Check out photos of our final days in Israel!
The final days of the trip shed light on the struggle Jews have endured throughout history to keep their faith, community, and country. On days 7, 8, and 9, we visited both ancient and contemporary memorials that served as a painful reminder of the heavy price we pay.
On day 8, we visited Masada, where we learned about the Jews who inhabited the mountaintop in antiquity. Anticipating a losing battle against the Romans, and as a method of sparing the Jewish slaves that the Romans had already captured, Masada's inhabitants chose mass suicide as a way of escaping Roman enslavement and/or defeat. But their choice made little sense to me. Why would a communal body decide to kill each other and themselves instead of fighting for survival? Through research I learned that, presumably, the psychological toll was draining. The Jews atop Masada were battle-weary, demoralized and were desperately defending an indefensible position. Every day for two-plus months, the Jews watched Roman-captured, Jewish slaves build a ramp to access their home. Furthermore, the Masada leader, Eleazar Ben Ya'ir, had already lost hope. In his final speech, Ben Ya'ir noted that it was ‘the purpose of God’ that Jerusalem and the Temple be destroyed. Therefore, God's punishment should come to the community not from the Romans but from God himself ‘as executed by our own hands.’ The suicide was the community's last act of ‘pride,’ and in fact was community's way of showing that in a situation where doom is imminent, they still have a choice to not allow their opponents to defeat them.
On day 7 we visited Yad Vashem, literally ‘a memorial and a name.’ Yad Vashem is Israel's holocaust museum. The evening prior to the museum, our participants shared personal stories from the holocaust. My family is North African (Libyan and Moroccan), so I had no personal story to share. Iftah asked us to fulfill the mission of Yad Vashem by remembering one name from the museum. I took the assignment as a means of creating my own personal story.
Tola Walach Melzer is a survivor of Krakow. Her story began when German soldiers knocked on her door at 2 a.m, ordering her to pack a sack of belongings and nothing more. She was told she would be joining the Jewish community to work. She was loaded, along with her mother and 85-90 others, in a cattle wagon for an 8-day journey. Young girls, aged 14-15, were rotated through the German cars during the 8 days. The last car was empty, and Tola knew that it was for the corpses. I only know this small part of Tola’s story, but it is enough to internalize and memorialize her story. It was also enough to seek some answers to my own family’s history.
Towards the end of our tour, our Yad Vashem guide listed the countries that operated Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. Libya, my grandfather's birthplace, was one of the countries he listed. I began to wonder if maybe my family did have its own story. Not until after the museum visit was I able to talk with my aunt and father, who exposed a story my grandfather never chose to share… The situation in Libya was generally good until the late 1930s, when the Fascist Italian regime began passing anti-Sematic laws. These laws prevented Jews from working government jobs, attending public schools, and using most public facilities. In fact, most Jews were contained to ghettos where curfews were enforced and citizens were required to carry papers stamped with the words “Jewish race.” My grandmother, who left the country with her parents when the laws were first passed, in 1932, was saved from the harshness of the Italian regime, and found refuge in the developing Jewish nation of Israel. My grandfather was not so lucky. His family overlooked an early escape, and as an able-bodied young man, he was confined to the concentration work camp, Giado, from 1942 until his release in 1944 by British force, shortly after which, his family emigrated to modern day Israel. Libyan ghettos are a largely a neglected chapter of the holocaust, so much so that I always assumed that my family had no part in it. But in fact, in Libya hundreds died of starvation and disease, and still others were deported to Italy and then delivered into the hands of Nazi Germany.
On the last day, we visited Mount Herzl, the burial place of Israel’s fallen soldiers. All of our Israelis (yes they are ours) had stories to share of loved ones they have lost, or family members they have never even met. Each story was touching in its own rite, but the stories’ recentness hit home immediately. All of our Israelis are IDF soldiers, fighting to keep and protect our Jewish homeland, and those graves are their brothers, sisters, uncles, parents and friends, and now ours too. It is unbearable to think that we could quite possibly bury one of our Israeli’s on Mount Herzl, but that is the reality Israel faces every day.
In April of 2002, Israel lost 13 IDF soldiers in a search mission in Jenin. The soldiers who were killed were outside of the area of the most concentrated battle, and were thought to be relatively safe, until they walked into an ambush, and were attacked from all directions. I lost a cousin that day, Sergeant Major Amit Poseidon of Bat Yam. He was only 22 years old, and is greatly missed. I can’t quite describe how sad I was on Mount Herzl, it was the only place that made me understand the importance of keeping Israel as a Jewish homeland, as a refuge for Jews that have been persecuted, and will continue to be persecuted all over the world.
Jews, whose communities stretch back up to 3,000 years, have been 'ethnically cleansed,’ fled and fought in wars, and endured systematic persecution. Israel, whose promise is to absorb all Jews in diaspora, to provide for them a home and a community, is a legitimate expression of the self-determination of a common people, and deserves to be protected. It should not be lost on us, that we continue to lose loved ones for the sake of community, religion, and nation, but its is important to note what Ariel Sharon once said, “This battle is a battle for the survival of the Jewish people, for the survival of the state of Israel.” If we don’t fight this battle for ourselves, who will?
On a lighter note: I had a great time :)
Netaly Masica, Potomac, MD