In the doorway of the museum stand a haredi husband and wife. Nearby are young people from a kibbutz in the Galilee. They glanced at each other hesitantly and entered, walking quietly through the museum’s rooms, looking at the various exhibits.
The haredi husband and wife both admit they had never realized the enormity of the atrocity.
“We have never been shown these sights,” says one of the kibbutz members to his companion. “When they were expelled, I didn’t understand what they wanted. What’s the problem? They’ll get other homes elsewhere. Seeing these videos here help me understand what a great tragedy it was and how much compassion we should feel for them.”
Near the museum’s side entrance, high-school kids crowd around two pictures. One asks, “Did you ever realize it was so terrible?” Another replies, “I never paid much attention to it. I thought the residents were just crybabies. Now I’m starting to understand that the injustice done to them cries out to the very heavens. Only now do I realize their expulsion brought about the continuous Kassam rocket attacks we’re getting from Gaza.”
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The Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem was established by Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpo, head of the Rambam Hashalem Torah Institute, centered in the town of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Wolpo has authored many highly regarded works of halacha, including two that research the halachic prohibition of forfeiting territories of the Holy Land to non-Jews.
At the time of the so-called Gaza disengagement, he and his colleagues invested tremendous effort in attempting to derail the expulsion of nearly 10,000 Jews. As the disengagement was implemented and while the fires were still burning, they resolved to establish this museum. But their resolution took three years to come to fruition.
The museum’s early visitors, back in 2008, were mostly from the national religious segment of Israel’s population. But gradually this changed. Both haredim and secular leftists had remained largely ignorant of what actually happened to Gush Katif’s residents. As they heard about the museum, more and more started visiting and were deeply affected by the exhibits.
“The people of Israel have been experiencing disillusionment,” says Rabbi Wolpo. “The Kassam rocket attacks, the Hamas ascent to power, the revolutionary changes in surrounding Arab nations, the enormous danger from terror organizations based in the Sinai desert – all these have brought Israelis, including many who once supported the expulsion, to rethink their positions. Now they’re opposed to further expulsions of Jews from Judah and Samaria, God forbid. I’m sure the museum has played an important role in this, because when people visit, they start to understand what really happened there.”
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The museum’s curator, Shlomo Wasserteil, welcomes me. Six and a half years have passed since he was expelled from his home in the Gush Katif town of Ganei Tal, but he has not yet become accustomed to his new situation.
“For thirty years I lived in Gush Katif,” he says. “I had one of the world’s largest flower hothouses, with fifty employees. We exported flowers to Europe for tens of millions of dollars. After we were expelled, I became unemployed. My wife and I were both at home with nothing to do. It plunged me into a terrible psychological state. I couldn’t understand why they had done this to us. These wounds haven’t healed. At times I even sank into deep depression.”
Four years after the expulsion, Shlomo was offered this position at the museum. Now he feels that at least he can do something so that the expulsion won’t be forgotten. “When Rabbi Wolpo established this museum, he called the artist Yankele Klein and told him, ‘Set up a museum.’ He had no funding, and incurred vast debts. But it all seems to have been worthwhile.
“Tens of thousands visit here – ordinary Jews, educators and their students, Knesset members and government ministers, soldiers and their officers, members of European parliaments, and U.S. congressmen. And after their visits, something happens in the minds of all of them. Even left-wing Knesset members, with tears in their eyes, have written in the visitors’ book, ‘Never again!’ ”
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We pass through the rooms. Pictures document the history of Gush Katif, revealing that ever since the time of the Hasmoneans, of Chanukah story fame, there was a continuous Jewish presence in Gaza and its environs. This continued until the terrible 1929 Arab pogroms. Only after the 1967 Six-Day War did Jews return. They built thriving communities, never dreaming that one day they would be cruelly uprooted by their own government.
In February 2001, the first rocket was fired at Gush Katif. At the time, the news was widely featured in the Israeli and international media. But later, if news accounts of rocket attacks appeared at all, they were relegated to the back pages.