Thursday, April 14, 2016

"Graven Images" in Jerusalem? The Story of the Menorah near the Knesset, a Gift from the British Friends of Israel

The menorah near the Knesset building in Givat Ram.
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office, 2005

At the beginning of the 1950s, relations between Israel and Britain, the former mandatory power in Palestine, were still cool.  Lord Edwin Samuel, the son of Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner for Palestine, and MP Clement Davies, leader of the Liberal party, decided to sponsor a project to produce a bronze menorah as a gift from the friends of Israel in Britain to the Knesset, Israel's parliament. 

Benno Elkan with the model of the menorah in his London studio.
Photograph: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikimedia
Some 400 MPs and other public figures and organizations donated £20,000 to finance the work of sculptor Benno Elkan, a Jewish refugee from Germany.

On 15 April 1956, at the start of Israel's eighth Independence Day, the menorah was unveiled  at a ceremony in downtown Jerusalem, near the building of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Knesset speaker Joseph Sprinzak received the gift, which stood four metres high and was decorated with scenes from Jewish history from the days of the patriarchs until the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. British Ambassador Sir John Nicholls and Clement Davies also took part in the ceremony. Today, 60 years later, we present photographs of the menorah from the ISA's recently digitized collection of photographs by Yehuda Eisenstark. We also show documents from the collection of Chief Rabbi Isaac Yitzhak Halevy Herzog, reflecting the controversy in religious circles over the gift.
This video clip shows a newsreel on the unveiling and other events of Independence Day in 1956

The menorah was placed in a small park near the Knesset building, Beit Frumin. On 10 May 1956 Yehuda Eisenstark (1912-2005) who studied photography and journalism in his home town of  Lvov in East Galicia and came to Palestine in 1939, took these views of the menorah.

Like the menorah symbol of the state, the Knesset menorah was designed to symbolize the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, in contrast to the captured Temple menorah on the Arch of Titus in Rome. From the beginning of the project religious circles expressed reservations for two reasons: the prohibition on making a seven branched candelabrum like that used in the Temple, and the fear that the design would include human figures, because of the prohibition on worshipping graven images. Eventually it was decided to seek an opinion from Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, and the papers of Rabbi Herzog held in the ISA include an article which he published on the subject in the halachic journal "Sinai". 

Herzog decided that the menorah was permissible under certain conditions, and his brother-in-law David Hillman, a London-based artist, spoke to Elkan to make sure that these conditions were met. They included making sure that the figures on the menorah were in bas relief and not free standing, and that all of them were suitably clothed. The menorah would not include any container for oil, to make clear that it was not intended for use (File P4243/4) .

In the event, the unveiling of the menorah was not accompanied by any public protests. In 1966 it was moved to its present site near the new Knesset building in Givat Ram. 

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