Yad Vashem

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I’ve published two reports on trips to Israel/Palestine with a former Zionist I called Bill. (Part 1, Part 2.) This is the third “Bill” report, from a trip in September 2013. 

On Wednesday afternoon I went to the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem and called my friend Bill from the front desk. He said, “Have you made any plans?”

“None,” I said.

“Let’s go to Yad Vashem.”

I waited for him under a locust tree in the driveway. He came out wearing a yellow alligator shirt, and we got a cab to the museum. It was a really hot day. The plaza outside the museum was baking in the sun. An old orthodox woman wearing a wig toiled up to the door in front of us, pushing a dolly, loaded with wreaths.

We decided to go through the museum separately, because I’d been there twice in recent years before but Bill hadn’t been there in 22 years, not since he was 15. Bill is younger than I am, but he went to Israel long before I did. He used to love the place, then rejected it when he was in his 20s. He knew it a lot better than I did, so I liked to observe his responses to the place.

I only saw him a couple of times over the next hour and a half. Then I got to the end of the long tunnel-like structure and heard HaTikvah playing amid photographs of the deliverance of the remnant of European Jewry into Israel, and there was Bill standing out on the famous balcony. The memorial’s two slanting ceilings peel up and apart after the many dark chambers and lift like wings over the balcony, and ah—you’ve been delivered into Israel. The balcony’s famous because you can see the scene of a 1948 Zionist massacre of Palestinians, at Deir Yassin, a village outside Jerusalem.

“This is incredible architecture,” I said.

Bill frowned. “If you say so.”

We walked round to the back plaza. Bill wanted to find the Hall of Remembrance–the place where the names of Jewish towns and individuals are recorded—because he had a distinct memory of going there the last time he’d been here. We looked for it all over. We went up and down the little hills on cobbled walkways.

A group of women wearing Israeli army uniforms walked past, two of them chattering away in perfect American English. Bill spun to watch them.

“That pisses me off.”

I said, “I know.”

But I could understand after all the exhibits of Jewish powerlessness inside, why Jews even three generations on would fetishize the means of delivering violence.

We kept walking and not finding the hall of remembrance.

Bill said, “Do you know what Yad Vashem means?”


“The hand and the name. I’ve never understood it. They couldn’t explain it in my Hebrew class in college.”

“You took Hebrew in college?”

“I told you,” Bill said with irritation. “For three years. I went from A to F. And you said, ‘That’s quite an achievement.’”

“Oh right. And why did you go from A to F?”

“It was when I was becoming disillusioned with this place. I was waking up to what it was, and I think I took it out on the language.”

Going from A to F was why I liked Bill. He was completely sincere in his engagement with the conflict. Most people I know who are involved are activists or journalists. The journalists are out to make names for themselves– they want to write the Lenin’s Tomb of Israel/Palestine—and the activists are out to change the world and end apartheid. The journalists will move on to the next book, the activists will move on to other righteous causes. It was more personal with Bill. He had swallowed the Israeli hook when he was a little boy, coming out here with his grandparents. He’d dreamed of being in Israeli politics. Then after his seventh and eighth visits he’d talked to his cousin and begun to change. He was just 20 or so and began wondering why so many Israelis were carrying guns even when they went to the movies. He didn’t get what his relatives meant when they said they were protecting “us.” His ideas shifted quickly; he vowed to stay away. Thirteen years passed, then he came back as an anti-Zionist.

So all Bill’s adult life he was still working that hook out of his gut; Israel was in his soul.

We couldn’t find the hall of remembrance so we went into the basement cafeteria. I got a sandwich and Bill got water. We sat near a window and he said, “What was your favorite thing in the museum?”

“Well it’s a great museum, and I’m always seeing new stuff,” I said. “This time it was a guy talking about how they did the Passover seder in a concentration camp. They didn’t have the Haggadah or the wine or the celery or the matzo, but a group of them walked around saying different parts of the service and they said, ‘In Egypt all we had was the bread of affliction. Not like we have now.’ But of course it was a lot worse for them than for the Israelites in Egypt, and the guy was laughing telling about that, and I was standing there laughing and crying at the same time. I don’t think that’s happened to me in a long time. Why, what was your favorite moment?”

