After seeing the Palmach Museum, visiting the rather new Rabin Center nearby was a natural next step for us that day. It’s a rich mix of exhibits depicting Yitzhak Rabin’s life; in the words of the Jewish Virtual Library, “the museum combines state-of-the-art technology with multimedia presentations, visual images and artifacts, incorporating close to 200 short documentary films and over 1,500 still photographs obtained from archives in Israel and around the world.” It begins starkly with a massive video and audio reminder of the tragic end of his life, the triumphant mass peace rally which he addressed and where he was suddenly shot as he walked to his car on Nov. 4. 1995.
Although many of his speeches were featured in recordings and in written excerpts, I did not see anything on his first speech to the Knesset as prime minister in the ’90s (July 13, 1992). I’ve always taken those words as a stellar example of Rabin’s intention as a peacemaker. He spoke against Jewish pessimism, the deeply engrained view taken from centuries of persecution that the non-Jewish world is inherently anti-Jewish:
. . . No longer are we necessarily “a people that dwells alone,” and no longer is it true that “the whole world is against us.” We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. . . .
Tragically, the failure of the peace process he led, and those efforts that have come since — when one ignores complications (as right-wing narratives tend to) and sees only Palestinian misdeeds and none from the Israeli side — reinforces this toxic self-defeating point of view today. This was exemplified in a small way on our trip by a kippah-clad bookseller who suggested to us that all Jews will soon have to move to Israel, as some French Jews have been doing in recent years, because of an increase in antisemitic incidents there. There’s the further example of the husband of a cousin of mine, a pragmatic businessman who is not steeped in right-wing ideology, but is convinced that there will never be peace with the Palestinians because, supposedly, they regard the conflict with Israel as religious in nature.
He also falls back upon the old contention that the Palestinians are not a nation, because (as the argument goes — popularized in a controversial book by Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial, published in 1984) most of them were of recent vintage in Palestine, originating from other parts of the Ottoman Empire. This contention, even if accurate, has always struck me as strange, given that most Jews are of recent origin in the land (never mind our ancient roots). This kind of argumentation is counterproductive; both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs need to be reassured that their basic rights and needs as distinct peoples can be adequately addressed in a peace agreement.
|A view of Zion Square, an enormous pedestrian mall|
Judy fell in love with Jerusalem — especially the Old City and Zion Square (where we stayed at the charming economy Zion Hotel). One evening, we rushed down to see a noisy political demonstration; it turned out to be a May Day march of HaShomer Hatzair and Meretz youth, protesting against income inequality and the economic squeeze on Israel’s middle class.
Earlier that day, we had a nice meeting with fellow blogger Laura Wharton, who drove us from Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum) to the lovely leafy neighborhood known as the German Colony, where we dined at an Italian restaurant. Regrettably, Laura could not spend much time with us, but she spoke with pride of her daughter’s recent graduation from army basic training and of much that she loves about living in Israel: e.g., the basic sweetness and kindness of most Israelis, often hidden under a gruff exterior. Judy and I almost invariably found people friendly and helpful.
From Jerusalem, we did a day trip to Masada and the Dead Sea. I had thought of Israel’s embrace of the narrative of the Zealots’ stubborn resistance to the Romans and their mass suicide (73 C.E.) as an almost pathological expression of defiance unto death; but from reading the chapter in Shavit’s book, I learned its symbolic importance as an inspiration to modern soldiers about the continuity of today’s Israel with its ancient Jewish roots. The point is less about the Zealots’ death than that — in the words of the IDF soldiers’ oath taken traditionally at the end of their training — “Masada will not fall again,” words that have the power to bring tears to my eyes.
Our final meal in Jerusalem was a lunch at the YMCA Three Arches Hotel, a world-famous picturesque site across from the upscale King David Hotel (the latter was bombed by the Irgun during the pre-State Jewish uprising against the British). We then moved on to stay with my relatives in and near Haifa and make a day visit to my cousin in the Galilee city of Naharia. Our last days in the north included — totally by chance — attending the 70th birthday party of one of my other first cousins.
We were in Tel Aviv on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). And in Haifa for Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s memorial day for its military and civilian war dead). Both are marked by a nation-wide siren mandating that all pedestrian and road traffic stop for two minutes, and that all stand in silent tribute to the dead. For the 10 AM siren on Yom HaShoah, I made sure that we were on a well-traveled street, to see people stop and drivers emerge from their cars. For the 11 AM siren on Yom Hazikaron, we were in a Haifa elementary school gym, where my young cousin’s seven-year old boy was among about 350 pupils, teachers and parents observing a solemn commemoration, which included remembrances of the six graduates of that school who have died in Israel’s ongoing conflict. The evening before, the boy’s grandmother was a reader of the names of 110 young people from her area (near Haifa) who have similarly perished in Israel’s wars.
We weren’t at that earlier event, but Yehudit, the grandmother in question who is married to my cousin Uzi, explained that she remembered the ’48 war as a child, when her community was sniped at and a nearby Arab village was evacuated by its inhabitants. She stated that the attacking Arabs were not from their area, and that the Arab villagers were asked to stay instead of running off. But clearly, they were not welcomed back. Haifa remains, however, with a substantial Arab population, and we noticed that the road from Jerusalem to Haifa includes many Arab villages.
Israel is a society with a rich and complex history, which moves with astonishing speed, both for good and for ill. For example, Hillel Schenker told us something remarkable: After making aliya from Brooklyn in 1963, he lived on a kibbutz. During those early years, he said, kibbutzniks used to cut up newspapers into small squares to use as toilet paper. I also recall from other sources that Israel did not have its first television network until 1969.
There must be many more such facts illustrating how Israel began its existence as a Third World country. It is emphatically not that today, but it still exists within a region that struggles (now violently) with modernity; and Israel may still be fragile and vulnerable enough — despite its obvious strengths — to fall back into some version of that struggle as well, as fear and prejudice impede progress toward peace. [To read the first part of this piece, click here.]