January 30, 2011 by Frank Rogers
As the wind ripped the landscape and the sleet pelted our bodies, this afternoon we visited Yad Vashem, the National Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. The path of the exhibit descends at an escalating pitch giving the impression of plodding ever deeper into the bowels of the earth. Along the way are pictures, film clips, testimonies, and artifacts depicting the slide into the terrors of Nazism—the anti-Semitic propaganda, the book burnings and obscene cartoons, the strangulation of Jewish businesses, the harassments and yellow star humiliations, the confiscation of buildings and property, random arrests, ghettoization, deportation, enslavement, and ultimately extermination. At the pit in the museum’s center, like a hollowed-out grave, an abyss digs deep into the rocky cavern underneath the hall. Emerging from its depths in scores lined journals are the known names of four million Jews slaughtered by either bullet or gas. Still hidden in the murky depths below are the names of two million more whose identities have yet to be determined. Remembering the massacre at but one field that harbored genocide, Yevgany Yevtushenlo’s poem bears witness:
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
Here all things scream silently.
Today, we heard something of the silent scream that pierces through the land of Israel. We heard it at the Holocaust memorial to be sure, as its descent into the inferno of slaughter gave rise to the museum’s crescendo celebrating the rise of the state of Israel as a homeland that vows that Jews will never again find themselves on the brink of extermination. But we also heard it in the voices of two Israelis, both tour guides, who gave us different takes on the current crisis that threatens their country.
Avivu Cohen, a Jewish man committed to educating people about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, spent an hour and a half with us this morning in the basement of the Golden Walls Hotel. He conceded a great deal—that Jews did come to the region and claimed land that Palestinians were then inhabiting; that it is tragically unfair that thousands of Palestinians were vacated from that land and now live in a barricaded territory denied access to their former homeland; that children and adults alike are suffering human rights abuses; even that his six-year-old son, in spite of Mr. Cohen’s best efforts, has learned to hate and fear Palestinians, drawing pictures of tanks firing upon them. Mr. Cohen screams for a day when Jew and Palestinian may co-exist side by side with mutual respect and toleration. But Mr. Cohen screams for more as well. With the Holocaust smoke still dissipating in the sky, he reminded us that the Jews needed a safe place to protect them. The international community was giving them no options refusing them into their own countries. In spite of what others may think of Biblical claims, the Jews do have an ancestral connection to this particular region. For two thousand years they dreamed of returning. With no where else to go, they returned to their roots and fended for themselves. Many Arabs in the neighboring lands made no mistake that they would like to complete the Jews’ slaughter. The Israelis fought for themselves and made a toe-hold of a state of their own. They longed to live in peace with the Palestinians, but a portion of the Palestinians, by no means all of them or even the majority but enough to wreak terror, have responded with violence—suicide bombings, intifada, Molotov cocktails, stonings, random slayings, and armed revolt. With nightmares of the Holocaust screaming within them, Israelis are terrified for their existence. Occupation of the Palestinian territories, intimidating stone walls, denial of access to Israel are tragic indeed, but the truth be told, they have made Israel safer. Acts of violence have decreased, the Israeli economy has stabilized, and its people are sleeping with some sense of self-protection. He longs for a day when the two peoples might live in peace—but he admits, the path to achieve it feels despairing. A two-state solution will only lead to a more defined wall and permanent alienation feeding ignorant prejudice and unending hostility; a one state solution is unacceptable as the Jews could never allow themselves to be vulnerable by becoming a minority in their own country; and the current escalation of occupation and hostility is a path descending toward a cliff of horrific destruction. He screams for safety, and his screams are terrifying to ponder.
Though more soft-spoken, the guide to the museum screamed as well. As a Holocaust researcher and educator, she poignantly bears the cries of the exterminated whose own cries were obscenely silenced. Though it guts her so badly she can now only lead a tour a week, she hopes that remembering the excruciating attempts at genocide will not only inspire the Jews to never again let it happen to them, they would never again let it happen to anyone. As an Israeli peace activist, she feels all too acutely the ironies of the current occupation. On the one hand, there is no comparison. The Israelis in no way are advocating or conspiring for a genocidal extermination of the Palestinian people. On the other hand, with forced evacuations, partitioned ghettoes, random arrests, human rights violations, and the like, a case can be made that the oppressed have slipped into the abysmally seductive role of the oppressor. She screams, for protection yes, but also for the soul of her own people. Her scream echoes the plea of the Jewish God thousands of years ago at the exodus from yet another brutal enslavement. “You know what it is like to be a slave,” that God pled, “and I have liberated you. All that I ask, is that you refuse to enslave another.”
The wind and rain have died down tonight; the trees are now silent. Their scream, however, still shrieks throughout