Saturday, January 20, 2007

Israel: A Song of Degrees

Right at the visible inner edge of East Jerusalem, where Salah ad-Din Street ends in Sultan Suleyman across from Herod's Gate near where the First Crusade entered the city in 1099, there is a post office, built of the same white stone as everything else in that part of town and marked with the red birdlike symbol and Hebrew name of Israel's national postal service. This is not simply an urban convenience, but also a deliberate presence in an area Israel annexed against the will of its inhabitants after 1967's Six Day War, which is why I suspect it occupied the same compound as a police station. The police station itself is guarded by several visibly armed olive green-clad members of what I'm pretty sure were Israeli Border Police, though I'm only now starting to pick up on the differences between the uniforms of different security services. They looked more or less like you'd expect of young conscripts keeping watch surrounded by people who hate them. Two were content to hang unobtrusively half hidden by some sort of screen, while a third, a rather plump girl with a black pony tail, stepped out front as I walked by, looking around with what she might have thought was an intimidating look. I have no idea what she thought of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it did seem clear she really didn't want to be there, and was just doing her job. Border Police serving in the Palestinian territories, and for that matter those occasionally posted to Zion Square downtown, often try to look intimidating, and many actually pull it off. They definitely take their duties seriously. However, I've also seen some quite emotional.

The outer west side of Jerusalem seems like an American-style city, with housing units as separate buildings and a few major shopping venues rather than the neighborhood stores that dominate much of the Middle East. There's also a forest. One occasionally reads of "Plant a tree in Israel" campaigns back in the 1950's. This is one of the places they put the trees, thanks to some urban planners who apparentedly decided the Middle East needed more conifers. They originally wanted to ring Jerusalem with woods, but now the city simply sprawls past, relentlessly chewing at former suburbs like Ein Kerem and Kfar Shaul. In the middle of one stretch of forest, just past a large gray fence behind which is some sort of major construction site, is a planned monument zone. One part of this is Mt. Herzl, named for the Father of Zionism whose grave sits at one end of a large plaza under a white half-dome, while nearby are sections devoted to the graves of various other Israeli luminaries.

Not half as many people visit Mt. Herzl, however, as bypass it for what is effectively the national shrine complex of Yad Vashem. The name is Hebrew for "A memorial and a name," and drawn from Isaiah 56:5, "To them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off." Names are, in fact, involved an important part of what is done at this site, where you can step through one door and find yourself in a multi-level circular chamber called the Hall of Names where many of the shelves are lined with black binders which, if the work is ever completed, will contain the names and other personal information of the six million people who died in the Shoah, what the English-speaking world calls the Holocaust.

During their period of national service, probably as part of their training, Israelis are taken on tours around the country to build an awareness of their country's heritage and culture. Naturally, this is one of the sites. The main part of the compound is the Holocaust History Museum, a large triangular prism building in which different stages and aspects of the Holocaust are communicated through displays and videotaped testimony of dozens of survivors. It begins with a video collage of European Jewry before the Holocaust, proceeds through the history of anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazis, German anti-Jewish policies both before and after the outbreak of World War II, the ghettoization of Eastern European Jews complete with a floor made of actual cobblestones and a tram track from a Polish ghetto, the beginning of the "Final Solution," the Jewish resistance and deportations, life in the concentration camps, and the struggles of survivors to return to a normal life after liberation.

Taken together, it is an emotional experience which cannot take less than 90 minutes to get the flavor of. While the casual visitor can focus on some parts and pass quickly over others, those on the official tours with Israeli security forces seem compelled to hear every story and see every bit of the emotional videotaped testimony of what is probably the greatest massacre of modern times. It is thus no wonder that near the end, while watching a woman tell in a breaking voice of being shot, tossed into a pit of dead bodies including friends and relatives and left for dead somewhere in Belarus, one sees tears in the eyes would-be tough 18 year-old Israeli males one of whom even has to stop watching, let go by the clipboard-toting guide who glances at his watch to make sure they're still on schedule.

