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The Camel Jockey, Baptism and some Dead Scrolls

In the interests of self-preservation in the face of youthful children, I have (and I hang my head in shame) neglected to complete the last few entries of my blog. The intensity of the last few days of my journey in Israel left me with little time to spare and I was the proverbial chicken with its head lopped off. Then my sudden return to Aotearoa coincided with an overabundance of man flu which saw what little time I had devoted to not looking useless in front of my students.

Now, with some time to spare, I will attempt to reconstruct the last few days of the trip and provide some more insight into the incredible land of Israel.

The final Saturday of our time in Jerusalem was welcomed by a flurry of ice, snow and the usual crazy driving of the local populace. In New Zealand, cold and wet roads generally send cyclists and scooters/motorbikes into their garages for warmth and safety. Yet in Jerusalem, it seemed to provide added impetus to the road craft of two wheeled vehicles as they fought frenetically for street position amongst the steel cages dotted along the roads. It still amazes me that in our time in Israel, we only saw two significant accidents, though many cars did bear the scars of the fight for transit primacy.

We started off the day with a wish and a prayer, our tour guide – the remarkably knowledgeable Amir – informed us that the highway south to Masada was awash with flash flooding and closed. For some of us on the trip, this was akin to a punch in the guts. Masada is something that occupies any history of the Jewish struggle and as a qualified history nerd, to miss out on the physical experience of the place was distressing to say the least. Yet, not to be outdone, Amir improvised and instead of taking us to the controversial site of Jewish resistance, he directed the tour to a stop at sea level where we were accosted by a local lad charging 20 shekels for a brief camel ride.

You are now standing at sea level!

Now a camel is a most peculiar animal, something of a cross between a cat’s disdain for humanity and a teenager’s ability to speedily follow instructions. Somewhere within all that mirth and animosity resides an animal that moves only slightly less haphazardly than the sinking Titanic. Being ushered by a young man to mount the beast, I quickly found that fitted jeans are not made with the intention of ever having to ‘throw a leg over’ what is essentially a 500kg lump of dumb. Thus, much to my handler’s delight, I quickly proved that the camel was actually more intelligent than myself as I hammered my shin into the thick wooden edge of the saddle. Ten seconds later – after an extended use of sentence enhancers – I was perched precariously upon the great ship of the desert. Hanging on for dear life, my hands clawed for purchase as the camel slowly, and awkwardly, unfolded itself (in every sense of the word) into a standing position and proceeded to walk me in a two metre circle. Following the circle and a moment of ‘full control,’ the camel’s owner hastened the camel back into a sitting position – by hissing at it like a snake and looking at the camel like he just might punch it – and the incredible unfolding process repeated itself in reverse.

Eat your heart out Lawrence of Arabia.

Once free of the dromedarian curiosity, the group boarded a tour bus where we began our descent from sea level to the Dead Sea. Once we had arrived at the literal bottom of terra firma (some 400 metres below sea level), we turned north and headed towards some rather unexceptional military zones and a large tourist building.

Gotta love a uniform!

Here we discovered ourselves at the fabled site of the prophet Elijah’s ascension into heaven, the crossing point of the Israelite migration into Judea, and also the traditional site of John’s baptism of Jesus. The place, Qasr el Yahud or Al-Maghtas – depending on whether you are Jewish or Arab – sits right on the border between Israel and Jordan and until recently, has been completely inaccessible because historically, both Israel and Jordan played a huge game of tiddly-winks with landmines around the region. Now opened to the public, this historic place reveals a shallow and tremendously boring little creek that had been stained brown by the overnight rains. Needless to say, despite the historical contexts, the Jordan River is easily one of the least impressive things visible in Israel. However, I did make good use of my time at the river by dipping some Christian bling into the murky waters for my daughters, and I also got a cheeky photograph with two IDF soldiers who were happy to mug for pics.

Looking over the Jordan River to the Jordan country.

After some quick pics down at the water, with some of the more adventurous members of the group getting their feet wet, we drove out of the militarised zone, back towards a largely stark looking set of cliffs and a large tourist hot spot. Here we found ourselves at Qumran, the now famous discovery site of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were discovered amidst the chasms and crags of the Judaean Desert in 1948 by a couple of Bedouin herders who, having lost an animal, began to throw rocks into caves in the hope of scaring the lost animal out. One of the caves they threw rocks into startled the herders who expected to either hear the echoes of stone bouncing off stone or, at the very least, the cries of a stone struck goat who had deserted its flock. Instead they heard the distinctive sound of pottery breaking. Overcoming their fear of the dark and jinns (potentially evil spirits thought to dwell in caves), the herders discovered a bunch of ancient canisters containing rolled parchment with inscriptions.

