Yad Vashem

The museum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial is a smooth concrete tunnel blasted through the the side of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Its profile is a triangle, a point of the Star of David sliced off and pulled into a three-dimensional prism 200 meters long. The effect inside is menacing, as 30 foot tall concrete slabs angle inward and loom over you, threatening to tip inward and crush you under unimaginable weight. There is no direct path from on end of the tunnel to the other; the prism is sliced again and again by deep channels in the floor, directing you out of the central hall into side rooms that contain the story of the Holocaust- or rather, as the museum urges you to consider, its six million stories.

There are several themes that run throughout the museum, but the power of memory, and the overwhelming need to remember these stories presents itself as soon as you enter, and encounter a channel cut in the floor, filled with books. The accompanying graphic panel tells of the rally held in the square outside the State Opera House in Berlin on May 10th, 1933, and the burning of 25,000 books by Jewish authors, and others considered “un-German.” There are few acts as symbolic as burning a book- it is not merely the destruction of a functional object, but an attack on an idea, a thought, a memory. The flaming volumes piled in the Bebelplatz represented an attempt to wipe out the collection of memories and ideas that have woven themselves together over thousands of years to form Jewish culture.

The rest of the museum tells a familiar tale that is no less horrifying in the retelling. It recounts the process of infusing the existing parochial racism that casts an oppressed minority as “problematic” with a streak of toxic nationalism, and then codifying the inevitable violence that resulted into an organized bureaucracy. It encourages us to consider how a highly educated and industrious nation can still be susceptible to the basest and cruelest of human impulses, and can use that education and industry to dehumanize, isolate, and eventually eliminate any group it deems unworthy. It also warns us of the tendency of otherwise good people and moral nations to look the other way, to close our eyes, ears, and hearts to suffering- the tendency to want to forget. Above all, that is what Yad Vashem wants us to understand- that we must remember the names of those who died, but we must also remember how it happened, so that it may never happen again.


Yad Vashem and the Dead Sea

On Friday, July 24th, we visited the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. We took the train to the museum and got a little lost trying to find it. The shuttle to the museum took a while and by the time we were on the shuttle to the museum, it seemed pointless to wait for the shuttle and that we could have just walked. Due to our wait, we were a little late to meet our guide. Thankfully, we had to check our bags so we didn’t have to carry them around the museum. At the museum, we had headphones to listen to a microphone that our guide was speaking into. It was convenient to have the headphones so we could walk away from the guide and he didn’t have to yell.

When entering the museum, we had to cross a long, wooden path to enter. They have a continually playing video projected on the wall of positive memories of Jews living before the Holocaust to start the tour. The building itself had such clever architecture to be a metaphor of the horrible experience of the horror that Jews suffered. The exhibits were rooms on either side of a middle walk way that required you to cross back and forth from either side of the building from little rooms to a big, open middle of the building space. Each exhibit followed the linear progression of Hitler winning the election to the beginning of concentration camps to the death camps to those who helped save Jews and finally with the names and pictures of people who died.

Our guide was informative and gave him narrative of his experience as a Polish Jew. He sang a lullaby for us and began to choke up and cry when telling us stories. Throughout our trip, we’ve mostly heard the stories of Palestinians so it was a different story to hear an Israelis side. For some, it was tough to hear and see. It seemed like a bit of a rationalizing and explanation for why Israelis think invading Palestine is ok. Many of us wanted to ask our guide questions about his opinion or story, but we didn’t.

In the afternoon, we went to Jericho-the oldest city- for lunch and the Dead Sea for swimming/floating. We were warned for safety to not put our heads under the water and to keep water out of our eyes and mouth. Many people had their feet sink into the mud. It was a fun time enjoying the water and one another’s presence.

The juxtaposition of the morning and the afternoon of this day was strange. The morning was sad and a chance to hear the other side. The afternoon was joy and laughter and water.