“Treblinka,” Bill said.

“The guy talking about the gas chambers?”

Bill nodded.

It was one of the times I’d crossed paths with Bill. He was watching a video of a survivor describing how the Nazis gassed hundreds of people at one time using carbon monoxide. The man in the video had served on a crew. They had waited as soldiers with dogs herded shorn, naked people into the chamber, they’d heard the agonized screams, then after 20 minutes a German officer said, “They’re all asleep.” The crew opened the doors and removed the bodies and burned them on wooden pallets set on railroad tracks. When the bodies tumbled out, they gave a last audible sigh of smoke or gas.

Bill was standing at the Treblinka screen for a while. I couldn’t take it. I moved on to an artistic rendering of the gas chambers, sculptures of hundreds of people howling and crying and trying to escape. Like 400 little trapped Michelangelos…

“Did you cry at all in there?” I asked.

Bill shook his head.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I guess because the thing is so manipulative. It’s all intended to make a point. That we need this place. Americans need Israel.”

I said, “I guess that’s why I enjoy the Berlin room. It’s an argument aimed at me. The assimilationist room. They show what a fancy life Jews were leading and how German they felt, and say what suckers they were.”

It’s an exhibit of a Jew’s office in Berlin before the Holocaust, with a modern telephone on a big wooden desk and the daughter’s school paintings framed on the wall. The video testimonies in the Berlin room are all about how the Jews felt they were fitting in fine, and how that social fabric fell to pieces, and friends and neighbors hung up the phone on them.

I said, “You think you’re accepted and you’re doing well, but it’s a delusion, the west will never accept you.”

Bill drank off one bottle of water and uncapped another.

“So what do you say to that?”

“Well– it could happen again, but I don’t think it will. History doesn’t repeat itself. That’s not how it works. It seems more likely it will happen to other people. So the answer is to protect minority rights.”

Bill frowned. He’s darker and more meditative than I am.

“But– it could happen again,” he said.

“So we could be deluded?” I said.

“I don’t know how many German Jews were deluded. That society went crazy over 10 years. Kathy—“ Bill mentioned a mutual friend– “She thinks it can happen in the U.S., right?”

“Yes. Her father has two passports and he got passports for his kids too.”

Then Bill had to answer an email about a problem back in New York, and I went upstairs and asked a docent what Yad Vashem means. A memorial to names, she said: Yad means hand but it also means a memorial.
I came back down and Bill was off the phone but still frowning.

“Do you think it was all real?” he said. “Those testimonies?”

“You mean, like they’re faked?”

“Like they hired actors or something. Look– it wouldn’t surprise me. When you think of all the shit this country has done in the propaganda department, that wouldn’t be the worst thing by any measure. So they hired attractive people to tell the stories?”

“You’re not denying the truth of the stories.”

“No! Of course not. But I do think a lot of the commentary is intellectually dishonest. You heard what she was saying about Hitler. Cream puffs. Really?”

That was near the beginning, in 1931. I’d attached myself to a group of seven American soldiers in camouflage uniforms who had an official museum guide– the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel in action. When they came to a display about Hitler’s rise to power, the guide had told Hitler anecdotes. Bill had been there too. She said:

“Hitler was an outsider in Germany because he was from Austria. He couldn’t keep a job. He got up at 12 o’clock and he liked to eat cream puffs. If he had been born in any other time or place he would have been a nothing.”

“Cream puffs. Really?” Bill said. “And he got up at noon? Is that all you can say about him? If you’re going to personalize it you could say he was a vegetarian and he didn’t smoke or drink and he was exposed to poison gas as a soldier in World War One.”

“How do you know that?” I said.

Bill got his irritated expression. “I’ve read about this.”

