[This is the second of three blog posts. Part I can be found HERE.]
FROM JERUSALEM – Israel is one of the most interesting countries in the world. What can we learn from the experience of the nation and its citizens? Quite a bit. Here’s a list of interesting things I learned and observed from a Vancouver / Canadian / Christian perspective about Jerusalem and Israel over this past two-week period. This second blog post covers “Experiences” and “Interesting Facts.”
Of the many worthwhile places to visit in Israel, one fascinating institution is “Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People.” This unique global institution conveys to the world the narrative of the Jewish people and the essence of the Jewish culture, faith, purpose and deed while presenting the contribution of world Jewry to humanity, including contemporary culture. Interestingly, there was a large Bob Dylan exhibit and a tribute to Montrealer Leonard Cohen. There was also a roll call of Jewish comedians including Jerry Seinfeld (no reference to Don Rickles, however).
13. Yad Vashem (literally "a monument and a name") is “The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre.” It is Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is dedicated to “preserving the memory of the dead; honouring Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need; and researching the phenomenon of the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, with the aim of avoiding such events in the future.” The Yad Vashem centre is a powerful experience, amplified by a knowledgeable guide.
14. As with any such visit, the goal of a museum is to impact the visitor—and it does. The unbelievable cruelty and depravity of the cynical and organized extermination of a race is documented. After Jews were gassed in the chambers, their gold teeth were removed and even their hair was shorn to be use in overcoats for the German army.
15. Germany was at the time, and remains so today to some extent, one of the most cultured nations in the world: How could its energy be diverted to such diabolical purposes? Our guide pointed out that even as Germany began to lose the war, and the Russian front was crumbling, the nation doubled down on its “Final Solution” and diverted precious resources to killing Jews.
16. An interesting fact is that the Jewish community was very large in Poland. In Poland where there were 3.5 million Jews prior to the war. Now those communities are vanished from the historical landscape.
17. The extermination of 6 million people is the work of an apparatus of the state and requires massive support. A disturbing aspect of the holocaust is not only the immoral nature of the actions, but of the rubber stamping and complicity of many people. The guides pointed out the importance of Yad Vashem’s work in light of the fact that there remain holocaust deniers and anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide.
18. An interesting aspect of Yad Vashem is the recognition of “The Righteous Among The Nations,” who are Gentiles who are recognized as having saved the lives of Jews. Famous examples include Oskar Schindler, popularized in Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat. Our guide pointed out that while individuals are highlighted, it took many to save Jews. To save Jews, many had to look the other way or support the deception (i.e. feeding the people who were being hidden). Sadly, it took only one informant to undermine all the good work of many others.
19. Visitors are left to ponder: how this could happen? Why wasn’t it stopped earlier? What does it mean for today? Could a holocaust happen again? Or a genocide? Of course, it could happen again: identify a scapegoat, feed misinformation to people, begin the process, threaten people into compliance and make them believe it is reaching their aims. In recent times, Rwanda is an example of a genocide.
20. Our Jewish guide explained in a matter of fact manner that, “Arabs and Jews live side by side, but not together.” There is co-existence but not integration. This seems symbolically reflected in the different clothes worn by many on both sides, the Orthodox Jews in black and with head coverings, whether hats or yarmulkes. Muslim women meanwhile garbed in black and largely covered from head to toe.
21. There are “Kosher laws” (a set of Jewish religious dietary laws) that are prevalent throughout the country. Some noticeable ones are to not mix the dairy and the meat—they will be on separate sides of the cafeteria (such as at Yad Vashem). There is no dairy from cows, so no butter or cow’s milk; there is margarine.
22. Hotels observe Kosher laws. For breakfast, there is no bacon and pork sausages! The hotels have Shabbat (Sabbath) elevators that stop at every floor on “Shabbat” so that no one performs “work” on the Sabbath. This means that no one needs to push the elevator doors.
23. Israel has compulsory military service for all youth; two years for women and three years for men. That’s quite a commitment, but that’s the price of living in a dangerous neighbourhood. The country needs to show military resolve and commitment. Not many countries, especially developed ones, have compulsory military service. One of the few other countries which has compulsory military service is Singapore, a small island state that needs to give the impression of being able to stand up, if necessary, to its large neighbours.
24. A concept that is unique to Israel is “Aliyah” (also known as “The Law of Return”), which simply stated, is the in-gathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth — it is the immigration of Jews back to their ancestral homeland. Aliyah is rooted in the Jewish people’s ardent desire to rebuild its national life in the country from which it was exiled nearly 2,000 years ago. Aliyah is a Hebrew word that means to “go up.” While originally it referred to ascending to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Feasts, today it has come to mean the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel. Free citizenship grant to any Jews, going back to grandparents.
25. Aliyah aids in the demographic battle in Israel. The Jewish population is about 75% and the Arab population is about 20%, with 5% miscellaneous. There are 8.7 million people in Israel. In 1948 there were only 600,000. The in-migration of 1 million Jews in the 1990s from the former USSR was very significant. The birth rate among Jews is very low; not so among the Arabs. So, one of the best things that Israelis can do is to be fruitful and multiply. But, as our guide lamented, every family realizes that the baby in the stroller will be heading towards risking their life through military service.
26. The line between culture and religion is very blurred. The core of the Jewish identity is their faith, but there are increasingly less “religious Jews” and more “secular Jews.” So many aspects of religious life and embedded in culture, that many non-religious Jews would observe many religious customs, attend synagogue and participate in rituals. What about an active faith? Not so much. That is a big challenge for the sustainability of the Jewish community worldwide.