Monday, May 21, 2018

Things one needs to know about IDF snipers


A number of weeks ago a video about an Israeli sniper went viral. The film appeared to show the sniper celebrating a shot that injured a Palestinian approaching the border between Israel and Gaza – hardly a war crime, but admittedly not admirable behavior. It then transpired that the celebrating film had been done by someone else, not the sniper. In the general hullaballoo most people didn't seem to notice the real significance of the film, which documented the deliberation and care taken by the sniper and his commander in identifying the target, ascertaining its legitimacy, and shooting only once all the relevant questions had been satisfactorily answered. In order to understand that one would have had to know Hebrew, and most people who stridently proclaim about Israel's actions don't know Hebrew.

Then an IDF reserve officer, Kinley Tur-Paz, came back from the field and posted his experiences on the Times of Israel website. This one was in English, and while it didn't go into great detail, it repeated the same message: IDF snipers are very careful, to the extent that every single shot they make must be entered in an Excel spreadsheet file so as to be accounted for.

Over the weekend Yochai Ofer published the most detailed description of all, in Hebrew in Makor Rishon. Here's a synopsis of his article:

IDF snipers are hand-picked for their ability to stay calm under pressure. They are given special training, which includes the ability to remain still and stable for protracted periods, and to synchronize their breathing with the operation of their weapons. They never shoot in anger or excitement, only after deliberation and careful identification of their targets.

The weapons they use are chosen for the mission, and different contexts require different rifles.

Before  shooting they will have carefully measured distances and the force of the wind. Mistakes can happen and live shots can go astray, but every reasonable precaution is taken that they won't. The snipers are to identify specific targets, and hit only them.

The snipers work in teams, rotating between them to prevent shooting in a state of physical discomfort or exhaustion. Each team is commanded by an experienced sniper armed with powerful binoculars.

Each shot must be authorized by a colonel.

Prior to the events of the Gaza fence the locations were visited by the Military Attorney General, General Sharon Affek, who was briefed on the preparations and authorized them. We are not told if he made corrections, but given his record he well may have. Affek, it might be worth noting, was recently promoted to full General, and became the first openly homosexual officer to reach that rank.

The men targeted by the snipers on the Gaza border were either engaged in harming the border fence or leaders who had been identified for exhorting others to so do.

So what does all this tell us? It doesn't prove that no mistakes were made, and that 100% of the shots made by the IDF never hit the wrong people. But it goes a long way to explain how tens of thousands of demonstrators who remained back from the fence went home unharmed at the end of each day of demonstrations; and it explains why almost all of the casualties were members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. It also begs the question as to the identity of other casualties; if it is true, for example, that a 14-year-old was killed, do we know the specific context of his actions as he was shot? Was he standing 300 yards from the fence waving a flag, or was he perhaps trying to cut the fence? Were the snipers able to know his age?

You read the furious denunciations of Israel for its massacre of innocents, and you know how the IDF operates, and you ask yourself how it's possible to bridge the two narratives and if it's not possible, what to learn from the chasm.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Koolulam: Startup Nation meets Secular Prayer

One place to start this story would be the dark years of the 2nd Intifada, when Israelis tried to leave their homes as little as possible because visiting supermarkets, riding busses and walking down the street were all life-threatening activities. Jerusalem was perhaps worst-hit of all, and people from the rest of the country stopped coming. Then, as the security forces figured out how to block the suicide murderers, life slowly returned to normal. In Jerusalem a new phenomenon appeared, with thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of regular Israelis traveling there on the hot summer nights of August and September to participate in tours of old neighborhoods, synagogues, then finishing late at night at the large open square in front of the Western Wall, the Kotel. The highpoint of these pilgrimages are the final nights before Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar; in recent years the number of people cramming onto that square easily surpasses a quarter million each night, and their cumulative number exceeds 1.5 million. Once they're there, they sing slichot – medieval texts asking God's forgiveness. All together. Like this.


