Friday, July 3, 2009

A Staring Contest

On Sunday the 7th, we visited Yad Vashem in West Jerusalem. It's Israel's Holocaust Museum. On the way in, Yehuda (the director of the program who is somehow able to pull this whole trip off) pointed out to us various historical landmarks. One was a relatively large cemetary where British soldiers, who died in Palestine during World War I, are buried. We were also able to glance at the cemetery where Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin are buried. There are a lot of famous cemeteries in Israel. Half of the amazing sites we saw were on the way to and from our destination. There was so much in between, just not enough time to do it all in the first ten or so days. It would take several weeks just to see all of Jerusalem alone, much less the rest of the country.

The museum was very well done. Inside were tall, gray walls that slanted upwards, which gave it an eerie feel. A guide walked us through the exhibits, explaining major events of the raise of Nazi Germany and the suffering of the Jewish people during the time. The museum began with early anti-semitic propoganda and moved through the rise of Hitler and his expansion of power. Everything in the musem was authentic, from the red Nazi flags to the bricks from the Warsaw Ghetto, which we all walked over. Boxes were filled with gold and silver goods the Nazis stole from Jewish families. There was even a train from Auschwitz. It was probably the closest to a re-creation of the era than probably anything can get. We were able to step back in time and at least come close to understanding the collective memory of Jewish persecution under Hitler. The musuem concluded with the liberation of Europe from Germany, and an incline which took us to a spectacular overlook onto Israel. It symbolized the Jewish will to live on and continue to prosper in the wake of such a tragedy.

I think by the end we were all in shock. We came close to understanding this part of history and the collective fear that still resides in the Jewish psyche. Israel was born out of the need to provide a safe homeland for the Jewish people, outside of the danger of another Hitler. I can only imagine the comfort in knowing that as a Jew, I could escape anti-semitism, which as we all know is alive and well today, and become a part of the Jewish state. The "Jewish Homeland." There really is nothing like it of its kind in the world. A place where any Jewish person in the world can come to Israel and reap the full benefits of Israeli citizenship. It's the global Jewish safety net; a safe haven for those who want to start a new life in a new land.

The Holocaust plays a major role in Israeli politics today. I have heard the term "Final Solution" used several times as a scenario that Israel could face should a Palestinian state be established. The idea goes like this: once Palestine becomes a state, one of Iran's proxies, like Hamas or Hizbollah, could gain a foothold in Palestine and take out Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion Airport with Qassam rockets. Then all hell would break loose as Israel would be forced into a war with heavily-harmed militias backed by enemy states. In addition to the casualties in Israel, it would risk getting bogged down in an Iraq-style, urban, counter-insurgency campaign in which it would risk countless Israeli lives. It's clear that the collective fear and paranoia from the Holocaust is alive and well, and sometimes vindicated when Iran pledges to "wipe Israel off the map" and its Revolutionary Guard marches through the middle of Tehran in the formation of a swastika embedded in the American Flag. Such provocations do nothing but solidify Israeli determination to block any future threat to its country, including granting Palestinian statehood.

So the long short of this is that powerful historial forces are at play, and Israel is taking every measure to make sure those aren't relived. The IDF is the most powerful military in the Middle East today, capable probably of defeating several Arab armies at once, as it did in 1967. Its occupation of the West Bank and its continued grip over Gaza ensures that no significant threat emerges from the Palestinian territories. The security fence (if you're Israeli)/separation barrier (if you're Palestinian) erected around the West Bank has stemmed terrorist attacks in Israel significantly. Its array of check-points gives it control of movement into and out of the country. Arabs often spend hours at such check-points, and are often not allowed through. Israel will not tolerate a third intifada (uprising).

Meanwhile, many Israelis and Palestinians live in hope that peace will be made within their lifetimes. Palestinins often point to the Holocaust and question if a Warsaw Ghetto has emerged in Gaza. They point to the separation wall, settler expansion, and internal check-points and recall the history of South Africa. The main question is why must Palestinians suffer so that Israel can survive? There are credible claims and grievances on both sides of this thing. Wounds run very deep and will most likely not be forgotten even as generations turnover. I can't imagine how hard it must be to put those aside, come to the table, and say, "I recognize you as a people with legitimate rights to live along side our people." But this is precisely what must be done. For the sake of futue generations, someone needs to blink first for the other to let their guard down.

No comments:

Post a Comment