Less than a month remains before I return home. Lately I’ve been spending more time at the archives, in that mad dash to collect as much relevant material while I can, before returning home. I’m also tentatively aiming to crank out part of a chapter, so there has been more focus on the writing lately too. The two activities complement each other; I find that the writing I do focuses what I look for at the archives, and by the same token, finding new leads at the archives furnishes new threads to keep the writing interesting.
What makes testimonial narrative important? Why does it seem so critical (and yet, so problematic) for remembering mass human catastrophes like the Nazi genocide against the Jews (or, in another context, the massacre of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Maya in Guatemala)? When people write about it, in what specific events or places do the stakes seem to be the highest – which examples test the limits?
In literature and historiography of the Nazi genocide, it is the death camps that seem to pose the most challenging questions – for the meaning and resilience of the notion of the human; for the possibility of communicating the experience (or the trauma) of absolute horror. Maybe that is because what happened there is so impossible to comprehend: in Treblinka, in Sobibor, in Belzec, in Auschwitz, hundreds of thousands of human beings - whole families - were transported directly from trains to gas chambers. For the younger, stronger men among them, the only hope of staying alive – perhaps only for months - was to do the work of managing the bodies of the dead.
We should not forget that such incomprehensible crimes are not merely a thing of the past. “The particular reasons that speak for the possibility of the repetition of the crimes committed by the Nazis” are patently plausible, wrote Hannah Arendt in 1963. “The frightening coincidence of the modern population explosion with the discovery of technical devices that, through automation, will make large selections of the population ‘superfluous’ even in terms of labor, and that, through nuclear energy, make it possible to deal with this twofold threat by the use of instruments beside which Hitler’s gassing installations look like an evil child’s fumbling toys, should be enough to make us tremble.”
But I have been reading testimonies about these particular experiences – the experiences of the Sonderkommando in Treblinka, the only ones to witness the mass exterminations and survive to tell about it. Let me tell you, if I didn’t believe that reading the actual testimonies was crucial to answering these questions about the importance and problematic nature of testimonial narrative, I would honor the very palpable urge to avoid them. How is it possible to hear such stories and emerge without serious misgivings about the world in which we live?
Given that I’ve spent more time with the actual stories and details lately, I have begun to have a hard time writing, thinking analytically, keeping a distance. I believe this is a part of the experience of thinking and writing about events of mass trauma (and since these events show no signs of abetting soon, it’s inevitable that we keep thinking on them). Shoshana Felman, for one, discusses the phenomenon of secondary trauma, which she witnessed in a class after asking her students to watch portions of survivor testimonies from the Yale Holocaust Video Archive. I am aware of this potential “occupational hazard,” and I think I have experienced it myself to some extent. The question I ask myself is, what’s a good way to deal with it? How to do worthwhile work, regarding such horrific atrocities, without collapsing under the weight of it?
There is no moral to this story, but perhaps there is something to be considered in Arendt’s words, regarding those brave individuals during WWII who helped persecuted Jews survive, at great risk to themselves and their families:
“…The lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply [with the totalitarian regime] but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can be reasonably asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”
(Quotations from Hannah Arendt are from Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York: Penguin Books, 1984 [first published 1963], pgs 273 and 233, respectively.)
Yesterday I went on a tour to the South Hebron Hills, led by Breaking the Silence. This organization is a group of former Israeli soldiers who give their testimony about their years as soldiers, serving in the occupied territories. Avihai, our leader, took us to places in the South Hebron Hills, where he told us stories about things he witnessed as part of a combat unit stationed in that area. He even told us about acts of abuse in which he participated, which he later came to see as wrong. He talked about the confusion he experienced as a soldier, where he was asked to do things without knowing the whole context, or where the lines of right and wrong become blurred because of the messages received from battalion leaders and fellow soldiers. The most remarkable thing, to me, was the way he described the process of giving his testimony, of developing a consciousness about what the occupation meant, and a conviction of the injustice of the occupation (and the soldiers’ participation in it). He said when they approached him to give his testimony, he told them at first that he had nothing to tell. It was in the very process of telling his experience that he came to understand the significance of what he had experienced. Most of all, he talked about the gap between the information that the Israeli public receives about what happens in the occupied territories, and what actually happens on the ground.