In early 2017 Or Teicher, a secular Israeli producer, saw that clip and wondered if he could bring together ordinary Israelis, strangers to each other, and get them to sing together with some sort of fervor. So he tried. He collected some talented people around him, they collected 400 people in Tel Aviv, and on April 15th 2017 they sung together. Here, watch them:

On September 7th 2017, as the Jewish High Holidays approached, they collected 600 people in Jerusalem. Their technique was getting better, and it was a smashing success:

On December 17th 2017 they gathered 600 mostly secular Israelis in Tel Aviv and sang about believing, in English. Another roaring success.

There's logistics in there, and organizational ability on multiple levels. There's musical creativity in spades. The cameras turn a crowd into a sea of identifiable and fascinating people with faces. And of course, there's that astonishingly charismatic young man with the dreadlocks who pulls everyone into a seamless many-layered choir in a single hour, even as most of them have never previously sung a single chord with the others. So they upped their ante. On Jan. 1st 2018, they organized 2,000 people in a gigantic tent in Tel Aviv, and proved the model worked with larger numbers, too.

On February 14th 2018 they pulled together 3,000 people in Haifa, and sang Matisyahu's One Day in three languages, Arabic English and Hebrew. If you haven't been paying attention, concentrate on the faces, their diversity, and of course, their intensity:
   

Later that week was International Women's Day, so they had an event by and for women only, 2,000 of them. The endlessly energetic Ben Yeffet, not being a woman, wasn't there. They all had a great time.
  

They have no website, if you're wondering, and no swanky marketing operation. They're propelled by the excitement they're generating, as ever broader swathes of Israeli society take notice of this new cultural phenomenon sprouting among us; they announce their next events on a Facebook page.

On April 2nd 2018 they tried something new, with 7,500 people singing simultaneously in five different cities: Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Dimona, Rishon Lezion, and Kiryat Motzkin. The genius was adding Kiryat Motzkin, a scruffy town no-one has ever even heard of unless they live there; it turns out the locals know how to sing as well as everyone else.

Then they turned deeply serious. For Yom Hashoah in April 2018 they collected dozens of Holocaust survivors and three generations of their descendants, and together they prayed Ofra Haza's song I'm Alive. If you can watch this one without being moved to tears, you're a lost case.


This week (April 16th 2018) they unveiled their largest event so far: 12,000 people, joined by Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, singing Naomi Shemer's immortal paean to the beauty and wonder of this flawed land we live in. If this isn't a new form of mass devotion, I don't know what might be.
 

Monday, April 16, 2018

How to prove you don't have a sister, or The insidious assumptions of Israel-critical journalists

The first half of that caption is a common hebrew saying, noting how it can be impossible to disprove baseless allegations. After all, perhaps when your father was 16 and drunk late one night he had an encounter which ended up in your having a (half) sister you've never heard of? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

Earlier today a journalist sent me a series of questions about stuff that happens at the Israel State Archives, of which I'm still the boss until the end of next month. The first question or two were informative, if not particularly well informed, as a short visit to our website could have shown. But then she got down to business, with questions that already contained her theses; and her theses contained fundamental assumptions not only about the ISA, but also about how things work in Israel in general.

Here are her questions and my answers. Judge for yourself.




·       Is the State Archives open to people to visit in the reading room or are all documents only accessible on line? What happens if a person is looking for a document or documents that are not currently digitized?

As a general statement access to the archival holdings of the Israel State Archives (ISA) is via the archive's website, which has two interfaces, one in Hebrew and one in English, each of which uses the same search engine on the same collections. Individuals who demonstrate a specific need to see the original files can view them in the archives office building, in a specially designated room which you might call a reading room, except that most days it's empty because few people see the need to visit it. Files which have been partially redacted, for whatever reason (security, privacy, copyright), can be viewed only digitally as the redaction is done digitally. Whenever anyone requests to see a file which has not yet been checked or digitized or both, the file is sent immediately to be digitized and then to be checked; upon completion the scan is uploaded to the website and an announcement with the link is sent to the person who made the request. The file remains thereafter online for everyone. On average 10-30,000 newly processed pages go online every night.

·       Is there an online catalog they can use to see what documents are housed by the archive?

Of course. Right here. For obvious reasons most of it is in Hebrew, irrespective of the language of the documents themselves.

