August 1-13, 2005

Report Four: Yad V?Shem and Israeli Human Rights Activists

Friday August 5, 2005

?A country is not only what it does, it is what it tolerates.? - Kurt Tucholsky, German essayist of Jewish origin - quoted at Yad V?Shem.

Today we started our journey to Yad v'shem, the Holocaust Memorial and museum in Israel. Yad v'shem recently opened a new main exhibition space to tell about the atrocities of the Second World War against world Jewry. The museum, shaped like a large train, tells about the process of Hitler's rise to power, life in Jewish ghettos and Jewish resistance, and, finally, about the Nazi death camps.

A visit to the Holocaust Museum during our study of the Israeli occupation always raises interesting thoughts among our delegations, and this was no exception. Although we all respect the history of the Holocaust in our own way, we cannot but take a moment to reflect on the suffering that surrounds us. One of the delegates admitted that after some time spent in the museum, she feels that her emotions are so agitated that she feels that she herself is beginning to lose her rationality. This, in her opinion, was similar to what many people felt after September 11. Just like in the USA. The government used the tragedy of September 11 to wage an aggressive war in Afghanistan and Iraq, she believed that Israel used the trauma of the Holocaust to blind the Israeli population to the actions of the Israeli government in Palestine.

I noticed a man in the museum who was wearing a bracelet with a Palestinian flag. Having received a similar bracelet at one of our meetings, I thought about the wisdom of wearing it in Yad v'shem. Do people perceive my support for Palestinian nationalism as a rebuke to the suffering of the Jewish people? It is always a constant job for me to preserve both the history of the Holocaust and the Palestinian reality and to see that these are not mutually exclusive elements, but mutually supportive elements that can coexist in the struggle for justice.

In general, the museum has prompted us to think about the nature of suffering and how we should create a place for recognition of all peoples who suffer unfairly. 

After lunch, we quickly decided to attend a protest rally and vigils of women in black, which take place every Friday afternoon for one hour. ( ).  

During the vigil, women (along with their male supporters) hold placards reading "End of Occupation" in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The "For" delegates stood holding the "Women in Black" banner, proud to stand in solidarity with activists from all countries who decided to make justice for Palestinians and Israelis a top priority.

There were also groups of students in blue from the Israeli Youth Movement who protested against a Jewish soldier who shot Israeli Palestinians (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) a day earlier as they were riding a bus home to Nazareth. There were also counter-protesters dressed in orange, which became a ubiquitous sign of support for settlers from Gaza as the days went by for Israel's secession from the Gaza Strip.

After the vigil, we met Nurit Steinfeld from Machsom Watch, who boarded our bus to take us to various checkpoints in the area ( The day before we visited Abu Dis, and now we went to Qalandiya, an Israeli checkpoint with a gate through which Palestinians must pass on the way from Jerusalem to Ramallah.

When we left the checkpoint, one delegate was detained for additional questioning, and my guide Remon and I stayed with her.  While we waited, we watched Israeli soldiers checking Palestinian ID cards and looking into their bags before they managed to get through the revolving gate.  While the soldier was checking the mother's bag, her little boy - about a meter tall - was pressed against the soldier's weapon. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and couldn't take my eyes off the view.  The image of the little boy staring at the gun is now forever etched in my mind. These are the paintings that we carry with us now, and we will be forced to leave when we return. They will stay with us forever.

After our stay at Mahsom Watch, we went to the Kol Haneshem Synagogue in West Jerusalem to attend the Sabbath service and meet with Rabbi Arik Asherman of Rabbis for Human Rights (rhr), an organization of Israeli rabbis fighting for human rights in Israel and Palestine.  ( Asherman did an excellent job explaining step by step to the group what to expect from the upcoming service, and also gave a brief overview of the work of rhr.

Speaking about his work with rhr, Arik described a case where he saw an Israeli soldier beating a small Palestinian boy. When Asherman intervened, he was also beaten. Later, when the boy was asked what happened to him that day, he replied that he was saved by a tall man with a kippah. Arik says that this moment inspires him to be active. The fact that a young Palestinian boy, who usually associated Judaism only with soldiers and settlers, is able to redefine what a religious Jew is capable of, is a driving force in a usually ungrateful situation. We were glad to hear from Arik and were inspired by his work. Although among the delegates were the daughter of a rabbi, non-religious people, people of different faiths, they all felt relaxed thanks to the music and the generous atmosphere that emanated from the meeting in the synagogue.

After returning to the hotel, we managed to meet informally with Mordechai Vanunu, the famous man who revealed the secret of Israel's nuclear weapons and spent almost two decades in prison. The group was impressed by his quick wit and ability to maintain human dignity and wit throughout his years in prison. Despite the fact that the Israeli government imposed strict restrictions on vanuna and he was not allowed to talk to any foreigners, he dared to tell us about his experiences. Delegate Tom Ellis writes:

The meeting with Mordechai Vanunu was the culminating moment. Vanunu spent 18 years in an Israeli prison, of which he spent 11.5 years in solitary confinement for trying to prevent another Holocaust. His "crime" was to expose Israel's secret atomic and hydrogen bomb programs.

Vanunu told us that under no circumstances would he give up his freedom of speech. He often talks to the press, despite orders from the Israeli government not to do so.

He lives in east Jerusalem and wants to move to the United States or another country to, as he says, " I can be completely free.?

Vanun's desire to live freely echoed what we had heard earlier from Fatma Asad, a Palestinian maths teacher who lives near the Qalandiya checkpoint we visited. Her beautiful home is located just 100 meters from the wall that Israel is building in the West Bank. Two years ago, Israeli authorities cut down in her yard 180 olive trees to make room for the wall.

Ms Assad told the for delegation that " I would like to lead a normal life. The occupation is destroying our lives, and the wall is dividing our families.?

Later in the evening, delegates were still able to discuss the maps of East Jerusalem with Angela Godfrey of icahd. I am constantly amazed at the loneliness of an incredible group of people who spend every inch of their day trying to understand conflict better. The group ended the day by reflecting on their shared experiences and the suffering that permeates the entire neighborhood. What we get are stories that can change people's lives at home, as well as ours.

-- report submitted by Kendra Froshman for the delegation

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