Fix Reporter's Notebook Travel

Bitterness In The Land Of Milk And Honey

Eli Winter / youthjournalism.org
The sun rises over the ancient fort of Masada.


By Eli Winter
Senior Reporter
ISRAEL – Israel is a country at once captivating and challenging, truly
devastating in its beauty. Everywhere you look, there’s a view that looks like
it was made to be put on the front side of a postcard.  There’s the sunrise at the ancient fort of
Masada, the sun’s reflection off of the Sea of Galilee, the gorgeous Baha’i
Gardens in Haifa.
But there also
exists a tension in Israel, an unfortunate byproduct of confusion, chaos and
conflict regarding which group of people deserves to live there more: Israelis
or Arabs.
Forty-three Jewish
high school students from Congregation Emanu El’s Helfman Religious School journeyed
from Houston, Texas, to Israel this month, arriving at the center of this
tension, which is currently the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas
government in the Gaza Strip.

 

The day of their
arrival, students learned the names of the three Israeli teens – Naftali
Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach – who were murdered in June. Israelis,
already distraught and distressed by their deaths and the ongoing search for
their bodies, were made only more so by the death of Palestinian teenager
Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was murdered a day after the three Israeli teens’
funeral.

Friction between
Gaza and Israel grew to the point that Hamas began firing rockets into Israel.
Israel responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion. The conflict continues.

But the Texas
students, like many other religious groups touring Israel at the time, stayed
in the country. They stayed out of harm’s way their entire time in Israel, experiencing
a different side of Israel than the one tourists always talk about, seeing the
parts of Israel they would otherwise never see.
First, Poland
Before arriving in Israel, 17 of the students went to Poland to visit mass
graves, Holocaust memorial sites, synagogues, and concentration camps to more
fully grasp the significance of the Holocaust and the existence of the state of
Israel.
In Poland, students toured
the New Synagogue in Tarnow. Only its bimah, or altar, survived a Nazi bombing
assault years ago.
In Lublin, Poland,
they saw the concentration camp Majdanek, where tour guide Mark Lazar told the
visiting Texans the horrifying story of a German soldier who raped a Jewish boy.
After that trauma, the boy turned into a sort of special assistant to German
officials, who forced him to hang his own parents, the guide said, adding that
the boy often spat on Jewish prisoners.

 

Eli Winter / youthjournalism.org

The entrance to the concentration camp Majdanek.


The Auschwitz-Birkenau
State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland – site of the notorious concentration camp
where more than 1.1 million people lost their lives to the Nazi extermination
program – resembles a tin of sardines upon entry. It’s stuffed to the gills
with tour groups representing students of a variety of religions, races and
creeds. Its historical significance lends a certain authority that other
historical sites lack – from the infamous sign telling workers that work would
free them and the world leaders who visit it, to its presence in popular
culture.

And yet, perhaps
because of this significance, the museum at times appeared to be more of a
tourist trap than a memorial. Hot dogs, hamburgers and snack foods are available
for purchase on the grounds. Group tours, so large that visitors need headsets
just to hear their guide, envelop the exhibits, which are often behind imposing
glass windows. Thus these very real artifacts are forbidden from receiving the
warmth of human touch that they deserve.

