Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Israel Seminar Journal

.יומן סמינר ישראל

Today, our Israel Seminar class went to Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl. Although I don't have the time to write tonight about our full experience, I can share the journal entry that I composed for class. Enjoy!

There are many American Jews who find themselves in dialogue with two extreme relationships with Israel. On the one hand, their Jewish identity can be completely separate from Israel, based instead on the thriving American Jewish community. On the other hand, it can be difficult to discount Israel as the Jewish State and Homeland as well as the self-identified representative of world Jewry. Yad Vashem, an Israeli memorial to a world Jewish event that occurred in the Diaspora, is a symbol of the interplay between the undeniable reality of valid Jewish experience outside the land of Israel and the Israelocentric model of Jewish identity.

The primary association I had while visiting Yad Vashem today was of personal stories. In nearly every room, several televisions showed witnesses recounting their experiences - some were composed and some were crying; some were speaking Hebrew and some English. Personal profiles were found throughout the galleries, highlighting individual survivors and victims of the Shoah. A house of a wealthy German Jew was reconstructed to give visitors a sense of pre-war Jewish life in Germany, and people’s clothes, books, and personal effects were placed throughout the museum. More than anything else, to me, this museum was a mosaic of personal stories woven together against the backdrop of world events and passions.

Of interest, though not surprising, is that nowhere did I hear a non-Jewish voice telling her story. While non-Jewish narratives were briefly represented, and while the Righteous of the Nations were honored with their own gallery, personal stories were reserved for Jews. Moreover, one can interpret the final steps of the museum as a continuation of that story through the visitor. The final gallery is comprised of a display of witnesses’ quotes with contemplative music and a hypothetical visitor can refocus his attention on him and his own relation to the stories just explored. As the visitor walks out into the clear, green Jerusalem air, he hardly needs the seven David Ben Gurions or the singing of Hatikva to remember that he is currently standing in the free State of Israel, the one place on earth where a second Shoah is guaranteed not to occur. The implicit assumption made in the case of this hypothetical visitor is that he is Jewish and that his story includes a visit to his Jewish Homeland. Although the museum also targets non-Jews, this final experience, after so many hours hearing about the personal stories of the Shoah, enables a Jew to imagine herself as the personal legacy of those terrible events and as secure in her Jewish home.

For these reasons, Yad Vashem has a strong claim as the Jewish Shoah memorial. Other Holocaust museums may focus on righteous gentiles, historical context, etc., but the museum in Israel focuses on Jews and their perspectives. To better understand the context in which Israel can make this claim, we can turn to the fourth chapter of Charles Liebman’s and Eliezer Don-yehiya’s Civil Religion in Israel (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1983): The Civil Religion of Statism.

The Statists who worked to build a civic religion in Israel, including most prominently David Ben Gurion, saw Jewish life in Israel as naturally superior to Jewish life anywhere else. Ben Gurion is seen as a proponent of “Israelocentrism, which [is defined] to mean, ‘that all which is done by Jews in Israel is central, vital, critical for the Jewish people and for Jewish history … [and] what is done by Jews in the Diaspora is … secondary’” (87). Having built a Jewish state from the ground up, Ben Gurion and his allies would not tolerate the focus of Judaism being anywhere else. This centrality of the State of Israel was based on an assertion that only among Jews could Jews be safe. In 1945, Ben Gurion stated baldly that the place of Jews is in a Jewish land and that their presence anywhere else is an invitation to disaster: “The cause of our troubles and the anti-Semitism of which we complain result from our peculiar status that does not accord with the established framework of the nations of the world. It is not the result of the wickedness or folly of the Gentiles which we call anti-Semitism” (104). Although Ben Gurion recognized the tragedy of the Shoah, he nonetheless saw it as a curable symptom of being exiled from the Land of Israel. To him, Israel is the true final solution to the Jews’ problems: “The one suitable monument to the memory of European Jewry … is the State of Israel” (106). These founders, then, saw Israel as the ultimate sanctuary and home of all Jews and worked tirelessly to create a Jewish society that would unite Jews as Israelis in a new country of progress and security.

In the face of such a deliberate and fervent insistence on Israel’s centrality to world Judaism, one can hardly be surprised at Yad Vashem’s unspoken assertion that it is the Jewish Holocaust museum. As a Diaspora Jew who disagrees with Ben Gurion’s association of the period of the creation with the State of Israel with “the days of the Messiah” (86), however, I feel a responsibility to challenge the claimed ultimacy of Yad Vashem. Certainly I recognize the power and validity of the stories shared within its walls, and I find the museum to be a moving, brilliant, and effective memorial to the Shoah; nevertheless, I also believe that Jews can find meaning in other Holocaust museums around the world. While the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, might be considered to highlight a “human rights” perspective as compared to Yad Vashem’s “Jewish narratives” perspective, this nevertheless is a true and valid perspective with which Jews can build a meaningful connection to the events and people of the Shoah. If I should ever find myself leading Jews to Yad Vashem, I would want to make clear the history and context of the Israelocentrism inherent in the creation of the museum. I do not believe that this context takes away from the stories being told in the museum, but a fuller appreciation of the Israel experience would be enriched by a nuanced understanding of Israel’s historical relationship to the problems of Diasporic Judaism.


Anonymous said...

As suggested, I read your essay and certainly did enjoy it. In fact, my inital response is..."WOW!"

You continue to open doors in our Jewish consciousness, and each leads to pathways into deeper, more meaningful insights. You broaden our understanding of the invisible umblicial cord that connects Israel with the Diaspora.

You find new ways to see the past, and better ways to perceive the future.

Thank you.

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