International Trips (14)
The recent toppling of 43 gravestones of Jews in Vienna's Central Cemetery suggests that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Austria, but this doesn't tell the whole story.
Austria's relationship with its Jewish present and past is actually complex and filled with nuance. On one hand, as I witnessed on a recent AJC ACCESS trip there, its government is dogged in its efforts to express contrition and foster remembrance for the Holocaust. On the other hand, one senses that Austrians want to be done with the past and move on. This internal conflict is difficult for Austrians to bear, but they have to bear it because their parents and grandparents did not.
To bear witness means to see through personal presence, to see and not to be able to stop oneself from seeing. Standing in the Mauthausen concentration camp in central Austria, I could only visualize faces of those I never knew. I could see the photos of my great-grandparents and great-aunt who were murdered to the east in Auschwitz. What was wrong with me? I did not want to recall the humanity of loved ones in a place that spoke to their very dehumanization perpetrated by the Nazi regime. But I could not stop, and my tears ricocheted to the children’s trampoline standing innocuously to the side of the road. At that moment, my eyes detached from the rest of my body and I could not fathom the vestiges of a living hell.
The following is a reflection from a recent AJC and Germany Close Up trip to Berlin. To take part in our next Germany experience this August, click here to apply!
As we passed one of the numerous stores that sold “I Love Berlin” t-shirts, I turned to a few other participants in the group and joked, “They should sell shirts that say ‘I visited Berlin and I’m still sorting out my feelings.’” I received a few empathetic laughs, or maybe my new friends were just trying to humor me.
Several months have elapsed since I returned from the week-long trip to Berlin, and I continue to sort out my feelings. The trip was organized by the AJC and a program called Germany Close Up. As a group of young Jewish professionals, we spent the week exploring the city and its history trying to find out how the country has dealt with its past while also learning about Jewish life in modern-day Germany and Germany’s current relationship with Israel.
I dedicated much of my time as an undergraduate student in university studying the Middle East for many reasons. Growing up, I was surrounded by stories and photographs of my father’s travels throughout the Middle East. As a child, I would flip through albums full of photographs capturing the simple beauty of a marketplace in Peshawar, my father lounging in a tent with Israeli Bedouins, a group of ethnic Hazara children in Herat, the Buddha statues in Bamiyan. As the daughter of a non-Jewish Englishman and a Jewish American mother (who happened to meet on Kibbutz Revivim in the 1970s), I was raised to be aware, appreciative, and celebratory of my two cultures. I hung dreidel ornaments on our Christmas tree. I ate latkes and Christmas pudding in the same meal. The shining moment of my Bat Mitzvah was my report on the history of English Jews. Religion was not particularly emphasized in my childhood, but the importance of culture, holidays, history, and family certainly was. I believe it is this upbringing that made me so curious about other religions, cultures, and histories. This interest began in the Middle East and hasn’t waned yet.
None of us knew what to expect – Twenty-three American Jews visiting a Protestant Church to commemorate the anniversary of what Americans call “Kristallnacht.” In Germany. At a service conducted in German.
What happened through the eyes of our group was, in a word, unbelievable. Over 300 Christians, young and old, attending an hour long remembrance, repentance, and commemoration to the systematic persecution of Jews in Europe, eventually resulting in the six million murdered during the Shoah. It was a moving and chilling program which included a recounting of the laws enacted against Jews, a speech on the nature of human rights and the role of justice and redemption in German society, and a call to action to uphold freedom for future generations.
>> Over the Green Line
Day Five began with a visit to the home of Hebrew University mathematics professor and former Member of Knesset Alex Lubotzky in Efrat, about 7 miles south of Jerusalem on the other side of the Green Line.
Efrat, home to nearly 10,000 people, was in the news earlier this month when Israel approved the construction of housing units there – a move that drove the international community mad, but that Israel explained as necessary to accommodate the natural expansion of the local population.
Alex described the history of Efrat and talked about its future. He explained that in a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians, this settlement and others in the area are likely to be traded (swapped) for other land.
Some of the mayors and senior staffers were surprised that this settlement looks like – as one mayor put it – a suburban housing development.
Today felt like several days rolled into one. For many in our group, it was a day of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Find a comfortable spot for reading; this is going to be a long post.
>> Jerusalem: Planning and Architecture
Day Four began with a walking tour of Jerusalem with Ofer Manor, Chief Architect of Jerusalem. The US mayors are all keenly interested in – and involved in – planning issues in their cities. They were so impressed with the various projects Manor had spearheaded.
One project that had particular resonance was the transformation of Jaffa Street into a light rail path and pedestrian street running six and a half miles through the center of Jerusalem.
>> Israel’s Strategic Environment and the Peace Process
Our day began with a discussion with Prof. Asher Susser, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University.
Asher presented the mayors and senior staffers with an overview of Israel’s strategic environment, including the impact of the Arab Spring (a misnomer, in Asher’s estimation), the predicament of rapid population growth in the Arab world combined with poor prospects for job creation and growth, and the status of Israel’s relations with its powerful, non-Arab neighbors (Iran and Turkey).
>> Clean Water
Today began with a trip to the Palmachim Desalination Plant. Actually, let’s back up. Today began with Israeli cottage cheese topped with chopped tomatoes and cucumber, which is a great way to begin the day in Tel Aviv.
After that strong start, we drove south of Tel Aviv to the Water Desalination Plant in Palmachim. The mayors and senior staffers took great interest in this tour, as water management is a topic of concern in a number of US communities, just as it is in Israel.
The Palmachim plant is a major local provider of a large portion of the water consumed by Israeli households and used in Israeli industry and agriculture – in the next two years Israel expects to be able to supply 80 percent of its water needs through reclaimed sea water.
Palmachim is a fine example of the Israeli drive to innovate and be self-sufficient.
Project Interchange, an educational institute of AJC, brings opinion leaders and policy makers to Israel for a week of intensive travel and learning. Participants experience Israeli society, connect with their Israeli counterparts and learn about Israel’s extensive contributions in their fields.
Elizabeth Planet, AJC’s Director of Regional Offices and the Assistant Executive Director of AJC, is currently staffing the Mayor’s Seminar. She is writing a daily blog of her and her group’s experiences and sharing them on the Project Interchange website.