The overall experience of the Yad Vashem trip is one that is difficult to capture. It was painful for some, aggravating for others, evocative for everyone, and neutral for no one. Our tour was split into two groups, one conducted in English and the other in Arabic. As a student of the Arabic language, I opted to go with the latter group. My reasoning was twofold: First, it was excellent practice for comprehension; and secondly, since I had gone on the English tour last summer, I was looking to detect a difference between the story told to the Palestinians versus the one told to the foreigners. I’m grateful to say that there was no difference substantial enough to note.
The substance came through after the tour, in the formal discussion that followed. The groups combined in a small seminar room on the lower level of the museum, where we met with scholar and Holocaust historian Dr. Yurit. Our discussion danced around issues of history, homeland and hostility, all rooted in the current significance of an historical catastrophe. Dr. Yurit stressed the importance of telling the story of the Holocaust from a subjective, Zionist perspective that culminates in the creation of Israel. The Holocaust, she argued, is a fundamentally Jewish story, and it must be told as such.
Many of the Palestinians in our group had some difficulty coming to terms with this presentation of an event which they had learned very little about before this visit. The difficulty is understandable, considering what Zionism and the state of Israel signify to them. Even more incomprehensible was the realization that the photos of fenced-in ghettos remind them so much of the village they call home, and that some of the soldiers who sit at checkpoints are the very descendants of those photographed prisoners of the past. The frustration that is fueled by this tragic irony is real, and it needed to be expressed. The fact that we gave the Palestinians a chance to do so, while it may have been painful for some, is something to be celebrated.
The discussion was so evocative that it did not end when we exited the museum. Each participant, Palestinian or foreign, was bursting with something to say. On the bus ride to the Mediterranean, we told the driver to cut the music so that we could better manage our meanings across the linguistic divide. I personally have never spoken clearer Arabic than I did in the half hour separating Jerusalem from the sea. For some reason, passion pulls the levers of comprehension and communication in a way that nothing else can.
In retrospect, that bus ride back-and-forth may have been the most significant segment of our entire trip. What it signifies is that this camp generates a willingness–no, a desire to exchange ideas and deal rationally with difficult and delicate discourse. This lesson, in my view, is the most fundamental part of our exchange, and it is vital to the survival of the region.