We entered Yad Vashem, the Holocaust-remembrance museum in Jerusalem, through the “Valley of Communities,” kind of a monumental stone garden. On giant slabs of rock are carved the names of over 5,000 Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. The effect was disarming: Instead of trying to think of the six million individuals who were extinguished, we considered the 5,000 social entities in which they had lived together. “Together” being a — perhaps the — characteristic condition of the human animal. Together also, however, being how the Nazis apparently thought of us Jews: as a type, as the Other, as a mass of vermin. As I’ve experienced it, Israelis’ collective identity vibrates in a tension between these two kinds of together — between the rich, often riotous sense of “us-ness” and the awareness that to many people, and cultures, we have been — are — “them,” or even “it.” There is a pride — aggressive, muscular, and yet often surprisingly tender — that emerges from this dual understanding of togetherness: something like the pride, to use a colloquialism from my own country, of the “gangsta.” Love me if you wish; hate me, and you make me stronger.
How much better than feeling oneself the victim! In the wake of the Holocaust, and the erasure of all of those vibrant human communities, how could a new Jewish state go forward when its citizens thought of themselves as weak and devastated? And yet, to try to forget would be a cultural self-abnegation of its own. The people who have created (and, recently, substantially re-created) Yad Vashem perform a beautiful, essential, and profoundly challenging service: helping us to remember without robbing us of the possibility of agency.
May I be simplistic here? How is it possible that the Holocaust happened? How could some people hate certain other people so much as to delight in their systematic extermination? The question is so enormous that — quite possibly in emotional self-defense — I keep leaping to another one: How, given the Holocaust, is it possible that there is still so much love in the world? As we moved from one memorial to the next, from the “Partisans’ Panorama” to the children’s memorial to the chronological history lesson in the zigzagging galleries at the heart of the museum, I kept returning to a kind of acceptance, and challenge: This happened; so now what are we going to do? The care with which Yad Vashem’s curators have assembled this memorial suggests a provisional answer: We will remember, but not in such a way that we become incapacitated. We will not become the eternal victims of our victimization.
This determination — or at least one manifestation of it — was underscored as we moved through the nearby military cemetery on Mt. Herzl: grave after grave of Israeli soldiers, many of them having just escaped from Nazi persecution, only to be handed a gun and sent out to defend the nascent Jewish state. Eventually the socialist uniformity of the older graves evolves into a motley assortment of memorials, personalized with tchotchkies (plastic ducks; two of the Seven Dwarfs; a whiskey bottle filled with sand) and photographs of the fallen. (More-recent Israeli immigrants, particularly those from Russia, have won court cases allowing them to bring their own particular varieties of culture into the remembrance of their loved ones.) And again, pain and destruction find a response in a tension-filled creativity.
As we stood near the cemetery exit, we became aware of rapidly thickening smoke in the air. It later was reported that not one but three fires had been started nearby, perhaps by arsonists, resulting in the evacuation of Yad Vashem shortly after we’d left it. Ashes fell from the sky, dusting our heads and arms, turning the sun orange.
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Only a short time later we were visiting a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Our host, Barbara, a longtime resident of this community, is a petite, energetic brunette who speaks with a thick accent that delightfully reminded me of her native Queens. She clambered onto our bus and began, without hesitation, to deliver her narrative. She pointed out the Palestinian homes scattered outside the perimeter the settlement, and said that essentially “nothing” had been on this land before the settlers had — with their efforts — made it desirable to others (meaning the Arabs). She expressed dissatisfaction with the term “settlement,” preferring to refer to “our community” and “our sister communities.” She mentioned that this was the Biblical home of the prophet Amos — another implicit claim to the righteousness of the settlers’ presence here. After ushering us into her home, past her smiling and sweaty husband whom she briskly urged to take a shower, she also took issue with the term “the Occupied Territories,” preferring to call them, simply, “the Territories.” She fed us delicious rugelach and fruits and sodas. She spoke of the three generations of her family who now live here. After a time her husband re-emerged, all showered and in fresh clothes; smiling sardonically, he asked, “Anyone want to hug me now?”