Of all the tours in which I’ve participated and the places I’ve visited, I think this one was one of the most encouraging trips. Encouraging, of course, despite all of the disheartening realities about what is going on with the settlements in the area and the harassed (but courageous!) Arab communities in the area. I’ve thought a lot about the mandatory army service here, and what that does to young adults (just out of high school) as they are forming opinions about their country, their role as citizens, and what it means to be “defenders.” Wouldn’t it be hard to develop a critical stance toward the occupation if what is reinforced for you, from a very young age, is simply the necessity of the occupation to defend Israeli citizens? The time of military service seems like such a critical time in the formation of opinions about oneself, one’s country and one’s civic duty. If you want to talk about swaying public opinion about the occupation, it seems like a major obstacle can be how young and generally unknowledgeable these kids are by the time they are enlisted and called upon to defend it. How often do they get a chance to form their own opinions about it, based on real information and critical thinking?
In view of all of these questions, the work of Breaking the Silence seems like a crucial piece of the puzzle, because it gives soldiers an opportunity to reflect on their experiences from a point of view outside of what they received in the army. It also gives them a chance to share that information with others, who may not yet have served or who might have served in areas besides the occupied territories. To me, it doesn’t seem like the situation here will improve until public opinion in Israel starts to shift, and while I don’t know about all that this entails, I know that the experience of the soldiers is one absolutely critical component.
If you have a chance, please read the soldiers’ testimonies about their experiences.
I’ve been hesitant, blocked even, from adding to the blog entries. If I think about it, I think that of all the goals I listed for my time here, the blog entries have tended to focus mostly on the second listed goal - “understanding the conflict.” I can tell you that I understand the nature of the conflict immeasurably more than I did when I came here, although there is plenty about the political nuances, the personal experiences, and the landscape that I still don’t understand.
There is perhaps something enviable about coming to such a strife-laden place with such a level of naiveté or perhaps ignorance about the stakes and the dimensions of the tension. I can look back and see that I was curious, open to hearing different perspectives, hungry for information about what life is like in different places, who experiences what, where different checkpoints are located, who holds influence when and where, what has changed from the past and whether it’s better or worse.
Somewhere along the way - and this is not unique to me, others have agreed to as much - what happens is that you stop being able to hear, you stop asking questions in the same way. It starts to get to you. If you live as a foreigner in Jerusalem, perhaps you feel the tension as a personal struggle, the struggle to live in some kind of “normalcy” in a situation that does not seem quite normal (and if it’s hard for “you” - for whom then is it even harder?). But even if you somehow manage to navigate the obstacles of living in a foreign environment with grace and efficiency - what can happen is that the way you see things starts to become very, very complicated.
It’s easy to come in with innocence and compassion, to see that many people are living in conditions that are completely unjust. But the problem comes with doing something about it. I’ve met so many interesting people here involved in fascinating things, and most of them trying to do something really positive. Everyone has a different idea of what must be done to solve the problems of negotiating a viable, workable living situation for Israelis and Palestinians. And very often, unbeknownst to them, well-intentioned people end up working against each other. And if even the well-meaning people can’t seem to come to agreement about the best way forward, what about the many parties involved who may be more self-interested as opposed to well-meaning?
So, in a nutshell, sometimes it gets too hard to think about it, about being “here,” whatever that here is. At the same time, it can be hard to think about anything else, so that saying anything begins to appear impossible. I am struck by the courage of those who continue to speak.
Just saw an incredible documentary - an eye witness account from The Gaza Strip, December 2008 and January 2009, Operation Cast Lead. The film shows “Urgent, insomniac, dirty, shuddering images from the only foreigners who decided and managed to stay embedded inside Gaza strip ambulances, with Palestinian civilians.” It is powerful, and very raw. The film is named “To Shoot an Elephant,” after the 1948 George Orwell short story (“Shooting an Elephant”).
I highly recommend attending a screening if you can find one; alternately you can view the film from the website. But do prepare yourself for some upsetting scenes.