Thousands of
prisoners’ shoes are shoved into an exhibit that is at once direct but distant.
Another exhibit that contains the artificial limbs of disabled prisoners, feels
nothing but artificial in its presentation. The museum attempts to welcome visitors
onto the grounds to remember the most difficult time in Jewish history, and
then keeps them an arm’s length away.
Despite this, the museum
left a lasting impression on many of the Texas youth.
Aaron Feldstein, a
junior at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, described his visit to
Auschwitz-Birkenau as the most meaningful experience of his trip.
“Seeing where so
many people were murdered,” said Feldstein, brought on “very raw emotions… So
many people’s lives were cut short at that location, and it just struck me that
we were standing where [that] happened.”
Feldstein said the
museum’s ‘Yad Vashem’ exhibit stood out. The exhibit, officially referred to as
the Book of Names, consists of an enormous book – compiled in conjunction with
Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial – which filled a whole room
and spilled out into another. Its 8,120 pages hold the names and birth and
death dates of Holocaust victims, and more names are added as they are found.
Holocaust Memorial and the Wailing Wall
Yad Vashem itself
resonated with students. Matthew Baker, a junior at Bellaire High School in
Bellaire, Texas, said his visit to the Holocaust memorial was his most
significant experience in Israel. He described its Children’s Memorial as being
especially meaningful. The Children’s Memorial, hollowed out from an
underground cavern, pays tribute to children who died in the Holocaust by
reflecting Yahrtzeit candles against many mirrors, creating the impression that
there are millions of stars shining in its space. The flames of the candles,
which in the Jewish tradition are lit on the anniversary of someone’s death,
are the only thing preventing the room from becoming pitch black. Throughout
the Children’s Memorial, visitors can hear a muted recording of someone reading
a long list of the names of murdered children.
At the Wailing Wall,
one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, Jews from across the world flock to pray.
They slip little prayers of their own inside the worn Wall’s many cracks, in
the hopes that their prayers will be heard. There’s a stark separation along
gender lines at the Wall. Women are afforded a fraction of the space given to
men.
For some Texas
travelers, the Wailing Wall lived up to its name, moving them to tears.
Ely Eastman, a
senior at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston,
described his experience at the Wall as an “ordeal.”
A Haredi, or
Orthodox Jew supervising the area told Eastman that he wasn’t allowed to wrap
tefillin (a special ritual with parchment scrolls from the Torah wrapped on the
arms and head) as part of praying at the Wall. The man, who told Eastman that
he wasn’t allowed the ritual because his mother isn’t Jewish, proceeded to
remove the tefillin from Eastman’s body. At the same time, another Haredi Jew unsuccessfully
tried to put it back on the teen.
The exchange shocked
Eastman, who walked away upset, unable to make his prayers the way he had
hoped.
Eastman said he
wondered “why I had come so far, why I had experienced all the horrors of the
Holocaust,” in the visit to Poland, and why he had “assumed all that collective
guilt and mourning. If I was good enough to go to a concentration camp, then
how come I wasn’t good enough to perform mitzvot as a Jew?”
On reflection,
Eastman said he felt that his difficult time at the Wall gave him a “theme for
my trip, one about discovering my religious identity and how I could impact my
community.”
Other students,
however, felt reassured by visiting the Wall.
Feldstein admitted that
before leaving Texas, he wasn’t sure he would get very much out of his time in
Poland and Israel.
“I just thought that
Israel was just … the home of the Jewish people, you know, ‘Whatever, I’m
gonna see a wall, I’m gonna see lots of old buildings, whoop dee doo…’” But he
described feeling a “strong connection to my faith” when praying at the Wall.
“When I prayed at
the Western Wall,” said Feldstein, “I was praying for the health, well-being of
my family, and that felt a connection to it, like it was gonna matter, it was
gonna happen, it was gonna come true.”
Can Two Cultures Coexist?
Hope for a better
future has remained constant in Israel since the state’s inception in 1948, in
large part because of the consistent conflicts it has faced from air, land, and
sea, and, some say, from the media. This time was no different. Students
expressed empathy for Israelis and a desire to experience the things they did
during such conflicts. While he was “frustrated” by the group’s itinerary
changing frequently because of the conflict, Eastman said he “[didn’t] think I
would mind hearing sirens, seeing as many Israeli citizens go through that
experience hourly.” Baker described the conflict as “very disappointing.”
Feldstein said that the conflict created “a very difficult situation” for
Israelis and Arabs alike.
Students saw
positive interactions between Jews and Arabs firsthand when they visited the
Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School, which educates Jews and Arabs together.
Most Israeli schools only educate one ethnicity or religious group, and there
are only a few other schools like the Max Rayne School in Israel. Affiliated
with the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, Hand in Hand’s mission is
“to create a strong and inclusive shared society in Israel” through a network
of integrated, bilingual schools.
Despite the school’s
efforts, Baker said he saw more intolerance of different ideas in Israeli
society than acceptance.
“Israel, being a
mostly Jewish state, brings to rise … problems … when trying to assimilate
two completely different cultures” like Jews and Arabs, Baker said. “You can’t
make them get along.”
Indeed, the conflict
between those two cultures escalated while the students were in Israel. Cities
where the two cultures coexist are rare: Acre, in the north of Israel, Haifa,
on the Mediterranean Sea, and Jerusalem, in the center. But it is often possible
to determine whether a village or town is predominantly Jewish or Arab by
looking at the rooftops of buildings. Arab houses will have black cylinders on
their roofs.
Eli Winter / youthjournalism.org

