Saturday, January 18, 2014

17th January 2014 – A Moving Holocaust Memorial, More on Jewish Diaspora Network then we meet our Palestinian Guides

This morning we enter the Holocaust memorial. Effie takes us there but waits for us at the exit … we assume it is too confronting for him to guide us in there. On the way he tells a number of stories about serendipitous connections within the Jewish Diaspora network …. which I indicated at the beginning of this blog, the type that make the connections memorable.  The context here takes the significance of these connections to another level. Here is two of the stories he told:
  •       Effie was most moved by an encounter while he was taking a group of American Jews to the Western Wall. A fellow in his group was looking, in fact staring, across at women in another tour group. Both were quite elderly. He got up the courage to start up a conversation with the woman to find out that she was a long lost sister who was also living in the USA. Neither new the other was still alive!
  •       Effie was living in New York as a child. His mother placed an advertisement in the paper looking for a long lost friend. She was contacted by someone in Philadelphia who thought a Jewish neighbour, who was now blind, may have been this friend. As it turned out it was she. But additionally, when this ‘broker’ heard his mother’s surname she indicated that there was a young man in the same building with this name. It turns out that he was a long lost nephew!

Effie indicated that there were now electronic services looking to broker more reunions like this. No doubt SNA can play a big part here in helping the Jewish Diaspora with its mission of reconnecting lost families and communities. How rewarding would that be!

Model of old Jerusalem on the way to the Holocaust memorial. No photos are allowed inside.

My friends thought I must buy this...
unfortunately not in my size :(
The Holocaust memorial was both memorable and moving. The power of networks, in this case to promulgate an evil message, is unnerving. The memorial museum was an excellent demonstration of how to tell a historical story in a way that those observing will go away knowing that we should never let this happen again. I have always been surprised at the level of persecution targeted at the Jews for reasons I didn’t really understand until now. The persecution started with other religious denominations blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus….and then taken to these extremes by the Nazis. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But one quotation shown in the memorial attributed to an Australian politician of the time was for me a cause for shame. It went something like “We can do no more (in reference to accepting more Jewish immigrants)… we have no racial problems here and we do not want to import one”… used as an example of how the world was against the Jews. What’s scary is that I’m not so sure that some of our current day politicians are not at least thinking, if not saying something like this, in reference to our current immigration challenges. I hope I’m wrong.

Gary had his prized "birwatcher" hat on so we couldn't
miss this opportunity! We didn't see any btw.
In the afternoon we are off to Bethlehem. Something I wasn’t aware of before the tour was that Bethlehem is under Palestinian control now, so Effie would have to hand us over to a Palestinian guide. We were required to carry our passports (we learn later, not to get into Bethlehem, but to get back into Israel). We are met by a driver, Jeff, who is an American missionary, who amongst other things, coaches a Palestinian basketball team. This isn’t his normal job, he is just helping out  a friend. The bus/van is not in great condition with few of the seatbelts working and some of the seats also not working. We start to see how Israel and Palestine are different…we are back into the “I have a cousin who….” environment we saw in places like Turkey….everyone is networked some how. Effie warned us that one visit for sure will be the souvenir shop which will be connected to our guide somehow. We have lunch at an average cafe…another connection. I start to have to network map what is going on here. Jeff the driver is doing a favour for David who was to be our tour guide. But David has to look after the souvenir store (which is on our itinerary) so has enlisted another guide (K2…his nickname) to guide us. We meet David’s uncle who is over from the USA at the café for lunch (his connection is the restaurant owner). Later K2 arrives…they all know each other well!

Anyway the tour is ok. We see where Jesus was born, where the shepherds first saw the angel, the Orthodox and Catholic churches that now mark the site. I was a little underwhelmed. Someone had decided this was the site and built something for people to line up at to see and/or touch. Nevertheless K2 did a good job of telling us the history of each site and what sits on it now, but is hard to imagine what it would have been like 2,000 years ago. 

People line up to touch the place where Jesus was born ... I hope they got the place it right!

We were told this is a special place in the Catholic church here

This is the guy St. Jerome who translated the bible into Latin. Only took
him 35 years .... obviously pre-google days.

Chris is a life-time St George football fan. Had to get this one
standing next to the original St. George

Us on the site of where the Shepherds net the Angels...
more upmarket now :)
No fancy video animations like on the Israeli side. But the church they built on the Shepherd site was clever ... it had an acoustic roof that would make any Xmas carol singers sound good! Listen here.... 

Last stop is meant to be the dreaded souvenir shop….but we are interrupted by perhaps one of the talking points of our trip. On the way in the van with Jeff and K2 we come across some youths throwing rocks and lighting fires on the border fencing to Israel. The Israelis decide to disperse the crowd with tear gas. Jeff assures us that we were in no real danger as this is not an uncommon occurrence (after K2 had just talked up how the incidences had stopped in order to keep the tourists coming). We get to breath in tear gas for the first time….and are in no mood for the souvenir shop. Jeff is on our side and takes us straight back to our hotel in Jerusalem (I suspect much to the chagrin of David, the Souvenir store owner!). Lucky the happy hour is still on in the hotel so we can get a few nerve settling drinks!

Jeff our expat American driver and Noelene riding 'shotgun"

Tear gas cannisters going off

Not an experience I would recommend!

Side Bar - Commentary on the complexities in the Middle East.

As unnerving as this incident was it provided us with a graphic insight into the tensions in the Middle East. There is high youth unemployment here in Bethlehem and I suspect the youth are filling their time in the same way that youth anywhere in the world would do in the same circumstances. The Israeli response might be considered by some to be heavy handed, but what would you do if someone were throwing rocks at your house? The inequalities between the “have’s and have nots” will always be a source of tension and Bethlehem relies on its tourist trade to support its economy and perhaps be a future source of employment for the unemployed youth. We could see the frustration in K2s face, as we know he genuinely wanted us to have a good experience and tell our friends to come. The last thing he would have wanted was for us to see something like this. Jeff, who is an American expat, here to serve his church and god, provided us with what I felt was an objective observer’s perspective. He understood our fears but assured us that he would not have driven us into any danger. He lives on the border and has become familiar with events like this. He even told us that some of the youths bring tennis rackets to return the tear gas canisters before they land …. its just a game to them.

I think back to one of the first things Effie said to us when we arrived…that he was grateful to Australians for still coming to Israel when the troubles had nearly decimated his business. K2 likewise had indicated how important it was for both Israelis and Palestinians to suppress their differences in order to encourage the Tourist trade, which for both countries, is a very important source of income. Prosperous communities are happy communities. I’ll be telling my friends that they should come and experience this place first hand. Its not really all about good hotels, good food and good tourist sites. I’m sure in the years to come those memories will fade. We will remember the people we met and the circumstances that they live in everyday. Travel broadens the mind and reinforces just how naïve one can be, despite how educated we think we might be. For me, this is why I like to travel and I’m sure that many of my friends and people that read this blog are the same.

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