·       In the future might the Reading Room re-open?

It is of course conceivable that a future State Archivist might decide to re-open the reading room, thus incurring significant hassle to serve the needs of 15 people a day, even as the website serves 1-3,000 people on most days (365 days a year). Since checking the files for security/privacy/copyright issues is done on the scanned version of the files, it's hard to see who might benefit from such a move; as noted previously, individuals who can explain why they need to see a specific file may see it, if there are no redacted sections, even now.

·       In the case of materials from 1948 War of Independence, are some files classified because of “privacy” of the Palestinians who may have been harmed in the battles? I.e. civilians who may have been raped or injured?

I don't know. As a general statement, privacy rules make no distinction between ethnic groups, citizenship or anything else. If the redactors deem a piece of information as requiring protection, it will be redacted irrespective of any other consideration. I have never come across a single case, nor heard of one, in which privacy rules were applied according to any such criteria; nor have I ever heard of any directive to do so. Were such a practice to be demonstrated, the courts would undoubtedly forbid it – but I've never heard of such a case so it's never gone to court.

·       In the past (when the archives were accessed through the Reading Room) some Palestinian and Israeli Arab historians and researchers have said that when they have requested information on 1948 related unclassified files in person they were told they were blocked from accessing file. They claim it was bias by the archivists who did not want to give information to them because they were Palestinian or Israeli Arab. Do you have any comment on this?

I have never heard of such a practice. It would of course be illegal, and highly unlikely that an archivist on the staff of the ISA would take upon himself (or herself) to do such a thing, knowing that it could not be defended were there to be a complaint. If you'd like to supply me with specifics, rather than vague and unspecified hearsay, I would be happy personally to look into each case. I would add that in the current system, whereby requests for files come in from the website, there is no way for the archivists even to know who ordered which file, what country they are in, nor what their gender, ethnicity, age, profession or anything else might be. The most they can see, if they make the effort (which they rarely do because there is no significance to the fact), is an e-mail address and whatever name the person invents. I myself have invented multiple fictitious e-mail identities with which to submit requests and test our systems and processes. No one has ever tried to ask me who I am (who I are?).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Some reflections after AIPAC's 2018 Pollicy Conference

Last week I had the honor of presenting a small collection of State Archives documents at AIPAC's Policy Conference 2018, in Washington DC. I also participated in a fun panel with my American counterpart, Chief Archivist David Ferriero. In spite of some differences in scale of the archives we run, his being rather larger than ours, it turns out we've got similar challenges and similar positions on them. But I'm not here to talk about archives, rather about some impressions I garnered at the conference.

1. AIPAC has awesome organizational capbilities. They had 18,000 participants in their conference; I have no idea how many people are neccesary to make it all happen but they've got to number in the multiple thousands. There are hundreds of sessions, and even more hundreds of micro-shows such as video segments or backdrops to talks. Someone had to serve 150,000 meals (I'm guessing), lay the infrastructure for dozens of different types of activities, put everything in place on Thursday and Friday, have it all running Saturday afternoon, and all dismantled and shipped out by Wednesday. They need to tend to politicians, a whole series of classes of donors, gaggles of media, and all of this is essentially just a prop to their main business. So far as I could see there were no hitches that impacted the conference for more than 2.5 minutes. If that.

I've been working (a bit) with AIPAC for almost 15 years, and I've always told its folks that I'm awfully glad they're on our side; this past week significantly reinforced this conviction.

2. It wasn't clear they had any immediate agenda. They were striving mightily to be bi-partisan, and for all I know they were succeeding, but that's ultimately a pre-requitsite, not a raison d'etre. I suppose it's great that the American-Israeli relationships currently has no major issue for AIPAC to have to address.

3. They're not all Jews, but I don't think that's new. Someone told me the delegation from Idaho was made up of a rabbi and ten non-Jews. On that point, I think probably one of the single most important things AIPAC does is to bring thousands of Americans from diverse walks of life to meet Israelis. The experience apparently make a difference in the lives of some of the visitors.

