Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Israel is a land of contradictions

Israel is a land of contradictions.

Most of the countryside seems made of rectangular, sand-colored, blocky buildings nestled just as comfortably on rolling hillsides or patchy desert. Then there’s Jaffa – an ancient city of twisting, narrow cobblestone pathways, tucked between impossibly modern studios.

Above it all towers Tel Aviv. Skyscrapers burst out of the horizon, cranes high in the sky peering down at the beach below. It’s almost quiet for such an urban center, despite the occasional buzz of traffic, a flickering reminder of the scale on which Israel considers its cities. Even its name is contradictory – the old new city.

So much of Israel is both so old and so new. It’s amazing that Jaffa can be both the city where Jonah embarked on his fateful journey, and, at the same time, border the museum commemorating Israeli’s 1948 declaration of independence. For such a new country, Israel has an astonishing amount of history. Not the ancient biblical history, although that too is astounding – every hillside, no matter how commonplace, seems to have been the epicenter of dozens of historical events. No, Israel’s last century and a half, the story of the birth and struggle of a nation still coming into its own.

Sunset over Jaffa

We had, of course, studied Israel’s declaration of nationhood in school, and the war of independence. It was another thing entirely to sit in the very room where it took place, listening to a scratchy recording of the original speech and staring at an enormous portrait of Theodore Herzl. One can almost feel the energy and excitement that must have filled the room and the country.

Later that day, we went to the site of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, an unassuming memorial at the corner of Rabin Square, bordered by busy streets and restaurants ranging from falafel stands to vegan burgers. We wandered around the square in small groups, and stopped passer-byers, politely inquiring about their memories of the assassination, and their opinions of the event.

One of the women, older than most of those we talked to, didn’t speak English. Our Israeli friend Bar translated, interjecting a few words when she stopped to think. “We must be careful,” she told us, “to make sure it never happens again.”
Cohen sisters asking passers-by about the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. 

After visiting the Holocaust Museum, that’s a message that rings true. As sisters, we held each other for comfort against the stark and tragic truths that assailed us. We faced together the knowledge that somewhere in the museum, we might have seen the face of a relative we will never meet. There’s another contradiction inherent there – the museum highlights both horrific tragedies and beautiful moments of incredible human goodness.

Our time here is too short to even begin to uncover all the contradictions Israel holds. Jerusalem’s Old City holds the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa all pressed close together, surrounded by layers of history. We can only hope to leave with a sliver more of understanding than what we came with, a tiny corner of insight into this fascinating country.

- Isabelle and Amelia Cohen

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