Walking Apartheid Avenue

As we walked down a street aptly named Apartheid Avenue, I craned my neck to look up at the 6 meter concrete wall crowned in razor wire. This is Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank of Palestine. The wall cuts through the city, running down what was once a vibrant commercial street. Now, it is mostly closed shops, rubble, and a place for the city’s trapped inhabitants to express their feelings of hope through spray paint on a concrete canvas. Their silent cries speak wonders about the capacity of the human spirit to resist:

“Take steps not sides”
“The sun exists for everyone. We are all human, and only love wins”
“We all bleed the same color”
” Nothing Lasts Forever ”
” Peace is Cheaper ”
“Make hummus, not Walls”

This last one makes me giggle. I can imagine my new Palestinian friend Elias painting this one, because he’s so proud of his culture’s cuisine, and he LOVES to eat.

Soon we take a turn into Aida Refugee Camp, and the mood dramatically changes. On the surface, it’s not too different. There are still houses here, and even a school, but they are much more run down, and crowded. These families have been here for two, three, even four generations since they fled their homes in 1948, carrying only a few items and the key to their homes around their neck, assuming they would return within a few days. They never returned, but their children and grandchildren still carry the keys as a symbol of hope and of the right to return home.

In the camp, the story on the wall changes. A list of names appears, the names of innocent children killed by Israeli soldiers within the last decade. There are hundreds. Paintings of men unjustly arrested and never released line the wall. And then, the most gut- wrenching scene of all. A guard tower along the wall had been burned. We are told that from there, the soldiers had been shooting tear gas at the refugee children while they walked to school. The children got fed up with this harassment and decided to light the tower on fire. Next to the tower is a mural depicting Palestinians resisting their forced ghettoized existence by throwing stones, a blindfolded man being arrested by Israeli soldiers, and words that say, “We can’t live, so we are waiting to die.” Yet this artist could not be completely despairing, or the act of creation through storytelling would seem pointless.

The words of a familiar song come to mind:

“We are pressed but not crushed
Persecuted, not abandoned
Struck down, but not destroyed.
We are blessed beyond the curse
For His promise will endure…. ”

A young woman in the camp tells us that everyone, including the young children, stay awake throughout most of the night, out in the streets. The explanation? “Bad things happen at night. That’s when we get raided by soldiers, and people usually die. So we have learned to stay awake. We have trained ourselves to not need sleep.”

In the struggle and resistance of these people, we find Immanuel, God with us. Jesus also suffered at the hands of an empire. He lived and died under a military occupation. Now, 2000 years after his birth, his hometown is laid siege. As I walk along the wall, there is one question scrawled on the concrete that haunts me:

“Jesus is knocking… Will you answer?”



We’d been walking along the wall that morning – the wall that divides Bethlehem. The messages we read in the colorful graffiti were startling, striking, stirring. The next item on the itinerary was a cooking class to be led by two Palestinian women at Aida Refugee Camp. We arrived hot, hungry and pensive.

As we walked into the small room that had been renovated into a simple kitchen, The two women greeted us with broad smiles. Introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged. Then, “today, we will be teaching you to make maqluba.”

Maqluba translates to “upside-down” and is a traditional Palestinian dish. Meat, rice and fried vegetables are cooked in a pot, which is then flipped upside-down onto the serving platter. Given what I’d seen and heard while in the Holy Land, I couldn’t help but read a deeper meaning into the translation.

I’ll not list all the paradoxes and parallels, the “small crimes” or blatant injustices, from the stories we’d heard. I will give this one example: Islam, one of the women teaching us how to prepare the meal, was born in Aida Refugee Camp. Her 6 year old daughter, Sidra, was born there, too. Islam talked of raids in the middle of the night, of only having access to water every twenty or so days. Plenty of reasons to lament her situation. Yet she smiled and laughed with us all through our meal. She was a gracious host and patient teacher. She was hopeful that what she was doing by teaching this class and telling her story could make a difference.

Though I tried not to have too many preconceived notions about what this trip to the Holy Land would be like, it’s impossible to arrive here as a completely blank slate. My experiences as a woman, a Lutheran, as a citizen of the United States informed what I thought I would see and hear and feel. But I must admit, my experience here has been quite upside-down.


Information overload in the Holy Land

I personally had a day of discovery for myself; I realized that during our tour and presentation today with UNOCHA, a lot of information available about the Palestinians, and the Israeli settlements contained negative statistics and data. For me, this information was just “pouring salt into an open wound.”