The Israeli flag flies over Masada.


To Baker, the
conflict is extremely one-sided. “Israel cannot do anything to protect itself
without hurting Palestinian civilians,” he said. “You can see that Israel is
trying to help the Palestinian civilians by trying to instigate cease-fires.
They’ve been sending in humanitarian aid.” Although he chose not to visit
Poland before going to Israel, Baker offered its Jewish history as “living
proof that the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust did not die in vain.
Their deaths opened the door to the creation of the state of Israel, and [for] that I am forever grateful.”
Students who had
witnessed evidence of the horrors of the Holocaust in Poland before arriving in
Israel felt an especially strong desire to help Israel in the future. Both Eastman
and Feldstein said visiting Poland put their time in Israel into a different
light. Poland “put the entire Israel trip into context for me,” said Eastman. “By
experiencing the sadness in Poland, I was able to see why Israel’s existence is
so important.”
Feldstein said Poland
gave him a different perspective on what he saw in Israel and a different view
of the history of the Jewish people. Poland offers a chance to remember the
lowest point in Jewish history, he said, while Israel celebrates the Jewish
people.
“It’s a different
kind of remembrance,” Feldstein said, adding that Israel’s existence says, “We
made it, we have arrived, we are the Jewish people.”
The Texas students
described themselves as feeling more sure in their support for Israel after
their visit.  Baker said he felt “extremely
informed and ready to teach the truth about what’s going on.” Eastman and
Feldstein both expressed support for Israel’s army, the Israel Defense Forces
(IDF), and Eastman said the trip “made me interested in joining the IDF.”
Students felt a personal connection to the IDF after their security guard, Ben
Balmas, was recalled to join his army unit as a medic.
Introspection in the Desert
Although Israel has
felt the need to defend itself since its inception, there is still a place
where one can be at peace within the country, the Negev, Israel’s largest
desert. The student travelers stayed in the Negev for a large part of their
time in Israel because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza.
Eli Winter / youthjournalism.org

 

The Negev Desert in southern Israel.

 

One night, they went
to the sand dunes, first sliding down them as if they were on a hill, then
scurrying back up the dunes in a frenzy to slide back down again. Then they
were asked to sit down in a quiet space, alone, to take time for introspection
and reflect on the demands the desert made. They remembered how they could only
go through the sand so fast, or else their fatigue would make them move even
slower. They let their eyes set on the darkness of the sand dune’s shadows in
contrast to the bright yellow bomb of the sun against their faces, and they
stepped their way like tin soldiers over red rusty rocks and tried not to
tumble. They found how quickly the sand slipped through their fingers with the
wind.

Here, the students
were not alone, and yet they felt completely alone. But it was not like the
loneliness that everyone has experienced. It was instead a state of solitude,
of being at peace with the world and oneself. And here, the students were at
peace, and they knew that peace would come, peace would most definitely come.
If only the world would know where to look.

 
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