4. The greatest eye-opener for me was a development that's been in the making for quite some time, but I'd never been aware of its extent: the death of the Checkbook Zionism and its replacement with what I'll call, for lack of a better title, Israel of the shared values Zionism. Of course, AIPAC needs its members to be donating funds to itself, so preaching the sale of Israel Bonds, say, was never to be expected at their Policy Conference. But that doesn't explain the meta-narrative about Israel which was broadcast pervasively and incessantly: that Israel is a powerhouse, a fountain of diverse innovation in multiple walks of life and a country which makes the world a better place. Since these are all componants of American exceptionalism (which I mean as a positive thing), their centrality to Israel is the fundament of a bond between two sister nations - of unequal size, of course, but still.

(4.5 I think there's a parallel Israeli shift in the perspective of America. While every rational Israeli understands how crucial it is that the US is our closest friend, the centrality of this in Israel's cognition may be receding. But that's a topic for another day).

5. The lack of cynicism is, to this Israeli, frankly astounding. Yes, I expect that every single statement about Israel's achivements and those of its citizens made at the conference was probably true. Moreover, it would probably be healthy for Israelis to remind themselves from time to time how very successful they really are. But most of the time Israelis aren't into celebrating their successes, but rather bemoaning their limits and the endless obstructions they pile in front of themseves on the way. No Israeli can spend more than 32 seconds listening to these peans of admiration without rolling their eyes in exasperation and trotting out the (equally true) lists of things we're doing wrong, or where we're being idiotic, and certainly about how the other Israelis are being maliciously idiotic. One afternoon I asked a young AIPAC employee if he and his colleagues really believe all this stuff, and I fear he was offended by my very question. "What, isn't it true?' he asked, and when I confirmed that it probably was, he wanted to know why then shouldn't they be believeing it. I don't think I gave him a very good answer, and afterwards I sort of regreted being mean to him.


Monday, December 11, 2017

British military maps for conquering Palestine

British General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem exactly a century ago today, on December 11th 1917, after his forces conquered the town two days earlier.
Before going through the Jaffa Gate he dismounted from his horse and entered on foot, as a sign of respect for the ancient city he was taking control of.

If city is the right word. All of Jerusalem could have fitted into one of London's larger parks in those days. This is brought home when you take a look at the military maps which Allenby and his troops used as they conquered the area they called Palestine from the Ottomans (who didn't call it that) from the Negev in the south moving ever further northwards. If you haven't seen those maps, here they are.

(Technical note: the best way to see the maps is by starting from that link, then choosing the specific area you're interested in from the list in the lower left corner of the screen. Once you've chosen a map, the way to see it in high-quality is to use the "full screen" button, the one with the two little arrows, in the upper right corner. Note that when you zoom in and out the thumbnail map in the lower left corner shows what part of the map you're seeing).

Take the map of Jerusalem (obviously), and you'll see why Allenby enteerd the town at Jaffa gate and not, say, at the Calavatra bridge near the present day entrance to the city, some miles to the west: Because the site of the future Calavatra bridge was an empty field far to the west of town. According to the map, Jerusalem was the walled Old City, and that's almost it.

Should we visit Tel Aviv? The name of the British map is Jaffa, and about the only part of modern Tel Aviv you'll find is Sarona, and miles to the north the tiny Arab village of Sheikh Muannis, where Tel Aviv University is today. Also, the map helpfully notes the sand dunes at the center of today's Tel Aviv.

But wait. That's actually a bit odd. Tel Aviv was founded in 1909; at least a small version of it ought to have been on the British military maps printed in May 1917? Well, I recommend looking at the bottom right corner of the map, where it says that it's a reprint made in May 1917, from... The Palestine Exploration Fund maps, surveyed in 1878!

This makes these maps even more interesting, because they tell us two very interesting things. The first is that when the British military map-makers needed to prepare maps with which to conquer Palestine, the most recent ones they had at hand were 39 years old, but they weren't troubled because they knew that not much had changed between 1787 and 1917. Moreover, they were able to use the maps because their assumption about the limited change was basically correct. Here and there some changes had been made on the ground, such as the founding of the Jaffa suburb of Tel Aviv; but these changes weren't significant enough to bother the military planners.

