Monday, September 8, 2008

Field Trip to Mt. Herzl

When we learned that we were to have a field trip today and that we were leaving from a coffee shop near to the campus, Paola and I arranged to meet before class to have breakfast at the coffee shop. It was lovely - I had tea with fresh mint and a piece of carrot cake, and Paola had a pastry with custard inside and a cup of coffee. We chatted for a bit and Francios, another student in our class, joined us as he finished his breakfast. We mostly talked about coffee shops - how they are different in America than Italy and France. In Italy, apparently, most people either sit and chat in coffee shops, or because most people drink espresso, they don't take their coffee to go but instead down it in one gulp before they continue on their way. So, there is nothing like in America where people walk around with their Starbucks cups to go. Apparently that does exist in France, but not with the same frequency as in America. Apparently in France still most people who get coffee do it in a social way to sit and linger, but in France it costs money to sit at an ice cream shop or a coffee shop, and the prices vary depending on where you want to sit. Francios says his favorite coffee shop in the whole world is in Venice. Incidentally the most interesting thing about the conversation, I think, was that it was all in Hebrew. I never cease to be proud that I can understand and participate in conversations in Hebrew.

The class piled onto a bus that took us to Mt. Herzl, a national cemetary on top of a hill where Theodore Herzl is buried, as well as several prime ministers, Zionist leaders and hundreds of soldiers who fell in the line of duty. Our first stop was to the Herzl museum (, which is a relatively new museum (I think built in 2007??). It is an interactive multimedia production that explains Theodore Herzl's life and Zionist vision. The exhibit is almost entirely in videos, and the videos were in Hebrew for us, so I'm not sure that I caught everything. The exhibit began in a room that is meant to look like Paris in the late 19th century. On one screen is a reenactment of the Dreyfus trial. When it concludes, another scene plays on the screen on the opposite side of the room. Here, a student acts out the role of Herzl, but his director (or stage manager?) doesn't think he is doing a good job and decides to tell him about Herzl's life and work in order that he can better act out the role. This conceit continues throughout the museum as it shifts between an actor trying to connect to Herzl and information about Herzl himself. In one room, we sat in between large plastic people in an audience in front of a grandiose stage at what was supposed to be the Basil Conference. In another room, we were in the auditorium for this actor's final performance. Also housed at the museum are Herzl's writing desk and a recreated version of his parlor room, as well as many of his personal affects. Although I didn't understand everything that was said, it seemed that the museum went through a sort of basic outline of Herzl's life in an aggrandizing way, using the words "dream" and "vision" quite often. It ended with a bit about Israel today and how Herzl's vision has come to pass, that despite all of the hardships that Israel has faced its existance is a triumph. So it wasn't exactly a neutral and non-ideological museum, but I thought for what it was it was quite well done.
A bit about Herzl in case you don't know - but as usual I am no expert and am not sure I understood everything that was told to me in Hebrew, so it's best to check with a book or some other more reliable resource if you really want to know something about him. The following is a summary of what I remember with some aid of the website of the Herzl museum: Herzl was born in 1860 in Budapest, Hungary to well-to-do parents who took part in the Enlightenment that was sweeping Europe at the time. His parents did not maintain traditional Jewish practice in the home, but Herzl and his father attended synagogue on Shabbat and the festivals, and Herzl had a bar mitzvah. In 1878 Herzl and his family moved to Vienna where Herzl attended the University of Vienna and became a doctor of law. There he experienced anti-Semitism in his fraternity and noted an atmosphere of increasing adherence to German nationalism and an increasing exclision of Jewish students from opportunities and student life. He practiced law for a short while before deciding instead to pursue a career in writing. He became a newspaper correspondant in Paris for a Vienna-based newspaper and in 1894 Herzl attended the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who was unjustly accused of treason. The anti-Semitic atmosphere that Herzl experienced in France, in which the Jew was increasingly becoming a symbol of corruption, immorality, and greed, strongly influenced him in the writing of his first book, Der Judenstaat (the Jewish State), which was published in 1896. In the book, which was in it's time quite controversial, Herzl wrote that the only way to solve the problem of anti-Semitism toward the Jews was for the Jew to have their own state. He had come to believe that Jews could not simply dispel anti-Semitism by becoming like their non-Jewish neighbors and that Emancipation had not succeeded in ending hatred of the Jews. Herzl also asserted that despite their scatterdness throughout the world, the Jews constituted one nation (language that mirrored the nationalistic sentiments of other 'nations' at the time). In contrast with other Zionists, Herzl believed it was important to gain legal recognition of the rights of the Jewish people in Israel before settling there. He contacted world leaders and philanthropists and worked to gain diplomatic ties and to receive a charter, which was granted by the Turkish Sultan. In 1897 Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel and in the same year he began the first Zionist newspaper, Die Welt, in Vienna. At the sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, Herzl proposed that the Jews settle and build a Jewish state in Uganda, but as this proposal threatened to split the Zionist community in two, he declared that this would merely be a temporary solution. Herzl passed away in 1904. In 1949 his body was reinterred on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, as he had requested that when a Jewish state existed in Israel, he wished to be buried there.

