Note: The question that the title raises (one that our tour guide raised for us) is for everyone: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Europeans, atheists, disabled folks (and other non-religious groups killed in the Holocaust), and so on. (This trip raises a lot of uncomfortable and extremely important questions.) I hope, as always, that you find this post balanced, for this is a particularly sensitive topic. Please let me know how I did, especially if I didn’t do it well, so that I can do better this time and next time.
One of our beloved (and returning to our group after a few weeks away!) tour guides framed this day for us in a particularly moving way: Guiding questions about the current context of how the Holocaust is held in the collective memory and ethics of the Land and abroad. I’ll do my best to do the same for you as my readers because, as he put it, there is no way of understanding the modern-day state of affairs in the Land without understanding that the Holocaust had just happened a few years ago when Israel was founded. Half of its Jewish inhabitants had been directly affected. This museum was created just a few years later so that there would be a space to process this immeasurable collective trauma. Yes, this musem is a space for anyone to visit, but its original and still most important audience is the Jewish people of the Land and the diaspora. It’s an inherited trauma, especially important to continue memorializing now that almost all of the survivors have passed away from age at this point and the younger generations won’t know any first-hand testimonies without a place like this. Israeli culture and politics are affected and even fueled by what happened in Europe before, during, and after World War II.
Especially for the Jews who came from the diaspora to enter this sacred space, there was no one sense of identity and community – they were bringing their previous lands with them, too, so what was going to make Israel feel like Israel, now? All of a sudden, you had millions of people being forced into an intense relationship with each other – Jews, Muslims, Christians, (Israelis), and Palestinians alike – many of whom had something awful in common. This Land represented hope. It represented the continuation of stories that had been cut short. It represented a moving forward and living in community anyway, to the point that our tour guide told us that when he first moved to the Land, he was invited to a virtual stranger’s Shabbat dinner – simply because they share this piece of history. The Land still represents this hope for many, but what do we do when this community doesn’t feel hopeful to all? Not everyone within the borders of Israel is Jewish. There were so many questions we were left with. What do we do with this terrible trauma? What do Jews in Israel do with it? What purpose is the Jewish state meant to serve today? How do they deal with the fear of such a terrible thing happening again, and how has that shaped their behavior toward others, including “the other” (in their eyes) here in the Land?
There were no pictures allowed in the museum, but know that it was truly horrifying on so many counts. I’m sure any of you who have been to the version in Washington, D.C. (or who have cracked open a history book) can imagine that. I wouldn’t have wanted to take pictures within it out of respect, anyway, but there is one image that will forever be burned into my mind: A pile of literally thousands of burned shoes. Miraculously(?), I didn’t cry, but I did need to take a seat at that point because the wind got knocked out of my body, mind, and spirit. Here are some pictures of the grounds surrounding the museum – it’s an enormous place surrounding a single-building museum because of just how important it is. Important to visit, no matter who you are, to understand a tragically defining moment and how your group played a role (for example, as a Christian, there are a lot of people to be ashamed of, then and now, for perpetuating violent anti-Semitism – as well as problematic thoughts to move out of my own heart, as I’ve written about before, because it’s easier to judge someone else than to see yourself honestly sometimes).
Briefly, on a lighter note, here are some of the fun Israeli foods that we got to try today in The Shuk, the open-air market.
When we got home, we had the opportunity to hear Vincent Fean, a former consul general to Jerusalem (and a self-described ambassador to the Occupied Palestinian Territories), give a talk about how the two-state solution can (and should) be made reality in these times. (You can, and should, read an article summarizing his thoughts here). Perhaps the most interesting part of the lecture was not even the topic itself, but the way that others around me reacted to it. I, personally, found it hopeful, but still unsatisfying to my biggest question these days: “I know that there are reasons that the wall (between Israel and Palestine) went up, but it also does a lot of damage; what would Israelis need to see or experience in order to feel safe enough to take the walls down?”, a question that felt particularly poignant after our visit to Yad Veshem. Many of my classmates and my professor found his points frustratingly similar to historic pleas for the same solution (that isn’t coming to fruition right now, nor has it been historically). Many of the audience members who were residents in Palestine (and even Israel) mourned, publicly or privately, that the two-state solution has long been dead in their eyes. There were a few audience members who gave little lectures of their own as they asked their questions, including a mini-lecture with a truly baffling suggestion of a 3-state solution (because Gaza and the West Bank are not contiguous Palestinian territories…?). “2 Jews, 13 opinions,” as our colleagues at the rabbinical institute taught us, right? (Replace “Jews” with whoever else is involved here. Everyone who lives here or considers it their religious homeland has something to say… or enough to write a thesis).