These people are soldiers. Like most Israelis (with the notable exception of many of the Ultra-Orthodox), their children must do compulsory military service. But it goes beyond that. When Barbara and her husband are alone in their home with the Palestinian laborers of whom she tends to speak fondly (“I invited them to my daughter’s wedding!”), they must carry a gun. And still, I’m not conveying the full scope of their military role: one gets the sense that the Israeli government relies on them to — I can’t escape this word — occupy this bitterly contested land, so that with every added moment their presence, perhaps provisional at first, morphs into inevitability. And the “Occupied Territories” become the “Territories,” which eventually become, simply, “Israel.”
The psychic tolls of such a way of life seem evident in the crispness of Barbara’s narrative, and in the hardness of her eyes (even as she sometimes speaks playfully of the foibles of her people: “Nobody here knows how to put out a fire!”). I found her immensely compelling, and she also terrified me. Family photos filled the walls — adorable children who became proud soldiers, as well as parents themselves. She described the choice she and her husband made to move here, over a decade ago, in this way: “We could get more for less.” She said, “We moved to the suburbs.” When they had first arrived at the settlement, she said, the Oslo Accords had just been signed and they’d assumed that everyone would now live here peacefully. But, of course, this peace had not held. And their continued presence here is justified because: this land was won through a legitimate military victory; the land has rightfully been the Jews’ since Biblical times; there was “nothing” here before they put in all their hard work, and and and … Ultimately, it came down to this: We are here. As Barbara put it, with a smile and shrug (quoting Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof explaining why his people remain in Anatevka, their often miserable shtetl), “Anatevka is our home.”
Repeatedly, Barbara insisted that she was among the more open-minded of the settlers: e.g., she has Arab friends (all, from what I could make out, her employees, present or former). She tended to couch her more critical comments as the opinions of others: It was “a neighbor,” not her, who had said, “I’m proud to be an obstacle to peace.” By which, let me hasten to add, she meant a false “peace” that would end in the destruction of the Jewish state: “They’ll catch us off-guard and take over the whole place.” She said, “I personally believe that if there was good will on both sides” — meaning Israeli and Arab — “we could live in peace.” But she has a passionate distrust of the Palestinian leadership, a certainty that their goal is to remove the Jews from this land (at least). She spoke — and it made me tremble — of the violent murders of two 13-year-old boys in their community. She asked how we, as parents, would respond to such atrocities. (“God forbid,” I said. “God forbid,” she repeated.)
I asked her if there was some way that we Americans could help move their region toward peace. After brief consideration, her answer came: “No.” She went on to say that “meddling” from outside was not of use to them. I reminded her that I had said “help,” not “meddle,” and her shrugging response told me that she clearly felt this distinction didn’t exist. “This is not fairyland here,” she instructed us. About why there isn’t a fence that completely surrounds the settlement, she reverted to attributing a particularly harsh opinion to others: “We’re not the animals, some would say.”
Having just come from Yad Vashem, where I had seen how my own people had been visualized as animals, I felt her statement as a sharp blow to the gut. How horrible, to hear such hateful words spoken, and by such an obviously thoughtful person! But a part of me resisted the easy urge merely to condemn the settlers for their actions and self-justifications. Having lived all my life in relative comfort and tranquility in a country founded, in part, on the suffering of so many, I wondered (and wonder) whether I could really sever myself from responsibility for the continuing tragedy of the Occupied Territories (or, per Barbara, simply the Territories). If our togetherness, as Jews and as human beings, has a hope of being the kind of togetherness that I desire, and not a togetherness that depends on accentuating the otherness of our neighbors, then I cannot completely separate myself from those, like Barbara, who patrol the contested borders while I remain far away, protected and self-righteous. Barbara didn’t feel like one of “them”; she felt like one of us. That’s why hearing her speak as she did about our Palestinian brothers and sisters hurt so very much.