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Jerusalem, Part 2: Yad Vashem and the Israeli Supreme Court

While our first day in Jerusalem had centered mostly on the ancient and religious history, our second day focused on the modern history and secular governance of Israel.

**Warning: This post contains some graphic descriptions that may be upsetting.

Yad Vashem

“For whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness”- Elie Wiesel

Our day began with a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The museum is built as a prism penetrating a mountain. Before descending into the museum (the darkness inside the mountain), we passed along a row of trees called the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. These trees symbolize non-Jews who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors hide and flee Europe during the Holocaust. We saw the tree commemorating Oskar and Emilie Schindler, and were reminded of their story. Still, the trees represented 23,000 known helpers, and 6 million Jews were murdered. I couldn’t help but think of how many chose to look the other way as these humans were slaughtered, and feel deeply disturbed.

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Once we were inside, we began to learn about the Holocaust through movies, photos, and our guide. I had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC in 2009, and the images, films, and piles of clothing of victims I saw there are still emblazoned in my mind. To be honest, I was nervous to visit Yad Vashem for this reason. But we can’t turn away and forget what happened–it’s our job to know and prevent this from happening again, even though we as humankind have failed so many times since then to prevent the crime against humanity of genocide (Cambodia, Rwanda, Armenia, Darfur, Syria).

Yad Vashem presents the story of the Holocaust differently than the DC museum by focusing more on telling individual stories, and by maintaining a record of over 4.5 million victims as well as a database with the names of survivors. Our guide told us the story of a survivor who had not spoken about her experience in a death camp for over 50 years, because she was so traumatized. Yet once she told her story at Yad Vashem, she was told about her brother, who had also survived, and they were reunited after all this time.

The last stop within Yad Vashem is the Hall of Names, where thousands of binders contain the names in print. Yad Vashem is returning the dignity of identity to the memories of the victims, yet over 1.5 million victims remain unidentified.

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There was so much to take in and so much I cannot put into words. Below is my attempt to share a few personal takeaways from Yad Vashem:

1-Many times, entire villages were wiped out in a single instance. In one village in Estonia, men were forced to dig their own graves before being forced to run into the grave and shot, and we saw footage of this. Because entire communities were wiped out, this means entire cultures and traditions unique within the Jewish faith and a particular region are gone forever. Because there were often no survivors, this means the world will never know the identity of all the victims of these atrocities.

2-We were able to see several artifacts that were found among the clothing remains of victims, signifying the last things they grabbed and put in their pockets as they were forced from their homes. Our guide asked us to think of these items as what the victim wished to be remembered by. I focused on a picture of a man, around 25-30 years in age, with his dog sitting beneath a shade tree. His humanity was stripped from him, but Yad Vashem is working to make sure is memory is honored and his dignity is returned to him.

3-One photograph stood out in particular to me–a young Nazi soldier laughing as he cut the long beard of a Jewish rabbi in Poland. I can’t describe the look in the young soldier’s eyes as he laughed–it was almost like there wasn’t a soul within his body. The sadness in the Polish Jewish man’s eyes stung. It made me wonder how humans can ever justify treating other humans this way and stripping them of their identity and dignity. I don’t understand.

4-One story that stood out to me in particular is the story of Petr Ginz, a young boy from Prague who died at Auschwitz. When I first learned he was from Prague, I thought back to my visit there and pictured him playing in the streets of the Jewish Quarter, where I had visited. Petr was born in 1928 and died in 1944 at age 16.

Petr was an extremely gifted kid, and wrote 5 novels before his death. He also wrote for a local magazine and conducted interviews of people in the concentration camp, and he is known to have continued pursuing his studies by accessing confiscated books. He had a deep love of science. He was also an extremely talented artist, and he produced several drawings that have been recovered. Petr loved Jules Verne and dreamed of traveling to the moon–Petr would have been 41 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Given what we know of his aptitude, I can only imagine how he could have changed the world. But we will never know.