The second thing is that this series of maps, put online just last week at the website of the Israel State Archives, shows what the country looked like immediately before the beginning of Zionism. The earliest prot-Zionist attempt at settlement, in Petach Tikva, was in 1878; the first successful wave of modern Jewish settlements began in 1882. (The Zionist movement was founded as a movement in 1897).

Was it an empty land? Of course not. Quite sparsely populated, however. And the Jews aren't visible on the map at all. Even in Jerusalem, where there was already a Jewsih majority in 1878, the names on the map are Arabic. The British archeologist surveyors in the 1870s didn't see the Jews at all, or if they saw them they didn't notice. Which is the opposite of what we're told these days, abut how the colonial Brits did't see any Arabs, and neither did the Jews.

I think it's a valuable set of maps. Go yee and navigate.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

What does Trump's recognition of Jerusalem tell Israelis about their place in the world?

President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has done more than upend 70 years of American policy. It has underlined how far the Jews still are from international acceptance on their own terms, rather than as others would have them. It indicates that this lack of acceptance is still fundamental to how the world relates to the Jews.

There has been a raging argument between archeologists these past 30 years about how much historical truth there is in the Biblical stories. A consensus has slowly emerged that King David was a historical figure and that he lived in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago; the argument still rages around the question if his Jerusalem was a small and insignificant village or perhaps something much grander. Some historians insist the Jews emerged as a real nation with their own culture only once their elite had been exiled to Babylon, where they collected, collated and edited the Biblical stories for the first time: those would be the people who claimed "By the rivers of Babylon/there we sat down/there we wept/as we remembered Zion" – Zion being one of the names of Jerusalem. There is no way to make sense of the New Testament unless one accepts that Jesus was preaching and died in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jews. In the 2nd century Hadrian ploughed Jerusalem and built a Roman town in its stead precisely because he assumed that would put an end to the pesky Jews.

Yet at no point in the past 2,000 years of history did any significant political power ever see the real city of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital. In one of history's remarkable twists, British forces conquered Jerusalem exactly a century ago this week. At the time a majority of Jerusalemites were Jews, and had been for at least 40 years if not 80, yet the British carefully gerrymandered all municipal elections to ensure there'd never be a Jewish mayor.  During 30 years of British rule there were a number of proposals to partition the land; none of them ever suggested Jewish control over Jerusalem. The partition plan eventually adopted by the UN 70 years ago last week invented an unprecedented departure from the universal principle of sovereignty, the Corpus Separatum, to ensure the Jews – still a majority of the city's population – would not control Jerusalem.  Deliberations on implementing this oddity went on at the UN years after Israel and Jordan had divided the city between them.

After the Six Day War Israel's leaders assumed the Christian world, which the West could still have been considered to be, would refuse to accept Jewish control of the city. They were talking about religion and its expression in Western civilization, not about international laws.
The near-universal rejection of President Trump's recognition of the plain fact that Jerusalem is Israel's capital looks far more sinister than a mere disagreement over the best way to promote a notional peace agreement. This is reinforced by the blatant flimsiness of the reasons for the rejection and their distance from reality. It looks to this Israeli as a continuation of an ancient insistence that the Jews must be what the others say, and that for them to be accepted they must behave as the others demand. It can't be that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish State, because that would mean that the Jews really have returned to national normality, and that they are a nation and state as all the other 200 states are.

The louder the howls are, the more pervasive the condemnations, the more it seems to many regular, middle of the road Israelis that our place among the nations is still not yet finally accepted nor sincere.

Postscript: the cool response of some American Jews to the recognition is also a worthy theme for analysis. Not today, however.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Being Jew-ishy

Dr. Devorah Baum of Southampton University may be more connected to some form of traditional Judaism than she lets on in her New York Times op-ed published on the evening of Yom Kippur. So perhaps she herself isn't the problem in her piece at all, but rather the Times editors who welcomed her article and its timing, and the many readers who heartily agree with her theses. The thesis, in a nutshell: Jews are the uprooted, the outsiders, a minority whose identity is unclear but it's not that of the majority. Above all, they're a sensibility (her word).

