Being on message

Julian Resnick writes from Israel

Possibly, because I grew up in Apartheid South Africa…

Possibly, because I have worked in education my entire adult life…

Possibly, because neither Hottentots Holland High School nor Paul Roos Gymnasium (two of my three high schools, there was a third Cape Town High School; why three high schools? That is another story – hint, I was not great at obeying the mighty class teacher)…

Possibly, because Habonim Dror was so significant in my coming-of-age in the above-mentioned Apartheid South Africa…

Possibly, because my work has taken me to many places in the world where being on message played a part in what those societies were
or are…

I have started with the possible reasons why I am so terribly allergic to sites which demand of me as a guide to be faithful to a central message, that those who have curated the site long to hear from those who guide. I am stubborn about my right to surface all the questions which every site worthy of a visit demands us to consider.

Think of all the really powerful sites we visit on journeys in Israel. From the Western Wall to the Golan Heights; from Yad Vashem to the Israel Museum; from Masada to Kfar Etzion, from Mount Herzl to the promenade in Tel Aviv; from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth to the statue of Mordechai Anilewicz in Yad Mordechai; from the Memorial of the Helicopter Disaster to the view from the Haas Promenade; from the Peace Wall in Netiv Ha’asara to Ammuntion Hill. 

I have guided countless people from around the world; Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and those who self-define as none of
the above.

People deeply committed to Israel.

People ambivalent about Israel.

People angry with Israel.

People confused about their feelings towards Israel.

Rarely people apathetic towards Israel.

I see my role as an educator to include:

Clarification — which means enabling them to clarify where they stand, and to understand what the position they take tells us about who they are and what they care about; 

Elucidation — which means giving them the knowledge-based tools that enable them to have a serious conversation based on more than opinion;

Challenging them — which means enabling them to think more deeply about the positions they hold about questions on which the site invites us to work.

Just consider for a moment some of the sites I included above… 

When entering Yad Vashem via the Avenue of the Righteous among the Nations, the question quickly arises as to whether there was a common denominator which could predict who would step forward and help the Jewish People at great personal risk to themselves and their families?

When standing outside the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the question of how diversity and empathy interact as values, looks out at us from the many ethnic versions of the Madonna and Child.

When standing in any one of a number of places on Masada, the space is dominated by the question Josephus puts into the mouth of Elazar Ben Yair, the leader of the rebels — is it better to die as a free person or to live as a slave?

Each one of these questions is a question worth asking, and enriches the visits to these sites. 

And then…

Every now and then…

A nervous bureaucrat…

Or an overzealous politician…

Or someone who is genuinely concerned about how/why something is remembered…

…decides to close down the possibilities of real conversation, disagreement, differences of opinion regarding a site, usually deemed of ‘great national/religious significance/importance to Israel/the Jewish People/our memories of them/the moment’.

How is this done? There are, generally speaking, one of two ways to do this: either you only allow those in the employ of the site to guide, or you ‘upgrade’ the technology of the site so that the site talks to people — and not a guide or educator.

Let me give you a great example of this trend. Ammunition Hill is the site of one of the toughest battles of the Six Days War in Jerusalem. I loved the old museum. The area outside had enabled those who wished to talk about the way the battle was fought in the trenches; and the bloody consequences for our army (the IDF) when we took the trenches, the opportunity to do that.

In addition, what the old museum enabled us to do was to humanise the Israeli soldiers via the large pages of information about them, their dreams and desires, their anxieties and their fears, their loves and their passions, their families. They were part of an excellent fighting machine — and all soldiers have to be part of an excellent fighting machine if are they to complete the task which they are given — but at the same time, they remain even in the darkest hours, individuals with individual stories which to a large extent determine how they fight, why they fight, how they get to the other side (if they do, and tragically in Ammunition Hill, the stories we read were those of our soldiers who did not get through the battles in Jerusalem to celebrate the victories of the Six Days War with those whom they loved).

It was a museum with much to say about the costs involved in winning the battles, the fear about being morally compromised, the reflections on recent and not-so-recent moments in our history. Aliyah, Kibbutz life, Family, the Shoah, were all topics in the letters they sent home to those whom they loved. There was a powerful depth to those letters, showing the coming-of-age of soldiers who had lived through one of the most intense periods of modern Jewish History. The Shoah and the creation of the State of Israel both happened in their lifetimes. The Ingathering of the Exiles was a part of their everyday lives. They were from families who had left Germany, Poland, Iraq and Morocco. 

They had heard the speeches of David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin. They had heard the words of Abba Kovner and Katzetnik at the Eichmann trial. They had seen the man in the glass booth. Their doubts, wishes, longings, commitments, bravery and fear filled the museum with a power, that if rendered to them in the guiding, made this one of the more powerful places to visit in Israel.

And then came the change. The decision that this would be a museum to tell the story of bravery, of the will to win, of the feeling that they were a part of Jewish history, of the almost invincible force of the Jewish People when we are united in our purpose. No more space for doubts, dilemmas, moral ambivalence. 

Moral questioning out; victory in.

The worry about what our capture of large numbers of civilians might mean for the future moral fibre of the State out; victory in.

Ofer Feniger out; Yoram Zamush in (Feniger died in the battle, Zamush lived).

What has happened to Ammunition Hill worries me. I want to be in conversation about our past, present and future, with as many people as possible. I do not shy away from battle sites. I am proud of and thankful to those whose courage and sacrifice enable us to live here in this special place.

And I really do want to play my small part in keeping this a special place.

And I am worried that when we reduce this place to a set of victory conversations, to a site where it is taught that the crucial qualities we need are physical strength and the determination to win military victories, that we begin to be diminished. And that, I cannot imagine us becoming.

That feels like a betrayal of who we are and why we are prepared to sacrifice for this place.

Free Ammunition Hill from the constraints of ‘Being On Message’!!!

Julian Resnick was born in Somerset West and grew up in Habonim Dror. He studied at UCT, and made Aliyah to 1976. He’s conducted numerous shlichuyot and educational missions on behalf of Israel, to Jewish communities in England and the USA. He works as a guide in Israel and around the world (wherever there is a Jewish story). He’s married to Orly, and they have three children and six grandchildren and is a member of Kibbutz Tzora

• Published in the PDF edition of the June 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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