Over the last three weeks, I’ve been in five countries, stayed with seven different groups of people, taken nine flights, and eaten more hummus than you can imagine, all to determine what I believe about my religion and my homeland. Needless to say, it’s been quite the journey.
I’m still trying to process the places I saw, conversations I had, and emotions I felt, so I want to use this blog to reflect on and share my experience, and open the door to further discussion.
While I spent less than 48 hours in Jordan, I was able to accomplish a lot. I went to visit Amman, the capital of Jordan which has nearly half of the country’s population. The city has a history spanning thousands of years, but the modern city of Amman wasn’t established until the late 1800s with Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, and Armenians among others. Today, a majority of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent, mostly from 1948 and 1967.
I began the day with a guided tour of the ancient Roman amphitheater, outdoor markets, and mosques. While I had many interesting conversations, it was very different witnessing a society which does not have free speech. When I would ask people about the King, they would lean into my ear to whisper to avoid government spies. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to post about politics on Facebook or even criticize government decisions when talking with friends. It was also interesting to notice people’s reactions when I brought up Israel casually in conversations. Despite the two countries having a peace agreement, sharing a large border, and having close governmental cooperation, the people I met were not curious about Israel at all. They had not been to Israel or met an Israeli, and didn’t really have an interest in doing either.
The most eye-opening part of my time was visiting the Jordanian Martyr’s Memorial, a museum recounting Jordanian war history and honoring soldiers which died in combat. A friendly man guided me through the museum, explaining what had taken place during each of the wars, most of which were against Israel. It was fascinating hearing such different perspectives on these events than I have. For example, he described the War in 1948 as Jordan defending Palestinians as Israel took over Palestine versus six Arab countries attack Israel to rid the land of any Jewish presence and the Jewish State miraculously surviving. When I asked about the noticeably absent Israel-Jordan peace treaty, he dismissively said that I could google it if I want.
After the intense day, I loved visiting two of my friends from the Arava Institute. I had a really interesting religious conversation with my Muslim friends; although we follow different faiths, we both believe in a powerful force for good which can cause explainable miracles which cannot be explained, see the importance of continuing religious traditions, and recognize the foresight embedded within our sacred texts.
It was so nice to be back to a place I consider home. Seeing Israeli flags, hearing Hebrew, and watching Egged buses drive by, things just felt right. I spent the first couple days in Israel up North, going to an Arava Institute alumni camping trip and visiting my Birthright security guard.
Then, I headed to Nazareth, a historic Arab city. A wonderful Duke professor had gotten me in contact with his friend who lives nearby, and I had set up to stay with his family and hang out with his son. Upon arriving, I felt so welcomed. I was offered a delicious meal and had conversations with many of the family members. Their family had lived in the town for over a thousand years, and mostly identified as Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. We discussed many of the perceptions I have of Israel and the conflict, and it was really eye-opening. I struggled to grapple with the understanding of Palestine as a country before 1948, even though it didn’t have the characteristics of a Western nation-state, and thus Israel was “taking over.” Although we had many discussions about 1948 at the Arava Institute, this idea had never really sunk in with me, but it really helps to understand “the Palestinian perspective.”
I had two competing thoughts in my head: (1) Jews were persecuted in exile and coming back to their homeland as refugees. We need a state for our survival, to ensure we could control our own destiny, and fulfill our two-thousand year promise of “next year in Jerusalem.” (2) There were over a million non-Jewish Arabs living in Mandate Palestine. The land was declared as the Jewish State, and over 80% of the Palestinian population fled or was kicked out when it was other Arab countries attacking Israel, and they were prohibited from returning to their homes.
I began pondering hypothetical questions, such as could Jews have survived and thrived had Israel not been declared as a Jewish State and what would have happened if Arab leadership in 1947 would have accepted the U.N. Partition Plan. Spending time with my new friend at his family’s plot of olive trees and hiking up Mount Tabor enabled me to start explore these ideas before leaving the village and heading to Jerusalem.
Ever since I was a kid, I have wanted to experience Memorial Day and Independence Day in Israel. Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) in Israel was one of the most emotional days I’ve ever had. I went with my friend who I stayed with to the Pardes Institute of Jewish Learning (like an international pluralistic Yeshiva). In the morning, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three Israeli teens kidnapped and killed in 2014, came to speak. I remember this tragedy very clearly; hearing daily updates on the search and participating in a memorial ceremony led by heartbroken Israelis. I broke into tears as Rachel recounted the events of her son’s horrific capture and murder. She spoke about how the whole country came together – secular and religious, liberal and conservative – to pray for their return and later mourn their loss. I can’t imagine a mother having to mourn her son, saying the words “we will have to learn to sing without you” at his funeral, and somehow remaining so positive.
That night, I attended the official opening ceremony of Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) with a close Israeli friend at the Western Wall. It began with a siren, during which everyone was completely still and silent for a minute to commemorate the people whose lives have been lost. As the ceremony proceeded, I couldn’t understand many of the words in Hebrew, but I could feel the sentiments of grieving, sacrifice, and hope. Hearing the Hatikvah then, Israel’s national anthem which translates to english as “The Hope,” was very powerful. After it ended, I went up to the Wall. Despite having visited this sacred space over a dozen times, I began to cry. It’s nearly impossible to explain why, nor do I fully understand myself, except to say that I was overwhelmed with gratitude, connection, purpose, and faith in an incredible way.
