My former-vegetarian best friend is taking me to a meat restaurant in Jerusalem. "Have the Jerusalem grill," Annie says. "It has chicken hearts and livers and things and it's really good. Hey, do you think I'll like lamb?"
She liked the lamb. We ordered tons of food without knowing it. A carnivorous feast, all of it delicious. And the company was even better. I was happy to separate myself from the bonding process of my birthright group to catch up on high school reunions, rabbinical school applications, and whatever else my best friend of 20 years and I could squeeze into a few precious hours before I rejoined the trip.
Sunday morning, we loaded and boarded the bus early and drove to Yad Vashem, Israel's National Holocaust museum, for a full morning of seminars and tours. It began with a talk with a holocaust survivor - a woman named Margret who survived 3 years in the Tereisenstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia. She told her story with poise, lightening the serious events of her early life with an eternally optimistic and even humorous take on the twists and turns of her 80+ years on earth. And she imparted us with our first inside joke of the trip - "If you want to catch a husband, girls, get on your knees and smile."
The tour of the actual museum couldn't match the experience of listening to Margaret's personal account. Unfortunately, our museum tour guide was terrible, far and away the worst speaker of the entire trip. He spoiled what should have been a powerful morning by taking too long to explain too much. And doing it in monotone.
It feels awkward to criticize any attempt to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust in the wake of recent events. Strangely, the Holocaust can be held partially responsible (and partially is the key word, as Theodore Hertzl first called for the creation of a new Jewish State 50 years before Hitler came to power) for the existence of Israel. If not for Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews, the European Jewish community might still be thriving, and the call for a Jewish State in Israel may never have been answered. This is the kind of argument Iran might employ, which brings me to the bizarre use of the Holocaust as a political weapon today.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently held a "summit" on whether or not the Holocaust happened. He invited Holocaust deniers of every stripe, including an American former head of the KKK and orthodox Jews opposed to the existence of the State of Israel, and called the conference a display of free speech. Interesting how one can be a beacon of free speech and in the same breath deny Israel's right to exist.
So while the guide at Yad Vashem droned on, I looked at the mountain of evidence by myself. I wanted to go get Mr. Ahmadinejad and bring him here, then fly him to Washington and Berlin and Poland. But I know what he would say - "it's all part of the Zionist conspiracy." Welcome to Irrational Argument 101.
In Germany, you can be arrested for denying the Holocaust. In the US, no such law would ever be deemed constitutional. So instead, we allow Ahmadinejad to come on TV and explain himself, and we hope that the majority of viewers can see that this guy is crazy, scary, and very smart. And he should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. And when he gets everyone to go nuts over the politics of Holocaust denial, he successfully distracts us from the undeniable truth - this guy cannot have nuclear weapons.
Of course the Holocaust happened! He knows it, we know it! So don't let him catch us tying our already-tied shoes while he builds up a nuclear program that could wipe Israel off the map. This man is Israel's worst nightmare.
What about the Palestinians? That's just "the situation." The drive from Yad Vashem up to the north brings us past part of "the fence," the newest security measure set up along the border of the West Bank a year and a half ago. Fence isn't quite the right word. A fence is what we had built in our backyard so the dog wouldn't run away. This is a fucking concrete wall.
Saturday night, Joel Perlov from Israel Experts spoke with us about the ever-changing map of Israel. Aside from stellar skills with masking tape (taped off the West Bank border flawlessly in 10 seconds - amazing), Joel had an informed and detailed perspective on the entire history of Israel. His view of the situation and the fence was concise - "I hate the fence," he said. "Thank God for the fence."
The fence is terrible. It keeps innocent Palestinians from freely and easily traveling to jobs and school in Israel, breeding anger in the occupied territories.
But the fence undeniably works. It keeps Palestinian militants from freely and easily traveling to shopping malls and restaurants in Israel and blowing up innocent Israelis. It's an ugly concrete mess, but it makes me feel safer as we drive by it.
On route to Zefat now, past the fence and into the northern part of Israel, where we learn a new Hebrew word - P'kak. A P'kak, as our guides explain, is a big part of Israeli life. Don't get any ideas, people, a P'kak is a traffic jam. And we were stuck in a big, long P'Kak Sunday afternoon.
The P'kak allowed for an extra long look at the difference between Jewish towns and Arab villages, separate but hardly equal. And we also get a look at a mountain where Jesus once walked, according to the New Testament, which explains the monastery on the hill. Our evening destination is Zefat, home of Kabballah. Thanks to the P'kak, Zefat is closed for the most part by the time we arrive, and it's hard to see much of anything. This isn't the experience that Ran, our guide, was hoping to give us. He's going to try hard to get us back to Zefat later in the trip, he says. An early indication that this guy is special and is working hard for our group.
Cabins with hot tubs and NFL Football on TV await us at Kibbutz Gonen, our home for the next two days as we tour the northern third of Israel. Dinner, Chanukah night 3 and a night out at the Kibbutz disco (read: frat house basement) close out the day that was highlighted by the bizarre yet undeniable realities of Israel's past and present. More to come, for sure.