The film was screened tonight at the Palestinian Art Court AlHoash in East Jerusalem, which is also featuring an art exhibit, Between Here and Somewhere Else, by artists Helen de Main (UK) and Maj Hasager (DK).
In places of conflict (and the “land of Israel” can no doubt be one of those places), it is often the landscape, the territory that embeds the story of conflict. Maybe in a way that it is too painful for individuals to tell. Or maybe what I can apprehend in an individual’s story is simply more narrow than the broad complex of related histories that might be sedimented on a given strip of land.
Jerusalem itself is a graphic example of this. Even the traveler with nary an interest in history or archeology, passing anywhere the Old City, will most likely stumble over some old remnant of a holy spot, some stretch of ancient wall, which will have told a different story of the significance, and political sovereignty, of this same place. A visit to the Citadel Museum (misnamed the “Tower of David” by the Crusaders - the name tells a story in itself) shows the remaining vestiges of the various empires and ruling bodies, in interweaving layers on the same site at the entrance to Jaffa gate. From its panoramic lookouts, you can survey the spread of the Old City in full. You can see the way two minarets were built on either side of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to circumscribe the Christian holy site and draw a line to the Dome of the Rock. You can see the orientation of the church entrances - where they go against the traditional west to east orientation (where the altar is at the east end), either by mistake or for specific historical reasons. In addition to the build up of new structures on old, where you can see the struggle between different religious ideologies in the very architecture, you’ll see blighted or empty spaces and trash dumps (they too are sites of religiously significant events in bygone times); they come as a surprise in such a congested city. Gazing out to west, you can see half of West Jerusalem too - its sparkling hotels, the Great Synagogue and the YMCA building, and the newly opened Mamilla Mall at the foot of Jaffa gate.
While archeologists train arduously to see these layering narratives in the structures and the geography of the Old City, it is often in the new city, in West Jerusalem, where I feel the tension between conflicting narratives most acutely. However, it is often much more difficult to identify a material object or a physical landmark that is the source of that vague feeling of tension. In a way, perhaps it presents itself as an absence of those markers, a trace that is not a physical object so much as an echo, a story I might have heard about a place, almost as hearsay, but which I cannot confirm.
Citadel Museum Complex, looking toward West Jerusalem south.
Sleepy weekend in Galilee. I spent two nights in Tiberias this weekend. On Saturday I rented a bike and trekked up the shoreline, to two old churches on the northern shore, where significant episodes in Jesus’ ministry were said to have taken place. It was drizzly when I rode up, but by the time I reached Mensa Christi the sun was starting to come out. I made it back to Jerusalem just in time to miss the rush of Pesach vacationers.
I’ve been going about three times a week to the documentation archives at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. It’s my first time conducting archival research, and it’s an interesting process of trial and error - getting familiar with the catalog, deciphering the logic of organization for the different collections, and balancing a limited amount of time against what seems like an endless stream of documents.
One of the most interesting aspects of the work, though, is what goes on outside and around the archives. A sprawling campus atop stately Mount Herzl, the Yad Vashem complex houses a number of museums and commemorative monuments, an art museum, a library, a film archive, an educational center, a syagogue, and, of course, a visitor’s center with a cafeteria and a bookstore. It’s easy after awhile to grow accustomed to the flocks of tourists that show up on plush tour buses, or school field trips eating their lunch out near the parking lot after spending the morning touring the campus. But for me, the most striking image has been the groups of IDF troops coming through the museum complex on an almost daily basis. They’re young; they look so much like the groups of high school kids, with the exception of the uniforms and the weapons. Apparently, Yad Vashem is on the list of “cultural excursions”, which are required as part of the military training.
As you leave Yad Vashem in the direction of Herzl street, you face the large pillared gate structure that cuts across the plaza in front of the visitor’s center. Printed into the concrete is a verse in English and in Hebrew: Ezekiel 37:14. ” I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil.”
Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem (22 Salah Eddin Street)
This was the first bookstore with predominantly English language titles I found in Jerusalem. (Turns out there a couple shops with large English selections in the tourist area of west Jerusalem, which I only discovered later; the selection in those shops is decidedly different.)