They were closing up. We decided to go to Herzl’s grave. It’s on a hill alongside Yad Vashem, under the pine trees. We walked up a pathway strewn with pine needles. Along the way there are all-weather Zionist displays. One is David Ben-Gurion announcing the new state of Israel. You step on an iron grate in the walk and his voice comes on over a speaker, reading the declaration of the establishment of the Jewish state. It was in Hebrew but I couldn’t help it, a historic chill went up my spine.

The path curls going up around the hill. When it comes out in the sun you see the graves. First there is Jabotinsky, the rightwing revisionist who did more than anyone to define Israel’s relationship to the Arab world with the iron wall policy. The Arabs don’t want us here, so we must build an iron wall and fight them off till they learn to accept us, he said.

There were probably 25 pebbles and stones on the grave– a Jewish sign of respect, to leave a stone.

A hundred yards on, Herzl’s grave was on the summit of Har Herzl. You come out on a broad circular plaza in the sun, and there are more steps going up to the grave. Bill stopped in the gravel looking at the stone from a distance.
“You know, sometimes I think, I’ll be finished with this place when the U.S. just says, ‘You’re on your own. Do anything you want, we won’t pay for it. You can be as racist and militant as you like, but there’s no special relationship any more.’ If they said that I would feel I was done with my work.”

I agreed with him. The black polished granite says simply Herzl, and there were more than a hundred stones strewn atop it. Bill walked around looking at Jerusalem, and I thought about Herzl as a role model: He was an ambitious and assimilating journalist who had little to do with religion and was transformed in mid-career by an encounter with history. He saw the anti-Semitism at the Dreyfus trial and set out to save the Jews. He stopped writing trivial feature stories and threw himself into Jewish political life. He was grandiose, fancying himself a statesman. He met with the czar, pope and Kaiser and shared his complaint about all the Jews hanging around the stock markets and turning into an “intellectual proletariat” who might foment revolution. He wore morning coat and gloves and told the leaders he could rid the big cities of Jews. They probably thought he was crazy. But if Zionism was an understandable response to the Jewish condition in the late 19th century, anti-Zionism was a perfectly acceptable and improved response for Jews in our time. We needed to save the United States and Jews from a dangerous ideology.

I grabbed a pebble and put it on Herzl’s grave. Bill came back with a look on his face.

“If the Arab armies finally take over, what do you think they’d do to this place?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t think they’d tear this place apart? They’d blast these graves and then they’d drag the bodies out and piss all over the bones and level this whole hill.”

I laughed but Bill was grinning.

“I know it’s petty, but I bet they’d do that.”

We walked down to the section where leaders of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency were buried. Nahum Goldmann, Nahum Sokolow.

“These guys too,” he said. “You don’t think they’d drag their bones out and burn the graves? Look. Maybe it’s petty of me. But every one of these men was responsible for moving out Arabs so they could move Jews in. It was a dirty business. I have to think their graves would be desecrated.”

“Why is that petty?”

“Desecrating graves?”

“What would you do if you were on the council that had to decide what to do with them. They have a place in history.”

“I guess I’d exhume and move them. Bury them respectfully but without any ceremony.”

We left the cemetery and walked south, going through a park to get to the road. Under a tree, 30 Israelis sat in a circle with legs folded while a hippie/shaman figure led them in an exercise. He had dreadlocks and wore harem pants and hopped around doing a clapping exercise. The people clapped their thighs, then their hands rhythmically.

Bill grinned wickedly as we went by.

“Israeli culture. Pattycake. Follow the leader. When I was in Hebrew School we had an Israeli guy that came in and did the same kind of thing. I was eight years old, and we had to pass around an imaginary ball.”

Bill pretended to pick up a squishy heavy flopping ball and pass it to the next child.

“I had no idea what the point was.”

I said, “Building a sense of community.”

We had to run across the road to make the tram going back into town. It was crowded and we hung on to a pole in the middle of the train. I said. “Do you ever think it’s easier for Palestinians in this movement? Ali Abunimah and Omar Barghouti, they have the support of their community. They’re not going against their elders. They’re being cheered on.”

