Yad Vashem

Today I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s national monument to the victims of the Shoah (Holocaust).

Or rather, I visited the NEW Yad Vashem. The original museum/monument was designed by Holocaust survivors to document and show what they went through — it was dark, depressing, even viscerally disturbing.  But it conveyed the horror of one of the most savage episodes of man’s inhumanity.

The new Yad Vashem is bright, open, full of trees and plazas and open vistas.  The museum itself is full of film clips, historical headlines and photos, and stories — designed for a new generation (with shorter attention spans).  But for me it misses the misery and horror, and simply sentimentalizes the losses.  The goal of the museum is to humanize the millions who were lost, to give them names and lives as people.  But in the end, it was not just the people (and that includes my paternal grandparents, my mother’s sister and my father’s brother) but their suffering that mattered; and that is in danger of being lost.

When I went to visit the killing fields in Cambodia last year, their monument to the horror retains it grisly, eerie power to shock. (Notice: the next sentences may be disturbing).  Human teeth and bits of human bone still lie half-buried in the ground on which you walk.  There is a square glass column, six feet on each side and about 30 feet high, filled with the skulls of the victims, recovered from the nearby mass graves.  Because whole families were arrested by the Khmer Rouge and executed, and little children could not be hung and were not worth wasting bullets, they were swung by their heels and their heads smashed against the trunk of a large tree — the tree is still there, the bark clearly broken and blackened from impact and splattered blood and brains.  As an observer you are left gasping, wondering at the horror, and leave determined that this should never happen again.  By contrast, in Yad Vashem, you have a pile of old shoes (SHOES !!!) exhibited as evidence of the losses of the victims…

What the new Yad Vashem is designed to do is show how the Jews were singled out, shipped all over Europe for execution, and killed en masse.  The purpose seems to be to inspire the Israeli Defense Forces (in which all young Israelis must serve) to do anything necessary to prevent Jews from being killed again.  Indeed, there were lots of IDF in uniform going through the exhibits in groups.  From my perspective, it was all a bit strange, as here are uniformed young people looking at posters of uniformed Hitler youth and SS Forces, getting motivation to protect the Jews of Israel — except that their main job will be serving as occupation forces that dehumanize and limit the rights of Palestinians, herding them into designated areas and through checkpoints, protecting the settlers who are encroaching on Palestinian lands.

Sadly, all young Israelis will have to go through the experience of being an occupying army in the Palestine territories.  There is no end to this in sight, and the problem is getting worse as the Palestinian population grows.  Soon, there will be more non-Jews than Jews living in the lands under the Israeli government (including Israel and the occupied lands).  The inevitable logic is that Israel will have to permanently disenfranchise and limit the rights of the non-Jews; otherwise Israel cannot remain both a mainly Jewish and a democratic country.

In a way, this is unsurprising.  The history of Jerusalem since the Babylonian exile 2500 years ago is essentially one of repeated ethnic cleansing — the winners expel the losers (which at various times included the Jews, the Byzantines, the Mamuluks, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, the British) and take their lands and homes.  Why should we expect this to change?

Yet the experience of occupation is painful, even dehumanizing.  When you walk the ramparts of the Old City, and look out on the modernizing booming western part of Jerusalem, and then turn the corner and look at the Arab slums of East Jerusalem, it is reminiscent of other divisions that marked political and military borders — of east and west Berlin, of north and south Korea (I was at the DMZ two years ago, and the feeling was oddly similar).  They can last a very long time indeed.  But to make it work, you have to keep up a hostile view of the people on the other side.  The Wall and the occupation have made Israel safer — but the price of saving the body has been damage to the soul.

On the west side of Jerusalem, not all is well either.  The orthodox Jews, who are also growing rapidly in number, dress — amazingly to me as I sweated in the bright burning sun — in the heavy black clothes and hats of eastern Europe.  I would understand if they want to be traditional, and wear the clothes of Jews from Abraham’s time, or even Solomon’s.  But why interpret tradition as wearing the garb of the 18th century stettl?  I am told that many of the orthodox live in neighborhoods from which they rarely go out, and even speak Yiddish, not Hebrew!  They are not building a new, modern Jewish state as much as they are recreating the Warsaw ghetto.

In some ways, that is appropriate.  One fact you learn in Yad Vashem is that of the nearly 6 million Jews who perished in the Shoah, fully half were from Poland, another third were from Russia and southeast Europe; only about 15% were from Germany, Italy, and western Europe.  So maybe there is a strange logic in seeing 19th century east European Jewry recreate itself in Jerusalem.

The orthodox have done many useful things, rebuilding Yeshivas and neighborhoods.  Yet they seem oddly disengaged from modern Israel, having exemptions from taxes and military service they do little to support the society that shelters them.  This seems about to change — new court decisions have questioned these exemptions. Still, their clothing and attitudes seem light years apart from those of secular Jews, who are fashionably dressed, working on cures for cancer and other miracles of the latest technology.

I was particularly distressed to see that at the Wailing Wall, the holiest site of Jewry, there are still segregated “men’s” and “women’s” sections walled off for prayer — and of course the women were crammed into a space one-quarter the size of the men’s!

The division of Jerusalem into four quarters — Moslem, Jewish, Armenian, Christian — thus seems an apt metaphor for the divisions growing and deepening within Israel itself.  Except that the main divisions are the orthodox Jewry, the secular Jews, the Arabs inside the wall (who have Israeli citizenship and are thus in a very odd condition, inside but cut off from their families on the other side), and the Arabs in the occupied West Bank.  It is hard to see how they will all be able to live in harmony; instead what they have is a constant, quiet tension, eating away at the dream of a united, modern, Jewish state.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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