It is, at this point, customary to begin some sort of debate on political role of the Holocaust as a legitimizing tool for modern Israel. I'm not interested in those right now, though there is plenty of material. The room about Jews' recovery after the Holocaust seems to pass quickly over the Diaspora and focus on accelerating migration to Israel and the nation's declaration of independence, and the "finale" to the museum is a balcony with what the pamphlet calls "a breathtaking view of Jerusalem." The building's architect, Moshe Safdie, is known for his passionate Zionism, and I do not think it accidental that the effect is seeing with our own eyes the Jewish rebirth in Israel which is prominent among the themes of the final exhibit; even if I did, however, the inside of the entrance to the entire Yad Vashem quotes from Ezekiel 37:14, "I will put my breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil," thus correcting the misimpression. This doesn't bother me, though, simply because it's an Israeli memorial, and so the formation of Israel really is the most salient aspect of postwar Jewish assertiveness.

There are other parts of the memorial site that attract my interest. One of these is the monument to Jewish resistance fighters outside, before you descent into the Valley of Destroyed Communities. Its form is black spire surrounded on either side by three long hexagons with the middle one pushed further out so as to form a six-pointed star around the spire. The effect is not Jewish victimization, but Jewish power. I also remember the museum's frequent focus on the abandonment of the Jewish people to their fate, with exhibits focusing on everything from countries turning away Jewish refugees to the Allied refusal to bomb rail lines leading to the concentration camps. I could probably make a similar point about other displays of public history here in Israel: The subtle connecting thread is collective self-reliance and, implicitly, mutual loyalty, despite disagreements. I believe this is the most important aspect of Israel I didn't see until I came here.

There's a leap there, especially on the "mutual loyalty" angle, but from what I've soaked up it seems warranted. Earlier this week I was talking to a girl named Yael about my impressions of the differences between the way Israel is seen in the Diaspora and by its inhabitants. She quickly interrupted me and said she knew exactly what Israel meant to her - "It means that wherever I go, someone is watching out for me." She told a story she felt reinforced that message about some Israeli hikers who recently got lost in Peru. Israel sent a military squad over there to look for them and bring them home. I often see news blips about hikers getting lost in the Andes, but this would be the first time their country has sent its army to their rescue.

The more public example of this may be the case of the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, updates on whom continue to be top news stories. That, however brings me to another point. Last month, Lisa Goldman interviewed Gilad Shalit's father, Noam. She came to understand him as part of what she called Israel's silent majority, generally apolitical and interested in doing what they have to in order to lead a normal life. This, of course, has implications for understanding Israeli politics. People sometimes see "Israel" as having an evil expansionist plan, or on the other side as innocent victims of Palestinian violence. Both the far right and the far left, however, have to frame their appeals in a way that addresses the concerns of that silent majority, concerns also shaped by a history of pogroms and worse in which the fabled international community did squat.

Last month I visited another shrine-like place near a wide square in front of Tel Aviv's city hall. It was here in November 1995 that, as he walked to his car after addressing a massive peace rally, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot at extremely close range by a young Jewish militant named Yigal Amir. I should mention that part of the shock of this event came from the fact the assassin was an Israeli Jew. Today, the spot is marked by a series of small markers showing where he and Amir were standing when the shot was fired, and tracing his last few steps, with the place he fell marked by a number of granite blocks. On a nearby wall on either side of a sample of the Rabin-friendly graffitti that appeared there in the following days are two obsidian panels which in Hebrew, Arabic, and English say, "Here at this place Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, was murdered in the struggle for peace." That square is now called Rabin Square, and his grave on Mt. Herzl is one of the most visited at the site.

In ancient Israel, there were three obligatory pilgrimages to Jerusalem. While making the ascent, the pilgrims recited what were known as "songs of degrees," 15 of which are found in the Old Testament as Psalms 120-134. As Psalms tend to do, they focus on faith in God, often in a context of remembering past burdens overcome, and looking toward overcoming those of the present, as well. While most Israeli Jews wouldn't look at their religion in quite the same way, many remain proud of the history of the Jewish people. I think, in that light, one could see the history of Israel as an ongoing chapter in a song of degrees in which faith in each other has replaced faith in divine intervention. Right now, perhaps, most Israelis see "Jerusalem" as security, democracy, and prosperity, and are aware that all three are threatened by the ongoing conflict with their neighbors. And I've really spent too long writing this, so rather than come up with some sort of concluding sentence, I'll let you think of your own =)



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