Bill shrugged. “Yeah, I’ve thought about that, but so what? What does it matter?”

“You mean if they were in our shoes they’d do the same thing?”

Bill nodded as if I was stupid. “Yes. It’s about a principle.”

We came down over the famous lyre bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava. “I love this bridge,” I said, craning my neck to see where the pylons and the cables are attached, and how the cables cross one another in the air like strings on a harp. Bill ignored me, gazing glumly out on Jerusalem.

He said, “Does it ever occur to you that if all the Jews actually moved here, the rest of the world would say, Great, now they’re finally all in one place and we can get rid of them?”

“Like, this is our chance?”

“Right. And like– OK, they’ve got nukes, they’re not going to go down without a fight. They’ll probably take out 10 million of us. But still–it would be worth it.”

“I’ve never heard you say that before,” I said.

Bill shook his head. “Not aloud. It’s too dark. But I don’t know why anyone thinks this place is so safe for Jews, it’s not.”

We came down to the Old City and I jumped off the tram. I wanted to go see my rug guy. Bill and I would meet up for a drink later.


I walked back through the Old City and visited the rug place then got falafel at my favorite spot across from Damascus Gate and went on to the hostel I stay in in East Jerusalem. It’s housed in an old Palestinian palace with terraced gardens. My friend Issa has a studio next door. I had brought him a gift from the States and we sat and drank whiskey with the door open. He had a giant new Mac chained to the desk with a chain you could drag a truck with so no one would steal it.

I told him what Bill said at Herzl’s grave about pissing on the bones. Issa laughed gleefully.

“He talks like a Palestinian. He makes jokes just like Palestinians.”

“He’s the last person you’d ever think was Palestinian,” I said.

Issa laughed. “That’s the best part of it. It’s funnier when he says it.”

I lay down for a while then I walked up to the American Colony at 9 o’clock. Bill and I sat at the outside bar. He was wearing a mauve alligator shirt. He’d changed out of the yellow one.

“How many of those do you have?” I said.

“I don’t know.”

“Thirty, forty?”

Bill hates small talk. “Maybe.”

“Do you get them on line?”

“No I see one I like and I buy it.”

I told him about my rug dealer. He’s just a kid but he yelled at me for saying I’d come back the last time I’d been out, the previous November– I didn’t come back– and then he went down the list of rugs I’d bought from him other times, and the prices.

“Isn’t it weird that he remembered the prices?” I said.

“No. That’s his business. And you have a relationship with him.”

“It makes me feel loyal to him. But I wonder if I’m being manipulated.”

“You’re not being manipulated. You should feel loyal to him.”

We drank a lot of red wine and ate hummus at the bar and Bill had a rare moment’s pleasure, showing me a picture on his phone that the kennel had sent of his dog back home. But it was soon back to serious talk. He’d taken a picture of Martin Indyk of the State Department in the hotel restaurant, talking intensely with someone Bill didn’t recognize.

“He didn’t have much of a security detail,” Bill said. “When he got up to go, just one guy at another table got up too.”

“Well who wants to get him? Nobody,” I said. “It’s not like he’s Bernadotte, saying they have to give up Jerusalem. They killed him right near here.”

Bill said, “Shamir may have done that job himself. I saw him on Al-Jazeera last night. They were doing a piece on Oslo 20 years later and Shamir said, The Jews have been here longer than anyone else. Four thousand years, so it’s Jewish land.”

Bill scowled at the foolishness and pushed back in his bar stool.

“OK look,” he said. “I’ll admit it. When I came out of that museum, part of me was willing to accept, Jews really do need a place of our own. We won’t be safe till we have a state. In a part of my mind, I’m willing to believe that. But not here! Not like this.”

The bar was empty except for us and a drunk Palestinian businessman across the bar. We bought him drinks and he bought us drinks, and Bill held up his glass acknowledging the gift.

I said, “Bill, you only really come out of your shell when you drink.”

