 548-600.
  • The Golan Heights' formerly Syrian fortifications are near Israel's northern border. Conquered by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, these trenches had an unobstructed view of the Galilee and were the source of periodic attacks. They are open to visitors but require guides. Call (011) 972-6 767-215, fax (011) 972-6 767-219.
  • Beersheba
    One town that has paralleled the state's growth is Beersheba, an enclave that has received little attention in the last 4,000 years.

    The Bible names the desert site (in Hebrew it means the seventh well) as the home of patriarchs Abraham and Isaac, but their neighborhood, now an archaeological dig, is four miles north of the present city. Abraham's Well there was said to be where a pact was made between Abraham and Abimelech to share the land.

    Located less than two hours' drive from either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, Beersheba in the past served primarily as a trade-route stop for desert transports conveying such luxuries as myrrh and frankincense between the Arabian peninsula and the Mediterranean.

    After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Beersheba expanded, gaining prominence in the 1960s when serious numbers of tourists began to arrive on tours of the Jewish state.

    Beersheba today is Israel's fourth-largest metropolis after Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. It is called the capital of the Negev, Israel's southern desert.

    The major attraction is the frenetic, exotic, Thursday morning bedouin camel market which still camps on the city's southern outskirts. Its merchants bring their age-old wealth of camels, sheep, goats, produce and crafts for trade or sale.

    In 1969, a university was founded in the city and named for the state's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. Now one of Israel's leading universities, its modern facilities are located on a landscaped campus close to downtown.

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