Sunday, November 23, 2008

the beatroot in Jerusalem

“In the last 17 years, this country has been invaded by murderers, thieves, prostitutes…and spies,” says David, dramatically, a Georgian migrant to Israel, who works as a security guard at the Yad Vashem institute in Jerusalem.

We had only met the guy two minutes before, after stopping to ask the way out of the vast and beautiful complex of Yad Vashem, set up as a permanent reminder of the Shoah, or Holocaust, situated on the edge of a forest on the outskirts of the Israeli capital. But already - true to his Georgian roots - David has offered us something to eat - a tray of meatballs, mashed potato and pasta - and is now pouring us a huge glass of vodka. Lovely guy!

David, the security guard - so he must have been bored out of his skull (cap) - says he came to Israel in the mid-1970s, after working for the KGB in some aircraft surveillance capacity. He was on duty for the Soviets in Prague in 1968 and was ordered to shoot people - something he says was “terrifying”. “If you don’t shoot then they [the Soviets] shoot you,” he said, as the vodka liberated his tongue.

Eventually he had had enough of working for the Russians and left for Israel. Now, as he pours the second, huge glass of vodka for me, he says how Israel has changed for the worst, mainly due to some of the recent immigrants, he claims.

We were at Yad Vashem to see the latest name to be added to the list of over 22,000 people from 41 countries, honoured as the Righteous Among Nations, those who helped Jews, often risking their own lives to do so, during Nazi occupation. The last name, which was added to the list on November 11 this year, was of Catholic Pole, Stanislawa Slawinska, who sheltered ten Jews in her home, while a Nazi officer lived next door.

The list - laid out by country - resides, elegantly, in a garden about five minutes walk from the main museum building. So after passing through the museum - a harrowing experience, but one of the most extraordinary exhibitions I have ever seen, telling the whole gruesome story of Nazi horror - we set off to look for the garden, the lists and the name of Stanislawa.

You can imagine the disappointment, then, when I discovered that though her name had been put at the end of the long list of names of the Righteous from Poland - far bigger than any other nation - it had been mysteriously rubbed off - as you can see by the photo below.

I am presently trying to establish why this is so.*


But David is right about how Israel has changed, certainly since my days working on the Megiddo Kibbutz, quite near Nazareth in the north, in the late 1980s.

For one thing, things have got a lot more expensive. Having to pay up to 20 euro a bottle of wine, in many places, is not a sustainable price for a wine-enthusiast anywhere, let alone one coming from Poland! (Israeli wine is now very drinkable, thankfully - another change from 20 years ago!)

Another, more important, change, is the growth of religiosity in Israel. It was very noticeable to me how many more of the ultra-orthodox there are, but also how the Muslim community has become more religious, too. I was given two explanations for this.

We were sharing a taxi with a Jewish guy from Cockfosters in London, a place only known, as he said, for its position at the opposite end of the Piccadilly line from Heathrow airport. He was on a business trip for the chief rabbi in London - something to do with education programmes. I was asking him when and where his family came to London from? He said he didn’t know for sure, but it was probably somewhere in Poland, certainly before the 1860s.

He then pointed out that the ulra-religious in Israel has many more children than the more secular Israeli - up to eight children a family, on average! - so the growth of religiosity is a simple numbers game.

Though from London, he referred to coming to Israel as like “coming home.” But after we dropped him off at his hotel, our driver - who had been quiet throughout our ten minute conversation - immediately became very animated.

“You asked good questions,” he said. “He says he is coming home. But whose home is that?”

Our driver was a Palestinian who lived in the Old Town in Jerusalem. And whose home Israel is, of course, is at the root of all the problems there.

“They talk about something that happened 60 years ago. But what are they doing now? Here. Today!”

I asked him why I could see more signs of religion among the Palestinian population.