Now I can catch up on my new/old pasttime of wasting the hours away browsing books. It’s a cozy little store with a new café as well - there is an older shop across the street with English language newspapers, maps and school supplies, and a poster shop next door featuring reprints of old Franz Kraus “Visit Palestine” travel posters from 1936. The bookshop specializes in books on Middle Eastern history, on the conflict, and on literature translated from Arabic. There is also a large selection of titles in French.
Saturday afternoons are sleepy in west Jerusalem. Almost all the shops are closed for Shabbat, and have been since Friday afternoon. By the time 2 or 3 rolls around on Saturday, I’ve gone pretty stir-crazy, especially if I’ve wanted to put in some work on the dissertation. This weekend it has stormed and hailed on and off through the day and night, making it doubly challenging to get out of the house and get some fresh air. But around 4 the sky finally began to clear, and I left West Jerusalem to study for the first time at the Educational Bookshop’s café. Unlike the majority of cafés in West Jerusalem, this shop does not observe kosher and thus can open on Saturdays.
On the map you can see that I crossed the green line to get here - the line that divided the city between Israeli control on the west, and Jordanian control on the east, before Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem. The street is called Heil HaHandasa on the map. Having to cross over from east to west makes me think that the café is far - too far to walk, perhaps (and the buses don’t run on Saturday). In fact it is much closer than my other favorite Saturday spot, Lev Smadar in the German Colony. So I venture out when the rain clears, passing through a stretch of the city center on my way, deserted except for a few groups of Ethiopian Israelis, and the occasional Orthodox man on his way to prayer. The sleepy Shabbat afternoon, after the rain, sets a great backdrop for some photographs of old buildings whose history I don’t (yet) know.
Before I know it, I’ve crossed the main road and find myself on the east side, just north of Damascus gate. Salah Eddin is stirring with activity, and with the rain and the traffic and the sidewalks packed with pedestrians, it begins to feel like so many cities might feel on a weekend afternoon. And perhaps now I understand why the journey might have felt so far.
Few things so good for the soul as Friday afternoon shopping at the shuk. A couple hours before sundown and the start of shabbat, the vendors start to heckle like crazy. They get so into their performances, that in a way, it’s like a free, impromptu concert every week. If you want to eat cheap, Fridays at the shuk are the way to go: You can get a bag stuffed with fresh vegetables for under a buck, and eat like a queen all week long.
What are you craving? What do you need to stock up on? You’ll find shops full of fresh grains, spice shops, arrays of pastries fresh out of the oven (my favorite is the woman singing about burekas - “Esrim shekel, esrim shekel!”), shops for nuts and seeds. There are half a dozen bakeries within the market itself, so you can buy your pita, moroccan bread, challah and baguette straight as it comes out of the oven - it doesn’t even have to touch the bakery counter. Or how about dried fruits? Beyond the standard dates, raisins, figs, apricots, apples, pineapples… you can also find mangoes, papaya, kiwi, and (delicious!) dried strawberries.
You’ll also find a few specialty wine and cheese shops; some top-notch butchers, fresh fish, and dried meats. There are even a handful of cafés and bars in the shuk - catch a cool beer or a glass of wine after your afternoon shopping.
My most recent find was a spice shop toward the Agrippas end of the market, run by a kind old man who helps me select the right teas and coffee (and coffee grind). Today I bought some sea salt from the Dead Sea; last week some fresh loose-leaf teas: rooibos, a fruit-floral blend, and sage. In fact, it was awhile ago now that I first visited this shop: the first time, in search of some cooking spices, I ended up overturning one of the bins, and, mortified found myself with a pile of dried thyme at my feet. The shop owner brushed it away graciously, and I decided then I’d make a point to patronize this shop whenever possible.
Do I sound like a travel guide? That’s partly because I’ve spent part of this week doing some freelance writing for a travel company in the bay area, providing some descriptions for a trip they offer through Nepal. It’s been fun to venture out of the academic mode and try my hand at a different kind of writing - fun, too, to write about a vastly different kind of landscape - stark mountains, remote countryside.
But beyond that, I’m just trying to paint a picture for you back home, of what an interesting, lively place this is. Please, some of you need to come visit already: I want to share these charming places with you!
And here are some photos from a Friday trip to the shuk a few weeks ago: