Settled History

Tourist attractions in contested settlements use local history to project Israeli nationalism into the future

HISTORY makes for good drama. Considering the expansive output of nationalist-driven television and film—from the movies of the Weimar Republic to Zero Dark Thirty—the power of historical re-­creation to evoke emotional attachment to national identity is self-­evident. But historical recreation projects go well beyond simply visual media. Israel, as a relatively new member in the collective of nation-states, is eager to bolster not only its legitimacy but a uniting national historical narrative, and so produces historical dramas both within and outside of traditional entertainment arenas. Though Israel has a range of mass-media hasbara (“public diplomacy”), it also ­harnesses support for its contemporary settler projects through new museums and “immersive” tourist experiences. All of these techniques of historical narrative production aid the internalization of state narratives, both for Israelis and international tourists.

Israel’s recent boom in tourism, both domestic and from abroad, has resulted in the redevelopment of its sites and infrastructure. In the search for new tourist itineraries, places of intense political conflict, such as residential settler colonies, have emerged as “off-the-beaten-path” holiday destinations, offering winery tours, boutique desert excursions, dig-your-own archaeology sites, and outdoor adventures. Alongside these perks, visitors are encouraged to spend time at the local kibbutz (collective farm), meet with religious leaders, and stop by the visitors’ center, which often includes a site-specific museum outlining local history.

Archaeological digs and artifacts have long been used as empirical evidence for a Jewish history in the Land of Israel. In Israel’s natal stage, archaeological relics from the period of Hebrew rule served to support the concept of a return to the land and to offset claims of a growing settler-colonial state. Today, digs, and the infrastructure that accompanies them, act as stakes-in-the-ground in Israel’s continuing expansion and whitewash creeping settler projects with the guise of historical science. However, as settlement activity is contested even in many political Zionist circles, these settlements, with their less well-­established political and territorial claims, need more than just ancient history. So the Hebraic past takes a backseat to more modern, local stories.

A crop of new museums and tourist exhibits in these settlements aim to support the need for, and the future of, a (militarized, expanding) Jewish state. Rather than displaying the local findings of Hebrew archaeology, these regional museums focus on the visitor’s multisensory experience through short historic melodrama and site-specific experiences designed to highlight the settlements’ symbolic histories as they align with the discourses of state history.

Gush Etzion, a settlement bloc sandwiched between Jerusalem and Hebron, is home to a recent history full of nationalist aspirations and colonizing battles. First settled in the 1920s, these plots of land caught the interest of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 1943 following two decades of small scale settlement. In the following years, four kibbutzim would join in confederacy with the mission of increasing Jewish presence south of Jerusalem, calling themselves Kfar Etzion. (Poststate, the settlement would absorb nearby locales, taking on the name Gush, or bloc.) Attempting to cultivate arid land outside the confines of the city, Etzion’s first residents imagined themselves as Zionism’s pioneers, gatekeepers of the southern frontier of Judaism’s ultimate city. Following the 1947 UN resolution on the partition of Palestine, Jewish military forces and settlers in Kfar Etzion staved off westward advancement of the Jordanian Legion for six months. Considering its strategic geography, the Jewish paramilitary Haganah chose to evacuate only women and children, relying on the settlement’s strategic location to secure a Jewish presence in the region, should the partition hold. Coming under constant attack, military caravan contact with the Kfar was eventually completely severed, forcing the settlers to surrender on May 13, 1948—one day before the creation of the State of Israel.

Following the 1967 war and the subsequent occupation of the West Bank, the children evacuated in 1948—many of whom had lost a parent or been orphaned by the killing of over 300 kibbutzniks when the settlement was captured by the Jordanian Legion—petitioned the Israeli government to support their efforts in returning to the Etzion territory, thus becoming the first settlement east of Jerusalem.

Now, nearly seventy years later, Gush Etzion is attempting to transform that violent history into a tourist attraction. In the midst of a full renovation and rebuilding, Gush Etzion’s visitor center will, on reopening, be what anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj dubs a “museum without images.” Such a museum, El-Haj argues, relies not on the relics of artifacts it hosts, but on forming a visceral connection with visitors through temporal recreations, personal narratives, and opportunities to virtually place one’s self in the ostensible experiences of historical actors.

A visitor’s journey to the JNF-supported museum will be a sojourn through the history of the Gush at battle. One will wander through the center’s three halls, each offering a separate architectural and multimedia method of experiencing the narratives of the fallen settlers. As described on the project’s website, visitors will, in the first hall, hear individual stories of those who lived through the Gush’s final seizure, including personal narrations—listened to through individual headphones, as if the story is retold personally for each individual—of the events leading to Israeli statehood. Tourists will next move through a subterranean trench, reconstructed to simulate those used by Gush Etzion’s defenders against the Jordanian Legion, en route to a theater where a film—based on the letters that those who stayed to defend the settlement wrote to their evacuated families—will provide a sense of drama and emotional immediacy. Guests will next view a short film about the post-’67 returnees—descendants of the Gush’s original residents—from within the (rebuilt) bunker in which the fallen soldiers hid. A final station will illustrate the contemporary achievements of the settlement and offer opportunities for purchasing locally made goods.

Considering their audience’s appetite for historical drama, the museum’s highlight is the JNF-created eulogy to the “heroic” men and women of Gush Etzion’s past: the aforementioned film detailing the letters of those who stayed to fight. A trailer released on the JNF’s project website views much like a Hollywood preview, complete with lofty production techniques and an increasing dramatic appeal and sympathy for the plight of the settlers who “refuse to be refugees again,” with no mention, of course, made to the looming refugee crisis. (While settlements like Gush Etzion encourage further support and settlement, Palestinians continue to be displaced. In addition to refusing Palestinians expelled from the country the right of return, the Israeli government refuses shelter to an ever-growing body of Syrians uprooted by civil war.) 

Bridging generational gaps, the trailer ends with the returnee children—courageously carrying on their parents’ pioneering spirit—asking one another if, as they know the “end of the story” (presumably statehood and a posited return to the Gush; less obviously racial and military supremacy), don’t they “want to know how it started?” The short film’s characters, in their persistence despite environmental and political odds—not to mention their eagerness to return—weave a pioneer, colonialist attitude. The film streamlines a continued sense of frontier guardianship both past and present, and aligns the Gush’s future with Israeli national agenda.

Though the visitor’s center remains unfinished, the work it will do connecting emotional accounts of the ’48 battles with a reenactment of the Jewish pioneer experience is already apparent. Important, too, is the overall structure in which all exhibits will be housed: melding concrete and bunkerlike features with a modernist and sleek glass-panelled entrance hall, the architecture serves to connect Gush Etzion’s pioneer history with its contemporary image as a site of both Israeli innovation and frontier defense. Dedicated to a resident killed in army drills in the occupied Golan Heights in 2009, the center streamlines the past and present by guiding visitors through historical stories and reenactments before providing the chance for guests to purchase luxury products, drink Israeli wines and coffee, and appreciate the settlement as is stands today.

Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land—and the subsequent resistance against land appropriation and entrenched systems of apartheid—furthers the image of settlements like the Gush as frontline defenders of the state. Encouraged by the pull of “war tourism,” visitors draw excitement from the apparent constant threat of terror, and often see their itinerary as a defiant stand against not only Palestinian resistance but also Israeli voices calling for a withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. 

An understanding of Israel and its position in the greater Jewish world is often posited as incomplete without having visited. Through excursions such as Birthright and organized tours providing travel opportunities to diasporic Jews, projects like Gush Etzion’s museum attempt to animate a nationalist future by an ideological reenactment of the recent past. If Israel’s right to existence has been buttressed by archaeological site visits, an enlivened, “immersive” local history becomes a tool for a continued statecraft that transcends borders.