My feet hurt, my heart aches and once again instead of being able to sleep, my mind is awake with a swirl of impressions. In the last seventy-two hours, we have been flown across the country–seeing everything from new “security fence” to Jerusalem to the Gaza border in less than 45 minutes; we have run our fingers over the exploded casings of some of the thousands of “Kassem” rockets that have rained down on the border town of Sderot in the last five years from Gaza and wondered how the rise of Hamas there may affect the conflict; we have seen how Israeli high-tech ingenuity is transforming medical care and training; we have met two of Israel’s top filmmakers and actors and discussed how their new film portrays and tries to puncture the “bubble” of unrealities that different Israelis and Palestinians live in; we have pondered at the Yad Vashem memorial museum how the Holocaust could have happened and what its memory does to Israelis and Jews today; and we have gazed upon the 2000+ year-old foundation stones of the Temple Mount that have been uncovered in a still-unfolding archeological dig deep below the streets of the Old City; and we have listened to Israeli Jewish and Arab artists meld American hip-hop music with their own experiences into a sound that is uniquely theirs. All that was with our tour group of bloggers under the auspices of Israel21c.
We (my son Jesse and my mom, who is also here visiting) have also dined in Jerusalem with some American cousins of ours who have been living here 30 years and heard them declare that they have never been so depressed at the prospects of finding any solution to the conflict; I met with the director of the Hartman Institute, Donniel Hartman, and discovered the movement for Jewish renewal and relevance in modern times is alive and beating; and Jesse and I searched out and found the site of a tree that was planted at Yad Vashem 29 years ago to honor a Polish man named Walter Ukalo who was a friend of my in-laws and who saved eight Jews during the Holocaust, making him one of the good souls known here as a “Righteous Gentile.”
I can’t process all of this in any kind of narrative form. It’s too much. I’m also sacrificing sleep to even get these thoughts down while they’re semi-fresh. But here are a few jottings:
– I have always said to myself that sooner or later, Israel’s neighbors would have to reconcile themselves to its existence. “Like it or not, Israel is not going away,” I’d say. And just from the explosion of construction that you see everywhere, this feeling of mine has only gotten stronger. Tel Aviv is unrecognizable to me. What was once a relatively modest city of five and six-story buildings with a handful of larger apartment towers is now a sprawl of genuine skyscrapers. In 1982, when I was here doing research for my Princeton senior thesis on the rise of Shalom Ackshav (Peace Now), I could walk from one interview at an Israeli newspaper to a meeting at the Kirya, Israel’s defense ministry. Now I could perhaps still do that walk, but the borders of the city have spread at least four-fold. Same with Israel’s highway system, which has gone from a handful of two-lane roads connecting its main cities to an array of super-highways and three-lane thoroughfares laced throughout the whole coastal metro area.
– The helicopter tour, on the other hand, reminds me of how small Israel is. But while the Israel Project, the organization that took us on that flight, might want that to prove how vulnerable the country is, all it reinforced for me is how land alone is no guarantor of security. In an age of “home-made” Kassem missiles and spreading high-technology, no country can ensure its security perfectly. Unfortunately, so much of what is going on now seems to me to be the bitter fruit of so many years of Israeli hubris. The peace movement warned for years that holding onto the territories and building settlements on them would, among other things, embitter the Palestinians and poison the chances for peace. How horribly ironic that just 15 years ago, it was against the law for an Israeli to meet with a member of the PLO, and today Israel is trying to prop up Fatah, the core of the PLO for all these decades.
– Tunnels. In Gaza, the Palestinians are digging tunnels. In Jerusalem, in the Old City, so are the Israelis. In Gaza, the tunnels are for smuggling weapons in from Egypt to supply Hamas, and for occasionally attempting raids on Israeli border outposts (one of which resulted in the killing of an Israeli soldier and the kidnapping of another). In Jerusalem, the tunnel is for uncovering the deep Jewish past there that dates back to the time of the Second Temple, more than two thousand years ago. These are not morally equivalent projects. No human beings are being harmed by that archeological dig. And yet there is a similarity, because these tunnel projects ARE both about national self-assertion. Israel’s new Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, once created a stir when he declared on Israeli TV that if he were a young Palestinian living in Gaza today, he too would be a terrorist. This is not to justify what Hamas is doing or what it stands for but to realize that the Palestinians are in their own cycle of history, and maybe the moment for compromise has passed for this generation. I hope not for all.
– The Temple Mount. Walking underground on our guided tour of the underground tunnel along the Western Wall, listening to our enthusiastic young guide gush about the beauty of the foundation stones, how we were passing just 300 feet from where the “Holy of Holies” once stood, closer than any Jew had stood in 2000 years; watching him kiss the rock wall, and then gazing on a sophisticated model of the Temple Mount that explained the archeological work we were walking through, I had a very bad feeling. It is one thing to see how archeology can uncover and confirm facts from the past. Yes, the ancient Jews built a great Temple here, and it is awe-inspiring to walk underground and know that you are standing in a bathing area built by King Herod, or what was probably a changing room for people coming to worship. But it is another thing to see how these discoveries fuel a Jewish neo-mysticism that thinks everything that Israel has accomplished is a miracle from God rather than the hard work of human beings, and how they fire a zeal for the return of that Temple, no matter how unrealistic or dangerous such a project might be. After all, if God brought the Jews of 150 countries back from Exile, won’t God protect them if they fulfill His commandments regarding the building of that Temple?
– Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem was stunning. The new museum, which was built in 2005, is nothing like the old one. Gone are the simple photographic exhibits that my colleague Joann, the Nation’s copy editor, had so diligently copy edited as we walked its halls in 1985. Moshe Safdie, the world renowned Israel architect, has built a beautiful and stark gash in the earth made of steel and concrete, and most of the time you are underground walking the halls. Above us there is a thin beam of light coming thru the roof, meant to symbolize the occasional shafts of goodness that pierced the dark times of the Holocaust.
Our guide pierced my heart right away. A softspoken Orthodox Jewish woman with the slightest of Hebrew accents, she startled me at the beginning of our tour by asking the group, “Is there anyone here who knows someone who was in the Holocaust?” I cleared my throat and said, somewhat embarrassed, “Yes, my mother, who is with us here, was a hidden child during the war in Belgium. And my father-in-law, on his side of the family, lost at least 70 immediate family members. I have the list with me here.” My mother then said a few words about her experience during the war, but she too seemed a bit startled. It was not going to be an easy walk through the exhibit, even though we were rushing and only had an hour or so for what is normally a three hour tour.
Several times I felt myself tearing up. Once, when I read the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who was quoted from the 1820s saying, “When they burn books, the burning of people is not far behind.” This as we watched a short movie showing Josef Goebbels presiding over a mass bookburning at a German university in the early 1930s. Once again as we looked at a giant wall-sized poster of the massacre site at Babi Yar, where more than 50,000 Jews were shot and killed in the open air. I hadn’t realized that Babi Yar was a picnic site. You could see how the grounds were green, below the bodies stacked like cordwood. A third time as we looked later at pictures of the days after the liberation of the camps, and we listened to a chorus of emaciated Jewish children singing hatikva, “The Hope,” which later became Israel’s national anthem, and looked at a photo of the first Friday night Shabbat candle-lighting to take place in Bergen-Belsen. “That 8-year-old boy sitting in the corner there,” our guide softly told us, “later made aliyah to Israel and grew up to be one of the country’s chief rabbis.” Gulp. Finally we stood in the Hall of Names, a circular virtual cemetery lined by simple black file boxes. There are 3.5 million names of victims of the Holocaust that are collected here, our guide told us. There were many empty rows, waiting to be filled.