A facsimile of one of the more complete Dead Sea Scrolls.

To cut a long historical story short, the discovery of the parchment led to the exploration and discovery of eleven caves that divulged over 800 scrolls of varying importance and significance. Within the scrolls are fragments of all the Old Testament books except Esther, and the oldest surviving text of the book of Isaiah. Surprisingly, there is also a copper scroll reputed to reveal 64 locations where treasure from the Jewish temple were spirited away for safe keeping. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time, nor enough knowledge of ancient Hebrew to successfully undertake a treasure hunt, and as such, I will not be retiring or purchasing a Harley Davidson anytime soon.

A Cave which contained scrolls and was probably a great place to chill and pray back in the day.

Putting aside thoughts of buried treasure, Qumran exposes tourists to the monastic style of life that the community – called the Essenes – must have lived by. Isolated from civilisation, the community would have spent the majority of its days engaged in the religious and communal life designed to prepare the Sons of Light, as the Essenes called themselves (who doesn’t like a superhero name?), for the final battle against the Sons of Darkness (obviously the Sith). However, sheltered and isolated as they were, the Sons of Light could not withstand the might of the Roman Legions and the site was abandoned sometime around 68CE. It is thought that the Essenes hid their writings in the caves above their community buildings rather than let them fall into the hands of the dastardly Romans.

Remnants of the Essenes’ community dwellings.

After a good deal of time spent getting trigger happy with our cameras at Qumran, it was time to make some choices. Amir sternly informed us that the road south to Masada was still closed, so we planned to visit the Dead Sea slightly earlier than expected and see if the road opened up later in the afternoon. So, with the dust of one of the earliest Judeo Monastic cultures on our feet, we headed east towards the liquid salt-fest where we were assured of a fantastic time.

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Independence, Fighting Fit and Peanut Butter

The start of our day began with a trip to Tel Aviv where we visited Independence Hall, the place where the State of Israel was declared back on May 14, 1948. The sight of the announcement occurred in the house of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff who had converted his own house into an art gallery after his wife’s death. Eventually the gallery was renovated and served as the Tel Aviv museum until 1971.

A sculpture of Dizengoff outside his former house.

However, in 1948, the museum was to serve a more important purpose. The Jewish people were in the middle of a bitter civil war with the Arab peoples of Palestine who had laid siege to Jerusalem, and the British Mandate was set to expire the following day. Unable to declare independence from their spiritual capital, the Jewish leadership decided to use the Tel Aviv Museum on account of its ability to also act as a safe house in the event of a bombing. Invitations were sent out to important members of the public asking them to show up at 3:30pm the following day and to keep the meeting secret. Nevertheless, the next day crowds camped out in front of the museum and welcomed the leaders as they entered the building.

At 4:00pm, David Ben-Gurion began to recite the scroll of the Establishment of the State and approximately sixteen minutes later he asked Rabbi Fishman to say a traditional Jewish blessing. 25 members of the Moetzet HaAm (the Provisional State Council) signed the document – 12 members could not as they were trapped in Jerusalem. Once the members of the Moetzet HaAm had signed the document, the anthem Hatikvah played, following which Ben-Gurion announced to the world, “The State of Israel is established! This meeting is adjourned!” This then turned what was essentially a civil war into a war of independence as the neighbouring Arab nations of Trans-Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq all declared war against the new Israeli state.

David Ben-Gurion’s Place Marker and microphone (centre) in Declaration Hall.

Ignoring the political, military and social consequences of the signing, the site of the declaration is still a huge part of Israeli pride. Within the museum, the room in which the scroll was signed still remains in its original state (after being recreated by David Gafni, the man who had originally set up the hall). Around that walls are reproductions and originals of the art works that stood in the room as the declaration scroll was signed, including works by Marc Chagall and other Jewish painters. Finally, above the main table and sandwiched between two banners that would become the Israeli flag is a massive portrait of Theodor Herzl, the man who dreamed the Israeli state into being.

Declaration Hall within the Independence Museum, the place where the State of Israel came into being.

