Yad Vashem in My Backyard
April 29th, 2008
If I have a free hour in Jerusalem between appointments or chauffeuring my kids, one of the things I like to do most is drop in on Yad Vashem. Admission is free and so is parking. At less busy times I might go in to the new Holocaust History Museum and sit and listen to clips of survivors telling their stories. When Yad Vashem is crowded, I bypass the history museum and head straight for either the Holocaust art museum or the exhibitions pavilion (a recent exhibit there was: "Spots of Light: To Be a Woman in the Holocaust"). There's something reassuring to me about casually dropping in on Yad Vashem. The following verse is chiseled (in Hebrew and English) onto the huge cement entranceway that leads to the Yad Vashem complex: "I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil." When I am at Yad Vashem, I feel like I am part of the realization of Ezekiel's prophecy.
Were I a resident of Washington, DC, as my sister is, I don't imagine that I would enjoy dropping in on the United States Holocaust Memorial. Drawing two million visitors annually (to Yad Vashem's one million), the Holocaust Memorial is one of the most popular museums on the National Mall. But the pride with which I drop in on Yad Vashem would I believe turn awkward at the Holocaust Memorial. Why? The answer has to do with the basic fact that while Yad Vashem needs no reason to exist the Holocaust Memorial does. That is, it is only natural for the Jewish State to have a museum that documents a crucial period in Jewish history. However, unless one envisions a separate museum on the National Mall for each of the peoples of the world, the Holocaust Memorial needed a non-parochial reason to justify its existence. And it has one: "The Museum teaches millions of people each year about the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide. And [its website continues] we encourage them to act, cultivating a sense of moral responsibility among our citizens so that they will respond to the monumental challenges that confront our world."
I'm afraid that in walking around the United States Holocaust Memorial and looking at my fellow visitors—on average, 90% of whom will not be Jewish—I would be wondering: Is the Memorial achieving its goals? The problem is that during my visit I would have no way of knowing whether the Memorial is being successful. After all, not everyone "cultivates a sense of moral responsibility," and visitors may or may not find their visit to the Memorial to be helpful in this process. What is certain is that every visitor to the Holocaust Memorial learns of the many ways that millions of Jews suffered and were tortured and were murdered in the Holocaust. And while everyone can agree with Elie Wiesel that in the Holocaust it was better to be among the victims than among the perpetrators, it's really better not to have been either.
At Yad Vashem, on the other hand, I feel no sense of awkwardness or embarrassment. On the contrary, when I drop in on Yad Vashem, I feel like carrying a sign with me to proudly tell everyone that I live in Israel with my wife and five children, that I am part of the rebirth of the Jewish people, that the Holocaust did not destroy us, that we are alive and struggling to build a Jewish democratic state that will live in harmony with its neighbors and be a beacon to the world.
Copyright 2008, Teddy Weinberger