Located in the Bat Galim area of Haifa near the coast, the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum was on our list of places to go as soon as we drove past and Landon saw all of the ships. Situated right along highway 4, it is surprising to see full size ships and submarines just parked in the yard with a small museum in front! We tried to visit a few weeks earlier, but we did not bring passports and were denied entry. This museum is operated by the Department of Defense, and they don’t mess around! Passports or I.D. cards (for Israeli citizens) required. They did not take my Illinois driver’s license. So, with passports in hand, we entered the museum not quite knowing what to expect. Landon was very excited to check out all of the boats, and there was even a piece of a submarine out front for him to explore while the security guard checked our documents.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had a very limited understanding of the events that surrounded the creation of the state of Israel. This museum detailed the process that began with illegal, or clandestine immigration during and after WWII and ended with the creation of the State of Israel. The indoor sections of the museum were so small that I was a little skeptical and did not think Landon would enjoy it. The key to this museum was to follow the arrows in order to view the films in order. We started out in a lecture hall type room right off of the entrance/main lobby. To present the history of modern Israel, they brought some of the first immigrants back to the museum- to the ship they had taken from Europe to Israel- and explained what happened. It was really neat to watch the videos with first person accounts and see their reactions to seeing the ship again. I will try to briefly tell the story, but it is fairly complicated. I’m not a huge history buff, so I hope that this makes sense and is accurate.
During WWII, as persecution increased, Jews were trying to escape by any way possible. Some immigrated legally to Palestine, but most tried to come illegally because the British weren’t letting very many people in the country. After WWII, the surviving Jews did not really have anywhere to go. Some communities in Europe were still hostile towards them, their homes and livelihoods had been taken from them, and they were very destitute. After being freed from concentration camps, they were still living in refugee camps in Germany! Many decided to go to Zion- or back to their ancestral homeland in Palestine. They had a dream of creating a place in their ancestral/religious homeland where they could be safe from persecution and be free. At the time, Palestine was under British control from the British Mandate. This mandate was put in place in the 1920s after the Ottoman Empire was dismantled at the end of WWI. The Ottoman empire was divided into chunks and became “Occupied Enemy Territory Administrations”.
Britain allowed a small number of Jewish immigrants in, but there were so many more individuals who wanted to come. So, groups formed to help Jews immigrate to Palestine. They worked mostly at night shuttling people in unmarked vans from the refugee camps to various ports along the Mediterranean. The man in the first video talked about walking across whole countries- only at night- to avoid being caught and sent back to the refugee camps. This was AFTER WWII! With group members in many countries, they were able to buy surplus military ships after the war, outfit them secretly to carry people instead of fight, and fill them with Jews wanting to go to Palestine.
To be honest, at this point I was floored. I had no idea that the Jews endured such hardships AFTER surviving concentration camps. It made me so sad! After the first video finished, arrows pointed us to the next room on our tour. The same man explained more about getting ready for the voyage, and that they each only brought a small bag of belongings with them on board. Landon checked out the life boat for one of the ships that carried immigrants. Our next station was inside of one of the ships used to bring immigrants to Haifa. It was brought here and dry-docked right smack dab in the middle of the museum. It was neat how the flow of the exhibit had us following in the footsteps of the immigrants- from getting the back story, to preparing for the journey, to boarding the boats, and then getting off in Israel!
Inside the ship, named “Af Al Pi Chen” meaning Despite All, among the bunks where immigrants slept three or four across, we learned that as the ship neared Haifa, the British navy came out to meet it. At first, things were peaceful, and then the Brits tried to board the boat. The immigrants started fighting back, throwing whatever they could at the enemy ships- including canned goods! The captain tried to get through to Haifa by ramming the British ship, but they were eventually captured, towed to Haifa, and all the immigrants were deported to Cyprus. Not quite the happy ending I was hoping for, but eventually, I think, many who wanted to live in Israel were able to come. There is a dent in the side of the immigrant ship to this day, that we had to check out after finishing up the movie inside of the ship.
After exploring every nook and cranny that was open, we headed inside to check out some artifacts from the Israeli Navy. The ships that were used for clandestine immigration became the first ships of the Israeli Navy! Several Arab nations declared war on Israel within 24 hours of the creation of the State, so they had to get everything together in order to preserve their freedom. There were two groups of men that formed the Israeli navy- the clandestine immigration guys, and the British-trained locals. Needless to say, it seemed like it took awhile for the two types of sailors to get along. Of course, this museum was super pro-Israel, and I understand how other Arab nations would be mad that a country was just created out of chunks of their land, but seriously?! Can the Jews ever catch a break? That was my impression of this whole museum. I just felt bad for all of them, but also admired their resilience and willingness to go through so much hardship to live in this area of the world. Since then, Israel has grown to be a modern, successful country even with opposition from their neighbors and the whole issue with the Palestinian territories. One interesting thing we learned from talking with a Jewish/Israeli tour guide and a Palestinian tour guide in Bethlehem is that many people on both sides of the line want a one-state solution, but all the neighboring governments do not want Israel to have that land and power. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future with this country and its tumultuous politics.
As I said before, the inside of the museum was fairly small, and then the rest of the time we spent walking around the yard surrounding the museum looking at ships, small boats, and a decommissioned submarine. In all of our boat adventures, we had never once gone inside of a submarine, so that was exciting! Everything was similar to the destroyers and other military ships we have toured, but much smaller and more compact. We came to a glass window mounted on the ground, and Owen would not budge! He thought that he would fall through to the compartment underneath! I had to pick him up and carry him through the rest of the sub.
Landon loves vehicles and is interested in war. If he did not have these interests, I would not recommend this museum for small children. We brought our stroller because we ran over from our hotel, but touring the ships in the yard meant parking it at the entrance to each ship. Also, we parked it outside when we checked out the main immigration ship. I thought it was a little odd that there weren’t staff out in the yard area, so if you’re worried about things getting stolen, just go with a baby carrier for infants and toddlers and don’t bring the stroller. There are picnic tables outside and restrooms, but no food options inside of the museum area, so bring snacks/lunch! Since it is so small, I would count on a visit lasting at most 2 hours. Although a little dry for small children, I learned so much about the history of immigration and the creation of Israel from this museum! We came to check out the big boats, but I left with a deep appreciation for my freedom and for those who are resilient and willing to sacrifice all in order to create a better life for themselves and their families.