Following our time at Independence Hall our next port of call was the stunning Palmach Museum. The Palmach – established in 1941 – was the attack wing of the Hagana, the armed force dedicated to the defence of the Jewish communities prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Palmach was made out of youthful conscripts, both male and female in their late teens and early twenties. These recruits received vigorous training to prepare them for the armed conflict and sabotage missions that they would be exposed to. Early on in their creation, weapons and equipment were in short supply and units might only share one pistol or a rifle between them. This changed when the British Army recruited the Hagana to help them in their defence against the German forces under Rommel in North Africa. Suddenly, the Palmach had weapons and equipment at their disposal and used this to effectively train the youthful soldiers.

However, after Rommel’s defeat in May 1942, the British no longer needed the support of the Palmach and Hagana and requested their equipment back. Unsurprisingly, the British equipment wasn’t exactly forthcoming. The loss of British support also meant that the Palmach could no longer support itself and it faced the threat of disbandment. This was remedied by Yitzhak Tabenkin, the head of the Kibbutz Union (a kibbutz was a communal farm in British Palestine), who helped to keep the Pulmach alive by assigning platoons to the various kibbutzim. The Pulmach then worked a monthly schedule that involved 8 training days, 14 work days farming the kibbutz, followed by seven days off.

The Pulmach continued to exist and engaged in operations against both the British – in an attempt to force them out of Palestine – and the Arabs, in both a defensive and offensive capacity, oftentimes against civilian populations. The museum attempts to recreate the experiences of a Pulmach platoon from its inception during World War II through to the Pulmach’s assimilation into the Israeli Defense Forces in 1948 and the end of the Israeli War of Independence. As an experimental museum there are no normal displays or photographs. Instead groups are led on a journey that is seen through the eyes of the individual soldiers during the existence of the Pulmach. This journey includes watching battle scenes and listening to the stories of the soldiers as they experience both triumph and tragedy.

Members of the Israeli Defense Forces strutting their stuff in Tel Aviv. The Pulmach and Hagana were the forerunners of these modern units.

The actual museum is run by the Israeli Defense Forces and we were guided through our tour by two young female soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the extreme nationalism evident in the museum failed to mention some of the more questionable actions of the Pulmach, especially incidents in which they deliberately attacked Arab residential zones with the sole purpose of destroying them. Atrocities aside, the museum was a fantastic experience and really brought to life the fears and desires of a blossoming Israeli nation.

Following a visit to the Pulmach Museum, we then took a quick ride out to the city of Jaffa. To cut a long story short, we used the opportunity to frolic ankle deep in the Mediterranean and eat a vast quantity of caramel and peanut gelato. It seems that the residents here have a particular fondness for peanut butter flavour and it can be found in just about any snack, including chips, and I for one, cannot complain!

Standing ankle deep in the Mediterranean. The locals thought we were nuts, we thought the water was warm!

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Jet lagged and straight into lectures.

After arriving late into Tel Aviv and making the quick trip into Jerusalem, we were treated to a rather average dinner by the hotel before slumping our way to bed at 23:30. Not to be outdone by twenty-two hours of travel and a morning spent in the cold sun in Korea, the body clock continued to emphasise the fact that it was still on New Zealand time, exactly 11 hours earlier than Israeli time. This had the direct result of one lying in a blackened room, staring at the ceiling, fidgeting from side to side, and praying for sleep that just wouldn’t come. After literally four hours sleep, my alarm went off and I slunk out of bed, ready for my first day at Yad Vashem.

I will put my breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil… Ezekiel 37:14

Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial centre, established to immortalize the memory of the six million Jews who died as a result of the Nazi’s Final Solution. The name, as with everything important in Israel, is derived from the Jewish scriptures and is found in the book of Isaiah, “Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).

The centre itself is designed to not only immortalise the memory of the six million Jewish victims, but also document the historical nature of the Holocaust, continue research into the victims and the event, and educate people globally about the most destructive and planned genocide to ever occur in world history.

Thus, with the weight of little to no sleep, and the goal of understanding one of the most horrific events in the last one hundred years, I boarded the groups merry orange bus and steeled myself for what would be two and a half weeks of intensive lectures and activities.

The New Zealand contingent at the entrance to the centre, about to start our journey.

