Have you ever wondered what Israel used to look like? What would David Ben-Gurion look like sporting a full head of hair? Does the vibrancy of the Dome of the Rock come across before color photos existed?
Now history buffs and Israel enthusiasts alike will be able to browse hundreds of photos in a joint project from the Bitmuna Lab, the Haifa University Land of Israel Studies Department, and the Haifa University Library.
The photos, largely from personal family collections, take the viewer on a visual adventure from the 19th century onward and document the land that was to become Israel.
Viewers can check out photos that ranges from a Ben Gurion family collection, to the Yemeni immigration, pre-1948 Kotel, and a gallery of sketches of life during the Holocaust by a survivor from then Czechoslovakia. Keeping with the photo album feel, there is also a collection of postcards, mostly from the beginning of the 20th century, sent to an Israeli couple from different places in Israel and the world.
"This database of photos of the land of Israel is a rich repository of visual materials documenting the history of the land," Ora Zehavi, head of the library's media department, told Israel Hayom.
The Ben-Gurion Collection includes personal photographs of Arie Ben-Gurion, immigrant camps, Hakhshara (literally: preparation) in kibbutz Na’an, the Tehran Children, a youth movement of Czechoslovakia, a trip to Syria and Lebanon, and a letter from David Ben-Gurion, who would go on to become Israel’s first Prime Minister.
Viewers can also check out photos by city and region, so anyone can find out what Tel Aviv’s beaches looked like before the high rises came, or find photos from Yom Hatzmaut 1949, Israel’s first Independence Day. The database is also organized by category. There, viewers can check out a Druze library collection and aerial photographs of the land.
"The existence of the database and access to it from every home will enrich the study of the history," Dr. Yaron Perry, head of the Haifa University Land of Israel Studies Department, told Israel Hayom. "Now any researcher, student or nostalgia seeker can view, rather than only read, the history of the land of Israel."
But, a few words of caution: While the home page is in English, viewers will have to use their Hebrew skills for all pages further into the database.
Ronnie Kanisberg, an Israeli who tracked down the photos from the 19th through early 20th centuries, explained to Jspace why such a huge project was undertaken:
“Today’s generation demands visual and short messages which leave an impact without having to read heavy books with a lot of text,” Kanisberg said. “That is exactly what we are delivering, to the common viewer, as a first bite and taste, which should give him the will and reason to explore further.”
Kanisberg elaborated on further motivations for compiling the hundreds of photos in one public database.
“Those remaining between us who remember Eretz Israel with an abundance of water, running the wadis or rivers, forming swamps and puddles; those who remember the wide open countryside full of trees, bushes, flowers and all kinds of wild life; those who remember the Bedu tents and herds of thin cattle, goats and sheep herded by a young girl or those who remember dusty narrow roads and coral reefs down in Aqaba bay and much more, those [people] are leaving us day after day, leaving the younger generation with what they built, fought for and achieved and left us, and others like us, to tell and show from where it all started and by who,” he said.
“Our work provides a permanent home for the visual history of our country, its builders and defenders which otherwise would vanish in the dustbins, and is a direct answer to the anti-Jewish propaganda with which the net, for one, is infested.”
After identifying those who had historical photos, Kanisberg persuaded the owners to become donors and help in identifying scenery, settlements, and outstanding objects like houses of note, which “demands, in many cases, a lot of patience and empathy.”
“First reactions vary from total enthusiasm and will [willingness] to participate, or in some cases, suspicion which I have to override,” Kanisberg said. “In any case, I am happy to note that up to now, and in the course of five years, I had only three cases of a total no for an answer.”
For example, participation from one Israeli family resulted in the Arie Bachar Collection, which documents Bachar’s family and work in Israel through photos and certificates. According to the database, Bachar was born in 1929 and raised in Petah Tikva. He joined Betar Movement in 1942, and the Irgun Zva'i Leumi in 1945. In 1957 he was chosen as the head of the national Betar Movement, in 1978 the head of the world movement, and in 1983 he became head of the Arie Ben-Eliezer College of Education in Tel Aviv.
"Because this is a collection from private individuals, there is a place here for people who were not in the spotlight but still in the heart of the action," explained Professor Gur Alroey, the head of the History School at Haifa University, to Israel Hayom.
After the photos were acquired from various families and individuals, the library staff scanned and catalogued the hundreds of photographs, one by one, and added them to the database.
“Identification of documented locations, people and events is done with the help of collection owners, information received from users, and the kind help of Mr. Kanisberg,” Zehavi said.
Kanisberg added that it’s “quite hard at times remembering the fact that we are a very small state in size with around eight million people which demanded, and still does, a lot of building and paving which, in too many cases, erases the past.”
The project was also a way to track down old buildings and discover their histories. Though the research was worth the effort, the identification of some of the pictures demanded “a lot of research,” Kanisberg said.
“In one case I tracked a picture of a basalt stone, three-story house dating back to the British Mandate period through three cities,” he said. “As basalt stone was used mainly where it is found, in and around the Jordan valley, I started with Beit Shean, continued to Tiberias, and finally found the building, still standing minus its natural glory or status symbols, on the main street in the city of Safed. I dare say that not many know or remember the functions, which were very important at their day, of this still standing house.”
Kanisberg didn’t stick only to finding Mandate era buildings but also tracked down forgotten resources that would have been essential to those living in pre-state Israel before the advent of irrigation and other modern amenities. In one case, Kanisberg recounted his adventure in tracking down a water reservoir, which was “big for its time.”
“I had no doubt that it was for sweet water, as in the Mandate era there was no need for a very big drainage water reservoir in the countryside,” he said. “The distance of the reservoir from the coast and the palm trees led me to the right conclusion that the site should be in the north of Israel. So I upped to the Western Galilee and started to seek the known springs, which should be the source and reason for the reservoir. I found nothing, not the remains of the reservoir nor the right site, compared to the background on the picture.”
But Kanisberg didn’t give up his search.
“As we know, the Arab Bedouin is the best tracker in our country and to my luck I met with one, an old shepherd, who glanced at the picture only once and said, ‘Go to Basa,’” which is also known as Bezet, and is near Rosh Hanikra below the border with Lebanon. “To there I hurried, but found nothing.”
So, onward “to the second best tracker, a Jewish field surveyor,” Kanisberg said.
“It took him two days to tell me he found the site. Overgrown with weeds and such,” which is why Kanisberg missed the reservoir on the first go-around, “with a section still intact and nearby the pump house, [which was] typically British-built in red bricks, standing in its glory.”
These two cases “give me the extra drive to continue and look for the little extra in a collection so that it remains with us and in particular for the coming generations. As a wiser man than me said, ‘He who is ignorant of his past has no future!’”
Those who would like to contribute photos or information about the places and establishments featured in the photos should contact the Bitmuna Lab, which worked in partnership with the Haifa University Library and scans material into the database free of charge.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.