A day of contrasts and a ride on an emotional roller coaster (as told by a number of us)…
It has been over 24 hours since we visited Yad Vashem and I am still at a loss as to how to put into words my experience. The tangled knot of emotions resists any attempt to understand what I experienced there or at least put into words some of them. Yet I will make an attempt for the proverbial “folks back home.”
Yad Vashem is the Holocaust History Museum located in Jerusalem. We went first thing in the morning and there was a heavy haze over the entire city due to heavy winds blowing east and carrying the dust from desert. The museum is a prism-like triangular structure which represents the half of the Star of David, symbolic of the half of the entire population of Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. The building is arranged in “chapters” each covering, in chronological order, the story of the Holocaust. As you enter, you are first confronted with a large video installation created from archival photos and film depicting happy smiling people, establishing for the viewer the conditions prior to the rise of the Third Reich. As you then proceed through the museum, you slowly see the rise of racism and the eventual murder of millions of people. I was an absolute mess within minutes.
In each room there are video screens which play interviews with Holocaust survivors. I had learned about the Holocaust in school as many of our group had but for me yesterday was the first time it walked out of the distant abstract annuals of history and became a very real tangible experience which had a personal significance. The question which continued to resonate in my heart was “Why” and unfortunately I still have no answer. I was so frustrated and saddened by the final room. I stopped in front of the video screen where an elderly couple told the story of how they met and got married while recovering in the hospital after being liberated from a concentration camp. For me, their story represented the hope at the end of every tragedy.
I have seen and experienced many things here in Israel and I am sure that many more things before I return to the States but right now, a small moment in a museum, watching two old people tell a simple story of their marriage after experiencing the darkness of the concentration camps was the expression of what I had hoped to take away from this trip.
From the Holocaust Memorial to the Israel Museum where we saw the Shrine of the Book and the portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was truly incredible to see the patience and skill that must have been required to create these writings. Every line and every letter was so precise. It was beautiful to see and made me ashamed of my own illegible handwriting. After viewing the scrolls, we saw a scale model of Jerusalem as it was in AD 66. Being able to see the entire city, miniaturized, made it much easier to understand where we had been the previous day and where we would be going later on. So far, this trip to Israel has been amazing and it just keeps getting better. I will be sorry to leave, but happy to share all of our stories with everyone.
If until this point Israel has been center stage, then today in Bethlehem, a Palestinian occupied territory in the West Bank, we were able to take a peek behind the curtain. Not by choice, we left Dean Ruebner in Jerusalem. Then, we dropped our Israeli guide outside the segregation fence and passed through a military check point armed with our American passports. On to the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
To think, all of this trouble just to visit the Church of the Nativity, a Mosque, and of course another souvenir shop graciously offering what by now is the customary 15% discount on olive wood carvings of the manger scene. After our newly acquired Palestinian guide recited the Lord’s Prayer in ancient Aramaic, we walked towards the city center where the Church of the Nativity has stood since the 3rd century while the Muslim call to prayer rang out from the mosque minaret. This was truly our first experience behind the wall. It seemed that at every opportunity our guide reminded us that we were safe, welcomed, and encouraged to voice any complaints so that the next group of American tourists would not be similarly inconvenienced. The local Palestinian police force stopped traffic for us — although Kristen could have accomplished that just fine on her own — and posed for pictures with us one by one in front of a picture of Yasar Arafat. We casually strolled by the main square and into the Church.
The Church of the Nativity, marks the place where Christians say Jesus Christ was born, was commissioned in the year 326 by the roman emperor Constantine and it was beautiful inside. There was an amazing 4th century mosaic and the front of the church was very ornate. Then it was down to see where it all happened: the Grotto of the Nativity. There was a fourteen point star marking the spot where it is believed that Jesus was born.
We all lined up to touch the small hole in the ground, and I have to say it was very humbling for me. Part of my family is Roman Catholic and I knew that they would have loved to be able to have the opportunity to see this spot. It was a bit emotional for me. Some of us joined in a chorus of silent night (and Shaun lead others in a verse of Santa Baby)Then we saw the spot where they believe the manger was before we saw the Roman Catholic Church, St. Catherine’s.