Well, no. Baum's prime examples are Franz Kafka (died 1924), and Lenny Bruce (died 1966). In the meantime it's 2017, and the State of Israel is gearing up to celebrate it's 70th anniversary. A country invented to end Jews' condition of minorities looking in, is now home to half the world's Jews, and the younger and growing half. So there's that.

I read Baum's op-ed yesterday, then went to shul for Yom Kippur. I love Yom Kippur, but this time I read the machzor with her strange words in the background. I inherited the book itself from my father, but the words themselves we both inherited from centuries of our forefathers. In it are sections of the Pentateuch, which even skeptical modern academia admits has been with us for 2,500 years (the text itself claims it's almost a thousand years older). The commandments founding Yom Kippur come with the whiff of the desert. Isaiah makes an important appearance. He lived in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, so there's an echo of the original city on the hill. There are long and detailed Talmudic descriptions of the Temple, harking back from the late Second Temple era, when Jerusalem was larger than it ever was again until the 19th century.

There are blood-curdling descriptions of the Roman persecution in the 2nd century CE, calling to mind the Mishnaic Galilee. There are medieval supplications for mercy, calling to mind the great rabbis of Spain and France and their end; then of course there's Amnon of Magenza, though no more than one German in 10,000 knows that Magenza is Mainz, refusing to budge from his religion even while his limbs are being chopped off. (The poem may actually have been written many centuries earlier, in Israel, but a popular belief of 800 years has power of its own).

Recent centuries - prior to the 20th - didn't add much to the texts, except to parts of the Yizkor, but they added melodies, so that the Ashkenazi ones and the Sphardi ones are quite distinct. Then, once Israel was created it added new layers, and 30 years later, after the Yom Kippur War, yet additional ones. In recent years some Israeli rabbis are trying their hand at creating a combined Ashkenazi-Sphardi version, on the one hand, and secular teachers and thinkers are trying their own versions to fuze the ancient and priceless with the modern.

One can brush all this aside and insist that Judaism is feeling good about welcoming refugees into our midst, or fixing the world to fit a Progressive agenda. By the end of the 21 century, or perhaps long before, there won't be many Jews of that sort left as Jews. Or one can return to what was obvious and banal for a few thousand years: the recognition that Jews have been creating their culture all along, layer on layer, ever richer and deeper.

Jews aren't a sentiment. Jews are the ones who participate in the vibrant ongoing ancient Jewish conversation.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Helmut Kohl Visits Yad Vashem – June 6th 1995 (German original - below)

Helmut Kohl, former (and important) Chancellor of Germany, died yesterday. I met him once, for 70 minutes, when he came to visit Yad Vashem on June 6th 1995. I was the highest-ranking official at Yad Vashem who spoke fluent German, so I used to accompany German-speaking VIPs when they came to visit. That evening I wrote a letter to some German friends, describing my interaction with their fellow. Looking back, I had some ambiguous thoughts about the experience and about the man. This afternoon I dug up the old file and translated it into English, and here it is: 22 years old and never published.

Helmut Kohl at Yad Vashem

The Germans bury their dead for a limited period. 10, 20, perhaps 25 years, depending upon the plans of the local officials, the ability or willingness of the family to pay, and the amount of land which can be allocated to cemeteries. Now and then a bulldozer comes by and pushes the old dead aside so as to make room for their children, until someday place will be needed for their grandchildren. Some Germans prefer to be cremated so as to spare their children the effort – or, perhaps unconsciously? – to spare themselves the embarrassment. Is it really merely a coincidence that back in the days when they wanted to dispose of millions of dead, they used cremation?

Only a few are allowed to rest forever. Important folks such as bishops, knights, prominent politicians, fallen soldiers even if they fell in the wrong sort of war… and Jews. It's ironic. Almost all the truly old cemeteries in Germany are Jewish cemeteries. Travelers might be forgiven for thinking the Jews were the only ones who lived in Germany for centuries. If you know where to look you'll find an old Jewish cemetery in practically every county in Germany; almost always, the newest gravestones in these cemeteries are older than the oldest ones in the regular places.

Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to visit us at Yad Vashem this morning. I accompanied him throughout his 70 minute visit. We began in the Valley of the Destroyed Communities, a sort of cemetery of cemeteries. Once the Jews were gone, their cemeteries began to die, so they've been symbolically transplanted to Jerusalem where the Jews still live. I had intended to suggest some of these ideas to him, but he wasn’t interested. "Yes yes, I understand", he said, and moved on. Not that he didn't observe his surroundings. The gigantic stone blocks of the Valley reminded him of his beloved Rhineland, and he told me about the beautiful cathedral in Speyer, and how the setting sun makes it glow.

That's how it went the entire time. He never saw Yad Vashem, and even less what it means. I told him a thing or two that could have made him reflect, but he didn't. Mostly he saw similarities to his own story, or to the story of Germany – his grandfather had had a similar experience, you know? At one point we came upon a group of German tourists. He spotted them immediately, and went over to shake hands. "It's good that you're here", they told him. "They also are Germany" he remarked to me afterwards. I concurred.

As a professional politician, he cultivates the people around him. He wanted to know who I am, and where my German comes from. (Should I have told him I learned German to understand you people? No, I shouldn't have – and didn't). Then, as he stood before the TV cameras, his entire demeanor abruptly changed. He seemed somehow smaller, and he spoke about shame, memory, and the future… but you saw him on the evening news, no doubt. A minute later it was over, and he carried on his friendly chatter with me. Is this important? The millions of viewers saw his shame and remorse, and only I know that right in the middle of his visit to Yad Vashem he found the opportunity to tell me that he had thinner hair than his father (or was it the other way around?)

Yet the millions probably aren't that stupid, either. I suspect he consistently wins elections precisely because he's the sort of person who can walk through Yad Vashem as if he's strolling through Central Park: intelligent, charming, and untouched. Ah, and ever thinking about his homeland. In Central park or in Yad Vashem, the things he'll take note of are the things that remind him of the beauty of home. I have no doubt that Herr Kohl loves his country, most likely without needing to hate anyone else – and with no need to trouble himself with things that are past and gone.


*      *      *

Late in the afternoon I took the kids to an open air music performance. It was a group of locals singing the canonical Israeli songs, shirim ivri'im: about birds, mountains, about the very act of singing. Patriotism of the best sort; not directed against anyone. A way of thinking (or feeling) that forges community out of many individuals and creates identity. It was a fine experience, and a piece of culture which Israelis don't have in common with most Germans, certainly not those who relate well to Yad Vashem.

I expect Herr Kohl would have empathized fully.


Yaacov Lozowick
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Following the publication of this post a number of German-speaking readers asked for the original version. So here it is.



Kanzler Helmut Kohl besucht Yad Vashem, 6. Juni 1995

In Deutschland wird man beerdigt fuer eine begrenzte Zeit. 10 Jahre, oder 20, oder 25, je nach Entscheidung der Beamten, Faehigkeit oder Wille der Verwandten zu bezahlen, und die Grosse der Flaeche die die Verwaltung bereit ist fuer Toten zu bezeichnen. Ab und zu kommt ein Bagger und schafft all die Alten ab, um Platz fuer deren Kinder zu haben, bis die Enkel alt werden. Manche bevorziehen die Einaescherung, um der Gebliebenen die Muehe zu sparen - oder, vielleicht unbewusst? - sich die Schmach zu ersparren. Sollen wir uns so wundern, dass als man damals Toten millionenweise bei sich hatte, hat man sie verbrannt?

Nur Wenige duerfen in Ruhe liegen. Ehrenbuerger - Bischoefe, Ritter, Politiker - gefallene Soldaten, auch wenn sie einen falschen Kreig gefuehrt haben, und Juden. Ironisch: die einzige alte Friedhoefe die es in Deutschland gibt, sind Juedische. Beinahe konnte man glauben, allein die Juden sind schon jahrhunderte da. Wenn man nur sucht, findet man so einen Friedhof in fast jeden Kreis Deutschlands. Fast immer sind die juengste Grabsteine aelter, als die aelteste Steine bei den Friedhoefen der Deutschen.

