Israel Mifgash - Day 4
Israel’s landscape, both natural and man-made, is embedded with the complex history of the Jewish People. Every hill was once the stage of a bloody battle, the streets are named after vanished Jewish communities, and at the end of every road is a monument. For those who do not have the benefit of time to travel all of it, two very special places – historical pandora boxes if you wish – that presents the curious passer-by with the opportunity to take it all in, at once.
Along with this apparent convenience, like always, comes a risk. Taking in so much at once, it can get overwhelming, confusing, and if abused, even traumatic. Carefully weighing these risks, and preparing to mitigate them, we embarked on quite a task today – visiting both Mount Hertzel, Israel National Cemetery, and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, Archive, and Education Center.
Mount Hertzel is more or less Israel’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery. It is where, along with the nation’s greatest, such as Itzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, Hannah Senesh, and of course Theodor Hertzel, it is also a functioning cemetery where fallen soldiers continue to be laid for rest. In addition to individual grave stones, the cemetery showcases monuments for different groups of people, such as the Ethiopian Jews who lost their lives attempting to make their way to Israel through Sudan. Visiting their beautiful monument gave us the opportunity to learn a little more about this marginalized sect within Israeli society, and the struggles of those who did make it to the Holy Land.
One thing that stood out at the cemetery was the seeming equity between soldiers who fell, from different ranks. Military giants like David Elazar, Chief of Staff during the Yom Kippur War, or Yoni Natanyahu, who lost his life at the legendary Operation Entebbe, are buried under similar gravestones and among the lowest ranking soldiers.
Students also had a chance to hear two personal stories, from our guide Gil and yours truly, who had the unfortunate opportunity to pay a visit to long-lost friends of ours who had fallen in the line of duty. The realization of them vanishing before any of our students were even born was a separate issue to deal with…
While the tour did take an emotional toll, it helped our American students gain an important insight about the place of military, grief, and sacrifice within Israel culture, upon which many of them reflected at our evening debrief session. Visiting Mount Hertzel also set the tone for our following chapter, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.
Yad Vashem is a museum in which one can spend days in, if not more, without going through every single exhibit and artifact. And, it is usually incredibly crowded with visitors, making it a somewhat less intimate experience. Perhaps due to the protests and road closures in Jerusalem today, and perhaps since it was such a beautiful day out, the museum was nearly empty, allowing our students to closely engage with the materials.
Our captivating local guide, Marcie, skillfully led us through the winding hallways of the museum, focusing on fascinating artifacts, and weaving a narrative that was clear, coherent, and powerful. Not an easy task in a museum with such an abundance of information. Our students asked many questions, and without a doubt expanded their knowledge about this important and tragic chapter in the history of our People.
It is interesting to note how different was the context in which the two groups came in with. While the Israeli education system frames WWII almost merely through the Jewish lens, resulting in students possessing a lot of knowledge about the events, figures, and people of the Holocaust, but not much about the larger context of the war – the American students represented almost a mirror image – knowing more about the war, but less about the systematic extermination of the Jewish People.
As we left Yad Vashem, we were a little concerned about making too quick of a shift between this tolling experience and the fun times that awaited us at our next stop – Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Shuk (outdoor market). Luckily for us, what was supposed to be a 15 min drive, lasted closer to an hour, thanks to the thousands of protestors crowding the streets of Jerusalem, forcing Igor, our driver, to go back and forth and find creative ways of getting us there. Witnessing the scene taking place just outside the bus windows invited a great conversation with the students about the content of these protests, as well as a wider overview of current Israeli politics.
We finally made it to the shuk, a physical manifestation of Jewish life, which contrasted the first part of our day beautifully. We set the students loose and let them get lost between the smells, colors, and tastes this fantastic venue has to offer. Parents, in the unlikely case your child comes back home empty handed, saying they didn’t have time to buy you any gifts, you have our permission to use this post against them.
Tomorrow morning we will leave Jerusalem and head to the desert, where we will ascend Masada and spend some time in the Dead Sea, before returning to our host families in Haifa.