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Tel Hai Events

Tali Kayam

The Tel Hai Contemporary Art event was held five times between the years 1980 and 1994. It was the initiative of local artists and members of kibbutzim from the Galilee Panhandle who wanted to establish an art training institution, the “Tel Hai Arts Institute,” and create an open museum on its grounds to examine the connection between art, society and nature.[1] The Tel Hai Contemporary Art events were supported and funded exclusively by the Upper Galilee Local Council which included 27 kibbutzim, a declining political force at that time. This begs the question why a local council opted to support an ambitious, expensive art event, against the backdrop of a worsening economic crisis, along with far-reaching policy changes?

Tel Hai Contemporary Art events were intended to “refresh” the myth of the Tel Hai courtyard that would better suit the mood of the public which was hostile to kibbutzim at that time.[2] With this initiative, the Tel Hai Art Institute faculty hoped to gain support for the educational institution on the one hand, and exposure for themselves as kibbutz artists on the other. This exposure was intended both to bring art created in kibbutzim to the awareness of the kibbutz movement as well as into the Israeli art discourse and beyond. Ultimately, Tel Hai’s strength as an art event stemmed from, among other things, the special status of Amnon Barzel, an internationally-connected outside curator and central figure in the field, who brought well-known names to the Naftali Mountains.

It is difficult to determine whether the kibbutz image really did change in the eyes of Israeli society following the Tel Hai events. However, the extensive publicity received across the primary media platforms in Israel, the unifying medium of television, as well as articles covering politics and current affairs — not only in art magazines or kibbutz movement bulletins — indicate that the Contemporary Art Meetings brought Tel Hai and its art training institute into the national consciousness and that of Israeli art.

The revised Tel Hai myth in times of declining kibbutz power

As a military heritage site, the Tel Hai grounds symbolize the beginning of a settlement in today’s Israel. Tel Hai was one of four agricultural settlements established by members of the Shomer group with the support of the Baron Hirsch on the northern border of Palestine. In 1920, Tel Hai’s courtyard was attacked by fighters from a neighboring Arab village. This event, which came to be known in Israeli history as the ‘Battle of Tel Hai,’ is primarily remembered for one of the six Jewish pioneers who was tragically killed: Joseph Trumpeldor who, as he died from the wounds inflicted in battle, muttered angrily to his doctor, (as claimed by several sources and became established as myth), “It’s nothing, it is good to die for our country.”[3]

This statement in particular, and the figure of Trumpeldor more generally, were in keeping with the Zionist ethos of the times. Trumpeldor was the ultimate pioneer across ideological camps, a hero who expanded the settlement movement by pioneering new tracts of land and not the center of the country, who fell in a battle that secured the future of the entire nation. Indeed, the first Remembrance Day for the fallen soldiers of Israel’s Fallen Soldiers began on the 11th of the Hebrew month of Adar. Many still mark this date with a pilgrimage to the cemeteries around Tel Hai where there is a monument in the memory of those pioneers who perished.

That monument, which is officially named “The Lion of Judah” but is better known as “The Roaring Lion” (1934) was created by the sculptor Abraham Melnikoff out of a sense of mission and Zionist ideology. The monument’s creation and placement was also noteworthy as it was the first monument erected in Israel — a fact that further reinforces the myth of Tel Hai, this time with an artistic component. The monument was inaugurated in 1934 after a stubborn political struggle between representatives of the World Zionist Organization and representatives of the labor movement and became a real bone of contention.[4]

In the early 1980s, some sixty years after the battle of Tel Hai, in the face of a changing economic and political reality, the settlement faced a final battle over its identity. With the Likud party’s rise to power, the new government sought to introduce a policy of “liberalization," issuing declarations that for “the good of the people” they would stop “subsidizing” kibbutzim.[5]

At the time, then Prime Minister Menachem Begin would attack kibbutzim in his speeches on the parliamentary podium and other public platforms. In one particularly memorable speech, delivered in Kiryat Shmona on the occasion of the Jewish New Year, he described kibbutzniks (kibbutz members) as millionaires with swimming pools, citing Kibbutz Manara as an example. In a response to Begin’s speech published in Maariv newspaper, Abraham Broshi, head of the Upper Galilee Regional Council who supported the Tel Hai Contemporary Art events wrote: “I believed that ‘Herut’ wanted to bring peace between itself and the working settlements, but unfortunately, the Prime Minister behaved otherwise, causing a stir, moreover, as the leader of a small and extremist faction of Likud.” This quote from Broshi regarding Prime Minister Begin’s approach clearly illustrates the political struggle between the kibbutzim who identified with the Ma’arach and the Herut movement which held power at that time.

The future of the kibbutz seemed even more conflicted in the context of the economic crisis that befell Israel from the end of the 1970s until the mid-1980s. Those years are known for the severe inflation crisis which led to the privatizations which changed the face of the country and impacted kibbutz morale.[6]

So what made the Tel Hai Contemporary Art events possible? The vision of particular individuals, a unique pride and the wish to restore the crown to its former glory through the cultural-historical sphere.

The following article was taken from a chapter of the thesis ‘A Center Everywhere: Art platforms in Israel’s geographic margins in the 1980s as a tool for creating cultural and symbolic wealth’ (title translated from Hebrew), towards a master’s degree as part of the program “Policy and Theory of the Arts” at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, supervised by Professor Yael Guilat and Dr. Tal Ben Zvi.


[1]Nusbaum, Eti. “Tel Hai Contemporary Art Events 1980-1994” (Essay for completion of Master’s Degree, Oranim College, 2011). [In Hebrew]

[2]Pwynn, Avraham. Community Resilience: Social Capital in the Kibbutz (Ramat Efal: Yad Tabenkin, 2007. [In Hebrew]

[3] See publication on behalf of the regional council: Tel Hai. (Haifa: the Upper Galilee Regional Council, 1982). Hashomer Hatzair Archive -- Yad Yaari, Yuval Danieli Room, Cabinet B, Shelf 11. [In Hebrew]

[4] To learn more, see Gideon Ofrat: “To whom the lion roared”, from the Etzba Hagalil, 1900-1967: Sources, summaries, selected events and supplementary material, edited by Mordecai Naor (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben Tzvi, 1991), 220-221. [In Hebrew]

[5] Topel, Menachem, and Eliezer Ben-Rafael. “A different and changing kibbutz: processes of renewal since the 1980s,” 330. [In Hebrew]

[6] Topel, Menachem, “Technocracy and the Kibbutz Elite,” in The New Managers: The Kibbutz Changes its Way. (Sede Boker: Ben Gurion Institute, 2005), 54. [In Hebrew]

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