After our short visit to the scene of Jesus’ birth, we moved into the city center. On the walls of the local Peace Center were large posters of four Palestinian men holding uzis. Our guide unashamedly explained that these men were martyrs from the PLO jihadist movement killed just ten days earlier in Gaza by Israeli rocket fire. As incense wafted from nearby store fronts and Arabic men smoking hookah looked on with curiosity, we proceeded towards the Mosque…
DMK and BMS
For me this entire trip has been about embracing as many different experiences as possible. The day we went to the Temple Mount two of our group were privy to tour the mosque located there because of their faith. I was quite jealous that I was not able to participate in this opportunity but something came along later that more than made up for it to me.
After having spent several hours in Bethlehem eating shopping and visiting several ancient churches there was one last site that some of us were able to see: the Mosque of Omar. Located right across the oldest working church in the world, this mosque was the first one I was ever able to see inside. We were told by our guide that the men could enter the mosque as long as they took their shoes off and any woman who was properly covered. I could not have been more excited as I entered into the building and removed my shoes in the little area inside the door and carried them with me up the carpeted stairs.
Walking up a few flights of carpeted stairs inside the mosque I was awe struck that I was finally able to see inside a completely different place of worship.
A handful of us walked up to the third floor after checking our shoes on a landing, we entered a room with a clock that said five different times for the daily prayers for Muslims displayed on the wall. I was awe struck to imagine this now empty room filled with worshipers, praising Allah in their particular way and it seemed beautiful to me.
This beauty was amplified for me when we were getting ready to leave. A local man who had followed us to our room inside the mosque where we soaked in the religious significance of this place of worship offered to ring a prayer to us before we left. At first our guide translated his offer to our two fellow Muslim colleagues but they asked if the prayer could be read for all of the group. The offer was accepted and we all knelt in a circle around the local man who sat in a chair with a copy of the Quaran and began to read. His reading was like a song; one of the most beautiful I have heard in a long time. His voice was filled with passion and heart and everyone in the room felt truly moved. We soaked in this prayer and truly were able to appreciate this different experience in Bethelham.
I don’t know if I have had a single day here that impacted me more than this one in its entirety. I am so thankful for the opportunity to immerse myself in the different aspects of the different major religions of the world. This is by far one of the best opportunities that I have had in my life and I cannot than everyone who made this possible for me enough.
Outside the mosque the remainder of the group watched Professor Reis haggle with a local Palestinian over the purchase of some beaded necklaces. This rather persistent salesman managed to unload his stock of beaded necklaces on Professor Reis for what might (or might not) have been a reasonable price (please act surprised if you end up getting one of these necklaces as a gift). Other locals saw this and approached the group in an effort to sell their stock of necklaces and local children came begging for shekels. After waiting, and waiting for the others in the mosque, many of us began to feel uncomfortable. The second man selling necklaces was very pushy. He was willing to sell 4 necklaces for $5. The only problem was that I did not have any dollars on me, and I did not have anything less than 100 schekles. I kept telling him that I did not have any money, and only had a credit card. But he kept trying to sell the necklaces. He was very persistent. He told me that he needed the money for his family, they are very poor, they can not go to the other side (of the separation barrier). He said that four Palestinians were killed the other day and no one cares, but if four Israeli’s were killed then people would care. He asked why we only spend money in the rich shops. Many of the locals were staring at us as were waiting. As soon as the others came out of the mosque and we were ready to go back to the bus.
On Monday night, representatives of two Israeli NGOs visited with us at the hotel, Ronit Piso of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Avi Berg of B’tselem.
As part of its advocacy, B’tselem gives video cameras to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to document treatment of the locals by the Israeli military. Many of us were fascinated by this program and the stories of some Palestinians who were asked to surrender their cameras; Avi reminded us that this program is in its infancy but has certainly been recognized as a good moderator of the Israeli attitude towards Palestinians. Both Avi and Ronit mentioned that the Israeli Supreme Court decided that the Palestinians have the right to document human rights violations by the military. Ronit, while not a lawyer, had intimate knowledge of the court system and how best to bring cases against the Israeli government on behalf of Palestinians, and she noted that most of her work is in education and advocacy. Avi helped us focus on the question of the legality of the settlements in the West Bank, near the Green Line (1967 Armistice Line), which was very helpful in preparing us for a discussion with the former President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aron Barak.
A very long and intense day!