Heute war Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl bei uns in Yad Vashem. Ich habe ihn begleitet waehrend der 70 Minuten seines Besuches. Es fing an im Tal der zerstoerten Gemeinden: eine Art 'Friedhof der Friedhoefe'. Nachdem man die Juden verbrannt hat, sterben nun ihre fruehere Friedhoefe, und sie werden symbolisch weitergepflegt in Jerusalem, wo die Juden noch leben. Ich wollte einen Bruchteil der obigen Ueberlegungen vorstellen, aber er hatte keine Interesse daran. "Ja ja, ich verstehe schon", sagte er, und wir gingen weiter. Wobei er doch was gesehen hat. Die Steine haben ihn erinnert an das Rheinland, seine Heimat, und er erzaehlte mir wie wunderschoen der Dom in Speyer um Sonnenuntergang ist.

Es ging so die ganze Zeit. Er hat Yad Vahem nicht gesehen, schon gar nicht das was Yad Vashem beduetet. Ich habe ihn Einiges gezeigt die einem nachdenklich machen koennte, er wuerde es aber nicht. Meistens sah er irgend eine Verbindung zu seiner eigenen Geschichte, oder zu Deutschland: bei seinem Grossvater sei es auch so gewesen, usw. Unterwegs traffen wir einige Deutsche Touristen, die zufaelllig zur selben Zeit in Yad Vashem waren. Er merkte sie sofort, und ging hin. "Gut, dass Sie hier sind", haben sie ihm gesagt; danach merkte er mir, stolz auf seine Landesleute: "Das ist auch Deutschland". Ich habe bestaetigt.

Wie ein guter Politiker, der die Leute kultiviert, wollte er ueber mich wissen, und woher ich mein Deutsch habe. (Haette ich ihm die Wahrheit sagen sollen: ich habe es gelernt als Versuch Euch Deutsche zu verstehen? Nein, ich haette es lieber nicht sagen sollen, und tat es tatsaechlich nicht). Als er vor die Kameras stand, aenderte sich ploetzlich seine Koerpersprache, er wuerde irgendwie kleiner, sprach ueber Scham, Erinnerung und Zukunft - aber das habt Ihr ja gesehen, bei den Nachrichten. Eine Minute spaeter war es erledigt und vorbei, und er erzaehlte mir freundlich weiter. Ist das wichtig? Die Millionen haben gesehen, dass er sich schaemt, und nur ich weiss, dass er mitten in Yad Vashem Gelegenheit gefunden hat zu erzaehlen, dass er noch weniger Haare habe als sein Vater sie hatte (oder war es umgekehrt?).

Aber die Millionen sind wahrscheinlich auch nicht so dumm. Ich vermute, er wird immer wieder gewaehlt, gerade wiel er so Jemand ist, der durch Yad Vashem gehen kann genau wie er durch Central Park gehen wuerde: intelligent, nett, unberuehrt. Na ja, und sich an seine Heimat denkend. In Central Park, oder in Yad Vashem, er wird die Sachen merken, die sich an das Schoene seiner Heimat erinnern. Ich bin ueberzeugt, Herr Kohl liebt sein Land, wahrscheinlich sogar ohne Andere zu hassen - und ohne sich stoeren zu lassen durch den was vorbei ist.

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Am Abend ging ich mit den Kinder in die Stadt. Es gab so ein Open Air Concert, von einer Gruppe die Israelische Lieder singt. Patriotische Lieder, Shirim Ivri'im, ueber die Voegel, die Berge, ueber das Singen selbst. Nationalismus der besten Art, gegen Niemanden gerichtet; eine Denkart die aus vielen Einzelne eine Gemeinde schafft, eine Identitaet hervorrufft. Es war ein schoenes Erlebnis. Und ein Stueck Kultur wo die Israelis mit den Deutschen nichts gemeinsames haben.

Moeglicherweise, haette gerade Herr Kohl es verstehen koennen.


Yaacov Lozowick