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Petr Ginz

In 2003, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took Petr’s drawing of the Earth seen from the moon with him on the space shuttle Columbia. In this way, Petr’s memory was honored as a piece of his living memory was able to fulfill his dream. Sadly, Columbia broke apart on reentry and all the astronauts perished on the very same day that would have been Petr’s 75th birthday.

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Petr Ginz, Earth Seen from the Moon

5-While I had made the connection before to a certain extent, I now fully understand the role of Israel as a modern homeland for the Jewish people. Yad Vashem articulates how the European Jews had nowhere to go during WW2, and were turned away and rejected from many countries where they sought refugee status (including the USA, which we have been painfully reminded of given the rhetoric around the current Syrian refugee crisis). Israel is a place that the Jewish people can always call home. One example of this is when the state of Israel air evacuated over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in danger because of their faith from Africa to Israel in 1991 (Operation Solomon).

6- We were able to meet with a Holocaust survivor and hear her personal story. She was taken from her mother first at age 6 when they took all women and children from her village in Poland, then lived as a boy with her father to escape being taken by working in a forced-labor factory. She was then eventually separated from her father, and placed in a camp. She said the primary thing she remembers is how cold it was, and to this day the feeling of coldness brings back that horrible memory. She also described how she would eat dirty snow for water. However, this lovely lady with bright pink fingernails talked happily about her many children and grandchildren, and the wonderful life she has been able to lead. She even took a call from one grandchild in London on her iPhone as she met with us. Her positivity despite all odds was so inspiring. It also made me realize how many young women never had the opportunity to lead such a life.

**Disclaimer: All Yad Vashem pictures above were taken from online, because I did not bring my phone into the museum.

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Israeli Supreme Court

After a very heavy and emotional morning at Yad Vashem, we visited the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. I found it hard to concentrate after all I had taken in that morning, but nevertheless it was interesting and informative to visit such an important building in modern Israel.

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After a tour and Q&A session, we had the opportunity to meet with Justice Hanan Melcer. The Israeli Supreme Court has 15 justices, and 3 justices hear a case at a time. Because Israel is so small, the SC often has original jurisdiction meaning its annual docket often reaches ~10,000 cases (as compared to ~90 cases for the US Supreme Court).

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I thought the most interesting point Justice Melcer made was about how the Israeli Supreme Court is the part of the Israeli government most trusted by the Palestinians, as compared to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) which often passes anti-Palestinian laws. For example, the SC has ruled against the legality of some Israeli West Bank settlements, and the SC ruled in 1991 that Palestinians, as well as Israelis, were entitled to free gas mask kits being distributed by the government to defend against chemical weapon attacks. To me, this speaks to the fact that the judicial branch of any country is tasked with being apolitical and seeking justice for all.

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We were supposed to finish out the day at the Machane Yehuda Market, but I decided to take this time to decompress in my hotel room and make some Turkish coffee. There was just so much to take in on this day, and it was particularly draining. Yet it was very necessary to learn and witness all that we did.

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Jerusalem, Part 1: A Holy City

John 12:23-25: “Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

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After our morning at Masada, we loaded up our bus and hit the road towards Jerusalem, one of the most anticipated stops of our trip. The city holds holy sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and contains literal layers of history dating back millennia. King David designated Jerusalem as the capital city of the ancient state of Israel 1000 years before the birth of Christ.

My new Israeli friend described what Jerusalem meant to him this way–“I am not even a religious person, but everytime I visit Jerusalem, I feel the holiness.”

As we drove through an underground tunnel, I saw the famous skyline with the old city walls and Dome of the Rock appear as we exited the other side. I immediately understood my friend’s feelings–the holiness and oldness of the city will move you.

We entered the Old City walls (which aren’t that “old” considering they were built about 500 years ago by the Ottoman empire) through the Jaffa Gate. During our time in the Old City, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa and the stations of the Cross, and the Wailing Wall. Unfortunately, our time in Old Jerusalem was cut short due to the faulty cable car at Masada and a packed schedule, but I am still absorbing all we took in during our time there.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is built upon the place traditionally regarded as Calvary/Golgatha (the hill where Jesus was crucified) and the nearby location of his tomb.