There are extremist feelings on all sides, some of which got voiced tonight in subtle or less subtle ways by audience members. What are their implications for how we should view the Land? I’ve been thinking and writing at times about my experience as time in the (un)Holy Land, but my wise friend, Kayley Romick, who’s heading to rabbinical school next year, taught me more about why that’s a particularly harsh thing to call the Land, and I feel like it’s particularly relevant after my class’ visit today:
I agree that the behavior of people in Israel and the Palestinian territories right now could be considered unholy. It’s really awful about what’s going on… But the Holy Land connotes a promise of redemption from persecution that God offered us even in times of slavery in Egypt, it’s what kept up hope when Jews were abused in the shtetl in Russia and the ghetto in Germany. So while you can criticize the current behavior of people who live in the Land and say the behavior is unholy, calling it the unholy land detracts from the symbolic meaning of Israel for diaspora Jews, and its inherent holiness because God designated it to be our home. (That’s not to say I don’t think it shouldn’t be other People’s homes, too!) Also, Holy in Hebrew means designated, not having a higher status than anything else… Therefore, though ungodly things are happening there, it’s still where we belong (again, I believe others can belong there simultaneously).
Why is this caliber of balance and nuance rare? What the heck do we do about the fact that it is rare in order to make it more common – in fact, so common that everybody engaging in this debate is willing to look at “the other?” What do we do with the inherited traumas and deeply-embedded narratives of both sides (both of which have truths, lies, and a whole lot of gray areas)? Listening to the point of healing and changing ethics takes deep levels of work, work that I don’t know if I’d have the conviction and strength to do if I lived here. (I’d like to think I would, but isn’t it easier to think that we’d be the Dietrich Bonhoeffers or the other heroes of the Holocaust rather than the silent or complicit majority, to think that we would have opposed slavery rather than allowed or even engaged in the practice, to think that we would have marched on Washington rather than teach our kids the hatred we had been passed down?). It’s easier to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and doubt others. It’s easier to imagine solutions for this problem thousands of miles away rather than up close.
It’s tragic that the Land does not represent hope to all people. It’s tragic that some people have stopped seeing the Jews as victims in a historical context; some Palestinians and Arabs don’t even believe that the Holocaust even happened because of how much it’s been used as a bargaining chip in their challenging realities in the Land. It’s also tragic that many Americans have, because of things like the Holocaust and the precarious reality that Israel inhabits in the Middle East, labeled almost all legitimate criticism of Israel’s government as anti-Semitic, and in so doing have neglected to look at the Palestinian story at all (to their great detriment). To not be able to criticize a government is dangerous. To say you’re against the occupation of Palestine is quite different from saying that you wish the state of Israel didn’t exist. (And to say you’re against the occupation, but have little idea of what to do next in order to ensure mutual safety once the wall comes down, is probably even a better way to go about it because it’s more honest). I can be in solidarity against anti-Semitic hatred in my own country and abroad while still vying for justice for the Palestinians and fighting against Islamophobic hatred in my own country and abroad. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Regarding this unholy behavior and rhetoric in (and out of) the Land on all sides, especially regarding the reality of the occupation of Palestine, I’ll end with another question that two of our speakers have left us with during this trip: When we say “never again” regarding the Holocaust, what do we mean? Never again for anyone, or never again for us? Put another way, when you say “never again,” what do you mean? Never again for anyone, or never again for you?
And how does your answer to the question affect your ethics, wherever you are? Will you put down your gun? Will you take down the wall? Will you open your border to refugees?