Sunday, July 8, 2007

Yad Vashem

On Friday we did not have classes so Keleigh and I started the day with a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. I had been there many times before and Keleigh had visited in 2001, but this visit was different. A completely new museum was opened in 2005 and it totally replaced the previous museum. Some of the exhibits were brought over from the older museum which opened in the 1950s, but for all intents and purposes this is a brand new museum.

As a museum it is very successful, in my opinion. It is built of stark concrete and has an effect of tunnels. At the same time the exhibits are clear and readable and people can move through at their own speed without crashing into each other too much.

What struck me, however, was the comparison to the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. Recall that I was a Hillel rabbi in DC when the Museum there opened, and there has always been a degree of ambivalence about it from some parts of the Jewish community. Because it is a federal and not per se a Jewish institution, its message is quite universalist. The lesson the DC museum wishes to convey is about opposition to racism and prejudice and about equal treatment under law.

The subtext of Yad Vashem is very different. The first few exhibits in particular stress how at home German Jews felt, how successful they thought themselves to be, how assimilated many of them were and how devastated they were when their countrymen turned against them. Perhaps it was only me, but I felt that a subtle parallel was being drawn to the American (and British, Canadian and perhaps other) Jewish experience. This subtext is heightened by the last few exhibits which highlight the immigration of the survivors to Israel and the fact that the museum lets you out onto a huge terrace with a magnificent view of Jerusalem.

Which subtext speaks to you? Which more accurately reflects the world as it is?

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