I came away with the hope despite the salt. I think something stood out to me during this day, and during our trip; I noticed the cultural differences between my culture and the Palestinian people that we met. Perhaps this is Israel as a whole, but during our meals a dessert that Is served at almost every meal is watermelon. This unique and impressionable tradition has become an expectation of our group during every meal we eat.

Recently, a member of our group told us about how salt and watermelon combined together make a very tasty treat… And I complete agree!

Although the day carried a lot of bitter salt, I learned today, and on this trip that bitter can be better when you take it with a slice of Watermelon.


Holy Saturday

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that imposter said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers: go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. —Matthew 27:62-66

​These are the only words the Gospels give us about Holy Saturday, that day in-between Jesus’ death and his Resurrection. There is no description about the disciples and their experience in-between grief and surprise. There is no sign that they believed what Jesus said, and truly believed that something greater was to come. They spend the day in hiding. In fact, the writer of Matthew seems to think that the imperial powers of the world put more weight on Jesus’ prophecies than his own disciples. It is the political and religious powers that spend this in-between day in frantic, fear-driven anxiety about what may happen the next day, and do all they can to prevent it from happening. So they post soldiers, figures of war and violence, outside of the tomb of the Prince of Peace.

​My time so far in Israel and Palestine feels a little bit like Holy Saturday. I have seen the death and destruction of God’s people. I have seen the Wall that seeks to cut off and separate, scattering would-be voices of hope into hiding. I have seen soldiers posted at the door, put there by forces who do not want the Good News of new life to get out.

​Holy Saturday can be a difficult and hopeless place to be. I certainly look at the current political situation in the land where Jesus walked and cannot fathom how it will get better. I do not know how God’s vision for a world reconciled will come to fruition. I feel the grief and anger I imagine the disciples must have felt, and I feel a little let down that God’s vision is not coming together in the ways and times I think it should.

​Yet, in my time here I have also seen the empty tomb. I know that the soldiers placed there 2,000 years ago were not able to stop the Risen One. I have seen Christ’s church as it proclaims the reality of Risen Life, even if that reality is not yet tangible to our human senses. So I put my faith that the soldiers here will not stop the Good News. I put my hope in a God who brings us out of hiding and separation, who rolls away stones and breaks down walls. And I remember that those witnesses of the Resurrection did not keep quiet for long, and I cannot keep quiet now.

Erin Armstrong

M.Div. Class of 2016

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary


Politics for breakfast, lunch and dinner

“People eat politics for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner. There is too much religion and not enough faith. We need culture. ”

Today we had a chance to meet with some incredible Lutheran Palestinians in Bethlehem. First was Mitri Raheb who is an influential/activist/awesome pastor at Christmas Lutheran Church. He explained some of the efforts that he has done in creating educational programs in the community for both youth and adults that focus on building culture. He and his students have hosted several regional and international events that feature the arts and humanities coming together, and this is all part of a greater project to have people more invested in and studying Palestinian culture. I have identified with this because of my Indian background. There is such a huge focus on academics rather than a balance of culture and academics. I’m not concerned about Indian culture sinking away anytime soon, and I support the community initiatives that a few organizations have implemented in order to retain and spread Palestinian culture.

Later in the day, we met with two local Palestinian young adults named Elias and Salam who were able to share more about their life in a city outside of Bethlehem. It was so fun to talk with them about what they do as activists in their own community. We also talked about things like Instagram, love for maqluba and Bollywood films, and appreciation for those who can identify good falafel. These young adults are so educated about the world. I think they represent and example of the hope and the future for the Palestinian people and their culture. I am so thankful to be connected with them, and I can’t wait to hear about the great things they will do in the world!


True and False

When Pastor Mitri Raheb talked about the importance of culture and the humanities, I enthusiastically nodded my head. As an English major in an era of business and engineering degrees, I often find myself defending the importance of the arts. I was happy to hear that Pastor Raheb agreed that culture can play an important part in shifting the narrative of a people and place. As so many have pointed out, our stories and art often allow us to tell a truer story than the one we see in a barrage of statistics.

Later that afternoon we met with two young Palestinians named Elias and Salam. They told us their stories about getting permits, waiting for hours at checkpoints, and other moments from life in the West Bank. We craned our necks and tried not to shift in our chairs, listening to every word.

