How Israel weaponises museums to erase Palestinian existence

Bodily violence isn’t the one means Israel tries to disclaim Palestinian existence. Museums are instruments of terror, too.


Erasing Palestine and Palestinians is a vocation of the Israeli state.

In any case, the parable of Palestinian non-existence is a part of its founding ethos. Through the Nakba of 1948, this vocation was on full show when Palestinian communities had been erased from the land in a scientific navy marketing campaign.


The continued settler violence inflicted with impunity on Palestinian communities within the occupied West Financial institution is additional proof that this urge to erase Palestine and Palestinians persists within the current day.

However this erasure is not only a matter of bodily or materially making Palestinians invisible. It’s equally executed by way of the tales which can be informed of the previous.


Israeli museums play an essential position, as lively individuals on this colonial effort.

The fear of Israeli museums

I observed this whereas conducting fieldwork on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew College of Jerusalem in 2015.

The campus at this time appears like a museum celebrating Jewish historical past heritage, as it’s lined with archaeological artefacts – like a marble statue of a ruler from the Temple of Augustus in Samaria constructed by King Herod and a stone from the Third Wall of the Second Temple that adorns the façade of The Institute of Archaeology.

The concept is to exhibit the Israeli-ness of the land – whereas wilfully perpetuating ignorance about the truth that the college was constructed on stolen Palestinian lands.

The Tower of David Museum does one thing comparable. Formally, the museum’s web site notes that the Citadel of Jerusalem is the “assembly level of historical and trendy, east and west, historical past and innovation, expertise and creation” and that the museum displays the historical past of Jerusalem as intertwined with the citadel’s significance to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

But, the museum has lengthy been accused of systematically effacing its Islamic and Palestinian heritage. After Israel captured the location, authorities prevented prayers on the mosques. The Israeli Antiquities Authority additionally eliminated the dome and crescent on the citadel. And labels figuring out artefacts clearly stress town’s Jewish-ness and Israeli “nationwide views”.

The Museum on the Seam claims to relay the divided historical past of Jerusalem and its displays are supposed to “increase various social points for public dialogue and bridge the gaps”. But, in apply, they do little to acknowledge that the constructing that homes the museum was as soon as owned by the Palestinian Barkami household, which was compelled out of Jerusalem within the Nakba.

Museums celebrating the position of Jewish paramilitary organisations through the creation of Israel additionally work to maintain up the parable of Palestinian non-existence. These organisations authored a lot of the violence in locations like Jaffa, Haifa, Acre and Tiberias through the Nakba. The paramilitary organisation Palmach, for example, established new Israeli settlements and was lively in “cleaning operations” in rural Palestinian communities.

Once I visited Beit HaPalmach, or the Palmach Museum, in Tel Aviv in 2013, this politics of erasure gave the impression to be ongoing. On the time of my go to, the exhibition on the museum was three-dimensional, and guests walked by way of a movie re-enactment of the lifetime of younger Palmach recruits through the Israeli “Warfare of Independence”.

Whereas the targets of the Palmach’s violence had been Palestinian communities, Palestine and Palestinians had been absent from the story. Actually, the phrases “Palestine” and “Palestinian” had been by no means used within the movie.

As a substitute, Palestinians had been merely known as “Arabs”. This, in and of itself, symbolised a fashion of nonrecognition of Palestinians as a nationwide group distinct from others within the Arab world.

However even when the Palestinian (or “Arab”) presence was addressed, it was swiftly pushed to the margins of the narrative. Particularly, there have been solely two situations when “Arabs” had been talked about.

The primary was when the characters within the movie consult with Palestinian fighters as merely “marauding Arab gangs.” The second was throughout a dialogue between two Palmach recruits the place they’re seen momentarily agonising over the “drawback” of Palestinian refugees. One character asks, “What ought to we do with the refugees?” The opposite, in a nonchalant tone, responds “Do what you suppose is greatest.” It was as if each characters had been unaware of how these refugees turned refugees and appear to easily not care concerning the tragedy that was the mass expulsion of Palestinians from a spot they think about their nationwide residence.

An identical erasure of Palestinians appeared evident throughout my go to in 2015 to the Haganah Museum in Tel Aviv, particularly within the exhibit on the Nice Revolt of 1936-39 in opposition to the British Mandate and its coverage of open-ended encouragement to Jewish immigration.

The historian Rosemary Sayigh has described the revolt as one of many first vital nationalist outbursts by Palestinian peasants within the lengthy trajectory of the Palestinian liberation battle. The violent response from paramilitary factions just like the Haganah was a prelude to the Nakba. The revolt additionally had regional significance because the longest-lasting “militant anti-imperialist battle within the Arab world” till the onset of the Algerian Warfare of Independence.

However the exhibit on the museum doesn’t recognise the historic significance of the revolt or the existence of the Palestinian folks and their nationwide trigger. As a substitute, it describes the Nice Revolt as merely “riots” and “bloody disturbances” that had been led by “Arabs” in Palestine and focused Jews in addition to the British.

The museum customer is left with the impression that the violence was carried out with out trigger or motive aside from to hurt the Jewish inhabitants.

Museums and colonialism

After all, museums typically have lengthy been used as a medium for displaying and celebrating colonial energy and the exploits of empire-building. Actually, the historian Robert Aldrich has argued, “Empire-building and museum-building went hand in hand”.

Natural world specimens, statues and treasured stones, mummies and skulls – collected or stolen – displayed in museums typically assist set up hegemonic, metropolitan narratives about “primitive” peoples and cultures in faraway unique lands.

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels was established in 1898 by Leopold II to have fun the Belgian “civilising train” in Congo, keep off critics of his brutally repressive insurance policies there and proclaim the civilisational superiority of Belgians in contrast with the “uncivilised Congolese tribes”.

In Hawaii, on the Honolulu Academy of Arts or the Bishop Museum, the displays solely tangentially consult with colonialism. And this omission is supposed to perpetuate ignorance concerning the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by white businessmen and the US navy and the violent course of by way of which Hawaii turned a settler colony.

The British Museum in Bloomsbury, London, is likely one of the grandest examples of how empire-building and museum-building went hand in hand. The expansiveness of the displays hailing from all corners of the world is a metaphor for the limitlessness of the ability of the British Empire. Historians have additionally described its catalogue of displays as an “imperial battle chest”.

Resisting by way of museums

As Palestinians face Israel’s incessant navy terror, the violence of museums could appear inconsequential. Nevertheless it reminds us how historical past and heritage may be weaponised.

That’s the reason utilizing the identical instruments of historical past and heritage is important to withstand Israeli oppression. In the US, the Museum of the Palestinian Individuals in Washington, DC, strives to protect and have fun Palestinian historical past, arts and tradition. It has witnessed a spike in month-to-month common attendance from 132 folks in 2022 to 277 folks in 2023, amid shifting public notion in favour of Palestine.

In 2016, the Palestine Museum was inaugurated in Birzeit within the occupied West Financial institution. The primary exhibit was titled “Jerusalem Lives” which showcased the “dwelling side” of a metropolis suffering from Israeli militarisation, closure and “exclusionary insurance policies” focusing on Palestinians.

The settler could weaponise historic narratives and heritage to erase the signature of Palestinian existence within the Holy Land. However these Palestinian efforts present the way it’s attainable to problem these efforts with a daring retort: “We’re right here, and we exist”.

The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.