When we left the museum, our tour guide led us to Herzl's grave, which is a black square tombstone at the highest point on Mt. Herzl where the four letter's of Herzl's name in Hebrew are engraved starkly in gold against the black gravestone. We talked about the simplicity of the grave and how it is more important to remember the person, in Jewish tradition, than to memorialize with an elaborate grave.

From there, we visited the graves of a number of important people, including Jabotinsky, a right wing revisionist Zionist leader, Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel, and Levi Eshkol, the third prime minister of Israel. Each of these tombstones is simple, a black tombstone much smaller than that of Herzl that has the name of the dignitary, and other important information, but nothing ostentatious.

The grave of Yitzhak Rabin is somewhat different. Because Yitzhak Rabin was the only prime minister ever assasinated, and his assasination was such a powerful moment in Israeli history, his grave is marked by a larger and more dramatic monument. It is a semicircle of two parts - a black and a white. The semicircle symbolizes that Rabin did not live the length of his natural life, and the black and white in opposition to one another, with a space in between them, show the controversy and the atmosphere of disagreement in Israeli society that led to and followed his death.
We also visited the grave of Hannah Senesh, a Hungarian born Jew living in Palestine during the Second World War who was trained by the British military to parachute into Yugoslavia to help save the Jews of Hungary. She was arrested at the Hungarian border, imprisoned and tortured, and was executed by a firing squad. At her grave we sang a poem of hers, Halika l'Caesaria (Eli Eli), which his a very well know and oft-sung song.
We visited the graves of many soldiers, including those who perished in the Second Lebanon war. There was a group of soldiers also visiting the graves, and this struck me as very powerful - what must it be like as a soldier to visit the graves of soldiers, knowing that you might be buried in one yourself? We asked our teacher about it - what the soldiers were told and why they went, and she told us that soldiers in the Israeli army, especially in the past and less so now, consider it an honor to die fighting for their country, and that really these visits to grave sights were at least once considered motivational - that soldiers would want to fight and to be a part of the community of heroes, both living and dead, who fought for their country. Nevertheless, it felt deeply tragic to look from the photos that were placed on the graves of falen soldiers to the faces of living soliders with bowed heads mourning for the fallen and perhaps thinking of what might befall them as well.
We visited a memorial to the soldiers who faught in the War for Independance who were Holocaust survivors, many of them without surviving families. The tour guide told us that many of the bodies went unrecognized and are in graves without names because there was no one left who knew the names of these soliders. The monument looks like a deep hole, but the inside is shaped so that it also looks like an upside down house, because these soldiers' homes had been destroyed. It also looks like it could be a tunnel to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial that is closely connected to Mt. Herzl, and it demonstrates that these soldiers (and the establishment of Israel) are deeply connected to the events of the Holocaust.
We also visited a memorial to victims of terror, which included the names of all of the victims of terror since the establishment of the State of Israel.
Incidentally, as we walked from site to site, I overheard a Jewish student speaking to a Palestinian student about all of this - the Palestinian student had never heard of most of the figures whose graves we were visiting and did not know the history of Zionism at all, or really why Jews had come to Israel in the first place. I appreciated the mutually respectful conversation I overheard and was very proud that our class had created a safe space for such a conversation to occur, but I also think that this lack of knowledge (which I'm sure is absolutely reciprocated by Israeli lack of knowledge of Palestinian history/perspectives) illustrates the deep and tragic divides in Israeli society.
In sum it was definately an educational trip and it was nice to get out of the classroom and go somewhere. And, wonder of wonders, we returned in time to practice prepositions for an hour before ulpan let out!

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