Thursday, July 23, 2009

A New State in an Ancient Land

The Palmach Museum, which Neal and I visited on Monday, July 21st, had been on several "must-see/do" lists we got from friends while planning our travels. Our son actually said, "If you don't do anything else, you have to go to the Palmach." Pretty high praise indeed.

So a few words of context:

The Palmach was one of the groups that formed during the British Mandate to begin to prepare an Army to fight for Israel's independence. (A couple of other names that might be familiar: the Irgun, the Hagannah, the Stern Gang). All of these organizations fell somewhere along the spectrum of independence fighters. Some were more radical than others and functioned along the lines of the Sons of Liberty (from America's pre-Independence War Days).

The Museum itself requires admission tickets for a specific time of day; the tour lasts for 90 minutes; group size is limited; and the visitors receive a recorded translation of the Hebrew keyed to the specific information at each given display or exhibit.

Much like the American Holocaust Memorial Museum's "Daniel's Story," the Palmach Museum uses a group of individuals to represent the living history of the time period under discussion. This story focuses on a group of approximately 8-10 older teens or 20-somethings who become a small unit in the late 1930's or early 40's. The exhibit traces their growth and development both as individuals and as a unit, representing the hundreds of young men and women who had similar experiences during these years.

Each display area included life-sized models, usually behind a black transparent curtain, arranged in a "typical" staging; with black and white videos of the characters shown either behind the scene or on an adjacent background. The area in which the museum visitors stand also has props and scenery which evoke the setting. One of the scenes actually has a model whose facial features (and mouth!) move in response to the audio recording.

The entry point and exit point are through the same room: a dimly lit room, with the names of all the Palmach soldiers who died in the fight for Israel's freedom etched into a glass counter-high display that is parallel to three of the four sides of the room. The counter is uplit in green. Each name is provided, without rank or other destinguishing feature, so that each individual's contribution (his/her life) is equal to every other individual's contribution.

On the wall, in white, lit-up Hebrew and English letters are the words of the Israeli poet, Nathan Alterman:

Are the silver platter
On which the Jews' state
Was presented today
It was a "nice, thematic, expression" as we walked into the exhibit area. As we came out, we read those words again, which had become more heavily charged with meaning as a result of what we had experienced.


Reactions? Many, deeply felt; interwoven typically with my own experiential filters through which I (we all?) try to make sense of new information.

I am 56 years years old. Although we lived for a short time in Madison (from 9/65-2/69), most of my formative years were spent in the small towns and farmlands of midstate Wisconsin.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by Congress in August 1964, giving LBJ the authority to wage war in Vietnam. I was 11 and a half. A scant two years later, a family friend was on the front lines in DaNang and Hue. Although we were terrified for him, he was convinced that being an American meant being willing to be part of her armed services. Dennis was followed by Tim a few years later (in 1971).

Tim's unit was adopted by my dormitory floor -- and we wrote regularly to let them know of our support. Many of them, by that time, had questions about whether the US should be in Vietnam. Tim felt - more than anything - that we were blessed to have a country where freedom played such a primary role and that he had an individual responsibility to try to help straighten out the corruption in South Vietnam so that her people could have the same right to freedom that we have. We corresponded for the entire two years he was overseas and remained in touch until I moved east in 1976.

When I moved to the East Coast, I discovered that the pervasive expression on the War was that the US government was evil, that the soldiers that fought in her army were all baby-killers and that any American who was really patriotic should have rioted in protest or gone to Canada.

It seemed to me then, as it does now, that that's a far too simplistic response. Many of the young men I knew - Dennis, Tim, Chuck, Dan and others - had a deep and abiding love for this country: her physical land, the principles upon which she was built; and the freedoms they inherited as a result of sacrifices made by earlier Americans. They didn't necessarily agree with the politics or the implementation of the war. They were dehumanized by the protestors and paid a price for that demonization when they returned from their service.

What does that filter have to do with our experience at the Palmach Museum?

The young actors depicted in the exhibts were roughly the ages of my young friends who served in 'Nam roughly 40 years ago. The discussions they had about the "rightness" of what they were doing - the desire to establish a homeland where all Jews could be free to be Jewish - included echoes from the dialogues I participated in with my friends slightly more than a generation ago.

One of the exchanges from the movie that particularly resonnated with me was this one:

Soldier: Sir, we find ourselves in control of several hostages. What should we do with them?"
Commander (pauses, then says quietly): Whatever you think you should do.
Some of the activities shown in this exhibit include blowing up bridges and train tracks; bombing hotels; attacking villages to protect farmers living near by. I can't help but wonder whether the label "terrorist" depends in part on where one is sitting: some of these actions are similar to ones the Palestinians engage in these days.

As I was trying to sort through these memories and impressions, Neal helped me put some of it in perspective. He reminded me that every group, every country, every civilization has its own "creation story:" stories of heroism and decision that describe "how they came to be." In time, those stories become part of the shared memories and help bind the group together.

Ultimately, his comment made me realize how "detached" in many ways I am from our American experience of grasping freedom. The re-enactors at Williamsburg seem "quaint" to me. Our Israeli experience is so new, that it jars and has an immediacy that our American experience no longer has. Our "creation story" has already been codified. Israel's is still being written.

Sometimes I think we forget that although eretz Israel / the land of Israel is an ancient one, Medinat Israel / the State of Israel is still in the process of becoming.

Postscript: I just discovered this summer, while home for my mother's funeral, that Tim committed suicide within the last several years. He never quite "got over" his Vietnam experiences. Had his service been more recent, I think he might have been able to get treatment for his PTSD. May his memory be for a blessing.

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