Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Yad Vashem and IPCRI
Today we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. It is more than simply a memorial or a museum, it is also the pre-eminent venue for Holocaust studies in the world. Scholars from all over the world come to Yad Vashem to study the Holocaust. The exhibit is incredible, following the build up to the holocaust in the early part of the 20th century, through the years of the war and to the death marches, the liberation of the camps, and the stories of survivors who then emigrated to Israel and other parts of the world to rebuild their lives. There are thousands of artifacts in the museum as well as movie/video footage from the holocaust years. What is particularly powerful are the videotaped interviews with holocaust survivors telling their stories. Many of them never spoke of the holocaust and had to be coaxed into speaking and being videoed for the museum. Their testimony is riveting to say the least. I listened to two survivors from Lithuania describing in detail their experiences of the Nazi soldiers hauling all the Jews in their town out to a pit where they were made to strip off their clothes and the soldiers shot them right beside the pit where folks fell into mass graves. Both these survivors were children at the time. In each case they fell into the pit but had not actually been hit by a bullet. They managed to crawl out and escape to safety once the soldiers had left. The woman who told her story was 7 years old when this happened, the man 16. Then the artifacts in the museum are truly riveting. I spent time reading postcards and handwritten journal pages written by Jews on the trains to the camps, telling of what was happening and specifically saying that they were writing this in the hopes that someday someone would find the postcard or journal pages and know what had transpired. Two of the postcards were written by women who then threw them out of the train hoping they’d be found someday. The journal was written by a man who buried it by the train tracks and hoped it would later be discovered. Really riveting stuff.
I had the same uneasiness going through the museum as I had two years ago, however, as I looked at the images of the brutalities that the Nazis visited upon the Jews of Europe and think about the human and civil rights violations now being visited upon the Palestinians by the Israelis. The checkpoints, the separate roads in the West Bank, the denial of water and electricity, the situation in Gaza are all too reminiscent of the Warsaw ghetto and the terrible discrimination and persecution of Jews in Europe leading up to the war. Much as Israelis bristle at the suggestion, it is so obvious that what is happening is the classic situation of those who are abused later become an abuser. And the other disturbing reality that I saw today was hordes of young Israeli soldiers, carrying their guns, swarming through the museum. We were told that visiting Yad Vashem is part of the training of the soldiers when they enlist in the army, so that “they will know why it is so important to defend this country.” Given that the 18 year olds now enlisting in the army are the third generation after the holocaust generation, I find myself wondering where we draw the line between wanting them to know and learn the history so that they will not repeat it, and perpetuating the anger, hurt and bitterness unto the generations to come so that the wound never heals. They so internalize the narrative and the pain of that narrative that the anger, bitterness, depression, sense of persecution does not abate making them live with a fearful, bunker mentality which sees the world and everyone outside of Israel as a potential enemy who is out to destroy them. This is not the best world view to have going through life and certainly does not create a climate where peace may be negotiated. As horrible and reprehensible and undefensible as the holocaust was, there has to come a time when it takes its place in history and the younger generations become able to live in the world as they encounter it, not as their great grandparents encountered it. They need to be able to become the change they’d like to see in the world, and I wonder how that can happen with this heavy emphasis on “Never forget.”
I was also unsettled as I looked at the photos of Germany in the early 1930’s where there were signs telling people to boycott Jewish businesses, being very aware of the growing movement worldwide right now for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) to try to pressure Israel to change its behavior towards the Palestinians. Once again, one could argue, “the world” is calling for a boycott of Jewish business, although this time I believe it is not on the basis of their religion or ethnicity, but on the basis of their political actions. Still, its curious and gives me pause.
We went from Yad Vashem to the offices of an interfaith peace group called Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) which is an Israeli-Palestinian partnership joining activists, academics, negotiators, political and military experts in the development of a viable two state solution to the conflict. These folks have been in existence since 1988 and they really know their stuff. They work with the US government on pretty high level negotiations. We were all enthralled as we listened to the Israeli Gershon Baskin talk about how a two state solution can work and his firm belief that it is very possible. The Palestinian Hanna Siniora was similarly convinced and reiterated what we’ve heard from a number of Palestinians on this trip that the Arab world is ready to make peace with Israel, to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a state and to work out an agreement, if Israel will deal with the issues of the settlements, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. This organization is working closely with the Obama administration in their efforts to broker a peace agreement, and these men seemed genuinely hopeful that a workable two state solution and agreement can be worked out and soon. They expressed remarkable confidence in George Mitchell and what he might be able to pull off. We all came away from that discussion feeling far more hopeful about the possibilities for this conflict than we have before.
Our next stop was to have been the museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls but we learned that it was under construction so that plan was scrapped. A few of us decided to go back to the Old City. Dr. Shafiq and our two young men were going to go to Al Aqsa mosque for evening prayers and three of us decided we’d do some shopping and go again to the Western Wall and Holy Sepulcher (one of our number had missed that part of yesterday.) We had a blast shopping in the market and Dr. Shafiq proved to be an expert negotiator with the vendors making sure we drove hard bargains for our purchases! No wonder he’s so good at interfaith work! This time when we got the Holy Sepulcher the Franciscans were doing Vespers, with incense and chanting and processions all over the church to various parts of the shrine, so we enjoyed a good dose of ancient Christian tradition and liturgy. It was fun to think of Dr. Shafiq nearby praying in Al Aqsa mosque as we were praying in the Holy Sepulcher church. We finished our day back at the hotel with dinner and a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Tomorrow we are off to Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. We have a very early start, so as to get to Masada before it is too hot. So I’m off to bed. More tomorrow.