“I know. It’s because—well, you know I’m pretty dark just to start with. I live with a lot of pain. Alcohol helps to ease it.”

The dishwasher came out from the back, an old hippie Palestinian with long silver hair and expensive earphones, wearing black. He got the empty glasses and we got last call and Bill talked to the bartender. They’re like old friends. Then the bartender went away and Bill got that perturbed face that he’d had since Yad Vashem.

“One thing that upsets me? I’ve been to other genocide museums. In Cambodia. In Rwanda. And at the other ones, at the end, they have a memorial to the other genocides and they all talk about the Holocaust. But at this museum they don’t talk about other genocides. It’s like, this is the only one. We own genocide.”

I told him about my mother’s best friend who lives in West Jerusalem. She grew up in Germany and barely escaped the Holocaust, and when my mother sees her she mourns all the other Jews. “She says, ‘I think of all the Jews just like Gloria. Just as smart and funny and warm and poetic, and they were slaughtered. Think of all that was lost.’ But I say to my mom, ‘we weren’t the only ones.’”

“My aunt says the same thing,” Bill said. “She goes, Imagine if the Holocaust hadn’t happened. There’d be a cure for cancer by now. All those brilliant people in Europe, they’d have cracked the code. And I say OK, maybe you’re right, but what about the other side? How do you know they wouldn’t have invented the worst weapons in the world and destroyed millions of people?”

“Your Zionist aunt,” I said. “You came out here with her, right?”

Bill nodded. “In ’91. It was right around now, October, and when we got back it was when Bush was pushing Madrid, and I remember how defensive I got. The world was criticizing Israel. I thought, Why are they saying these things? Then the UN abrogated the Zionism is racism resolution, and they had the Madrid conference. But now when I think about it, that’s when I was starting to wake up, inside.”

The bartender was closing up. He came over and said did we want another round. We each got another red wine. We were alone at the bar.

“Something else happened after that trip that upset me,” Bill said. “When we got back my grandfather said to call my cousin Bessie and tell her about my trip to Israel. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about this, but I had two cousins that were born in Europe, Bessie and Sarah– sisters. And Sarah got out with her husband before the Nazis really took over and moved to Palestine. But her sister Bessie didn’t get out. She was in Auschwitz. And she survived, and came to New York after.

“So my grandfather told me to call her, and I said, Why? And he said, ‘Bessie will want to hear about your trip to Israel. Call her.’”

“So I called her and the phone rang and rang and rang, but she didn’t answer. So I called my grandfather back and said, ‘I did it, I called her and she didn’t answer.’ My grandfather said, ‘That’s just the way Bessie is. It takes her a while for her to answer the phone. You call her back and just let it ring.’

“So I did. I called back, and this time I let it ring forever, and she finally picked up. I said, ‘Bessie, it’s Bill, your cousin. I’m calling you because my grandfather told me to call you and tell you about my trip to Israel.’
“And she went haywire. It was awful. She started screaming at me. ‘You’re calling because your grandfather told you to call!!?? I don’t want to talk to you!! I hereby ABSOLVE you of your responsibility to call me to tell me about your trip to Israel.’

“And she slammed down the phone.”

Bill slammed a phone into its cradle.

“You shouldn’t have said that about your grandfather,” I said.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t. I was just 15. What did I know? I’m still upset that he put me in that position.”

I said goodnight to Bill and walked up the hill to the hostel. I punched in the code at the gate. The steel door sprang open on the darkened garden, and I  drank in the fragrant air with gratitude.

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You are such a golah Jew.

Great story, Phil. I’m gonna need a while to digest it all.

Thanks for sharing it here.

There is something amorphous about being pro-Palestinian — or anti-Zionist — you know, those two somewhat related things. The lack of form arises because there is so broad a palette of possibilities of what to work (or to hope) for. One wants improvement of circumstances for Palestinians, but which improvements, and who is to choose what is “enough”? Not me, surely. And one wants to improve the behavior of Israeli Jews, but, again, how much… Read more »

I enjoyed this story so much, thank you!