“It‘s simple - we don’t like seeing the western way of life.” I asked him, however, if he didn’t think that the problem was more about politics than religion - the old pan-Arab, secular nationalism has failed, leaving the door open for more religious groups like Hamas to take over.

“No, I hate politics,” he said, and then proceeded to give me a lecture about Palestinian politics.

“If they have another election then Hamas will win it, not Fatah. Fatah came from Tunisia, not from here. They have no roots. And they were only in it for themselves. But Hamas have roots in Palestine, and they do good for the Palestinian.”

“But you know,” he said, waving his hand out the window at the Israelis of Jerusalem, who were hurriedly going about their business on Jaffa Street: “We have fought wars with the British, and they went. We have fought wars against the [Crusaders], and they left. These will have to leave too, one day.”

Whether the growth of religion in Israel is a numbers game, or childbearing patterns, or because of western decadence is open for debate. But I still maintain that it is actually the failure of the old leftwing-rightwing politics in Israel and elsewhere that is leaving the way open for ultra-conservatives, both Israeli and Palestinian - and that means the end of this long conflict is getting further away, not nearer.

photos by traczka/beat productions

* Yad Vashem mystery solved.

It appears that the name of Stanislawa Slawinska was rubbed off the wall in the photo because somebody put her name on the wrong wall by mistake! So it was rubbed and the name was engraved, later, at the proper place. The photo below shows the unveling ceremony, November 11.


Anonymous said...

Beatroot said: “that means the end of this long conflict is getting further away, not nearer.”

I think that’s a correct observation and will result in continuing tensions in the regions for a long time to come.

What portion of the Israeli population do the Orthodox Jews make up and do they have an exemption from military service? Are secular Jews getting fed up with Orthodox Jews getting a “free ride”?

Since you’re in Israel are you planning to write on the Israelis attitude towards Poles and their perception of today’s Poland? There has been a long standing controversy on the conduct of Israeli young people visiting Poland on school sponsored trips and the conduct of their security guards, are there efforts being made to acknowledge the problem and deal with it?

beatroot said...

It's something to do with what the kids are being told in Israel. Obviously there are deep seated prejudices that Poles will enact a pogrom of any tourists that venture to Krakow.

But I have never heard anything bad about Poles in Israel. The hotel people etc don;t seem to react to the fact that wifey Anna is Polish, etc. They are charming, as usual. There has been some confusion at airports...Israeli secutiry - always strict - cannot interigate Poles because most don't understand any other language than Polish - even Russian - more widely spoken these days in Israel - is not communicable - and if you are with a chaterred flight full of Poles - as we are - then that slows things down a little. In fact, a lot. The only negative expression towards Poles I have seen is by one of these security guys when processing Polish tourists.

Anonymous said...

About the rubbed out name...

Ya'd think there'd be a brass plaque or something.

But that thing looks like a magic marker whiteboard....

What kind of non-Jewish Poles do the tourist thing in Israel these days?

And are these Israeli kids actually being taught they'll be pogrommed if they split from their group when visiting Poland?

beatroot said...

The first names are carved into the stone...but the new names are kind of stuck on...I suppose waiting for an engraver.

Anonymous said...

The erasure makes it look like at least one Israeli thought such folk are a dime a dozen, or something worse.

In any event, istm there should be an unveiling of a permanent engraving rather than putting up something temporarty and that chintzy.

In either case, it shows a certain lack of respect that is due.

beatroot said...

I have spoken with someone in Tel Aviv who was the promoter of this woman to be included on the Righteous list and he suprised and puzzled by it. So he - who was at the ceremony on the 11 of November and says it was fine then, is contacting Yad Vashem and we should no what is going on soon.

Anonymous said...

My point, though, is that it wasn't even fine on 11 November if it was done in a temporary manner. Certainly, there are bigger problems in the world but if something like this is done to commemorate someone's sacrifice and heroism, it should be done right or at least not so half-assed.

beatroot said...

I agree it was a bit tacky. But I will find out why this is tomorrow.

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