Our first lecture, attended with the help of triple espresso Americanos and bleary eyes, was run by the incredibly charismatic Stephanie McMahon-Kaye. Steph’s job was to broach the immensely difficult practice of presenting the Holocaust to our students in a manner that allowed them to understand both victim and perpetrator and look at the human elements of the event. For this purpose, we were introduced to the concept of referring to the Holocaust by the Hebrew term, Shoah. The Shoah is an important idea because within our culture the Holocaust has come to refer to not only the mass extermination of the Jewish people, but also the mass killings of homosexuals, gypsies and other peoples considered inferior by the Nazis. Yet by thinking of the atrocity with a Jews and others mentality, we lose sight of what the Holocaust actually was by practice.  At the heart of the Nazi plan, the Shoah was a completely planned and implemented attempt to destroy global Jewry in its entirety. In all its documentation, from the initial implementation of The Final Solution at Wannsee, to the various orders given to the officers in charge of Jewish detention and execution, the only acceptable outcome in the eyes of the Nazi party was the complete eradication of the Jewish population in its entirety. Thus, while other people groups were caught up within the mass exterminations, the Holocaust remains an essentially Jewish experience, and it is from this angle that we must approach our understanding of the event.

We must also broach the horrors of the holocaust in a humane and empathetic manner. How can we create empathy if a child’s first experience of the Shoah is seen in the photographs of the bodies at Bergen-Belsen? To do this, Steph introduced our group to the softly in, softly out approach. This pedagogy implements the idea of creating an early connection with the audience before taking them into the horrors of the Shoah, before finally bringing them out of the experience in a way that they can relate and discuss their experiences. To this end, an understanding of the Shoah begins with an understanding of the Jewish people; seeing and hearing them in a way that develops a form of kinship. This understanding then develops further when individual stories are related to the audience – the fifteen year old boy who loved sport witnesses his father’s execution before he is taken to a death camp where he stays alive by helping to remove the gold fillings of the dead. Finally, the narrative ends by drawing the students out of the darkness of the Shoah and provides positive narratives of survival or rescue stories that helps each student to see that true evil can be countered by compassion and humanism. In this way, the weight of the atrocity can be managed in a way that allows students to not only connect with and see the evils of the Shoah, but also understand that there is always hope, and it is this hope in liberation that we want all our students to fight for.

A young soldier swipes right during some down time at Yad Vashem.

Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force outside Yad Vashem. The soldiers, as part of their training, receive instruction through Yad Vashem’s education centre.

Following Steph, our two other lecturers over the following days were Rabbi Zvi Hirshfield and Rivkah Duker-Fishman. Rabbi Hirshfield was an engaging and thoroughly entertaining lecturer who opened our eyes to the historical concept of the Jewish faith and its idea of Godly covenants with both the people and the land. Rivkah was equally engaging as she discussed the historical identity of the Jews following the destruction of the Temple in 70BCE through to the middle ages. Rivkah’s sense of humour and dry wit made a very lengthy subject that revolved around historical sources and narratives extremely engaging and her ability to shine a light on Jewish persecution under both Christian and Muslim rulers was outstanding.

Homat Shemu’el – Har Homa. A Palestinian enclave within the Israeli territory.

Surrounding the lectures were two events that really expanded on our appreciation and understanding of the Jewish landscape. At the end of the first day we took a bus tour around the city of Jerusalem. The bus tour revealed several things including the Southern Part of the city, some of the disputed settlements and a stop at the British War Cemetery on Mount Scopus. The first thing that stood out was the very mountainous nature of the land around Israel. Everything is either a valley or a hill with a sparse array of gnarled olive or Cyprus trees. Looking at the land, I couldn’t help but think about Jesus and his disciples. If those guys wandered around preaching regularly in the hills, they would have been either extremely malnourished and tanned, or extremely strong with the ability to fight off attackers. Regardless, a trip into the wilderness here requires some good fitness and a desire to walk for great distances over hard, rocky ground.

Finally on Tuesday morning, we were taken on a guided tour of the Yad Vashem Museum by Ephraim Kaye. The museum itself has to be seen to believed. After the Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the museum hosts the second most amount of tourists with over one million people walking its halls annually. The museum itself forces people through a chronological journey that takes them through both the history of World War II Europe and the experience of the Jewish people during that time. Needless to say, the experience is both extremely personal and harrowing at the same time. Although I am familiar with many of the photographs and stories on display, seeing the actual clothing of victims, particularly the clothes that were worn by children as young as my daughters really brought the reality of the Jewish suffering home.

At the end of the Yad Vashem Museum, the building opens out to a view of the countryside, emphasising the idea of hope and revival.

Despite the weight of the seminars and tours, the group I am with is really beginning to bond and moments of hilarity are helping to humanise the whole experience that we have engaged with. While I am running on empty, simple things like a beer in the centre of Jerusalem, or a bit of banter in the back of a bus makes the whole experience more approachable. I look forward to the following days and the new learning that will run alongside them.