Note: Unfortunately, our delegation's scheduled meeting with Rabbis for Human Rights this morning was cancelled. In the spring of 1991, I was a college student wandering around Europe. Of the many places I knew I had to visit were the Nazi death camps of Dachau and Auschwitz. It was like an anti-pilgrimage: as Jerusalem’s holy sites can inspire deep upwellings of faith and joy, these bring dread and horror. It was as though the stones of the ground on which we walked were haunted with the dead. In Auschwitz, I was horrified by how close the Camp was to the town. Surely these folks knew what was happening! And as always, the scale of the mass slaughter boggles the mind. Polish Jews, who made up ten percent of their nation prior to World War II, were nearly eradicated, making up half of the six million Jewish victims .
Everything in the context of Israel/Palestine is infused with the political. One cannot visit Yad v’Shem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, without seeing it through the lens of the current conflict. But as much as extremists on either side wish to identify their enemy with the Nazis, the comparison is unhelpful at best; at worst, it dances on the graves of the victims of genocide. As a Christian who shares complicity for evils committed by my co-religionists, I begin with my own confession for the sins of the Church (for a particularly haunting historical list, read Kathleen Kern’s We Are the Pharisees). Their perniciousness, to me, lies in the fact that they are evil committed in the name of the God of grace. For this reason, and for the fact that I am neither an Israeli nor a Jew, I hesitate to describe the sentiments of Israelis towards these events. Rather, I primarily seek to listen; this is why I came on this trip and why I have treasured the opportunity to spend hours in conversation with the Jewish members of our delegation in an effort to see this all through their eyes. However, today’s experiences make me need to do more than listen; I need to comment, to try to sort out my thoughts and feelings.
For most Israelis, the events of the Holocaust are directly tied to Zionism and the establishment of Israel as a state. This simple point is communicated even in the architecture at Yad v’Shem: the exit of one exhibit hall opens out onto a magnificent vista of villages along the hillsides West of Jerusalem; the arch above the exit to the complex bears an inscription from the prophet Ezekiel, “I will set you down upon your own soil.” From the political, moral, and religious points of view, the Holocaust and Zionism have been intertwined.
The Holocaust shapes the Israeli psyche, and seems to motivate folks from the left to the right, even those who have no personal link to European Jewry. The phrase “Never again” is common. To some, it means no injustice anywhere to anyone; to others, it means the Jewish people are always at risk; to many, it means some combination of the two. As we’ve moved among the Jewish community of Israel, the Holocaust is a recurring theme. Each of the Israeli peace activists with whom we’ve spoken begins their story with it. And each of our meetings today was visited by its ghosts.
I still end today more in despair than hope. And yet, I am transformed by this final meeting. I have invited Keren to get together while I am in Jerusalem after the delegation disperses, and she accepts. I expect to write more about that meeting if/when it happens. What am I hoping for? I’m not really sure to be honest, but something about it seems right. Perhaps we would compare notes and stories from our time in the Jenin region. Maybe we can challenge and test each other’s assumptions about the conflict as a whole. Then again, perhaps there’s nothing to be gained from this at all. But if there’s no risk, despair wins. And in the shadow of Auschwitz and Yad v’Shem, I must plant seeds of hope.