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Three of my trip friends and I came directly here as our first stop during our 2 hours of free time before the group tour. Even though we would be visiting it later with the larger group, we wanted to ensure we had time to wait in line to be able to step inside the empty tomb.

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The tomb is located within a smaller chapel within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

After waiting about an hour and 15 minutes, we were able to enter the empty tomb of Jesus. We first stood in a small foyer (maybe only 5×5 feet) where we were able to gather around a piece of the stone that was rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. Then, we stooped to enter into a small cave which was the actual tomb, and were able to kneel before a small alter located where his body had laid. The tomb was much smaller than I had always imagined.

As we knelt together, it was difficult to form any thoughts, as I was completely overwhelmed by the moment. I did not take any pictures.

Luke 24:1-8: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.”

Later in the afternoon, we were able to visit the Church again with our larger group and climb the short but steep stairs to the top of Calvary/Golgatha. Here, an alter rests atop the actual stones of Calvary, which are visible in glass below. Many people shuffled on their knees to the alter to kiss where the cross is believed to have stood. I was overwhelmed with awe, and words can’t really describe what it was like to be here.

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The bottom floor of the Church has many cutaway glass areas where you can view the rocks of Calvary

Before leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the last time, I was able to touch the stone upon which Jesus’s body had laid inside the tomb. The stone is anointed with oil, and visitors are invited to rub cloth or another relic upon the stone. As I said a prayer, I touched the small stone from my time in the Judean desert the night before to this stone. Again, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here. In this moment I felt grateful for how the story of Christ’s teachings and sacrifice transcends geography, time, and seasons of doubt, and can be both universal and personal in every sense.

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Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross. The Via Dolorosa is the street along which tradition holds Jesus carried his cross to Calvary. In that time, the Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre would have been outside the main city center of Jerusalem, even though they are now within the “Old” City walls. We were a bit rushed as we moved along the road from station to station, given our time and schedule constraints. This was the only moment on the entire trip I wished I had traveled here alone–so I could take in the gravity of this place without feeling like I was running down the street. Nevertheless, it was a meaningful experience, and Doron did a great job explaining each of the “stations”–places along the street where various things happened as Jesus carried the cross (for example, the three times Jesus fell with the cross are represented by three different stations).

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The Church of the Flagellation, where Jesus was beaten
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The station marking where Veronica wiped Jesus’ brow–an act of kindness

Wailing Wall. Our last stop in the Old City was the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. This is a holy site in the Jewish faith, as it is the only remaining part of the temple built by King David and King Solomon. The wall represents the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, with the holiest place of the faith (the Temple Mount) located just beyond (where the current Dome of the Rock – the mosque marking the place where it is believed the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven in the Muslim faith – stands).

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Men must enter and remain on the left side of the wall, while women must enter and remain on the right side. The left side is about twice as long as the right, so the side I visited was relatively crowded. Before entering, we each washed our hands 3 times at the basin just outside the gate while Hannah recited the traditional Jewish blessing for us.

Upon entering, I was immediately humbled by the devotion and reverence I felt around me of those women praying and reciting the Torah. Some were moved to tears. I found a small piece of paper in my bag and wrote my prayer to God, then worked my way slowly through the crowd so I could touch the wall and leave my paper with the thousands of others.

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To leave the wall, you must walk backwards without turning your back to the wall out of respect and reverence. As I walked backwards, I saw a young man who looked like a lost tourist enter on the women’s side and take a seat at one of the many lawn chairs scattered across the way. It took him about 30 seconds to realize his mistake, at which point he jumped up and left with a bewildered look on his face. I couldn’t help but laugh a bit.

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After an extremely long and fulfilling day, we enjoyed an amazing dinner at Chakra and a night out before gearing up for our second day in Jerusalem (next blog…Yad Vashem and the Israeli Supreme Court). I regretted we did not visit any of the Muslim sites and that I didn’t have a chance to visit the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives, but hopefully I will be able to travel here again someday!

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My sweet Israeli friend Mor, a fellow law student who traveled with us for the week
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I found an unexpected piece of home in the Old City!

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