The Akko prison intersects the Crusaders with the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, and the Jewish resistance movements throughout Palestine. Today, the 12th century Crusader Hospitaller Center bears evidence of the 18th century Muslim fortress with military barracks and palaces, and the 19th century British prison. During the British Mandate, there were three major prisons: Jerusalem (Russian Compound and Kishle); Akko; and Bethlehem (women’s prison).
Most famously housed within Akko’s prison walls is one of the Bahai’s holy sites, the cell which held Baha’ullah. Today, only Baha’i may enter into that sacred space.
The other inmates celebrated in this now museum are the Jewish underground resistance fighters, from three main groups: the Haganah, the Etzel, and the Lehi, and most especially Zeb Jabotinsky. As we walked through the displays, set in what had been the prison cells, we read about the Zionist movements that formed throughout Palestine and Europe. It was a somber moment to enter the gallows room, and come face-to-face with the reality of execution. Nine Jewish fighters were executed in that grim room, hung by the neck, as the rest of the prisoners sang the hymn that became Israel’s national anthem.
Afterward, we heard a lecture on the themes the museum display seemed to be designed around:
- Building Israel
- Being strong
According to our speaker, the traditional perspective of Jewish history was as an account of a passive, weak people who had been unwilling or unable to defend themselves. Zionism sought to communicate strength and heroism as redemptive qualities
Our speaker continued by saying the depiction of unity and cooperation was emphasized, with the value of building a nation. The narrative holds the three resistance groups were willing to work together and deserved joint and recognition and honor for creating the state of Israel. Each of the three displays were equal in size, verbiage, display, giving each group equal respect.
Indeed, these themes were easily recognized in the steel girders, blossoming trees, and pictures of verdant fields, houses, and families in the backgrounds of each of the didactic panels telling the stories of the prisoners.
Our speaker also pointed out the narrative that was missing, and asked what impact that might have on the community of Akko as a Mixed City, and what greater implications this museum’s choices may indicate for a nation as diverse as Israel, with nearly 25% of its population as Arab.
Probably the most significant missing piece to the Akko prison’s story is the fate of the Arab prisoners—thousands of Arabs were imprisoned, and hundreds executed in Akko. There is only one plaque mentioning Arab prisoners. The Arab cells contain no displays, no explanatory plates, no pictures…really no indication at all of who might have been incarcerated there. Also missing is the often contentious, even vitriolic, conflict between the various Jewish resistance groups in the early 20th century. Their story has been cleansed and revised to reflect a more heroic view. In reality, this is a museum dedicated to the lives and stories of underground Jewish fighters, rather than a museum of the Akko Prison.
As New York Senator William L. Marcy famously said, “To the victor belong the spoils.” History is often written by the victors. Even today, when we read a news article about conflict among peoples, we are being guided in how to view each side—are they terrorists, or are they freedom fighters, are they rebels or revolutionaries? The tactics are the similar, but the narrative is very different.