At dinner we joked about what divides true hummus from imposters. We talked about Elias’ university plans. But the conversation that stands out was our talk about favorite novels and short stories. Because it seems everyone in the world read The Hunger Games, we found common ground there and agreed that we loved them all–movies and books. Elias took it a step further and said, smirk hanging on his lips, “When I see District 12, I see home.” We laughed, embarrassed, and Elias laughed at the absurdity of life. He placed his own stories and the truth he pulled from fiction out on the table, and we listened, in awe at the bravery of both.


Hebron: The Chicken Market

Welcome to the chicken market of Hebron.

We are standing in front of a cement barrier two stories high. The resemblance to the Berlin Wall is unmistakeable; the new wall could be the younger, hipper niece of the iconic separator. This wall bears a depiction of the coming of the Messiah, the return of the Jewish Temple. It was painted by Israeli settlers on this wall between buildings holding homes and shops. Or what used to be homes and shops. Now the wall bars entrance to the street, and the once-bustling chicken market — like many other streets and markets in Hebron — is silent. A ghost town.

The power to destroy economies and self-determination is the power to destroy the very threads of society. Worshippers can revert to secret gatherings when repressed. Families with means can escape occupation. But without the basic ability to trade, barter and support one’s family through a stable marketplace, a city falls apart.

The abandoned chicken market is one of many stories we saw yesterday in Hebron as we toured the once-busy city center, which today is a patchwork of buffer zones and checkpoints to protect Israeli settlers who are expanding their presence in the city. Ownership and origination issues aside, the Hebron of today is a broken place. As a fellow trip member said so eloquently yesterday, “we saw a lot of cramped hearts today.” My heart hurts for both groups vying for a place in this city of their ancestors — but it beats in time with the protestations of the Palestinian people who, here, are subject to double standards and military law and an unpredictable, violent daily existence under occupation. “If you are looking for logic, look somewhere else” said our tour guide, a former Israeli soldier who served in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Whatever you do, don’t look at the children running around with guns.


Today we visited Hebron.
Hebron is a city of great significance to both the Palestinians who have lived here for generations, and to Jewish settlers who strongly believe that the land belongs to them, as they read God’s promises to Abraham as promises that also include them today. Now the harsh reality is that the Palestinians can no longer live or move freely in Hebron.

We had a guide from Break the Silence, which is an Israeli organization of former military members who now speak up against the occupation.

Our guide did his time in the Israeli army, and is now advocating against the illegal occupation of Palestinian Territories. He is not a pacifist, he loves his country, and he believes that loving Israel also means to speak up against its current military policies. It was a painful day, in many ways.

I have been to the Holy land before, and there is nothing new under the sun: our Palestinian sisters and brothers are still hurting under the power of the empire, and it breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart to see kids growing up fearing that they will be the next targets for a random military drill, to see Palestinian parents desperately trying to sell us things at the checkpoint, knowing that they will only have our attention for a brief moment before we enter a city that used to be their home, which they no longer can access. It breaks my heart to hear the Israeli military guard who says “I hate having to be here, carrying this gun. I should be out having fun with my buddies. I’m 21 and this is awful.”

Later in the day, we went back to Jerusalem. As I was sitting outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was overwhelmed with sadness, and right now my heart is too full of impressions to go into more details of what we have seen today. Instead, I will share a piece that I wrote as I was journaling to process the day:

“I laid my head, scarf and hands on the stone where Jesus, according to tradition, was anointed after his death. Today, I need to remember this part of my faith: even when all seems lost, when death has come, the women came to bless and anoint Jesus, creating beauty where there was none.

A place of death became a place of deep care. Not to erase death or suffering, but to find ways to live with it. To still choose goodness and beauty after an act of violence and after having seen the grim face of death in the eyes, refusing to let it blind them. They were still going to anoint and bless.

The women who anointed Jesus did not know that their acts of love would be remembered, and they definitely did not know that Jesus would rise from the dead. And they did it anyway.

I find myself asking if my faith and actions reflect the same love? And do they reflect the end of the story; that after suffering, death and grief, God makes new life?
I want to live out from this faith. I want to trust that the darkness of the world, the evil that our Palestinian sisters and brothers are facing, will end. And in the meantime, we can anoint and bless one another. We can use the gifts that we have been given to look death and evil in the eyes saying: you have no power over me.”
Annette Dreyer