An Israeli tour guide, I’m not, although I’ve been known to pinch hit when less than enthusiastic (plum lazy) guides were abdicating their responsibilities for synagogue tours I led, when I served my New Jersey congregation. It was with more than a modicum of curiosity therefore, that I read a recent expose in the newspaper with the title “What happens when a Holocaust Memorial Plays Host to Autocrats.” Although I dismissed the article as screed, it caused me to contemplate whether Yad VaShem, one of the most visited sites in Jerusalem for non-Jewish tourists, should be a “must see” for autocratic leaders, democratic leaders, or any foreign leader should for that matter, who is visiting Israel.
As one, whose teachers throughout my years in Jewish Day School, were Holocaust survivors, as one who regards the Yiddish Partisan Song, as our Jewish national anthem, second only to HaTikvah, as one who sees visiting Yad VaShem as a sacred duty for Jews, I nevertheless wonder, if Israeli leadership should perhaps rethink Yad VaShem being a prerequisite visit for foreign dignitaries.
With but few precious exceptions, Yad VaShem serves as an important and necessary reminder of what was done to the Jews of Europe. As such, Jews are portrayed as victims. Yet, isn’t Israel’s alter ego, that of being masters of our own destiny? Surely one would expect Israeli leadership to bring foreign dignitaries to the Af al Pi Chen Museum of clandestine immigration in Haifa. Shouldn’t the message that Israel wishes to impart, be that during a most difficult era in modern history, Zionist leadership correctly adopted an attitude of “to hell with a world filled with countries whose borders were shut to the Jews” and “to hell with the British with their quotas,” as they sought to assuage the local Arabs, out of fear of reprisal?
Why wouldn’t Israeli leadership want to bring foreign dignitaries to places such as Rosh Pinah or Degania, or better yet, Tel Hai, which serve as a reminder of Jewish idealism and determination. Jews from Eastern Europe, who barely knew which end of the shovel was up, suddenly became farmers. Jewish pogrom survivors did not dwell for decades in refugee camps in Bessarabia, or Western Ukraine, waiting for the world to take pity on them. Even though, most Jews charted their course for the “Goldeneh Medinah,” precious few admirably returned to Zion and transformed themselves, so that they could transform the land. Shouldn’t this be the proud message, that Israeli leadership wishes to share with foreign visitors?
David Ben Gurion, Israel’s George Washington, had a special place in his heart for the Negev. If Ben-Gurion were given over to sound-bites, he might have said: “Let’s conquer the Negev rather than let the Negev conquer us.” But Ben-Gurion did not seek to conquer the Negev in the military sense. Instead, he imbued Israelis with an attitude of transforming arid sand into arable land. He reminded them that in the Jewish state, such transformation is old hat for Israelis.
As far as I’m concerned, foreign dignitaries ought to be taken to Beer Sheva. Israel has every right to tout Beer Sheva’s renowned Soroka Hospital. Soroka’s Department of Emergency Medicine is the leading department in the country, according to a health care survey on service and quality conducted by the Ministry of Health. Soroka’s delivery room has the most births of any in the country – over 17,000 babies are born every year, many to Arab mothers. Should Soroka Hospital leave foreign dignitaries indifferent, then a visit to Ben Gurion University with its five faculties with 51 academic departments should leave them impressed beyond words!
Why escort foreign dignitaries to Yad VaShem with its plaintive message of “look what they did to us?” Far better in my opinion, to escort foreign dignitaries to the sites I suggested or similar, to show them “look what we have done for ourselves.”