The following day after seeing cars stop on the road and people get out of their cars for the second siren, I went with Pardes to Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetary. While I had visited before, it was particularly emotional as a former IDF soldier, the son of the dean of Pardes, spoke about his friends at their graves who were killed in combat and recalled memories of other Israeli heroes. Throughout the cemetary, we saw Jews buried who had come to Israel from all over the world and sacrificed their lives to ensure the survival and prosperity of future generations.
Independence Day was truly an amazing celebration. Machane Yehuda, the market in Jerusalem, turned into a massive party with a huge concert, tons of people, blaring horns, and fireworks shows. It’s hard to believe how rapidly the transition occurred from Memorial to Independence Day, but I think it reinforces how much it means “to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” I also attended a huge barbecue of Americans in Israel, and met with my former Duke professor and well-known biblical scholar before heading back to the Arava Institute to spend time with friends for the weekend.
For the final part of my trip, my dad and I met in Poland to learn about and experience an important piece of our Jewish history, where members of my family had lived and many of the tragedies of the Holocaust took place. We did five tours in five days: secular and Jewish tours in both Warsaw and Krakow, as well as visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau.
We began by touring what was formerly Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. While there was a marker on the ground noting where the wall surrounding the ghetto had previously stood, trapping 400,000 Jews in 1.3 square miles with minimal food, it would be really easy to miss had it not been pointed out. It’s disturbing to realize that if the history would stop being talked about, people would no longer know it. Furthermore, genocides have occurred repeatedly since the Holocaust, including multiple taking place at this very moment, yet some of the same arguments which justified inaction 75 years ago persist today as I wrote about in my recent Duke Chronicle article.
With that thought in mind, my dad and I flew to Krakow and visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp where around 1.1 million people were murdered, approximately 960,000 of which were Jews. During the tour, we quite literally walked through how/where the business of killing took place. People were suffered onto cattle cars, sometimes for over a week without food or water. Upon arrival, families were separated with most women, children, and men who were deemed unable to work sent to “take a shower” and were killed in the gas chamber with Zyklon B gas. One of the toughest parts of the day was seeing the opened cans of Zyklon B, knowing the chemicals in these cans, and the Nazis that opened them, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
We saw massive containers of peoples’ belongings, including their clothes, suitcases, and tallit (Jewish prayer shawls), which were stolen and sent to Germany to sell for profit. For the people who weren’t immediately murdered, they were forced to work 11 hours a day building the camp or assisting in killing their brethren, sometimes in the freezing cold weather, all with minimal food, multiple hour line-ups, and sleeping six people to a small wooden board or being forced to stay standing. Any acts of resistance would lead to being shot and killed, bringing about an even quicker death than being sent to the gas chamber soon after.
Despite these incomprehensible horrors, or maybe even because of them, it didn’t sink in where I was or what had taken place there. It felt as if we were in a museum of a distant history rather than witnessing the terror of Nazi Germany that killed six million Jews including many of my relatives. I’ve gotten very emotional when I’ve heard Holocaust survivors speak in the past, so I think grappling with the personal experiences and the people they affected felt much more real than Auschwitz and Birkenau did. I really struggled with my reaction, but felt more assured as other friends who had seen it had similar reactions.
For my dad’s birthday, we took a segway tour of Krakow, a really beautiful city. It was not destroyed in the war, so many of the buildings from the 11th century are still standing. I loved riding through the gardens, by the castle, and around the main square. We then joined a Jewish tour of the city which was very well-done but also extremely depressing. We heard about Nazis throwing Jewish babies out of windows and that dead bodies were stored in a synagogue, preventing it from ever becoming a house of worship again. Despite it all, there is a Jewish Community Center for members of today’s Krakow Jewish community. I was struck by the fact that there was no security guard and the gate was open for all to come visit and learn. This is not to say there is no longer antisemitism there; antisemitism has remained very prevalent in Poland, even in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust: acts of violence, denying Polish culpability, and even souvenirs of Jews with big noses and a coin in the figure’s hand.
Our final stop in Poland, the Jewish history museum, explored the history of Jews in Poland spanning over a thousand years. Poland was actually the only country in Europe where the Jewish community was provided legal protection, going back to the 1400s. This condition led to a very large number of Jews coming to Poland. The Jewish community was very diverse, consisting of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry and holding a variety of political ideologies, but nearly the entire population was killed during the Holocaust.
It was naive to think that after three weeks, I would somehow know my beliefs about G-D, practicing Judaism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American foreign policy. Some people dedicate their entire lives to exploring just one question within one of these massive categories.
Nevertheless, I feel my trip was a huge success. I learned so much about history, politics, language, and culture. I loved seeing my study abroad friends and made many new friends too. Most importantly, I have reaffirmed how important Judaism, Israel, policy-making, and peace-building are to who I am as a person.
I want to thank everyone who made my trip possible. Thank you to the Duke Center for Jewish Studies for awarding me the Seymour H. Shore Scholarship. Thanks to everyone who hosted me while I was traveling around Israel – I really loved spending time together and appreciate the warm hospitality. Finally, I want to thank my family who, despite having reservations, agreed for me to take the trip and have supported me along this personal journey.